Van Gogh, Exercising Prisoners
It is no secret I don’t like my job. For almost two years I have done almost everything I can to escape it. No matter how hard I try, I cannot. There are days the work is tolerable and there are days when I am not sure I can get through. I cannot sleep like I used to. A full night of sleep is like treasure. Debilitating anxiety seems to always be at my elbow. And just when I feel like I’m getting the hang of what is expected of me, change like a tidal wave.
But I’ve learned something while I’m here. I suppose I could have learned it elsewhere just as well as here. But God in his Providence taught me through my work at the bank a lesson I may not have listened to otherwise.
Back when I felt God’s call to ministry, it was born of my love for the gospel. I had discovered something. Something like gold for the poor. Fresh bread for the hungry. And it changed me and the trajectory of my life. And then as I trained for ministry, every taste of ministry in the church made me hunger for it more. I longed to teach and lead and counsel and all that comes with being a pastor.
I loved the gospel of grace. I loved it because of what it meant for me. And consistently I was seeing all it meant for others. The hurting and the failures. The Pharisees and the libertines. And I loved most of what it meant to be a pastor. I was motivated by these things, motivated to serve and sacrifice so much. But there was one thing not motivating me.
There is a saying among pastors with a kind of dark humor. It goes like this —”Ministry would be great if it wasn’t for the people.” It’s funny because ministry exists for the sake of the people. It’s dark and sad because ministry exists for the people.
I can honestly say I loved people while I was a pastor. But I look back, and if I’m honest, I admit I did not minister to them because I loved them. Concern for them was not a motivation, just a by-product of liking them and them liking me.
My love for the gospel motivated me. My love for my work motivated me. The need or desire to love people did not motivate me. I did not write lessons and curriculum and sermons out of love for the people I ministered to. I did not teach and preach and plan and counsel because of love for them. Love was present but not the driving force.
I’m not saying I didn’t love the great majority of the people I served. I’m not saying love was not present in my ministry. I don’t think anyone could call it a cold ministry. There was too much laughter and tears to say that. Love was just more filigree than fuel.
Over the last month, I’ve sat across the desk of a woman whose husband cheated on her and then left a couple months after she gave birth to their daughter. I’ve talked with a man not long out of prison after 20 years and he kept saying over and over “I just wanna get back on my feet.” A man whose wife took all the money and left and all he wanted was her back. The elderly losing their memories and memory and independence. A wealthy son not happy about holding $300,000 check from his father’s life insurance policy and holding a visible sadness I’ve also carried since my own father went on ahead. Not to mention all the divorces and financial difficulty and lost jobs and wayward children.
A few days ago I opened an account for a registered sex offender who probably could not imagine real kindness after I saw the scarlet letter on his ID. Someone asked me if I wanted to punch him and if it made my blood boil. No and yes. I did not want to punch him. Rather, I wanted to show him kindness, him knowing I know.
This has been a hard lesson. And often it has felt like a cruel one. But I suppose all children think the discipline they are getting is cruel. The pain must be seen in the past to be appreciated. And then owned. And then carried like the presence of God itself, in the midst of his people, going before them in all their endeavors. Because in the midst of his people is exactly where I found myself.
Not long ago I preached at my church and I realized something. Maybe for the first time I wanted to preach because of my affection for the people in front of me…knowing their hurts and pains and assuming they are dealing with much that my customers deal with daily. I preached for them because of love for them and not just a love for preaching.
That was new and different.
I was so used to thinking of preaching as an act of worship, I never saw the need to preach as an act of love. Of course, love for God and all he has done for us in Jesus is in play. But also love for our neighbor, the people I usually share a pew with. And a meal, sometimes. And a whole host of doubts and fears and failures and hopes and dreams about the tomorrows following Sunday worship.
This is probably par for the course for so many of you. Admittedly, I’m slow on the uptake.
However, I get the feeling there is no arrival in this learning. No graduation. No moving on to harder things. The temptation in the Christian life is to check a particular discipleship characteristic off the list and then work on something else. But loving others is the primary ethic of the follower of Jesus. It cannot be learned in Seminary. This must be learned in the crucible of the world as it is, where “beautiful and terrible things will happen.” A world marred and marring. A world where quite possibly in the thick of your own misery, you will look up and see someone else’s, and then have to decide if you will respond in love or not.