December 5, 2020

Randy Thompson: Following the Horses in the American Parade


Note from CM: I’m happy to share a post by Randy Thompson today. Randy has been in ministry for over 27 years, with 21 years of pastoral experience in New England. These days he and his wife Jill offer hospitality, encouragement, and spiritual refreshment to other ministers at Forest Haven, a retreat center in the hills of New Hampshire. He blogs at the Forest Haven site. I hope you’ll be encouraged and challenged by his Jesus-shaped words today.

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Following the Horses in the American Parade
By Randy Thompson
Forest Haven, Bradford, NH

Protestant churches follow American culture much like the man with the broom and shovel follows the horses in a parade. Liberal Protestants can be counted on to fit their ever shrinking theology into latest intellectual fashions. Evangelicals, while largely oblivious to the intellectual fashions of the past 150 years, can be reliably counted on to package the Gospel in the latest pop culture fashions, so that it’s hard to tell in some churches whether you’re worshiping or attending a rock concert or are part of some sort of weird reality show.

Being in the world but not of it has been reduced to following the horses in the parade with a broom and shovel. You’re in the parade, but not of it. You have the happy and illusory feeling of being relevant without realizing exactly what it is you’re relevant to. Unfortunately for you, the happy bystanders watch the parade to look at the bands and the horses, not at the folks with the shovels.

It’s important to understand one’s place in life’s parade. To think you’re part of the parade because you’re part of the clean-up brigade is to be sadly misinformed about your role, and rather self-deluded about your importance to the spectacle. No matter how hard you try, you and your broom and shovel will be lost amid marching bands, horses, and beauty queens. To think you’re part of the parade—that people are watching you—is to be sadly deluded.

And yet, there is a real need for the people who follow the horses with brooms and shovels in the great American parade. It’s just that they need to see themselves for what they are. They’re needed, not because the parade needs any more marchers, but because the parade leaves a colossal mess in its wake. And it’s not just the horses that make the mess. . .

clean upFollowing the Savior who washed his disciples’ feet entails taking up shovels and brooms to clean up the filth, ruin, and wreckage left in the wake of the American parade. Someone has to clean up after it. Someone has to tell the truth about the mess, someone has to throw out the lies of a death-dealing culture where Caesar offers sugarplum fantasies of military glory to the poor and disposable. Where human life matters only insofar as it is convenient. A culture where health care is a luxury for the wealthy, a dream of the poor, and bankruptcy for everyone else. Some ambassador from God’s Kingdom has to tell the truth about a culture where the common good is prostituted to political advantage and then buried under litter-strewn mounds of cheap rhetoric about freedom and choice, which for most people boils down to choosing between K-Mart or Walmart.

And someone has to care about the people the parade ran over—the lost, the losers, the addicted, and the not-so-bright, the uneducated and the weak. The people for whom normal family life is only an educated guess and for whom there is no spiritual foundation on which to build an identity. The people who know there must be some purpose in life, but who have no idea who God is, or His Son, or what that purpose might be.

Who else but the ones whose feet have been washed by the Son of God can pick these people up once the parade has gone by and gone over them? Who else but these little christs can see this procession for what it is—an extravaganza of marching bands, clowns and horses parading by with the hope no one will notice the dry-rot breaking through the gaudy colors?

And who but these little christs will think to ask where the parade is headed, and what it’s about?

Certainly there will be those hip souls who will continue to carry their brooms and shovels, marching on as if they’re part of the parade, unaware of the savage irony of their position or what it is that’s stuck on their shovels. The hipsters, aesthetic and intellectual, who embrace every cutting-edge cultural trend and academic theory, and who in profoundly ironic mode see themselves in the parade but not of it, these we will always have with us.

But what is needed are not hipsters but schlubs, little christs humble enough to help the schlubs run over by the parade to get back on their feet, to get them out from under the parade and its spell and onto a different way, a narrow way, which can be difficult to find unless you look hard for it, and unless you have someone to show you the way. A way that’s as broad and narrow as the welcoming outstretched arms of the crucified Messiah.


  1. Actually, the two factions described, the intellectual and cultural trend-followers in the churches, are not part of the cleanup detail following the horses in the parade; they’re part of the mess the horses, and the parade, leave.

    We’re part of the mess the horses, and the parade, leave, though we’re called to be otherwise.

  2. flatrocker says

    Actually, seeing ourselves as garbage and excrement IS the problem.

    We buy into it, we internalize it, we own it and it becomes who we are. The world churns out garbage and processes excrement and we are all too willing to step up and proudly live there. How long, oh Lord before we see ourselves for what You created us to be? To help clean up the dung hill, but not to build our home on it.

