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Surrendering Our Expectations

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By Linda Rex

This month at Good News Fellowship we are celebrating all the hands which join together to minister to the people in our community and to the body of Christ. We have so many people in our little congregation who are integral in some way to the ministry of Community Café and to the church itself. I am grateful to each person who contributes their gifts, prayers, and financial support.

I realize there are times when we wonder whether or not all the effort is worth it. We sacrifice and struggle to serve, and it may seem like it doesn’t make a difference or we can’t seem to do enough to satisfy the needs or expectations of those we are serving.

Needs seem to multiply the more we try to meet them. We cannot control the weather, or the destructiveness of fire and wind. Jesus said we would always have the poor among us, for there will always be someone who can’t or won’t live within their means. It seems there will always be needs for us to meet as a participation in God’s care for his creation.

Expectations, however, are a different thing entirely. The longer I am in pastoral ministry, the more I realize the power of expectations to cause disappointment, discouragement, resentment, and disunity.

Some people do not realize the unreasonable expectations they put on pastors and others in pastoral ministry. I know of pastors’ wives who dread the phone ringing just when the family is setting down to dinner because it seems to always be the same person demanding instant attention about something which is not urgent nor life-threatening.

Pastors and those in pastoral ministry have to have really strong personal boundaries otherwise it is very easy for them to allow people to invade every part of their lives to the extent there is nothing left for their own family. They often find themselves saying yes to too many things. There are a lot of good things to do—people to care for and needs to be met. And the list of things to do seems to grow all the time.

It is because we have a heart to care for others and to show them God’s love that it is easy to say yes to too many things. It is easy to burn ourselves out working for Christ, when Christ never once asked us to do any of the things we are doing. This is why it is so important we be able to discern God’s real calling to each of us individually and collectively, and to only participate fully in those particular things God is calling us to do with him.

But in saying no to certain things, we need to be willing to accept the reality we are going to disappoint someone. We are going to fail to meet someone’s expectations of us, and that is going to feel uncomfortable for a while for both us and for them.

I have a hard time saying no to opportunities to serve in my community group. I would really like to be doing everything they ask me to do. But I have learned I cannot say yes unless I am certain it is what God wants me to be doing and I genuinely have the time, the ability, and the calling to do it. I realize saying no is going to make them unhappy just as it makes me unhappy, and it very well may cause them to draw away from me and not include me in future opportunities. But no is what I need to say.

I am grateful I minister to a congregation which is so respectful of my time and home life, I have to remind them to call me when they are going through a difficult time. I am grateful they remind me to take care of myself and my family, and they often step up when I have more going on than I can do on my own.

I don’t have a spouse to share my load, and I am deeply grateful when my brothers and sisters are willing to help me and serve me in so many ways. But realize I also have to be respectful of their time, energy, and capacity to serve as well. I need to not have expectations of people in my congregation which are unreasonable or insensitive.

Sometimes I forget to be thoughtful and considerate to my spiritual community, and I regret it when I do. My brothers and sisters in Christ pour themselves out generously and freely, so I pray Abba will pour generously and freely back into them in every way possible so they will be renewed and encouraged rather than drained and exhausted.

Sometimes we can have and do express unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of people and do not realize we are doing it. Unhealthy expectations of others can cause pain and disrupt relationships. When we know someone has a caregiving, generous personality, we need to protect them from their tendency to over give rather than taking advantage of it all the time.

We also need to respect the humanity of those who serve or lead others in the body of Christ. I cannot enumerate the veiled criticisms I have received about decisions which cost me hours of prayer, fasting, and tears to make. It seems sometimes people expect me as a pastor to not have anything in my life which I regret or which I did not have control over. Their expectation is I will always have lived my life in a way which meets their idea of perfection. Such expectations are unreasonable and unhealthy. The truth is, any pastor I know who is worth their salt is an ongoing creation of redemption in Christ and has places in his or her life where God is at work right now healing, transforming, and renewing.

There are times when in conversation with someone, I perceive sly innuendo and subtle hints of how I need to improve my ministry or home life. This seems to be an unpleasant but natural part of the journey of pastoral ministry. I have always been open and transparent, and it tends to open me up to criticism. But I would rather live this way than to feel like I need to hide myself away from the people I love and serve all the time. Real relationship requires authenticity, even though such transparency opens us up to criticism and unrealized expectations. Real relationship requires a lot of grace—grace which pastors and those in pastoral ministry need a lot of.

