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On Admiration

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 someone 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 laboured 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 exhausitive 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, humour, 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

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nomad #

    What a beautifully spoken modern interpretation of the Beautitudes of sorts by Substituting “Blessed are those ” for “I admire those”. I really like this one,Ryan.

    May 29, 2017
  2. Paul Johnston #

    You always get me thinking. :)… There is much that is self serving and arrogant in our admiration.Goodness doesn’t so much require my approval as it does my collaboration. Better to be inspired then to admire, I think.

    I think of the rich ruler in Luke 18 who called Jesus, “good” and was quickly reprimanded. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?”

    In Isaiah, ….”He had no beauty or majesty that we should be attracted to him. Nothing about His appearance that we should desire him”…

    Human admiration doesn’t seem to count for much with God. Perhaps it is something better to unlearn.

    To admire. To disdain. Judgements both. Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.

    What does God admire? What does God hold in contempt? This is the only true context for us. It is not a judgement, it is a discernment. (I like your discernments in the latter half of this post, I hear similar promptings. 🙂 )

    An active prayer life, mediated through the Holy Spirit is the only true path. Ego is self interest and must be overcome. Love or the old self, it cannot be both. Love and the new self. The reborn self that measures God’s interests and God’s interests for others, as self interest.

    Death to the old self or death to love. We decide.

    May 30, 2017
    • Yes, as I said, we tend to admire badly. This doesn’t, in my view, mean that the category of admiration is to be written off as theologically useless (or worse). We tend to love badly, as well, but we don’t for that reason conclude that love is something we ought to unlearn.

      My own approach is to treat human desire (the broad category under which admiration seems to me to fall) as a sign post, of sorts, that can direct our attention to what we were created for. It’s not infallible, of course, but it’s not to be ignored either.

      May 30, 2017
      • Paul Johnston #

        Yes, you did say. :)…. If I may digress…. because I think I need to so as to be better understood…. Forgive me if I at times offend you, Ryan but I am still hesitant to couch my Holy Spirit discernments in language that is sensitive to peoples feelings about themselves.

        Too much of discourse, for a myriad of reasons, most of them blatantly ungodly, focuses on how we say what we say, rather then the content of what we say. While it is important not to be maliciously insensitive, it is to my mind, more important not to mask the truth for fear of offending the feelings of another.

        In either case the emotional responses of the individuals engaged in conversations takes priority over the search for truth. Man before God if you will.

        The truth is the truth and if emotions or feelings regarding the truth are to be true also, they must subordinate themselves to truth and if necessary a person must question their feelings and change them. Humble themselves if necessary. God before man.The right ordering. The truth. 🙂

        We do disservice to the truth and ironically each other, when we prioritize another’s, or even our own feelings, before the truth.

        It is also true that in saying all this I could, can and do fall into the trap of using such argument as a cloak for inflicting others with harm. A dishonest misuse of truth so as to right perceived wrongs. Guilty of the very thing I argue against and know to be untrue.

        Emotions are powerful but not always true.

        I seek guidance and understanding from the Holy Spirit in this regard and am still (at best 🙂 ) a work in progress.

        I would also appreciate you taking the time to confront any language I use, or don’t use, should you think it is unjustly offensive. I have great respect for your learnedness. Your understanding of language and all it’s implications is great. Mine not always. What I mean to say and how I am understood doesn’t line up as neatly as I would like. :)….more then just a little irony here. Lol.

        So back to the matter at hand.

        I’m still unsure about the usefulness of admiration. I would distinguish it from love in that love, even imperfect love, is always a good thing given it’s communal nature. Edifying God, self and others. Love is holiness applied.

        Admiration seems to me to be more of an affirmation of an individual self, quite apart from God or the well being of another. It can profit one often at the expense of God and the other. Truthfully speaking, even the one who perceives profit is abused. They succumb to the illusion of gain not realizing that what they have taken, given it’s harmful outcomes to God and others will ultimately bring harm to themselves.

        So if you are advocating a re-orienting of admiration along the lines of your, “beatitude of admiration” let us understand it as something else. Let us understand it as a dimension of philial love. An affirmation of characteristics that edify God, self and other.

        Let us leave the errant understanding known as, “admiration” to the world of self interest that it spawns.

