My life is controlled by a clock. School begins at 8:00 a.m., and I am there at 7:30 to work with students. First period ends at 9:30, and new students arrive. And so on, through the day. Then, when school is over, I have my first music student at 3:00. My first math tutoring session is at 3:30. And on it goes.
On Sundays, I preach at 8:00 a.m. at a nearby church that is pastorless, and I'm expected to be there on time, ready to go. Some Sundays I preach at two churches, and then I have to leave the first church at 9:00 a.m. in order to get to the next church by 10:00 a.m.
Day after day, week after week.
The strange thing is, I never realized just how regimented my schedule is. I never gave it a thought. It was simply part of how life works.
Then I went to Argentina. And I discovered that not everyone operates the way we do here in the United States. When does church start? When everyone gets there, and has had a chance to greet everyone. When is supper? Sometime in the evening when it's ready.
We're doing an after-school program? Great! What time is that? 3:00. Or maybe 3:20? Or 4:00? Well, no, not everyone is here yet, so we'll get started around 4:15.
And all of a sudden, for the first time, I realized just how much my life centered around the ticking of a clock.
Now, my point in sharing this is not that one way of approaching life is better or worse than the other (there are positives and negatives to both approaches). My point is: centering my life's activities around the movement of gears and clock hands is something I was virtually unaware of, to the point that it never occurred to me that there was another way to approach life.
The same was true of how I greet people. I grew up in a culture where a greeting goes (almost without fail) like this:
Me: Hi, how ya doing?
Them: Fine, you?
And that's it. Fast forward to the time I spent in northern Africa, and discovered that every greeting involves a plethora of questions like "How is your wife?" "Is business going well?" "Are you parents well?" and you are actually expected to answer these questions, instead of just saying, "Oh, fine."
I was never aware of how shallow our greetings are until I went somewhere that they did something very different, and suddenly I became very conscious of the manner in which I greet people!
So what does this have to do with the Christian life? Believers in Christ have (or should have) a culture all our own. We speak the truth without fail (Matthew 5:37). We speak with grace no matter the circumstances (Colossians 4:6). We are gentle with those who are weak and failing (Galatians 6:1). We give generously to those who are in need (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). We treat others as more important than our own selves (Philippians 2:3). These, and so many other things, define a culture that is extraordinarily beautiful and winsome.
This is the hope, the goal, and the ideal. But we live in a culture where these things are not the norm. All you have to do is visit social media to discover that people speak with neither truth nor grace. All you have to do is consider the corporate world to realize that generosity is not a standard feature of our culture. So here's the problem. If the culture I'm steeped in day after day is a culture of dishonesty, graceless communication, selfishness and pride, these things become part of who we are, without us even realizing it. (Again, all you have to do is visit social media, and you will easily see that many many Christians have chosen the way of false, proud, and graceless communication).
Romans 12:2 is all about a culture, or a way of life. Paul is telling us that the culture around us will influence us and control us without our even realizing it, unless we proactively take measures to renew our minds -- to refresh the ways of our own Christian culture. There are many ways that we do that -- the reading of scripture, and listening to the teaching of the Word are two ways. But in addition to these, we must remember that the only way to become acclimated to a culture is to immerse yourself in it. We must deliberately spend time in the company of our fellow culture-members, so that the Christian culture will permeate not just our actions, but our thought process.
A while back I was visiting my parents, and as we were sitting at their diningroom table, my father said, "Look at that bird out there by your car!"
I looked out the window, and there was a bird, perched on the windowsill of my passenger-side front door. But where he was, that wasn't half so interesting as what he was doing.
The bird was very studiously examining itself in the side-view mirror! I chuckled a bit, and then turned back to the conversation. About five minutes later, my father said, "You know, that bird is still there!"
Sure enough, the bird hadn't budged from that spot, but was still preening in front of the mirror.
I immediately thought of Philippians 2:3, which speaks about behaving based on "selfish ambition or conceit." Selfish ambition, of course, is when we are seeking personal gain. But conceit is something altogether different (although it is still based in selfishness). It is when we act based on an exalted view of ourselves and our own importance.
What does conceit cause us to do? It causes us to gaze endlessly at our own self, admiring who we are, and generally being impressed with ourselves.
But what does Paul say? Get your attention off yourself! You're not the most important being in the universe! In fact, you should consider each of the people around you as more important than yourself.
This mentality is at the root of Christian character. Paul says, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ..." and then he goes on to describe how Jesus put aside his own self, making himself "nothing" for us.
Can we, then, follow His example, and instead of gazing endlessly in our own reflection, take our eyes off our own selves, to see those around us? I don't know about you, but I don't want to go through life gazing endlessly into my own reflection, when there are so many more important things to do...