Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fighting That Nasty Little Inner Pharisee

Following the successful launch of a great new service program by a member of the church, I trundled off to our local clothing closet this Saturday to grudgingly put in my monthly court-mandated community service hours. Though the lawyers for the Apple store did push for hard time. Hey, it's not my fault I thought that "open source" meant "feel free to take what you want."

Well, actually, no. I really enjoy charitable work and volunteering. It is work that clearly serves a purpose, that directly benefits those who are struggling and in need. In this case, putting clothes on their bodies. It is work utterly free of mammon's coercion, done for no other purpose than the love of it and of others. It is work that fulfills a really rather specific faith mandate to provide material care, and to be a part of the Gospel process of liberation from suffering. I'm not quite a Salvationist, like the folks over at the Salvation Army whose theology mandates volitional care for others. But I'm close. Church needs to proclaim the Gospel and transform people's lives through that gracious message. I'm down with that. But also and at the same time, it must express itself in practical care for others, in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the prisoner. If it doesn't do both, it isn't really church. If it does, it is rich and Spirit-filled.

My struggle yesterday was that I didn't bring that gracious Spirit with me when I went. For the first four years of my ministry, my congregation was so wrapped up in Korean psychodrama that it just couldn't seem to muster any service work at all. My outlaw fraternity did more community outreach than my congregation, which ain't sayin' much. Outside of giving cash from the endowment, we did jack-diddly-nothing. Finally, this last year, I started pressing for us to regularly run a food drive, which we've sort of done. I also started encouraging the church to volunteer at the local faith-based clothing closet.

There was some initial involvement. But for the past four months, a grand total of two folks have joined me in doing it. Once it was a kid doing it because he had to. The other time it was my Jewish son, who likes volunteering, and is eager to join me whenever he can.

I'm aware I'm not reaching out enough. Talking about it with lay congregational leaders, talking about it during bible studies, preaching sermons on the necessity of service, announcing it during services, highlighting it in email newsletters, and pitching it through Facebook event invites and notifications...these aren't enough. Only going from person to person, and asking each individual directly if they're going to volunteer every single time we're going to do it seems to work. After a wise soul told me early on that this was the only way people were going to come, I followed his advice. I did that for a while. I did that for a few months.

But there are limits to how far I'm willing to take pastoral suasion. If after over a year people have experienced it, and still aren't coming without arm-twisting, then the voluntary element of volunteering isn't real. If you don't serve with a free will, then it cannot possibly be what it needs to be. Yeah, I could keep noodging and hassling and guilting people into it. But I've never been interested in people faking it out of sense of obligation.

This leaves me with two troubling conundrums.

The first is having to admit to myself that I am the only person in the congregation who cares about this particular service opportunity. It's a bit vexing, because I really like it, I really enjoy it, and it's just a transparently good thing to do. It connects us with our community. It clothes the naked, which would seem like something we'd realize matters to Jesus. But I am self-evidently the only one who cares. Ah well. Egos are such irritating things, and try as I might, I can't always shut mine off. The church is, after all, finally doing other service work on site, through the calling of someone who has joined us in the last few months. So even if my efforts have proved fruitless, the Spirit is at work elsewhere in the church. I take some solace in that.

The second is not to allow my irritation to impede my own efforts. I personally need service ministry to be fed spiritually, but there is no point in doing it while ensconced in a dark cloud of pissiness or judgmentalism or smugness. And though I hate to admit it, it was getting to me this weekend. On the way to the clothing center, certain in the knowledge that it was, once again, just going to be me, I could feel that narsty little inner Pharisee embittering me. Judging others. Telling me that I, in my noble me-ness, should be Proud that I'm The Only One Who Gets It. But there is no Christ in such thinking. There are plenty of folks who live out their faith that way, governed by the demons of self and self-interest. It's a dark cloud of smug delusion.

So I resisted that pesky little demon. I challenged and centered myself. I reminded myself of the point of it all. I focused on the sorting and hanging of clothes the way you'd focus on a repeated prayer, losing myself completely in it. And the anger and bitterness and selfishness faded. And the clothes were sorted and set out for those in need.

It really is most effective.

2 comments:

  1. But do the members of your congregation give of their time in other ways that you don't know about? Perhaps you should ask who volunteers in a meaningful way to help others, and let them use their passion to ignite others. Working in food pantry wouldn't do it for me - I might accompany a friend in order to be with, or help, the friend, but it wouldn't be MY charity or service choice. There are other areas, however, that I CAN get downright passionate about.

    Maybe you'll discover a hidden goldmine of personal service in your church family.

    Kathleen

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  2. @ Kat: You're absolutely right on that front. Some do. In fact, I make a point of highlighting some of their work as an example. Like, say, the young elder who tutors underprivileged kids, who I highlighted in a recent Bible study. But the majority simply do not. It's not really their thing.

    One of the challenges, I think, is that the ethic of individual commitment to voluntarism doesn't necessarily mesh with the faith background of many of my congregants. A majority come out of the Korean evangelical tradition, which tends to focus on an intensely emotional spirituality over and above orthopraxis. That tradition also doesn't really affirm individual commitment to service...things are far more hierarchical and collective.

    Way I see it, what I need to do is to 1) lead by example; 2) provide some baseline opportunities for engagement and 3) affirm and celebrate those other callings to service that folks besides my bad self feel.

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