The high school where my kids attended is a little on the edge of the norm in Wisconsin. In a state that is over 80 percent white and a city that is more than three quarters white, Madison East High is mostly non-white. It is the most diverse of the city’s public high schools, both economically and ethnically. But what’s really interesting to me about Madison East is that the popularity pecking order appears to be reversed from most other high schools, certainly the one I attended. The somewhat brainy, nerd-like students make up the drama crowd, and the kids in Show Choir, East High’s version of Glee, are among the most popular and envied students in the school. By contrast, the football players and cheer leaders don’t occupy very prominent spots on the social ladder.
When our eldest daughter, Hannah, graduated high school, the class unanimously chose the school janitor to deliver the keynote address at the commencement ceremony. Mr. Ely was well-loved by students and teachers alike, and this was his final school year as janitor. He was stepping into retirement after thirty years of humble service in the hallways of the school. His message that day to the students of East was as counter-cultural as the study body’s choice of speaker. While many other high school commencement speakers would be charging graduates to step out, move up and change the world, Mr. Ely readily admitted that he had spent his entire life living in just one zip code. His challenge to the students: settle down, lay down roots, love their neighbors, and give themselves to one, small, obscure patch of the planet.
I found his address powerful and moving. The call to “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2) is hard to hear above the din of voices beckoning us to seize the day, rock the world, and make something of ourselves.
There is a curious, ancient thread running through the mythologies of nearly every ethnic grouping on earth. It involves the high king or chief or emperor disguising himself and living among commoners. Or it is the legend of a peasant girl who becomes princess. Sometimes this primeval story takes the form of a lauded or honored figure who turns out to be a poseur and a person of no import. In either case, those on the margins of society in these tales are discovered to be the center, or someone at the center is exposed and found to be marginal.
Why is it that so many people over such a broad geography and timespan share such a deeply ingrained suspicion that the very thing which appears to be preeminent is actually insignificant and that which seems unimportant is actually central?
Deep in the human psyche we appear to be programmed with some kind of suspicion about what is core and what is periphery.
The Scriptures contain a number of these themes. Israel’s archetypal king, David, is one example. Israel’s greatest king is plucked from the pasture where he has been relegated to one of the most marginalized professions of his day: tending sheep. Once again, in the story of Esther, not only is an obscure yet beautiful girl from a hated ethnic group chosen for queen, but the popular, right-hand-man to the king, Haman, is rejected in favor of the invisible and lowly Mordecai, Esther’s uncle.
Throughout the Bible we are regularly confronted with the notion that “center” for most of society turns out to be God’s margins and that considered to be marginal to many turns out to be God’s Center. Perhaps the ultimate account of core-periphery confusion is the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Of all the possible avenues for God’s invasion of earth, of all the potential incarnational storylines with any sort of social sensibility, the Nativity of Jesus Christ feels least believable. I could possibly envision God appearing as the humble son of a Roman Emperor, or God being born into the home of Herod or a great high priest. But God born as a vulnerable infant in the household of a peasant couple whose reputation has been marred by an unplanned pregnancy, and then laid in a feeding trough as a picture of their poverty, and finally raised as a working-class stiff in a backwater town, amongst an occupied and defeated people? This is no way to convince humanity of one’s cosmic centrality and supremacy.
But this is the pattern from which the cloth of the Christian life must be cut. The pattern of the world is inverted and poorly fitted to our souls. My friend, Randy White of Fresno Pacific University likes to quote lecturer and writer, Ronald Rolheiser, in speaking of the “martyrdom of obscurity.” This is the journey of those who follow a peasant king. In fighting poverty everybody wants to be Angelina Jolie or Bono – bless them. But no one wants the quiet task of planting themselves in an invisible corner of this broken world, suffering alongside others, and breathing the quiet but infectious presence of a new, upside-down kingdom.