A minister is someone who serves. Service is part of who we are and not just what we do. At least that’s what I heard as I sat through our sermon at Captivate Presbyterian church this Sunday. It’s a tender topic for me because I’ve wrestled with the relationship between ministry and activity and identity for awhile now. If what we do repeatedly is who we are as Aristotle said, then isn’t one’s relationship to God simply reflected in their service, where their ethical life is? So often it seems to be a guise for all manner of people pleasing and doing what others want; meeting obligations in other words.
I don’t doubt that service is a good thing. A properly packed quarter pounder at McDonald’s can make one’s day. But its nature is elusive. What does it mean to serve out of how Christ has served us? Why did Jesus and Paul care so much about a servant life? I think it comes down to the inward nature of fear. Offering up your money or signing up your time to a ministry program out of guilt comes from an irreverent fear, the one between master and slave, that fears only punishment.
On the other hand, you want to live freely and not out of fear of others. So you don’t serve anyone. You hold yourself close. And you guard yourself. In the end you up serving yourself. And this comes out of fear of a different kind – fear of loss.
In the end I think our lives are inescapably tied to sacrifice. It is part of worship. And everyone worships something as David Foster Wallace observed. Our hearts were made to love. Service is that sacrifice of love. And we’re restless until we find rest in the proper object of our loves.
To serve well is to serve freely not out of fear of punishment or loss. It is to serve out of wholeness from a perfect love that has cast out all fear. This is a reverent fear of awe and delight. The identity of a servant as Jesus’ describes I think is not one who accomplishes or conforms to the needs of others. A servant is the one who is great because he has the least. Because he is the one who has the most. And in dying he gives life and causes another to live just as every mother experiences at a new birth. This is what Jesus offers us in his love to us – by dying to reconcile us and rising to overcome death, he invites us to participate in the same life that he lived.
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. C.S. Lewis.
I recently caught up with a friend to discuss chapter 2 of Augustine’s confessions together. It started smooth but we derailed towards the end of the chapter when Augustine began talking about the story of his disordered loves. Like many good stories it all started with a piece of forbidden fruit.
As a young man, Augustine took a pear from a farm. But to be more precise, he stole it. And as he reflected back on his life, he was puzzled at why he would do such a thing. It’s one thing for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. But Augustine realized that he had done it for no reason at all. There was nothing attractive about the pear other than the sheer pleasure of stealing itself and the joy of doing it in company.
We were both confused. Not just because Augustine had previously described the human condition as a case of loving the wrong things. But now he was pointing out that there was something wrong about our love itself. It sounded much worse than what we had originally thought about people’s motivations. Can you imagine forgiving someone who admits to hitting your car not because he was in a rush but simply for fun? The sympathy we feel towards those who wrong us often come from seeing them as noble people with misplaced intentions.
But Augustine is honest about you, me and himself. I can see what he means. There’s a certain mystique that draws you in to sin. It’s alluring. Lustrous. Forbidden. Scandalous. Just look at a Tim Tam ad. Remember the old msn status? ‘If loving you is wrong then I don’t ever wanna be right.’ There’s also the sweet, sweet feeling of vengeance – that feeling of being gloriously right and no apology will ever be good enough for you. We don’t just love badly but we love the bad.
I think Augustine provides some hints to help us understand the difference between the 2. When we sacrifice our lives for money we show how desperately we want security. When we sacrifice children for the sake of our jobs we show how much success matters to us. We’re enslaved by whatever we sacrifice ourselves for. That’s worship, the ‘for God’ part. And as Bob Dylan says, ‘everyone’s gotta worship something.’ And though our hearts are restless seekers until they find God, they’re also restless imitators of God. Even perversity doesn’t stop us imitating the one we were made for. We enjoy the freedom that comes with exercising autonomy and control over what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want. McDonald’s all day, everyday. Children when I want and how I want. So we become like gods.
This unlimited freedom we’re exercising is simply a superficial imitation of the one who is truly free. This cheap copy of God is what Augustine had in mind when he stole the pear. And I think this role of playing god is probably more destructive because by doing it makes its doers accountable to no one else. But as I spoke to my friend over the burnt raisin toast of a late night McDonald’s, I was reminded that God’s work is not so much to make us what we’re not but to remake us into who we truly are. We are what we love after all and we love best when we love what is true, good and beautiful.