        June 1, 2017
      • I’m puzzled about why you’re so distressed by the word “admiration” here, Paul. Do you take issue with the content of any of the things that I said I admired? Do you think they are unworthy of admiration? Do you think they speak falsely? Do you not feel that human impulses or longings or tendencies could ever point to truth, however infallibly?

        Also, you seem to be equating the word “admire” and its derivatives with “emotional” or “feeling” as if this places it on a lower plane. I don’t deny that emotions and feelings are involved in admiration, but I would say this is true for pretty much any human activity, including “Holy Spirit discernments.” Indeed, I’ve been in plenty of contexts where the words “Holy Spirit” are invoked as a kind of trump card that insulates someone from any and all criticism, no matter how stupid or outlandish or wildly emotional the behaviour or discernment that is being linked to the Spirit might be.

        Like it or not, “Holy Spirit” language can be just as tied up with individual selves and their myriad emotions and feelings and mixed up desires as any other human activity or utterance. Prefixing a statement with “Holy Spirit” doesn’t necessarily make it any more or less trustworthy or true than anything else that fallen human beings engage in.

        June 1, 2017
  3. I’m so grateful to my friend, Shirley Hershey Showalter, for sending me over here. Thank you, I love this! Beautifully written. Am sharing this post with friends! Am following your blog.

    June 1, 2017
    • Thanks very kindly, Tracy. I appreciate you dropping by.

      June 1, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Why am I distressed by the action of admiration?

    Perhaps you said it best in an earlier response when you consign admiration to the category of human desires. Human desires, without conscious re-orientation, ultimately leading to the conquering and abandoning of said desires, is where evil grows. Where the proverbial snake meets us in the garden and chides us into self idolatry and abandonment of God.

    Dying to self in a very real and true way is synonymous with dying to my desires. My likes, my dislikes are easily manipulated and confused, even to me. I suspect this to be true of most everyone else I have ever met. ( Though different by degree)

    I cannot be trusted for the truth based on my desires. My likes, my dislikes. What I admire, what I don’t. Neither can you. Neither can anyone.

    The only hope for living a true life then is to come to trust in, hopefully with some understanding, (reason making faith easier to digest) God’s desires. God’s likes. God’s dislikes. What God admires.

    For any of us to have any hope of sharing in that bounty of truth, the ONLY means possible is through relationship both within us and through others, with the Holy Spirit.

    The Holy Spirit is the only active agent of truth in existence. How I have loved/responded to the Spirit is both my only true legacy and the measure of my hope in eternal life.

    I do not take issue with what you admire, I agree with it. I simply caution that it’s truth or not, isn’t validated by our admiration but is validated by what we know God admires. It isn’t our judgement that is the key here. It is our discernment. Further I caution that Satan waits on all of us with gleeful malice once he understands us to have knowingly chosen to operate through our own sense of desire and it’s judgments.

    Do I feel that human longings could ever point to the truth? In of themselves, apart from re-orientation through the Holy Spirit, absolutely not.They are woefully insufficient and will be manipulated against us and others, to our mutual destruction.

    As for your concerns regarding the misappropriation of the Holy Spirit, I share them.

    But I make an important caveat , it is only through the Holy Spirit and the disciplines of love that it teaches, that any truth at all can be discovered and lived.

    Any voice that does not claim the Holy Spirit as author and does not unashamedly say they do what they do and say what they say, is for Love’s sake, should be ignored.

    Every voice that is inspired to say so, should be tested, prayed about and discerned. The “fruits” will decide for us.

    Life is short. Eternity not so much. We must stop listening to voices that do not claim Christ as King.

    June 1, 2017
    • I don’t have any substantial disagreement with what you say here, Paul. It just seems odd to say it in response to a post that was in many aspects about the retraining and redemption and reorientation Godward of human desire/admiration. Much of what I said I admired is built upon the foundation of a Spirit-enabled devotion to the person and work of Jesus Christ and the kind of life he embodied and makes possible.

      Perhaps your problem is that I am content to leave implicit much of what you would prefer I make explicit. That’s fine, you’re certainly entitled to your views. But it’s not usually how I write in this space and I don’t apologize for this.

      June 1, 2017
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Odd? Perhaps lol. I agree with you wholeheartedly that “reorientation Godward” is the ambition….in all things….. 🙂

    If our admiration leads us to better understand, believe in and love more deeply, the Lord our God, then let that form of admiration reign!!

