I’ve been reading a book about the Byzantine Empire. I’m afraid the people to whom I have been talking about it are ready to have me finish it! I keep learning lessons from it that I keep sharing. For a leader, meditating on the history gives some great cautionary tales; not least among them is: humankind is adept at lying, not least of all to themselves.
As I have been reading this pared-down history, which focuses on the emperors, I’ve been interested to see that one way I can categorize them is as builders and spenders. Some emperors built up the territory, built up the treasury, built up the walls, built alliances and trade and then their successors lived off what they did. Their successors let the navy deteriorate and lost territory, they spent the treasury on luxury and useless living, they neglected the walls and roads and insulted the allies. Often a new emperor who was a builder would arrive just in time to stave off total disaster and rebuild the place.
Building something is hard. You can see how hard it is when you live in the United States. In our lifetimes, the United States is the Byzantine Empire on steroids. I had one of those “aha” moments about how wealthy we are when I was driving up 95 by the airport (after seeing one of the weirdest “Christian” musicals I’ve ever seen) and I realized what an amazing road I was on, next to this huge airport! We are rich. We are screaming because unemployment is at 9% and making it uncomfortable for the 1% who are adept at gathering their huge share of the spoils. Maybe the whole empire is dying. But we are rich. It will take a long time to squander everything the country has created and stolen.
I think it is hard to build in the United States because it has become customary to train people to assume there is going to be a lot of wealth for them to manage. We train people to perform Christian musicals, but we don’t train them to build practical things (and you know I like my musicals!). I run into this as the leader of the church all the time. People come to Jesus like he is another emperor and they are going to manage the wealth he provides. They are trained for that. Jesus is, to them, like the founder of the empire and they are the successors, living behind the walls he built, protected from enemies, privileged to have the glory and riches of his kingdom. On one hand that metaphor works. On the other hand, it can be a disaster, since the attitude often means that no one is building anything. And the land is not fat enough for everyone to just live off it.
We’ve got to build something. We usually need to rebuild what has been torn down or gone to ruin. But most of all, we need to build something new with the ever-fresh inspiration of God as Jesus becomes incarnate in us in our era. For instance, as Circle of Hope we have built, by God’s grace, something I am happy to live in. I could probably travel happily on one alley of Circle of Hope — and here we have a freeway (maybe no airport, yet). Even if none of us ever did another creative thing, it might take years to kill us. We’ve been that creative and diligent. But, of course, we need to build something now. Unlike bad Byzantine emperors, we need to scan the horizon, see what’s coming, seize opportunities, care for the big picture, and make the most of what we’ve been given.
There are many practical ways to build something. Today, five:
1) Be a friend. Probably foremost and the most everyday discipline of being a builder: Build a new relationship and be yourself in Christ in it. This is the crucial building activity that makes or breaks the kingdom. If you already have enough love, enough friends behind your walls, the walls of the kingdom are crumbling.
2) Start the project. Build the next church, don’t just make cosmetic changes and tell yourself you’ll get to the real project when the rest of life settles down. For some reason, practically serving Jesus is easy to put off. He often takes second place to the latest lover or the newest employer.
3) Pitch in. Add your capacity to the work. Don’t assume someone else is going to do it, just because someone else has provided what you presently enjoy. Yes, that means all of us, not just the leaders. It is not the leaders’ church; Jesus resides in each and all of us.
I am certainly not saying we never do anything, of course. At 19G, everyone is involved in building something new and are doing it well. At MC we are building a new location and building up a congregation to fill it with action. At FN we are rebuilding and using our advantageous location to relate to hundreds of new people every month (and don’t forget that FN is the motherland of Circle Thrift!). At BW we are in the most danger of not building because we have been around the longest and often feel the most secure (or maybe “settled” is more accurate). But BW is awash in new ideas, not least among them is incarnational evangelism and building the church from the ground up again.
As far as attitudes that ground the action go:
4) Own the whole thing. You may be a barista in someone else’s store, but in the church, you are an owner. Don’t let the subjugation you experience in the world leak over into the church. Don’t be a mere spender of what someone else has collected.
5) Spend on the future. The walls are not just the “government’s” responsibility. I’m talking metaphorically, here, not because we should build walls or we care what the government does. The walls were symbolic of Byzantium’s strength. When they were in good order it was because a builder cared and spent time and money to repair them. Jesus does not do the work of the church by himself. If we are living off whatever is there, the walls are crumbling. The church is an expression of whatever life in Christ we have; it is not a hobby we enjoy when “life” isn’t too busy. What is worth our lives right now and tomorrow?
Five lessons are enough for now. But I hope there is some small inspiration here to build the church with Jesus. I think most of the leaders in the government and elsewhere have been living off the spoils of the empire and don’t care much about building the future. The attitude has trickled down to us regular Joes and Janes until a lot of us never even think of building something. We just get ours and assume there will be more to get later. That doesn’t work in the church, either.