The people we admire

May 30, 2017 by

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I was in Germany last week visiting friends and celebrating my brother’s completion of his PhD. I consequently spent a lot of time on trains and planes and had ample time for looking out of windows and thinking big thoughts. Among the things that occurred to me as I whizzed through the springtime Bavarian countryside is that you can tell a lot about people by what or who or how they admire. The shape of our admiration speaks volumes. And of course it (almost) goes without saying that we tend to admire badly. I do, at any rate.

I was reminded of this uncomfortable truth last week. My German friend happens to be a quite talented photographer, and she happened to be asked to take photographs at a rather famous wedding last weekend. The name Manuel Neuer is probably not a household name for many North Americans, but he’s kind of a big deal in Germany. And, well, in pretty much every other part of the world. He is the goalkeeper for Bayern Munich, the biggest football (not soccer!) team in Germany (and probably one of the five biggest clubs in Europe), as well as the German national team. He’s thought by many to be the best goalkeeper in the world. And my friend was taking pictures at his wedding!

It was crazy to sit in her living room while she sifted through pictures of the wedding. It was crazier still to look at the German tabloids the next day where there were, plastered all over the front pages, bad photos snapped through bushes and trees by paparazzi. There were even a few with my photographer friend’s husband in them! Throughout it all, and even as we were trudging through the Munich airport and saw a larger-than-life Manuel Neuer in one of the fan shops, I found myself marveling over and over again. Wow, my friends got to meet Manuel Neuer! I’m pretty much vicariously famous because I know people who were photographed with Manuel Neuer! On and on my labored exaltations went.

I am, evidently, a big admirer of Mr. Neuer, at least if my reactions and ruminations are to be believed. But why? Because he’s good at stopping a ball from going into a net? Impressive as this may be, it’s not exactly changing lives or improving the world. I know nothing of the man’s moral character, nothing of his convictions and commitments, nothing of whether or not he is faithful or generous or kind. All I know for sure is that he is athletic and talented and rich and famous. Which, come to think of it, probably isn’t all that much.

It’s interesting, the people we admire. We tend to admire the young, the beautiful, the strong, the rich, the powerful, the smart, the influential, the confident. Even in churchy circles this is true. We admire the powerful speaker, the gifted writer, the effortless musician, the charismatic leader who oozes vision and exudes results. I was sitting in a churchy context with churchy people recently, just quietly drifting around the edges of the conversation, paying attention to the implicit ways in which evaluated pastoral leadership. They’re funny, they don’t use big words, they dress nice, they don’t just stand at the front and read off some boring script, they speak without notes, they’re confident and strong… It occurred to me that I checked off more than a few boxes of what an admirable pastor shouldn’t do or be, in their view. A few days ago, I received a churchy publication in the mail advertising an upcoming leadership event. I scanned the roll call of impressive looking people speaking about impressive sounding things. It was an impressive collection of well-manicured humanity, all perfect teeth, trim bodies and bloated CVs…

Yes, the shape of our admiration speaks volumes.

This morning, I set aside for a moment the more trivial things that I tend to quite naturally admire, and spent some time thinking about the kinds of people that I in fact admire or know that I should admire. I made a list. It’s not an exhaustive one, by any means, but perhaps a decent start or the beginnings of a corrective for someone who knows they ought to admire better.

I admire people who, in the noisy and self-aggrandizing world we live in, have no need of the spotlight, no desire for public affirmation, no craving for attention.

I admire people who don’t need to be right, who don’t require vindication, who can stand to be thought poorly of.

I admire those who speak the truth, even when it’s not popular. I admire those who don’t tramp around with the herd, doing and saying and sharing only and always what is fashionable. I admire those who have no parasitic imperative to attach themselves to the right people who are always doing and saying the right things.

I admire those who have little time for the shallow and trivial ephemera that clogs the screens over which our glassy eyes hungrily roam — those who spend their days on more worthy things.

I admire those who can admit it when they’re wrong and know how to say sorry. I admire those who are generous with forgiveness.

I admire those who have disciplined their bodies to say no, their minds to say yes, and their souls to pray.

I admire those who are slow to anger and rich in love.

I admire those who love the unlovely.

I admire those who stand at the gate with tears in their eyes and longing in their hearts, ready for an embrace that says, “welcome home.”

I admire those who write with pen and paper, thus avoiding the myriad distractions of the digital carnival. I admire those who read books.

I admire people who turn off their phones and sit at tables eating leisurely meals drenched in good conversation.

I admire those who refuse cheap cynicism and easy despair.

I admire those dealing with the multiple indignities of aging with grace, courage, humor and faith.

I admire those who can tolerate silence.

I admire those who do justly, who love mercy, and who walk humbly with their God.

I admire those who know how to subtract themselves from their virtue.

I admire those who lives are hidden with Christ and with his way, and whose lives are being gradually, beautifully, conformed to his image.

I admire those who have learned how to suffer and, ultimately, to die. Those who know that so many of the things that we admire are small and fleeting and always passing away.

I admire those who have learned what and how to value. And why.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. — Philippians 4:8

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.

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