    • Christiane says

      Is the ‘we are dung’ teaching a product of the Calvinist doctrine of ‘total depravity’?

      • Not really, Christiane.

        The doctrine of “Total Depravity” does not say that people cannot do good things or exhibit virtue, but that the affects of sin have permeated every aspect of our being. An example might be what Jesus said in the discourse in Matt. 7;

        If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Is the ‘we are dung’ teaching a product of the Calvinist doctrine of ‘total depravity’?

        I think it’s actually called Worm Theology — that the only way God can be Exalted is if we are cut down in a zero-sum game — but I also think the two are related.

    • Yes, if we identify ourselves as shit then we’ve missed the point. However, if we identify with Jesus, who was cast out as though refuse–the crucifixion is a testimony to the way in which he was regarded by his culture–then we will also be enabled to identify/sympathize and love those around us who have also been relegated to the shit pile of our culture. We are to stand apart from the false values of our culture and become something of an excremental sacrament of the Kingdom in which all are welcome and acceptable, especially the last, the least, and the lost.

      The problem with “hipster-ism” is that it’s just another way of working within the same cultural dynamics of “the world”–a way of identifying who’s in and who’s out.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        What gets me is all the Christianese Activists who are not only following the parade pointing at the shit piles and going “ME TOO!”, but claiming THEY’RE the ones actually Leading the Parade.

  3. Peter Rollins expresses an interesting take on the theme of our “trashiness”;

  4. Part of using “Jesus-shaped words” is using the same sort of language that Jesus used (uses) to expose the fact that we really are all that concerned about loving God and the neighbor. That we so often put our trust in anything else, rather than the Living God.

    We are all very mixed bags and dead in our sins and trespasses. Jesus doesn’t come along to fix us up…but to kill us off…and raise new people…in Himself. He actually saves us not just from our bad side…but from our “good” side, as well. Because our best isn’t good enough, either, and it is the source (our best side) of so much pride and self-righteousness.

    • “Jesus doesn’t come along to fix us up…but to kill us off…and raise new people…in Himself.”

      I read that line in the voice of William Shatner, and then I realized: I want Shatner as my pastor. He would bring such drama to the old “Perfectly Parsed Theology” phrasing.

      Think of it: “We are… all one body… the… church, a bride of… Christ. We all… await… her consummation in… Him.”


      • I had a “humor, not criticism” disclaimer at the bottom of that got eaten. Gotta use disclaimers in Poe’s Law territory.

      • “…and to boldly go…where no church…has gone before.”

      • Steve wrote;

        Jesus doesn’t come along to fix us up…but to kill us off…and raise new people…in Himself. He actually saves us not just from our bad side…but from our “good” side, as well.

        That is Luther straight up. Love it.

        Robert Capon says much the same–though with more verbage;

        If the human race could have straightened up its act by the simple pursuit of goodness, it would have done so long ago. We are not stupid; and Lord knows, from Confucius to Socrates to Moses to Joyce Brothers, we’ve had plenty of advice. But we haven’t followed it. The world has taken a five-thousand-year bath in wis­dom and is just as grimy as ever. And our own lives now, for all our efforts to clean them up, just get grimier and grimier. We think pure thoughts and eat wheat germ bread, but we will die as our fathers did, not noticeably better.

        Once again, the world cannot be saved by living. And there are two devastatingly simple reasons why. The first is, we don’t live well enough to do the job. Our goodness is flawed goodness. I love my children and you love yours, but we have, both of us, messed them up royally. I am a nice person and so are you, except for when my will is crossed or your convenience is not consulted—and then we are both so fearful that we get mean in order to seem tough. And so on. The point is that if we are going to wait for good living to save the world, we are going to wait a long time. We can see goodness and we can love it. We can even love it enough to get a fair amount of it going for us on nice days. But we simply cannot crank it up to the level needed to eliminate badness altogether.

        The second reason is more profound. The world’s deepest problem is not badness as opposed to goodness; it is sin, the incur­able human tendency to put self first, to trust number one and no one else. And that means that there is nothing—no right deed, however good, noble, lawful, thrifty, brave, clean, or reverent—that cannot be done for the wrong reason, that cannot be tainted and totally corrupted by sin. As I observed earlier, the greatest evils are, with alarming regularity, done in the name of goodness. When we finally fry this planet in a nuclear holocaust, it will not have been done by a bunch of naughty little boys and girls; it will have been done by grave, respectable types who loved their high ideals too much to lay them down for the mere preservation of life on earth. And lesser evils follow the same rule. When I crippled my children emotionally (or when my parents crippled me) it was not done out of meanness or spite, it was done out of love: genuine, deeply felt, endlessly pondered human love—flawed, alas, by a self-regard so profound that none of us ever noticed it.

