Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Might Have a Problem

I recently listened to a brief, but informative talk on the subject of happiness. The speaker commented on how we have happy experiences versus how we remember happy experiences. For instance, he tells the story of one gentleman who recounted how he absolutely enjoyed listening to a an exquisite piece of music for twenty minutes, but then felt the experience was completely ruined in the last second by a horrible sound. Now the question is, was not the man happy for twenty minutes, or was the twenty minutes of happiness totally wrecked by one sour note? The speaker commented on how the man had a happy experience, but what was ruined was the memory of the experience.

The experience of happiness in contrast to the memory of happiness prompted me to think about my own memories. For example, I had wonderful experiences living in Vermont, but my memories of Vermont have the taint of personal sadness. I confess that I often choose to forget the happy experiences that I unquestionably enjoyed, and remember my experience in Vermont as a sad one. However, the amount of happy experiences outnumbers the sad ones. Like the proverbial, “fly in the ointment,” I rightly or wrongly choose to focus more on the “fly” (i.e., the sad moments) over the abundance of ointment (i.e., happy experiences).

In contrast to myself, the Apostle Paul says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:12-13). Is contentment equal to happiness? Can you be content, but not happy? I would also like to ask the Apostle, “Paul, would you not prefer being happy living in plenty over being happy and in want?” Would Paul consider my question legitimate, or would he say, “Terry, you are missing the point, or rather the person—Jesus Christ.” The question of happiness is not an issue of either/or (either in plenty or in want), but rather, the issue is whether you know the “secret” of happiness: A life with Jesus.

In addition, Paul further reveals the secret of happiness when he says to the Philippians, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:7-8). Paul would have described happy moments in his previous life without Jesus, but when he comes to know Jesus, he completely alters his memories of happiness. How we remember seems to depend on how we know Jesus, and not just on how many experiences of happiness or sadness we may experience in life.

I think I might have a problem. My problem is I may not know the secret of happiness as well as I thought I did. If you ask me, “Do you know Jesus?” I would answer unequivocally, “Yes, I know Jesus!” Yet, if you ask me, “Are you happy?” I would answer . . . ?  Well, I am not confident how I would answer. Much of my response probably depends on the day and time you were to ask me. Some moments, I am happy, and other moments I am sad. Paul says he “can do everything through [Jesus] who gives [him] strength.”  Yet, I would say, “But Paul, surely it takes more strength to be happy in hard times than it does in easy times!” I think Paul would say, “Terry, what did I say was the secret to happiness? Did I say it rests on your strength? Why are you asking about whether or not you will need more strength? I said, ‘You can do everything through Jesus who gives you strength.”

I think I might have a problem. My problem is a lack of faith and trust in the secret—Jesus Christ. I know the secret is Jesus Christ, but I seem to struggle in keeping the secret. I forget Jesus too quickly in both easy times and hard times. In easy times, I tend not to seek Jesus in prayer, and in hard times, I tend to focus on my problems and not the person of Jesus. What about yourself, dear brother and sister? Are you happy? Do you just know the secret to happiness, or are you keeping the secret of happiness?


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I am NOT a Hired Hand!

In reading an article recently, I came across a quote that really jumped out at me: "A man feels himself validly judged only if he is judged on the basis of values which he himself admits. If that is not the case, he can only feel something arbitrary and unjust." What struck me about the previous quote is that it stirred up within me  long and deep-seated frustrations concerning how serving as a minister has often resulted in my being judged by values I do not admit, and therefore experiencing arbitrary and unjust  feelings.  

For instance, when I was first contemplating making my living as a "full-time" minister, a much wiser and older minister gave me this bit of counsel. He said that what I desired was a noble pursuit and calling, but I need to count carefully some of the costs of my decision to want to serve as a minister. Here is one cost he suggested to me: "In serving as a minister, you will never truly be a part of the congregation you serve. The congregation will regard you as an expendable employee. Can you live with this cost?" I thought I could easily live with this cost, because I believed my minister friend was deeply mistaken, and therefore I would never have to pay such a cost. After all, I thought in my youthful naiveness, what congregation would value me as an employee over my being a fellow brother in Christ? If there were such a congregation that valued me as an employee over being a brother in Christ, then I would simply not serve that congregation. 

Now let me be blunt, even if such bluntness runs the risk of offending someone. My twenty-year experience in serving as a minister has taught me what often the case is in ministerial life: When things are going well with the congregation, I am a brother in Christ, and when things are not going well with the congregation, I am an employee. Why do congregations so often make such a distinction between employee and brother in Christ? One reason is that it is much easier to dispense and remove an employee than it is a brother in Christ. An employee is not valued in the same way a brother in Christ is valued. A brother in Christ has to be spoken to and dealt with in love, understanding, mercy, and justice. Christ commands brothers in Christ to resolve their differences in peace. An employee on the other hand is a hired hand not necessarily entitled to the same values and rights shared between family members. Jesus gives a good illustration of the difference between family and employee when he says (John 10:11-13):

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 

Those who are family (owners in Jesus' illustration) make sacrifices for the life of others while employees sacrifice others for self-preservation. Now I recognize there are plenty of ministers who treat the congregations they serve as places of employment, rather than as the body of Christ. I freely acknowledge that there are ministers who regard congregations as mere stepping-stones to increasing financial gain. I know my criticism cuts both ways between ministers and congregations. However, I am speaking now of how I have been cut as a minister by congregations. 

My frustration is best understood by inverting Jesus' illustration. In my case, the sheep (i.e., the congregation) abandons the minister as a hired hand, rather than seeing him as one of the family. Nevertheless, I have valued my role as a servant of Christ called to dedicate my life and resources to helping the body of Christ grow. I honestly love what I do, and could not imagine doing anything else in my life. I love people. I want to help. I genuinely care what happens to others in the congregation. I want to belong to the flock of Christ's sheep. I want to be family, not a hired hand. There is nothing more horrific in this world than belonging to the most powerful, beautiful, loving, and eternal family of Christ called the local church, and then to be treated as a hired and fired hand, and not as a family member. If the cost of serving the local body of Christ is the forfeiture of being family for being an employee, then I for one cannot afford to pay. I rather be a poor family member in the local body of Christ, then a rich expendable employee in a corporate congregation.