    Most of it doesn’t though. Most of it leads us astray. Into think that the objects of our admiration are a path to salvation. Most human admiration leads to idolatry.

    Perhaps as you, implicitly suggest, 🙂 the desire is worthy of reform. Clearly I see the desire as something more malignant than you do. I’m not sure it can be healed/reconciled. Better that we should remove it entirely from our understanding…..I could easily be wrong here. 🙂

    So I will do my best to love you and admire what God has done and is doing for you. 🙂

    With regard to being more loving, I will add to my list of prayers a request for a Spirit of love that is reflected more explicitly…. 🙂 in the way I write to you.

    God’s love can and should be discernible in the written word. I have allowed my deep mistrust of secular expressions of love and concern to pollute my personal expressions of love and concern.

    When the institutional world loves so badly and so falsely it is hard not to become cynical… excuses though :). All things are possible with God.

    I’m warning you though, brother I just might have a word/tirade or two about implicitness vs. explicitness percolating. I’m sure I’ll let you know, “when the coffee is ready” Lol.

    “Enjoy this day, that the Lord has made”, my brother. 🙂

    June 2, 2017
    • Perhaps as you, implicitly suggest, 🙂 the desire is worthy of reform. Clearly I see the desire as something more malignant than you do. I’m not sure it can be healed/reconciled. Better that we should remove it entirely from our understanding…..I could easily be wrong here. 🙂

      Out of curiosity, how would you envision “removing it entirely from our understanding?” I, for one, cannot simply cease admiring. Perhaps you can. But I would be very careful about saying something can’t be healed or reconciled. That’s a strange thing to say for someone who believes in a God who can bring life out of death.

      I’m warning you though, brother I just might have a word/tirade or two about implicitness vs. explicitness percolating. I’m sure I’ll let you know, “when the coffee is ready” Lol.

      I’m sure you will. 🙂 Just to head off one potential dead end, though, please remember those three important words that I used to describe my writing here: in this space. In other contexts (i.e., preaching, conversations in church contexts, etc) I am often more explicit. On this blog, I often have in mind those who find faith hard, those who are perhaps scratching their way back to Jesus or drifting away. Different words and approaches are necessary at different times and places. Or so I believe, at any rate.

      I hope you enjoy this day that the Lord has made as well.

      June 2, 2017
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Like all things, if Christ is truly my end game, my purpose, my love, I shall lay all that I am and all that I have, at the foot of his cross. He will decide what will be re-oriented and what will be dross…on a more personal note many of the things, people, ideas and behaviors I have chosen to admire in my lifetime have done myself and others great harm.

    Christ has healed me of the shame and in many cases reconciled me with people from my past. In other relationships, there is still work to be done. 🙂

    I am a better man now… ( still not my best 🙂 )…My life has proved to me that my likes and dislikes, seen in the vacuum of self interest and self evaluation, were very harmful. Another person whose likes and dislikes led to healthy outcomes would surely view the concept of “human admiration” with much less suspicion than I.

    ….”Different words and approaches”? Providing they do not weaken or disguise the truth of Christ, ok. Very dangerous ground though. I often see and hear Christians, mostly under the banner of personal and cultural sensitivity, water down our message to the point that Christ becomes nothing more than another ethical/philosophical option among the array of choices humanity has to offer. To evangelize on behalf of Christ in this way, if I understand the Holy Spirit correctly, is to commit grave sin.

    I understand the Pauline principal of, “being all things, to all people, so as to save some”.

    I prefer the Jesus message of resolute commitment to the will of the Father, so as to save all.

    June 5, 2017
    • My life has proved to me that my likes and dislikes, seen in the vacuum of self interest and self evaluation, were very harmful. Another person whose likes and dislikes led to healthy outcomes would surely view the concept of “human admiration” with much less suspicion than I.

      I’m sorry to hear this, Paul. It hurts to know that we have caused harm. I know this from personal experience, as well. But with respect I would isolate the phrase “seen in the vacuum of self interest and self evaluation” as the determinative category, not that of “admiration,” in and of itself. As I’ve said before, we cannot simply cease admiring, no matter what we might like to imagine or tell ourselves. Like every human faculty (including listening to and interpreting the will of God), it requires redemption and submission to the will and example of Christ.

      June 5, 2017

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