        Life, therefore, for all its goodness—the act of living, for all its lawfulness and even occasional success—cannot save. I am sorry to disappoint you, but we are back at death—faith in Jesus’ death—as the only reliable guide, the only effective opposite to sin, which otherwise can play havoc with goodness and badness alike….

        “Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be wise. You don’t have to be wonderful. You just have to be dead. That’s it.”

        “For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctible; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”

  5. I’m sorry, but that whole thing just reeks of #humblebrag.

    • Randy Thompson says

      If I really was humble, I’d agree with you. 🙂

    • “I’m sorry, but that whole thing just reeks of #humblebrag.”

      I’m sorry, but I don’t see it. It’s not like the author is saying how he’s the only one out there who can see things as they really are and that he’s the only one doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Rather, this is more of an admonishment against feeding into trying to have it both ways — being part of the “cool parade” or being a follower of Christ.
      Personally, this is a huge struggle. The attraction of being hip/cool/modern/whatever oftentimes put us into situations where we are expected to have beliefs and opinions that are counter to what Christ has taught, not to mention has us placing our appearance and consumer habits higher in our priorities than we should. I know at times I desperately want to be considered cool and admired by others; being reminded of who I’m supposed to be and why is good, and I think this was an effective parable.

      • Randy Thompson says

        I’m also a fan of trying to have things both ways, so I not only appreciate your post, but empathize with it as well. I know where I want to be, and where, by God’s grace, I’ll end up. In the meantime, the inner battle rages on, and you fight the good fight as best you can, armed with God’s grace, forgiveness, patience and occasional direct interventions. Hang in there.

      • I was largely kidding. Humblebrag is a meme where one says something that is ostensibly humble, but contains a brag hidden within it. “I really enjoy reading Derrida and Zizek, but that’s just because I’m weird.” or “It still amazes me that I can be in London, Prague, and Paramus all in one day. Travel and technology boggle my mind.”

        The image here is Christians as the people following the parade cleaning up the droppings, an obviously humble job. But it can only be done by those chosen by Christ, those whose “feet have been washed by the Son of God.” Hence, you’re someone quite special, a “little Christ.” Dung-collectors chosen and blessed by God seems to fall into the concept of #humblebrag.

        Although I only meant a light humor at it, we do really run into this in Christianity a lot. Paul might have been the “chief of all sinners”, but he was also the Apostle, St. Paul, and didn’t seem to mind really putting that up into people’s grill in 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and elsewhere. Calvinism really focuses on the whole “unconditional election” issue, where you’ve done nothing worthy of God’s attention or blessing; and YET, you are the chosen, the elect from all time! See Spurgeon’s sermon on Election for details. There really is a fair amount of #humblebrag in Christian culture.

        • Oh, and I left of an actual Rick Warren #humblebrag from Twitter recently. “I’m truly humbled you follow my tweets. I pray they enrich your life & strengthen your ministry. God bless all 200,000 of you!”

        • Oh, I do get it.

          But I would also add that the moment you open your mouth (or type with your fingers) about humility you are kind of subject to the ‘humblebrag’. True personal humility never talks about itself or acknowledges its own existence. Nevertheless, sometimes we need to talk about humility, especially when we are lacking in it.

        • Randy Thompson says

          You’re probably right about there being a lot of humblebrag, as you put it.

          But, rest assured, my wife reads everything I write, and she has a good nose for humblebragging, and if she finds it here, there’ll be hell to pay.

  6. How so?

    • (That was about the “humblebrag” charge, but for some reason I couldn’t reply directly to the comment in question. Anyway, it’s all answered above. 🙂 )

  7. Lots of broad strokes here.

    May it be noted that many of those who might fall under the “hipster” label in Mr. Thompson’s might just be those who have actually submitted their aesthetics and intellectualism to the cross, and are using their privilege and education to bring prophetic awareness to the fictions of Caesar and the plight of the schlubs. “In the parade but not of it” does have some merit — unironically.

    • Randy Thompson says

      I wondered if someone would comment on my “broad strokes” here, so thank you for bringing it up. Yes, I absolutely did paint with broad strokes, and did so deliberately. I am aware of many folks who do not fit into my caricature here, either in the evangelical world or in the mainline churches. However (!), my “broad strokes” do describe reality, in an impressionistic sort of way, and that was what I was after.

  8. The broom and shovel brigade are worth many sparrows….

  9. I remember as a kid having as much enjoyment watching the poop-scoopers as I did the bands and floats.