Our relationship with popularity started early for most all of us. It’s hard to say where it began, but perhaps it started with whatever new toy was “the rage” of the day. Everyone had one and we were sure we wanted one as well. Depending on your current age, you likely have a few items come to mind right away. Perhaps it was a hula hoop when they were first popular or a slinky that bounded down our stairs one at a time. There were those Matchbox cars that were collected and Barbie dolls to get and games that were popular certain years.
By the time we were off to school we started looking at what clothing was popular and pleading with our parents that we “just had to have” whatever that item was despite the cost and whether or not we already had other items that took care of that need. We wanted to be like everyone else. Often shoes were the ever-changing landscape of our quest. Saddle shoes (also known by some as oxfords) were the absolute “in” and just about the time you managed to get a pair, they were “out” and maybe penny loafers were what everyone else was wearing.
Some of you are too young to recall some of those quests. For you it as more about the kind of gym shoes you had to wear and how you could possibly persuade your parents to agree to pay the price the store was asking for them.
Growing up on a small Midwest farm meant I was usually at least a year behind the current trend (if I ever got the trend at all). My parents insisted that saddle shoes were not practical with those white toes to get scuffed and tramped on, so they never became a part of my life until the trend had gone on to something else.
Unfortunately, we became convinced that having certain items that were “in” meant we would be part of the “in” group as well because it was pretty clear to us at an early age that peers tended to either be in the “in group” or “outsider” group. And it didn’t take very long for us to be convinced that once we were labeled in one group or the other that it was unlikely, we could ever shake that category.
The right bike was also a big deal for many as a kid and before long we began to equate having something popular with being someone who was popular. To be popular meant we wouldn’t feel isolated on the playground and we wouldn’t be the last one chosen when our class divided up on teams.
When we “grew up” and became adults we were supposed to have put aside those wonky ideas about popularity, but what was sadly true was that we often still were seduced into considering the worth of something (or someone) based on popularity. It made us open to choosing what was popular over what was true or right.
“What is wrong is to evaluate the worth of words and deeds by their popularity. What is scandalous is to approve only what is applauded. What is disastrous is to assume that only the celebrated is genuine.”Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses
To fall prey to the things Peterson notes is to look at the outward appearance and what is popular versus the inward character of the person that is what really matters and makes the difference over a lifetime. We easily get caught up in the short view versus the long game. History will show the worth of the words, the deeds – the person. Perhaps that is what tempts us to avoid studying history or to prefer to cherry-pick what we decide is true if we do look at it.
It’s likely that the Old Testament prophets were some of the least popular people of the day. They were called by God to speak the truth when it wasn’t popular, when it hurt. One of those I have spent a good bit of time looking at in recent months was Jeremiah (thanks in part to Eugene Peterson’s book looking at his life and character).
“Jeremiah’s task was to challenge the lies and speak the truth. Why do we so easily swallow the lies? Why do we find it so difficult to accept the truth? Because we are looking for bargains. We want shortcuts. There are no easy ways. There is only one way. If we are going to be complete human beings, we are going to have to do it with God. We will have to be rescued from these despotic egos that reduce us to something less than human. We will need to expose the life of self-centeredness and proclaim the truth of God-centeredness.”Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses
We live in a time where more information is thrust at us in a nanosecond than was thrust in a week during certain eras, but that does not mean we know more. It just means we have more to sort through in order to determine what is true versus what is popular. It can be too easy to leave laying out that information before God in making that decision for discernment and wisdom because that is the long road, and we are so bombarded with information that we want the latest digest or article on the subject without knowing or even looking to see if it is a sound source upon which to make our decision.
That brings to mind Paul’s words to Timothy:
“always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”2 Timothy 3:7 (NIV)
Growing up poor in the backwoods without proper schooling along with an awkward gawky appearance never drew people to Abraham Lincoln, but his character and his courage in the midst of unpopularity left a mark on history beyond what those who were popular in his day could never have guessed. What would Lincoln advise about popularity?
“Avoid popularity if you would have peace.”Abraham Lincoln