Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Learning to Step Aside

This post was originally yesterday's cover article for the parish newsletter at St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Last night, I had a completely vivid, completely eviscerating dream. Another congregation was preparing for a big service—the kind that requires lots of people and careful coordination—and I knew that they would need some help. I showed up, vestments in tow, ready to offer my services. Despite having organized that same complicated service several times before, I, for the most part, hung back and let others take the lead. Instead of offering suggestions, I merely asked questions to highlight the critical issues that would come up during the service. (How noble of me!) A few minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, I stepped into the room where the clergy were to vest. As I began to get dressed, more and more clergy came in. People I did not recognize were already vested and ready to participate in the service. Suddenly I realized that every necessary role had already been filled. The whole time I was worried that they would need my help, and I was ashamed to discover that in actuality I was the only one who was not needed.

Surprisingly enough, I woke up remarkably refreshed. Although it can be difficult to learn that I am not needed, I find a genuine peace when I am reminded that I am not responsible for solving the world’s problems. In fact, the less and less important I become the easier and easier it is handle whatever challenges life presents. As I become smaller, more room opens up for God to do his work. How remarkable that my own dreams could remind me of something I still need to learn!

In a world in which kindness is usually measured by the frequency and quality of thoughtful words and deeds, it can be difficult to remember that, more often than not, the most loving thing we can do for someone else is get out of the way. Whether we are dropping our infant off at the nursery or sending our child off to kindergarten or saying goodbye to our new college freshman, we must learn to let go. When our neighbor confides in us that her marriage is falling apart, she is not asking us to fix it. If our spouse blows the big deal at work, it is not our job to pick up the pieces. When the pastor’s phone rings at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, usually the best thing for everyone is let it go to voicemail.

A common theme throughout the gospel is humanity’s resistance to our Lord’s call to selfless service. All three synoptic accounts recall the moment when two or more of the disciples discussed among themselves who would be the regarded as the greatest. Typically, I see that discussion as an exercise in vanity, but I wonder whether the disciples’ intentions might have been pure. Perhaps they were debating not who was the holiest among them but who had done the most to help others or who had given up the most to follow Jesus or who was prepared to risk the most in defense of his master. If so, their error was not one of self-aggrandizement but of misdirected zeal. Perhaps the gentleness with which Jesus rebuked them should inform our impression of the scene: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves" (Luke 22:25-26).

As I learned waiting tables during my time in college, the best servers are the ones who are only around when needed. Although always available, they seem to disappear until they are called upon. They know that their reward, expressed as a gratuity, will not reflect their ability to invent reasons to help their customers but their availability to address the needs that present themselves. When Jesus likened the greatest among them to one who serves, he was not encouraging them to put on a superhero’s outfit and fly around saving the day. He was inviting them to hang back, to practice the art of availability, and to acknowledge that truly selfless service begins only when one discards his or her own need to serve others.

Sometimes people come to me with their own problems, but most of the time people approach me because they are worried about someone else. “What can I do about this person I love?” I am often asked. “They need some help, but I don’t know what to do.” My response? “Exactly—do nothing; just pray.” As last night’s dream reveals, they are words I must speak as much to myself as to anyone else. We want to fix the world. We want to help other people. We need to be helpful. When someone we love appears to be in trouble, it is far easier for us to do something than to do nothing. But whose needs are we really addressing when we rush in to help?
The greatest among us will become like the youngest and the leader as one who serves. Take a step back from your own need to help others. Pray that God would give you the wisdom to recognize the line between your needs and theirs. Look for ways to be available to those you love, but resist the temptation to jump in. Remember that God is calling you to a life of selfless service and that a life of selfless service begins when we let go of ourselves.

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