Perhaps as we celebrate this month, it is good time to be reminded of the generosity and kindness of the God who laid everything down for us. This is the God who in Christ willingly joined himself to our humanity and sent his Spirit so he could share in every part of our life and our service to others. This is the God who replenishes, renews, and restores us, and who inspires us to care for and love others. We draw our life and our being from him. May we be filled anew with his love and grace, and find renewal in him as we serve him and those he brings into our lives.

Thank you, Abba, for each and every person in our lives who serves you and each one of us. Thank you for those who give of their time, prayers, and resources so that others may be blessed, cared for, and comforted. Free us from our unhealthy and insensitive expectations of others, and enable us to be gracious and compassionate in every circumstance, and sensitive to the limitations of those who serve us. Replenish and renew all those in pastoral ministry, and remind them what they do to share in your ministry is valuable and worthwhile, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.” Philippians 2:17-18 NASB

“Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians

Oh, To Be Somebody…

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Gathering of pumpkins
Gathering of pumpkins

by Linda Rex

This morning I was thinking about all the ways we go about trying to find or create our own significance in this world. As we grow up, we want people to notice us, to see that we are somebody. Unless, of course, being invisible is a safer way of being for us.

But this drive to be noticed, to be considered worthwhile, motivates approaches to life and living that are not always healthy and sound-minded. I came across the story of a young man who discovered this power of significance the day he first rode a bull in a rodeo competition. Somehow, being the guy at school who rode the bulls gave him a feeling of self-worth and made him believe he had value he would not have had otherwise. It was only after he began to evaluate the cost in terms of suffering and loss of life that he began to look for other ways to establish his significance.

It is interesting to flip through the channels on the TV and to look at all the shows based on this whole premise—if I’m the best at this then I’ll be somebody—if I do this thing in this unique way, everyone will notice me. Watching one of the newest sitcoms the other day, I realized that the whole concept of a person trying to be somebody, to be noticed, to be approved of, to be a good person, drives so many of the plotlines. It’s just our story as human beings.

And this story is as old as the history of humanity. My morning reading in the Old Testament today was the 15th chapter of Samuel. God had given Israel the king they requested and his name was Saul. He started out a pretty humble man, but in this chapter we find that somehow being significant and important supplanted his humility.

God instructed King Saul to lead the Israelites into battle against a particular king and told him to destroy everything associated with that particular group of people. God wasn’t being cruel—he was just exacting justice and was inviting his people to be a part of that process. (He does that today in a similar way through our armies and police forces, though he typically doesn’t call for genocide any longer.)

In this case, though, the point the writer was making was that King Saul hadn’t grasped the importance of following God’s instructions exactly. He won the battle, but he kept the king alive and brought the best of the cattle and animals, ostensibly for an offering to God. Then he built a memorial to himself. Note: the memorial built was to the king, not to God, the One who had given the king success in battle.

Needless to say, God was ticked, and so was Samuel. In the unpleasant conversation that followed, King Saul was more concerned about the opinion of the people and his significance with them than he was about the reality that he had alienated himself from the God who made him king in the first place.

Sometimes the price we pay for some type of significance and worth and value is too high. Sometimes we lay down our most important relationships in payment for this feeling of importance and power. We give over the only things that in the long run will carry us through eternity—our relationships with God and each other—for the sake of our moment of glory. Is it really worth the price we are willing to pay?

I think it is instructive that Jesus Christ spent the majority of his earthly existence refusing to accept any pats on the back for being the Messiah. Instead he focused on being a servant. Over and over, he reminded his disciples of the inverse values of the kingdom of God: the least are the greatest; the servant will lead; the dead will live; the rejected are those who are most valued by God.

In being God in human flesh, Jesus had every right to expect people to make everything be about him. Yet, instead, he pointed people to his Father. Whatever he did, he did in, with and for his heavenly Father. It wasn’t about him. It was about the will of God.

How clearly Christ demonstrated that our human existence isn’t about us finding some significance in ourselves or in what we do! It’s not about us at all. We don’t find our value and worth in anything we say, think or do. We only find it in God and in his Son, who enveloped our humanity within his own and gave it ultimate significant, worth and value in himself.

