Yesterday after services, I had the chance to speak at some length to the gentleman who gave the Bible study on the letter of the Apostle John to the Church at Ephesus, with its emphasis on recovering our first love, and demonstrating outgoing concern for others. My somewhat vigorous head-shaking had attracted the notice of some of my fellow brethren, some of whom were curious about what I was trying to say by shaking my head no, when I usually shake my head yes. I mentioned to the speaker about the worth of instructing people on some practical tips on how to show ourselves to be loving to our brethren, given the fact that it is a matter in which we could all do better. We chatted a bit about our mutual recent travels to the East Coast, him for a church leadership conference, and me for a family memorial service. Perhaps the most interesting commentary involved his recognition of the fact that a minister (or at least someone who gives messages in services on a regular basis) is in a rare location of being able to expect God to provide a positive answer to prayers on a timetable, namely the timetable of speaking, as the reputation of God depends in large part on the behavior of leaders, and those leaders who seek the help of God can expect to find it, for the sake of God if not of them.
This widely held and often gratified expectation of speedy divine aid can lead to several difficulties, however. On the one hand, a novice who is given great power and authority can, as the sermon speaker mentioned in his own message, be puffed up with pride and arrogance in that power and influence and can lose sight of the fact that those who lead in the Church of God do so by service, in imitation of our Lord and Messiah. We serve not because we are above those whom we service, but because our God-given talents and abilities, and the work to which we put them, allows others to be build up and encouraged by our service. Another issue is that the expectation of help from God on our timetable that ministers regularly see in their lives can lead to a disconnect between the experience of ministers, whose behavior directly and regularly involves the honor and reputation of God, and that of members who do not tend to feel this particular burden on a regular basis. For the brethren at large, it is not a common experience to be able to ask God to solve a problem in a narrow timeframe, but a speaker who gives messages every few weeks needs a positive answer on a particular time, to give spiritual meat in due season to a congregation of believers. Thus, ministers can have unrealistic timetables on the sometimes agonizingly slow workings of God in the lives of the brethren they serve.
I was struck as well by another serious area of disconnect between members and the ministry. It has been my experience that ministers are like many leaders in general that they expect a great deal of loyalty from those whom they serve. Likewise, many people, especially brethren in a congregation, expect a great deal of support and encouragement from their leaders. With such expectations being often left uncommunicated, it has been my experience that both sides are often left disappointed by the other. Many leaders show little interest in providing comfort and encouragement to those battered by the outrages and difficulties of life. Likewise, many people who have had bad experiences with those in authority are not willing to show loyalty or deference or anything else that leaders appreciate and pronounce upon from the pulpit to their congregations to those who are not loving. As human beings, we all expect that those we spend time with and consider ourselves to be joined in one family with will have some degree of compassion and concern for our considerable emotional needs. This expectation appears to be an often frustrated one, whether we are dealing with families of blood, families of faith, or any other institutions of which we may be a part. The emotional needs of others are quite deep and the wounds others carry with them are quite difficult to deal with; so are our own to others. Yet matters like trust and concern and hospitality and brotherly love are intensely relational matters that deal closely with our complicated and harrowing emotional selves.
What do we do about this? We are not called to show love to people merely in the abstract or conceptual way, a distanced sort of humanitarianism unsullied by the natures and personalities and stories of the people around us. We are called to love others as ourselves, to show tenderness and mercy and compassion to the broken hearts and bodies and wounded spirits of those who are around us. We are called to be friendly to those who are not particularly friendly people, to be gracious to people who are rude and unkind, to be thoughtful to those who behave thoughtlessly, to be generous to the stingy, to be merciful to those who seem to lack any of the milk of human kindness. Moreover, others are called to be loving and merciful and gracious towards us, and that is not always an easy task either. After all, if we were easy to love, more people would show love to us more often. Yet we can only love to the extent that we are loved and that we feel loved, and this is no easy and straightforward matter, for when we are focused on what we lack and what we are missing in our lives, it is hard to give others the fullness of our own concern and tenderness that they need to walk in faith and hope in their own lives. We are bound together, yet isolated and often alone. Until that changes, we will not be able to nurture others as we ought, and yet changes of the heart are among the most difficult to effect in this life. May it be that with the help of our Father above we may become people fit to nurture and care for our present and future brethren to whom we are joined in the Body of Christ.