Sunday, July 16, 2006

SERVING IN THE SPIRIT OF JESUS...NOT JUST IN HIS NAME

The importance serving in the spirit of Jesus and not just in Jesus' name recently came home to me in a rather humbling experience. Of all the neighbors who gather at our inner-city church for our monthly clothing ministry, two sisters line up outside the church door at least two hours before our doors open at 5:15 pm. There is little need for such an effort, for all the cothing is available to be shopped freely and no one need wait outside. The single reason these sisters routinely gather early is to be the first to access a special "extras" room of sundry household supplies.

"PLEASE OPEN THE DOOR!" As usual, these women were early last month, but they were being unusually loud as they waited outside. Overhearing them from my office window near the facility entrance, their antics annoyed me as I tried to study. After an hour of waiting, one of them started pounding on the door. Initially I ignored it, trying to stay focused on my preparation for the evening's Bible message. The pounding continued, unabated. I ignored it; all our neighbors would have our full attention all evening, let them wait, I rationalized. In a few moments one of the women appeared at my office window gesturing and yelling "Please open the door! I have to go to the bathroom!"

"I DIDN'T THINK PASTORS TALKED LIKE THAT." Without thinking, I gave her a disgusted look, peavedly pushed back from my desk and walked to the door, all the while mumbling about "what do these people expect?" I opened the door and tersely told her she could come in. As she entered, I proceeded to give her a short lecture on the silliness of arriving so early and of the shortness of our volunteer staffing to accommodate such extra demands. My words were met with an aghast stare and comeback that cut me to the heart: "Well, I didn't think pastors were supposed to talk like that!"

TRYING TO JUSTIFY MYSELF. She was right. But I wasn't ready to admit it. I tried to get back to my Bible study, but it seemed like heaven was closed. All I could think of was this: my high words had hurt the feelings of this simple woman. While all that I said really needed to be conveyed, it was inappropriate to convey it in the manner I had. Still, I wasn't ready to recant. Instead, from that moment until the doors opened for our neighborhood dinner and clothing distribution, I informed staff and volunteers to expect this woman to be talking me down because I had suggested she not come so early. Knowing her to be notoriously disruptive during monthly clothing distribution, they all dismissed it and laughed it off. I felt consoled and somewhat justified. But not really.

DIFFICULT APOLOGY. By the time we opened the doors, I knew what I had to do: I had to apologize. How humiliting, I thought: the senior pastor of a substantial urban congregation having to ask forgiveness of a neighborhood woman who counted on the church for her very clothing. The only thing more difficult than that would be to try to sweep my guilt and this broken sense of spirit under the rug and act as if it were not important and didn't really matter.

EVEN PASTORS HAVE BAD DAYS. I found the woman at the dinner table and sat down beside her. "Are you still upset at me?" I asked. "Yes," she said soberly. "Well, I've been thinking about it and I don't think what I said and the way I said was right. I'm really sorry. Can you forgive me?" She hardly paused even as her countenance changed. "It's okay," she said. "Apparently, even pastors have bad days every now and then." I smiled and thanked her.

THE PEACE OF RECONCILIATION. As I walked away, I began to feel the genuineness of her forgiveness and the peace of having yielded to grace in this small but significant encounter. I felt reconciled to her, to ministry in this place, to my own soul, and to God. I shelved the devotional that I had planned to share with the neighbors and volunteers who gathered for the evening of food and clothing distribution. With the woman's permission, I decided to tell the group what had happened and to point to the importance of offering confession and forgiveness to one another. It felt like the right and best thing to do. That afternoon and evening I discovered in a fresh--if painful--way that serving in the spirit of Jesus is more important than just serving in Jesus' name.

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