When I was in junior high, our pastor decided to initiate a prison ministry. He had a heart for local male convicts and decided that our church would host them once per month for a soup and salad luncheon following the service. A feast for soul and bones.
This evoked a cluster of furrowed brows and whispers from some, and a round of applause from others.
So plans were set into motion, and the youth group was summoned to assist a handful of adults in meal preparation. It was no small undertaking, as tables and chairs and tablecloths and napkins and utensils needed to be situated in the local elementary school gymnasium behind our church. We were tasked with dicing, chopping, and stirring massive pots of piping stew, chowder, and soup, as well as tossing mountains of fresh salad.
I volunteered to help on the first go-around, and while a few boys half-heartedly chopped peppers and tomatoes (before disappearing to sneak in a game of dodgeball, beyond thrilled to escape the lengthy sermon), the rest of us sliced slivers of onions and cucumbers before turning our hands to peel potatoes.
You might imagine that this would be simple and straightforward enough, but put a few folks together, assign a task, and watch those vegetable shavings fly.
I close my eyes and see it now with adult eyes, measuring the situation for what it actually was.
A fight for control.
We enjoyed having two hummingbird feeders in our yard this past summer–one in the front garden and one in our backyard. I kept them full of sweet liquid, as these tiny creatures required nourishment every few hours.
One day, as I stood at our kitchen sink washing dishes, I glanced out the window and noticed four ruby-throated hummingbirds bickering in our backyard. The feeder is large and could comfortably accomodate several birds at one time. For fifteen minutes I observed as one bird after another descended to drink, but upon doing so became incensed, territorial as the other hummingbirds encroached.
Guess what? Not one of them ended up feasting, as they were consumed with guarding their perceived space. It was terribly frustrating to watch, as I had provided abundant nectar for one and all. How I longed to exhort them to share.
Aren’t we those territorial birds?
How self-focused and distracted we sadly become, selfish and jealous in our pursuits, missing out on the rich nourishment meant to stretch and fill our souls.
So I am that junior-high girl done with potatoes and now cutting carrots when an adult instructs me to slice them thicker.
Okay, I answer.
Another adult leans over my shoulder. No, Kristin, cut them Julienne style. Everyone likes long, thin carrots in their soup.
Okay, I answer.
The first adult to the second adult: No–they should be round for this soup.
Round carrots can cause people to choke. Julienne cut.
At this point the adults-behaving-like-toddlers could have laughed and just let it go, right?
Oh no. Hands on hips, peelers in hand, they went toe to toe.
I am in charge, here.
Not sure you are! the other retorted.
People! A third adult, looking at her watch. Does it really matter? Let’s go–the service will be over soon!
Everyone fell quiet, and I returned to the carrots, feeling stressed.
Next? The tables.
Long, formal lines or randomly scattered throughout the gymnasium?
Again, the disputes arose.
By the time the church service concluded and the convicts and congregants lined up in the gymnasium, I, too, felt like a prisoner.
Soon came the crashing tide of official complaints to the pastor. Was it safe to feed such men? Was it wise to pull people from the service each month in order to dice, chop, cook, and serve? And Why are the pastor and his wife not chopping vegetables and tossing salads? It was their idea in the first place!
You cannot make these things up. But I understand now that there truly is nothing new under the sun.
Here’s the truth. Your feelings will get hurt time and again if you are serving yourself in church.
I have been guilty of this very thing. Do you know what has helped me to straighten up?
Enrolling in the unpopular school of Tough Love.
I drag myself to the mirror and speak truth:
Church is not about me. It is about worshipping God and serving others. So stop acting like a baby, Kristin, and grow up.
Preach this to yourself on the daily as you pour over Scripture. And yes, it will hurt your feelings…at first. Never mind that. Soon it will be your saving grace, as God is glorified. And the body of Christ? It will be strengthened.
The church is meant to be a thriving body with uniquely functioning parts to the whole: hands, feet, mouth, eyes, arms, shoulders. Do you see it?
Humility is paramount.
We cannot be serving each other and serving ourselves, grasping for ways to maintain a singular little platform of greatness or power. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Or in this case, a church body.
So may we consider:
What is the biblical role of a pastor?
Is he meant to be a proverbial puppet on your string? Pulled hither and yon, a task-man for your checklist? To perform your bidding?
Yes, I know. A pastor is an imperfect man. A person. And also God’s chosen one to lead, guide, and shepherd the church.
He cannot lead well if there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
Here are good questions to ponder:
Does my pastor teach and preach the whole counsel of God? Is he exhorting the congregation to grow in holiness? Is he preaching about the wickedness and deception of sin, the need for humble repentance, and the saving power and grace of Jesus Christ? Is he serving his flock? Loving the congregation with the truth of God’s Word?
If the answers are yes, then here is the crux of the matter:
Am I, are you, submitting to this man’s godly authority, while understanding that he will be held personally accountable to God for his leadership decisions?
A godly pastor cannot please both God and man, nor will he want to.
Back to the soup and salad.
Imagine if all adults had rallied around our pastor, whether they preferred this outreach or not. (We all have preferences, which are not synonymous with biblical mandates.) What if they had said: Pastor, thank you for caring about sharing the message of hope and food and fellowship with these incarcerated men. How may we best help you to serve them?
Can you fathom the unity, the love, and the genuine outreach, that would have occurred?
And then, replaying the carrot-chopping scene, consider the difference if an adult volunteer had encouraged with Good job! and joined in, helping to slice. Or if someone had prayed while we prepared, asking the Holy Spirit to soften hearts.
What joy might have unfolded through such unity.
That did not happen. While there were certainly some fun, light-hearted moments, more often than not, there was a heap of complaining, sulky attitudes, and relentless gossip.
We are prone to dismissing the fact that these sins rip the fabric of a church, tearing it to shreds. Bellyaching, selfishness, and gossip always wound the body.
Imagine the stunning landscape if we were to outdo one another in showing honor.
If we delighted in playing second fiddle.
If we minded our own business while serving others.
In order to practice such joyful submission, we must first understand that God chooses imperfect pastors and elders to lead, and our job is to follow them as they obey the Lord.
This is all part of growing in holiness. And sanctification. It is the biblical order of things.
But if we insist on serving ourselves? It will hurt the entire body.
And as we continue stomping our feet, demanding that our feelings and preferences take preeminence, we are quenching and grieving the Holy Spirit. While we tinker with sin, bickering and building personal platforms to rule, Satan hovers on the fringes, clapping his wicked hands and tossing back his divisive head with a roar.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
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