For millions of his fans Bruce Springsteen was, and maybe still is, The Boss. A mega-celebrity. He’s a world-renowned performer with countless hits. Many of his songs are considered rock classics. To his kids? Bruce and his wife Patti Scialfa are just the parents. Loving, supportive people. But still just parents.
Springsteen put it this way in a 2017 New York Times interview:
“[Our children] showed a healthy disinterest in our work over all the years… They had their own musical heroes, they had their own music they were interested in. They’d be pretty blank-faced if someone mentioned a song title of mine.”
In his memoir Born to Run, Springsteen wrote that this is as it should be. Parents are meant to be their kids’ fans, to applaud the kids on their stages, not the other way around.
That’s good for the now-young-adult Springsteen kids. And it’s especially good for Bruce and Patti. They seem to have avoided—or at least fended off—the worst effects of celebrity. They recognize that they are more than—and in very positive ways less than—the image applauded by adoring fans. More than their skills and their accomplishments. They’ve retained or recovered or simply remembered their authentic humanity.
In a sense that might not be immediately obvious, Springsteen is what we Christians call a disciple. The dogmas and the ecclesiastical structures of his Roman Catholic beginnings no longer speak to him.
But in many of his songs he highlights the dignity of people who work hard to make ends meet when the odds are stacked against them. He reminds us all to look for the dignity of every human being especially in messy circumstances. That includes ourselves. His capacity to do that rests upon his belief in God and in his awareness of his own finite, gritty humanity.
Reflecting on Springsteen’s memoir, I recalled another disciple with a very different sort of celebrity. Henri Nouwen authored dozens of books on Christian spirituality. He taught at prestigious universities. Groups around the world sought after him as a speaker.
By his own account, Nouwen had come to identify himself with his intellectual power, his status as a widely-read writer, and his authority as a respected academic. His accomplishments and his abilities had become for him the source of his feelings of self-worth.
At the age of 54 he left his faculty position at Harvard and joined the staff of a community devoted to serving people with profound developmental disabilities. The residents of L’Arche Daybreak reminded Nouwen of his true humanity and of the roots of genuine discipleship.
Nouwen writes, “The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with the many useful things I had done until then. Since nobody could read my book, the books could not impress anyone.” (In the Name of Jesus, 27)
In other words, his many publications, his reputation as a writer and speaker, and his powers of insight were good. But he was both more and less than all of this. His significance as a human being derived from elsewhere. He writes,
“These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (28)
The first step in being a disciple is to acknowledge and reclaim this “unadorned self.” Our true humanity. Paradoxically, that’s precisely when we discover our infinite worth, our inalienable dignity as human beings. Every human being is the beloved because God loves us. Period. And disciples are called by Jesus and sent into the world by him to deliver that one, life-transforming message. Turning again to Nouwen:
“The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.” (30)
Jesus relayed this message to us again and again. For instance, on one occasion Jesus was had been invited to a Sabbath dinner party at a religious leader’s house. According to the customs of the day, the higher your social status the closer you sat to the host. People vied for the choice seats. For Jesus, this was an irresistible teachable moment. (Luke 14:1, 7-14)
He offered the guests advice about how to behave at a wedding banquet. Instead of grabbing the best seats in the house for yourself, put yourself in standing-room-only. Otherwise, the host might make you move down to a lesser place and you would be humiliated. If you’re in the crummy seats chances are you’ll get moved up.
A crucial element of the lesson is Jesus talked about attending a wedding. The wedding banquet is the Kingdom of Heaven. God is the host there. And Jesus isn’t suggesting that we should play some phony humility game to con God into giving us special treatment.
Instead, Jesus is helping us see that there’s nothing we can do to get any closer to God. The Kingdom of God has already come near. We sometimes feel distant from God. But that’s not because God is far away. Oddly, our vision can be obscured by God’s perpetual, breathtaking closeness.
As Lauren Winner puts it, “I cannot describe God in the same way that I cannot describe a picture I am holding millimeters from my eyes—the picture is made strange and unknowable not because it is distant but because it is so close.” (Wearing God, p. 235)
God chooses to be close because God is God. Love is God’s way. God’s abiding nature. Love is not a transaction for the divine. God never asks, “What’s in it for me?” God just loves. God loves us because God loves us.
We’ve got one job as human beings. One calling as disciples really. It’s to pass this message on: God loves us because God loves us. Period. And we pass it along by loving our neighbor.
We can begin doing that only when we’ve heard that message for ourselves. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll need to be reminded about it time and time again.
That’s really okay. Jesus already knows that. He never tires of reminding us. Just don’t give up. Especially on yourself. He never will.
You can check out my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places here. These days I’m working on a book about discipleship. To contact me about speaking at your event, leading a retreat, or touching base with your book group via Zoom or in-person, click here.