Oxford Degree Ceremony, Stepping into the Cherwell, Christian Ambition

Oxford Degree Ceremony 2015

After the Oxford degree ceremony, where we laughed dutifully at jokes, and clapped to see graduands! (emphasis and exclamation courtesy of Vice-Chancellor) trading up their subfuscs (or other lower degree academic gown) for a more appropriate dress befitting their improved academic status, I said my goodbyes and went to sit at one of my favourite spots by the Cherwell.

Across the path from that tree stump, there is a good view of Christ Church on the other side of the meadow. Christ Church Meadow, OxfordIt is a relatively quiet place to read and think without being bothered too much by humans, though the ducks get precariously close, eyeing up my roast beef baguette (Alternative Tuck Shop (24 Holywell Street)).

One can never sit next to a river without thinking of dear old cryptic Heraclitus’

ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμβαίνουσιν

ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ

He has other delightful fragmentaries, like:

Θυμῷ μάχεσθαι χαλεπόν· ὅ τι γὰρ ἂν

χρηίζῃ γίνεσθαι, ψυχῆς ὠνέεται.

(“It is hard to contend against one’s heart’s desire; for whatever it wishes to have it buys at the cost of soul” or similar.)

Christ Church Meadow, OxfordOn this day of formal official change, of another batch of bright-eyes-and-bushy-tails wandering out into the wide world, I was thinking of the people coming out of OICCU and St. Ebbe’s, and of all the new graduates keen on making a difference for the gospel in the world.

In a sense, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more things stay the same) seemed the more appropriate quote of the day.

In the last few years of participating in church life in Singapore, this seems to be the sad progression of events in many (not all) of the lives of keen young male graduates:

  • they are utterly convinced of the power of the gospel for salvation and are wanting as many people to hear about the good news as possible. They love the Bible as the word of God and are adamant about its power for the salvation of souls, and its necessity in the growth of Christians. There is joy and energy and potential;
  • somebody earmarks them for leadership of a Bible study group or they enthusiastically volunteer for the job;
  • a few years down the road, they start to get inexplicably sensitive about their position within the group and/or vis-à-vis other leaders of other groups. They view everyone who isn’t unequivocally supportive of them as threats;
  • if they have managed to gather enough support around themselves, it is a matter of dissing the other leaders and promoting their own ministry, all in Christian terminology of course. If they haven’t, then the alpha male of the group rounds on them, savages them, and by the grace of God and the ministry of friends, they pick the pieces of themselves up from the ground.

David Jackman, with God-given wisdom from his years of ministry, spoke to us about Christian ambition in February 2014. I’ve posted this elsewhere but am regurgitating for my own nourishment (ewww…): scavenging duck by the River Cherwell, Oxford

“Is my ambition directed towards being a table server or a table owner?”

In Luke’s Gospel, the dispute amongst the disciples as to whom was the greatest (Luke 22:14-23) is ironically sandwiched between the institution of the Lord’s supper where Jesus tells them that he will be giving up his body and blood for them (Luke 22:24-30) – even the most privileged moments are tinged with self-seeking, and Jesus warning Peter that Satan will tempt Peter to deny Jesus (Luke 22:31-34).

Romans 12 tells us that the battle with pride is in our minds (Romans 12:2), and we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but to think with sober judgement, and in humility to count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).

There are two things likely to derail the disciples: (1) power; and (2) reputation.

The kings of the Gentiles operate through power and through power, they get their reputation. The proof of the reality of what we believe is in our actions. Do we actively seek to serve others? The warning in 1 Timothy 4:16 for him to keep watch on himself and his teaching isn’t just about ensuring that he can tick all the right boxes in the doctrinal statement. There are subtle things that can get hold of us and mar our effectiveness for the gospel.

Ambition is not wrong per se. Competitiveness is ingrained in children in school. But we must remember that we all play before an audience of one. We all want to do well – but for whom do I want to be the best? How much have I imbibed the city culture of being the top dog? Are we still thinking clearly about honouring God? Is my ambition directed towards being a table server or a table owner? Only God can give us the right desire.

All too easily, we can be as concerned as the world about number-crunching and customer satisfaction. We can worry about where we are in the pecking order. We wonder what we will be doing next – looking to get up a rung in the ladder. Has ministry taken the place of God?

An Aussie preacher was once introduced by an effusive young minister as the leader of a successful church that was growing year by year. “Yes,” said the Aussie drily, “we have about 2 million people in our congregation and more being added every day. We run successful conferences and workshops. This is why we don’t need God.” “Oh dear!,”said the alarmed hapless young minister, “what should we say to that?!” “Just sit down!” shouted a voice from the back. This sort of wrong ambition tends to be self-perpetuating.

How then can we have a sober estimate of ourselves?

  • remember that we are not the Christ (John 1:20). We may think that there is only one Jesus, but we surely are tempted to be that Jesus. We are not omnipresent. There may be plenty of people who have plans for our lives but are we concerned with God’s plan for our lives? Do we have over-zealous ownership over our ministry work? Do we not want other people to get into the same work? Are we following our personal agenda? Are we aiming to be super-successful operators?We can’t do it all. God sets us free to be ourselves – that is, humans who operate locally. Christ’s kingdom is not about outward success but the quality of a life lived in service of others. A small rural church recently had a young couple from a good London church join them. The young man was always accusing the pastor of not making good use of the young man’s gifts – he wanted to lead and teach groups as he had done in his old church in London. But where was the humility?
  • remember that only God can give growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). It is not our service that is life-giving. We are dependent on God. Whenever we are tempted to boast of our success, remember that we are only human, only servants. We are merely clay vessels, or disposable plastic cups. What is required of servants is to be faithful.
  • remember that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. The ultimate test is whether there is self-inflation as the result of knowledge. The test is the quality of our relationships – whether they are servant-ly. Love is demonstrated and re-kindled at the cross. That’s why we have, everyday, to come to the cross. Resurrection power is in the Lord Jesus.

We have to say every day that we are only people who serve. We serve for God’s glory, in God’s strength, through the cross of his Son. Otherwise, we will always be on the edge, always looking at other people, always frustrated.