Friday, March 6, 2015

Choose Freedom, Love over Fear- Driven Ministry

It's fear that sets these tests and proofs, not love.

 -- Malcolm Guite, excerpt from the poem, "On the pinnacle," Sounding the Seasons.

Underneath the need to prove is the fear we will never, ever measure up. Who hasn't tried to amass academic degrees, personal accomplishments, and professional successes only to look for an even grander achievement to provide the same momentary zing that the earlier results did?

The bigger my personal achievement was, once the excitement faded, the deeper was my emptiness. It's called workaholism- the most reputable of all compulsions. But like other addictions, it's a disease, and its end is more painful than any short lived high that another achievement can bring. An addiction proves you can never get enough of what's not working.

Prove yourself. It's one of the ways in which Jesus was tempted, from the desert badlands to the cross. Because once is never enough, Jesus would have had to spend his whole ministry proving himself, placating others by providing continuous signs of his true identity, the Son of God. His refraining from giving a sign attests to his being tempted, but not fooled, by the deception that he was nothing without performing supernatural signs on demand, whether at the insistence of Satan (Luke 4) or the crowds (Luke 11), or from the onlookers, telling him to get down from the cross. (Matt. 27)

Even in the sign-driven Gospel of John, the effect is ambiguous. Jesus begins with a distaste for providing them, retorting to his mother when the wine ran out at the wedding feast, "Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come." John 2:4 NAS  Five thousand men, plus women and children are fed with the equivalent of two and a half Happy Meals. This is Jesus's assessment of the great sign, told in all four Gospels: “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted." (John 6: 26 CEB) Folks were driven by their bellies, not belief. The miraculous feeding apparently wasn't persuasive enough anyway. Instead of believing, the crowds asked for an encore! (John 6:30)
Can relying on signs in ministry be fear based? Results and signs have to do with my survival and competing for scarce resources. How far is that from Jesus' own words about practicing love without hope of reward: if I do only good to those who do good to me, so what? Even the irreligious folks do that. That may be more about my feeling good about myself, more about control, manipulation, coercion, or flattery. But Christ's love isn't about getting a return.  

We all know about the need for results in ministry. But at some point, I cannot escape the fact that the practice of my calling is taking me farther and farther away from what Jesus actually taught and lived. Jesus' temptation means that in the presence of fear, he nonetheless chose love. It's not about the eradication of all fear- it is about choosing God's love and grace as my center, from which any and all good- and freedom to love- follows.   

Oldies but Goodies