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When You're Oblivious to What's Obvious

C.J. Mahaney tells a story about a man that I think we can all identify with—a man who went out into the world with a cringe-worthy problem. I am quite sure the story is not an original Mahaney (I do not have his book in front of me at the moment so cannot check for a citation). Nevertheless, here is how it goes:

As I sat with my family at a local breakfast establishment, I noticed a finely dressed man at an adjacent table. His Armani suit and stiffly pressed shirt coordinated perfectly with a power tie.  His wing-tip shoes sparkled from a recent shine, every hair was in place, including his perfectly groomed moustache.

The man sat alone eating a bagel as he prrepared for a meeting.  As he reviewed the papers before him, he appeared nervous, glancing frequently at his Rolex watch.  It was obvious he had an important meeting ahead.

The man stood up and I watched as he straightened his tie and prepared to leave.

Immediately I noticed a blob of cream cheese attached to his finely groomed moustache.  He was about to go into the world, dressed in his finest, with cream cheese on his face.

I thought of the business meeting he was about to attend. Who would tell him? Should I? What if no one did?

You may not have an Armani suit and a finely groomed moustache, but something like this has happened to each of us at one time or another. Maybe you left the bathroom with a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe or maybe you went to church without noticing that your baby had spit up down your back. We’ve all done it. We’ve all gone out into the world completely oblivious to something that is utterly obvious to everyone else.

Mahaney uses this illustration to go far beyond fashion. He uses it to speak of the importance of having people who will keep watch on our lives and who will tell us about those sins or character flaws that are hidden to us and so obvious to everyone else. “As you and I walk through life, no matter how closely we watch ourselves, we are acquiring fresh blobs of cream cheese on our faces. We all have ‘cream cheese’ moments.” Do you have someone in your life who will point out the cream cheese smeared on your face?

Over the past couple of weeks Carl Trueman has been writing a series of blog posts about the big Christian conferences—American Christian conferences. The reaction has been interesting to see. While I wouldn’t say the reaction has been one of outrage, it certainly does not seem that American Christians are eager to hear Trueman’s critiques. His posts have been rather informal, most of them speaking to a particular kind of reaction or feedback. Here they are if you’d like to give them a read:

Trueman writes as a Brit who now lives in America. I write as a Canadian who attends many of those conferences south of the border. And I readily agree with much of what Trueman writes—and certainly the heart of what he writes. The conferences in America are getting bigger and grander and slicker. The Gospel Coalition was a prime example. It was well-attended (5500 people, I believe), expansive (a huge list of speakers), professional (just check out the quality of the entire event). None of these are bad things. In fact, these may well be God-glorifying things.

But looking at these conferences as a Canadian, I see them as distinctly American events. If they were held anywhere else in the world they would have a very, very different flavor. I don’t know that I can easily define this. But I know that it’s true. Flying home from Gospel Coalition I sat next to a young Canadian couple for whom this was their first major conference. On one hand they really enjoyed it, but at the same time they were having trouble processing it. They saw the celebrity culture, they saw the packs of autograph chasers following those celebrities, and they felt a real disconnect. It felt a long way from New Testament Christianity. Talk to non-Americans and I think you’ll find a good bit of consensus.

And this brings us back to Carl Trueman. Trueman is telling you that America is particularly prone to a celebrity culture. Listen to him. He is telling you that American Christians are particularly prone to blindly following certain leaders or styles. Listen to him. He is telling you that you may be inadvertently feeding these things with these super-sized conferences and their a-list speakers. Listen to him. He has that outside perspective that so easily sees what you may be so blind to. You’d do well to listen humbly, to listen with an open mind and an open heart.

I’m pretty sure that what Trueman is trying to tell you, American Christian, is that you’ve got cream cheese on your face, right as you head toward your important meeting. You look great. You’re all groomed and professional and powerful. And as Trueman tries to point out that glob of cream cheese dangling from your moustache, you are probably not doing anyone a favor if you put your hands over your ears and to refuse to look into a mirror.