So when we live wrapped up in trying to find some value and significance in our own feeble, human way, we will find in the end only emptiness and loss. Human applause and approval are fickle things. They come and go like the weather changes.

But when we surrender this search to the will and purposes of Almighty God, and seek Christ and value his significance and worth, we find that we are cherished, valued and significant ways that really matter. We are God’s treasure. He has every intention to share his life and glory with us in Christ forever. And that’s something worth sacrificing everything for.

Heavenly Father, we confess that too often we make life all about us, and about what others may think or feel about us. Forgive our self-centered, self-seeking ways of being, and grant that, in Jesus, we might live God-centered, other-centered lives instead. Grant us the grace to obey you first and foremost—to surrender our wishes and wills to you, Almighty God, no matter the cost to ourselves. Thank you for the grace you give us, and for your precious Spirit who awakens us to our true value and significance in Christ. Thank you for counting us as precious, valued and significant forever. In Christ, we pray. Amen.

“Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.’ And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.” 1 Samuel 15:10–11

You are Enough as You Are

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by Linda Rex

Last night I was at a sub shop exploring the pages of Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics” and I overheard a young lady in the booth behind me informing a couple new employees of company policy. Having performed that routine myself in my previous employment as a human resources director, I found it amusing to inadvertently hear her slam the company’s policy against profanity. Apparently the opinion of the two young women she was instructing was more important to her than the preferences of the owner of the business.

At that particular point I had been reading what Barth had to say about spiritual gifts and service within and without the church. Barth emphasized that the new life God has given us in Christ includes all of life, not just the going-to-church parts of life. When we recognize who we are in Christ, it impacts how we think, live, talk, and relate to others. Having Christ and therefore the Father living within via the Holy Spirit means that all of our human existence is taken up and made sacred, holy, and should be committed to God’s purposes. This includes telling a new employee what the company’s expectations are.

Some of us focus on learning what our gifts are and strive to be putting them to use in God’s service. Others of us are still struggling to figure out if we even have any gifts to offer in this way. But what God is helping me to see is that just finding and offering my gifts is not all that God has in mind for me. Indeed, he is looking for something a little deeper.

Truly, to seek to know God not only as Father, but as the indwelling Christ, is a lifelong process. It takes time and experience to come to know and recognize the voice of God in the Spirit, and to obey Jesus as he leads us in a real and personal way moment by moment. This being led by and filled with the Spirit is a challenging process, to say the least.

And it’s all of grace. For I realize again and again that God speaks and too often I am preoccupied with my own concerns, or too busy, or I miss the cues he is giving in showing me where to go and what to do. I don’t always see with his eyes, even though he gives me the eyes of the Spirit. I don’t always hear with his ears even though so often the Father is speaking—through other people, through events in my life, through the book I’m reading or the movie I’m watching. If I were alert to all the ways God is interacting with me moment by moment, I think I would be overwhelmed. I am so very grateful that God is gracious and kind!

So the result of that little episode in the sub shop was that I once again saw that I need to take some time for silence and solitude to hear the Word of God to me. What gifts, abilities, and skills has God placed within me and how does he want me to use them in this season and situation in my life? But more than that, I need to quit apologizing for who he has created me to be and start fully using what God has poured out on me. I need to quit caring so much about the opinions of others and place as first priority the will and sovereignty of God and the full expression of the Christ within by the Holy Spirit.

And that’s tough. Not only does it involve a letting go, but it also involves a grabbing hold of life and making full investment of all that I am as a human being in the things that really matter. I can’t afford to be a part-time, half-hearted Christian any longer. I can’t let other people decide for me what I am to do with my time, energy and efforts. That’s what Christ meant when he said “Follow me.” It’s his call, not theirs or mine.

Jesus told the man who wanted to go home to bury his father “Let the dead bury the dead.” Christ is calling us into a priority relationship that involves giving all of life to him, even if that means giving him preferential treatment in comparison to our relationships with those near and dear to us. To give one’s life as a “living sacrifice” means that there is a laying down of all that matters most to us so that, in Christ, we can receive it all back in a new way in his kingdom life.

