Rob Bell, a well-known pastor, author, and speaker tells a story about a time he was sitting in a meeting at the church where he was a pastor. It was a huge church and this was the meeting where the various leaders of the different departments of the church came together to discuss the running of the church. Important stuff. But it was a very large staff, and so at one of their meetings, a couple of the people said that after those meetings they have to go back and tell everyone else about what happened in the meeting and so it might be good to invite more of the staff to come to the meeting so they could get the information first-hand. This was discussed for a long time and nothing was resolved, so they spent much of the next meeting talking about this, too. And Rob said that his heart began to sink because he realized now they were mostly just having meetings about meetings. So, he went to the person who was in charge of the meeting to talk to him and he said, “You know, I’ve noticed that we’re spending an awful lot of our meeting time lately just talking about the meeting,” and then he said he stopped because he realized with horror that in that moment he was having a meeting about a meeting about a meeting.
He talks about how in the course of all of it, he felt a whispering in his mind saying, “What am I doing here?” He said it was a feeling deep in his bones – that although figuring out all the meeting stuff was important and there were other people who may have been really into that and whom God put on earth to organize and attend meetings about meetings about meetings, he knew that was not his work to do. He had other work that needed to be done, other work that God had given him to do, work that energized him and gave him life and was hard in its own right, and it wasn’t to sit in meetings about meetings about meetings.
As we continue going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is talking a lot about humility and service. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
This is the kind of verse that is so contrary to our culture today. Most everything in our culture is hyper-focused on developing the self and looking out for number one. In fact, this culture elevates a positive self-image to such a degree that we run the risk of becoming our own false gods. Having a positive self-image is important, but it seems like it can run off the rails pretty quickly, too. For example, during a confirmation class some years ago, I asked a teenage girl to name someone she admired the most and she said herself.
Herself? Is that the message our kids are getting? That they should love themselves so much that they refuse to open their eyes and admire all the varied gifts and beauty of the people around them? To think so much of themselves that they have unwavering certainty that their way of seeing the world, their story, their little plot of land on which they live, their past and their future, is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end? I inwardly did the hugest eye-roll possible and then calmly asked her, “how about someone aside from yourself?”
Oh, trust me, Saint Paul would have done an eye-roll, too. As he sits in jail, writing letters of encouragement to his co-workers in Christ, urging them to put others first, think more highly of everyone before themselves, so much so that they consider themselves slaves to others.
These words about selflessness are powerful – and they can conjure up visions for us – maybe we think of Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor in India. Maybe we think of our mothers, sacrificing their time, their energy, their own interests for the sake of our growth and security. Maybe we think of teachers, who so selflessly give of their energy and love and wisdom to teach our kids.
And probably, if you are at all like me, you feel a little guilty. Because it can feel like there’s no way to measure up to what Paul is asking of us here. The truth is that we don’t want to always think of others first – sometimes we want and need to look out for ourselves. We are fine with thinking highly of others, but we need to value who we are, too, and what we have to contribute to the world. And as far as being a slave to others? It’s just hard to get behind that one at all.
But it’s good to remember here that the word slave is from the greek word ‘doulos’ – which means slave or servant – and usually by one’s own free will. One has chosen to serve, chosen to give one’s life over in this way. And that makes all the difference, along with something Paul says a bit later in this same letter, “Rejoice in the Lord.”
Yes, this giving over of ourselves, this putting others first, this thinking more highly of others than ourselves, it’s important to who we are as followers of Jesus, but the key is to find a way of doing that that brings us joy, and brings joy to the world through us. Joy matters.
There was a fellow I knew at seminary who, like me, was studying to be a pastor. He was a very good student, he always knew the right answers in class and everybody liked him. We graduated at the same time and lost touch, but years later he found me on Facebook and I was interested to notice he wasn’t a pastor anymore. He was a full-time traveling musician now and leads song-writing conferences and retreats. I asked him a little about his work and he told me a bit about his journey – how he had gone to seminary because his parents wanted him to and because it seemed like the right thing to do. He wanted to serve God. It seemed like a good thing to do, even though he wasn’t ever very excited about it. “Seminary was fine,” he said – “I liked the classwork and our friends and the variety – but once I got into a church it got harder. I felt claustrophobic and like I was playing a part that wasn’t me. I stayed for many years, partly because I had invested so much money in the education and partly because I felt like maybe I was just supposed to suck it up and try harder.” He talked about how the church he grew up in had stressed that you had to think about others first and die to yourself and so he wondered if maybe he was supposed to be miserable. Maybe that was part of learning how to really follow Christ. After all, he thought about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other martyrs who had suffered and died for the faith – surely he could withstand a bit of unhappiness for the sake of his love of the Lord, right?
He began to get chronic backaches and headaches, various other aches and pains – but figured he was just getting older and that happens. He got used to a low level of despair hanging over him and took comfort that his work may not make him happy, but at least he could be useful.
The only time he felt really joyful in his work was when he was leading music – which he would do often at church or for other events that needed a musician. He wrote music and recorded some songs, always thinking of it as a hobby but nothing more. It wasn’t until one day a woman in his congregation stopped him after church and told him about how she appreciated his ministry of music. He thanked her – others had kindly said this to him before. But then she added, “I wish you could only do that. I mean, it seems like that is when you are happiest.” And something deep within him said, “Yes.”
Those few words she said shifted something for him that day and he knew what he had to do. He set for himself the goal that within a year he would find a way to let music be his full-time ministry. He said it wasn’t easy, there was no direct route to follow to do what he does now, it took longer than he planned, but he loves his work now because he’s using his best, most life-giving gifts, and he’s joyfully serving God and others. The backaches and headaches went away.
Joy matters. My prayer for all of us is that we find ways to put others first, to serve often and well, but to find ways to do that with joy. Rejoice in the Lord! If you consistently have a slow sense of dread on your way to do something, even if you are good at it, listen to what that dread is telling you. Is it time to find another way to use your gifts or perhaps change up the way you are doing the same old task? Is it time for that season to end so another can begin? Listen not just to all the needs of the world and the advice of those around you, but listen to yourself and the Spirit of God at work within you. Or as the author and theologian Howard Thurman said it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”