When we step forward and seek to serve God in some public way (make coffee, arrange flowers,lead prayers, preach, serve on PCC, lay leadership, ordained leadership) what do you might think might be THE most important qualities that you bring with you?
Please stop reading and think about that for a moment!
You might think about natural abilities… Such as… Being a good organiser? You might think about spiritual gifts… Such as wisdom? You might think that the most important thing you bring to your service might be your passion, your sense of vision for how things could be or should be? Or maybe it might be your personal qualities? Being patient? Being a good listener? Being someone who sees tasks through to the end? It might simply be the fact that you have time.
None of those answers are ‘wrong’. All of these qualities are valuable and useful and when the body of Christ works well we discover that we have all of the qualities and gifts we need between us; none of us has a monopoly.
But without detracting from the usefulness of these, I would like to suggest to you that none of them are “the most important quality that you bring with you into your service of God”.
Psalm 103: 1-5
1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Instead, like the psalmist above, I would direct you to your “inmost being”, and I would ask you ‘what it is that is true about you in that inward place?’.
And I would suggest to you that there are three things to be found there and it is your awareness of these which is THE most important quality you bring with you into service.
These are: your wounds, your weaknesses, and your worries.
Notice that when the psalmist directs himself to worship God from his innermost being he immediately goes on to acknowledge his need for healing, forgiveness and redemption.
One of the shortest and best pieces of advice I have ever come across was from Henri Nouwen, this has stayed with me for a long time and it is simply this: “move towards your pain”.
It is so counterintuitive.
Most of us invest a huge amount of time keeping as big a distance as possible between ourselves and the things that cause us distress, whatever those things are.
But this advice is not given out of some sort of desire that we be masochistically uncomfortable all the time. What he meant was that unless you move towards your pain you will never understand it, and it will not transform you for good, it will control you for harm. The pain you have in your life is never neutral. Embrace it and it can transform you. Ignore it and it will ‘nuke’ you.
So if we are going to step into any form of a leadership role the most important thing that we bring to God is the willingness for him to spotlight our innermost beings, for him to show us our wounds and how these affect the way that we relate to other people, our weaknesses and how these limit us, our worries and how these often back us into safe corners well out of the danger zone which trust requires.
Each of these are different for each one of us. And you will be relieved to know that serving on PCC together (for example) does not require full disclosure of your wounds and weaknesses and worries to all the other members of the PCC! But we ourselves are required to know them and we ourselves are required to commit to understanding how they influence and control us. And we ourselves must acknowledge that every other person on the PCC has their own set of wounds and weaknesses and worries, therefore they must be treated with the same tenderness, respect and compassion that we would wish to receive ourselves.
Let me just say a line or two about each one. A wound is very likely to be an experience that we have had in the past life, possibly as long ago as our childhood or just yesterday: it might be the experience of being rejected, the experience of failure, it might be as extreme as outright abuse or neglect or it might be as’every day’ as disappointment. In the rough-and-tumble of life we all pick up wounds and often we heal, there are some wounds which are still very tender. When these wounds are repeated or form a pattern, our brains and emotions also engineer themselves to create an armour against further hurt, we also put up a ‘radar’ which scans constantly for any further threat.
A weakness: this might be something practical like an inability to process numbers confidently, or it might be something more emotional like a commitment to avoid unpleasant confrontation even to the point of having my needs ignored. Or a weakness may be something that I hide, a go to addiction that soothes me but which I know would shame me if anyone else knew.
Our worries: what will people think of me? What if I am misunderstood? What if it all goes wrong on my watch? What if I don’t have the resources to deal with this? What if it was all my fault? What if nothing ever changes for the better? And where is God when you need him? All that stuff that surfaces in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.
I cannot over emphasise how important it is to recognise, understand and work through our wounds, our weaknesses and our worries, asking the Holy Spirit who knows us anyway and who accepts us exactly as we are to show us the way that these three aspects of our inward being are the drivers of our behaviour.
(BTW we can never say ‘okay, I’ve done that now’ – this is a daily process that will always be with us… yeah, I know …’discipleship sucks sometimes’ ).
So often it is our wounds, weaknesses or worries that cause us to go scurrying for safety, or scrabbling for status or it is the ignoring of them that sends us out into an insane level of busyness, guaranteeing to keep us well away from painful self-knowledge.
When someone “pushes your buttons”, as they inevitably will, the chances are they have pressed on a wound, they have risked exposing a weakness or they have triggered one of your worries.
And of course, we are all going to do that with one another all the time, completely without malice. I am not suggesting for a moment that that is not going to happen. But there is one thing that makes it possible for flawed individuals to still manage to get along together and even to achieve something like community together: and that one thing is love.
With love, it is possible to achieve anything.
Without love, nothing that is done is worth anything.
If awareness of your wounds, weaknesses and worries is your most important quality, then the existence of love, or call it trust if you like, between a group of individuals is the most important corporate quality, nothing must be allowed to hamper its flourishing.
It is love that allows us to move from ‘reaction’ to ‘response’.
I said a moment ago that we will never live in the kind of community where our buttons are never pushed, such a thing does not exist, at least not this side of eternity so let’s give up looking for utopia.
Our buttons will be pushed, but if we know we are loved in spite of our wounds and weaknesses and worries and if we are seeking to love others in spite of their wounds and weaknesses and worries then by the grace of God, we might begin to learn to respond rather than react.
Responding says, “I don’t understand the action you have taken, please will you explain it to me”.
Reacting ‘says’ “your actions are rude, inconsiderate or deceitful, therefore I will not trust you or even interact with you”
Responding says, “I feel uneasy about the course of action you are proposing, please can we explore why I feel that way”.
Reacting ‘says’, “your preferred course of action comes out of your undeclared motives, I am not even going to go there with you but I, sure as heck, won’t be supporting this course of action”.
Of course those reacting statements very rarely get said out loud, which is why I put ‘says’ in commas because we only ‘say’ such things in our heads but we act on them nonetheless.
So the most important thing about each one of us is that we each know our weaknesses, our wounds and our worries. And the most important quality, the only quality that matters at all is that we love and we create a climate where love flourishes.
What does that look like? Paul was explicit in our reading from Romans 12: it looks like people who are committed to one another’s well-being, honouring one another, being patient with one another, doing what is right in the eyes of everyone and not just in their own eyes, living in peace and living in harmony. Such a lot of practical instructions! No wonder he begins with the injunction “love must be sincere”.
Without love we are lost: love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, Love never fails. Love covers a multitude of wrongs, both our own and those of others.
No wonder that at the heart of our weekly worship there is an act of ‘communion’ (ie community) that tells the story of the one we worship whose love helped him overcome all the rejection, betrayal, reaction, rejection of human beings and whose self sacrificial act of love is the basis for our common life.