Who we are in Christ is enough. We don’t have to reach any other standard. Christ is the standard we are to meet and he has met this standard for us in taking on our humanity in the incarnation through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the gift of the Spirit, he invests himself in us. And so, we are enough, in him, for whatever we may face in our lives.

But let’s you and me be a full expression of Christ, not just a brief glimpse. Let’s respond fully to the Spirit and let him transform us—transfigure us—conform us to the image of Christ. Because this is what God wants for you and for me.

Lord, thank you that you have given us yourself by the Spirit so that we can be a full expression of you in your life and love. Thank you for your grace through which we are able to grow up in you and become all that you have in mind for us. For it is only through you, by you and in you that this is possible. In your name, we pray. Amen.

“I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him….So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” Romans 12:3, 6 MSG

The Flip Side of Ministry

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by Linda Rex

I anticipated another note of encouragement as I opened a friend’s letter last week. She had been like a spiritual mentor to me as God prepared me for ministry. Her ongoing support and prayers have been a real blessing to me in so many ways.

Sadly, though, this letter did not contain any positive news. Rather, it was to let me know that she had been rejected as a volunteer in the ministry she had helped to start and had faithfully served in for seven years. Her heart was broken, obviously, for her work there was instrumental in building and maintaining that ministry from nothing to serving hundreds of poor and needy people each month.

When someone pours their heart, their finances, their prayers, their whole life into ministry to others, they often become deeply attached to those they help care for. This friend’s heart was broken because she was called by God to care for those she had grown to love in this way and now she could not do it.

This is the flip side to ministry—when you give your heart to others in service to them it very well might get broken. When you lay your life on the line for others, you may very well lose it. When you give freely to others, they may take everything you own.

When God calls us to do ministry of any kind (and for many people their vocation is their ministry) he doesn’t promise a smooth road or a long-term commitment. Often our service has ups and downs, joys and deep disappointments. And at some point it will come to an end and God will begin a new thing. Incarnating the life of Jesus in our everyday life is no different than when the God of heaven took on human flesh and was born in a manger. God didn’t pick the easy way of life, but the humble, difficult path of being the Suffering Servant. And this is what he calls us to as well.

The benefit we have is that Jesus Christ paved the way before us. He lived the life we are to live, died our death and rose from the grave. And even better, he took us with himself into the presence of the Father. Now, when we do ministry, we never do it on our own initiative or under our own power. All that we do in ministry is only a participation in Christ’s eternal ministry. Whatever we give is sharing in his eternal giving. For Jesus Christ is both the Giver and the Gift. So whatever may happen to us in ministry, we are not alone. It is not our ministry—it is his ministry.

And so when the tough stuff happens and the disappointments come, we surrender to the leadership and purposes of Jesus as he works to fulfill his mission in the world. We allow God to determine our next steps, trusting that he has something better in mind. Unlike our Christian institutions, which tend to enclose God’s mission in the world into one way of working and serving over years and years in the midst of a changing culture, the Holy Spirit is always doing something new, meeting people where they are in their culture and personal circumstances.

Doing life and ministry with Jesus in this way means there will be ups and downs, and there will be beginnings and ends. Though the end of the baby born in a manger was death on a cross on a hill, the ministry of Jesus Christ only began there. The resurrected Christ ministers to us even today and stands as our Worship Leader, our Priest, our Mediator and Intercessor forever in our place. All that we do, we do in him. And this is the other “flip side to ministry.”

No matter how tough it gets, no matter how many losses we suffer, we always start anew. Because we know and trust that Jesus Christ is in the midst of it all, guiding and directing it according to the Father’s will by the Holy Spirit. We are reminded that it is God who serves each and every one of us and we get to share in that service. So whatever we do in life, whether a vocation or ministry of service, we do it in Christ by the Spirit to the glory of the Father. And so it has meaning and value. And in Christ it is blessed. So we serve in joy no matter which “side” of ministry we happen to be on at the moment.

Father, thank you for giving us your Son to minister to us and so that we can do ministry in him. Thank you for sending your Spirit to inspire, lead and guide us as well as comfort us as we care for others and serve you. Refresh our hearts, souls and minds so that we can freely and fully serve you and each person you bring into our lives. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

“…but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.” 2 Cor. 6:4-10 (NASB)