To Whom Can I Bow?

A consecration to serve, to live, and to die.

Ian Olson / 11.12.21

We regularly hear, rightly, that we ought to emulate Jesus. But there’s something gratifying about seeking to imitate the leader of a movement, isn’t there? It’s easy for us to imagine trying to be like the guru or the chief as the aspiration is still to occupy the top place. Might it be better if we sought to emulate John the Baptist more often? 

John 3:26-30 is a scene which acts as a tuning fork for a fundamental frequency in my heart and perhaps in yours, as well. Here, the man who has kicked the hornets’ nest and fanned into flame the apocalyptic expectation of an imminent Savior is asked by one of his disciples why one he has baptized — Jesus — is now delegating baptism to others. They clearly expect John to feel the sting of another intruding on his role, but his response is diametrically opposite, as he understands his role differently than they do.

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven,” John happily asserts (verse 27), identifying this moment as the gift it actually is. John recognizes that he has fulfilled his calling: the One for whom he prepared the way has arrived and has taken up his own mission. The covenant people have been prepared for this One. He has succeeded in the vocation he was given. For what could he feel envious? “He must increase, and I must decrease,” he concludes (verse 30). 

This is the summation of one who has found his fulfillment in serving another. “Now is this joy of mine complete,” John testifies (verse 29), perhaps through the tears of a lifelong quest, filled with adversity and sacrifice, coming to an end. John’s joy is crucial for understanding what is happening here, as decreasing cannot mean a relegation to insignificance or annihilation. God is not flinging John into the cosmic waste basket, having used up his usefulness. There is no joy to be had in reaching the terminus of instrumental use. John sees that the time has come where his responsibility has been faithfully carried out and has borne its promised fruit. He has the joy of beholding his lord come into his own, and this joy overrides every other impulse with which fallen nature might want to rupture this moment. 

It isn’t self-erasure; it’s an opening and enlargement of self in and by a continuous movement of refusing easy gratification, of redirecting the focus back towards one you admire, one for whom you can count it a joy to sacrifice. Honor cannot be secured by directly grasping at it — self-emptying is the only assured path to substantive honor. And when that has been apprehended and enjoyed, I think we are enabled to give ourselves to the utmost.

For most of my life I have felt an ache in my innermost self, in the parts which are most substantively me, for the same kind of thing. An ache, that is, not to claw my way to the top and assert my mastery over others, but to pledge myself to another: to enact their determinations, and to defend them with all that I have to give. I’ve never wanted to be the Emperor — I wanted to be Vader, the one who ruthlessly executes his master’s will, the one who, once a decision has been made, you can count on its accomplishment. That’s a dark example, certainly, but the impulse exists on a deeper plane than the Dark Side, and many nobler characters over the years have reflected back to me something at the heart of my being that has been more aspirational than actual.

I have no doubt my troubled relationship with my father plays a part in the development and deepening of this impulse, but I cannot believe it is reducible to that. I might not be able to explain why it is; all I know for sure is that it is. I want to think it is a vocation, a task given to me by the God who gives us our parts to play within the drama of deliverance. It’s a resonant frequency in my soul: I want to drop to my knees, take my superior’s hand, put it upon my head and say, “My Lord.” I shudder even as I type that, the power within not so much the syllables as in the speech-act that is carried out in saying them. The reception of who I am in submission to another. A consecration to serve, to live, and to die.

 

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune did many things and did them spectacularly, among them its depiction of this principle that has animated me for so long. For woven out of the same fabric is the loyalty exemplified by Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho. Both men serve Duke Leto Atreides and his house, training their troops and defending them with their lives. Their dedication electrified my soul by showing rather than telling. There were no expository speeches explaining that they had sworn themselves to their lord, only actions which unmistakably depicted that dedication, even to the point of death. These were men not who esteemed themselves as nothing and therefore as expendable, but as selves worth expending for another.

My heart thumped like sneakers in the dryer when Duncan, with a smile, locked an exit and guarded it with his life to protect the Duke’s son. I want to give that look that communicates, “You’re getting out of here alive — this is what I do.” My friend Caleb Stallings suggested that this is the joy of being a participant in the Good without the burden of centering it upon myself. I think he’s right as there is a palpable relief I feel in declining to wrest the orbit of anything else and anyone else around me. I know I am a poor gravitational center. I do not want to be the main character. A crown is ill-fitting on my head. Rather, my deepest hope is to bow like Thomas and acclaim my superior, to be accounted a good and faithful servant.

This can be dangerous, obviously, and I have participated in reprehensible versions of it in church cultures of the nü-Calvinist variety. There is no shortage of would-be lords hungry for impressionable young men, ready to tenderize their wills and reshape them into their own image. My eagerness for a father-figure compulsively led me to these men too many times. And there is no shortage of such despots elsewhere. However noble the impulse to bend the knee may be, in itself, it is so sadly ready to be weaponized by all manner of unprincipled, unworthy “masters,” ones whose wills are out of tune with the Baptist and the grace operative in him.

All of my rage against coercive subordination and autocracy and cancerous authority is, besides a hatred of falsehood and tyranny, a rage against the corruption of something to which I long to give myself in total fidelity. I think it stings my soul so badly because I want to be Duncan Idaho, or Roland to another’s Charlemagne, or Robin to someone’s Batman, or Neville Longbottom to someone’s Harry Potter, or Boromir, demonstrating what is truest about him after colossally failing: one who does what it takes to ensure those to whom he is pledged in love escape so that they can get to where they need to go to fulfill their destiny. And the plausibility of that desire being twisted and exploited is like an unraveling of what I am.

“Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die,” Auden wrote in For the Time Being. None of us get out of this alive, so what end will I accept for myself? I want not so much a cause as a person for whom I can joyfully consent to die, a person worthy to be served and emulated: the good and wise lord, the master I do not need to fear — yes, the father I never quite had. But not only surrogate fathers, as John uses another word I would happily apply: friend (verse 29). And his master and mine explicitly affirms the same when he says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). I can imagine no greater calling then, at the right time, to return the gift of my life that those I love can live.

I have no choice but to say “I,” and to act as the one that I am. I only want, then, to serve another with those actions, with that vulnerable “I,” and exchange that look that silently says, We’re in this together. That I could give my life for; that would make all the pain worthwhile; that would make for a good life. Because the only life worth living is one that is worth laying down for your friends.