Monday, May 3, 2010

Quiet Lives

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4.11-12)


Remember Ann Landers? She and her twin, Abigail “Dear Abby” Van Buren, were two Iowa farm girls who came to Chicago with cases full of common sense. They set themselves up as advice columnists at opposing newspapers and over the course of several decades pretty much dictated American mores. Ann was by far the franker of the two, which accounted for her edge over Abby as the nation’s most trusted sage. While not unsympathetic to her readers, she could be counted on for cut-to-the-chase advice friends and family tactfully withheld. She typically told readers who sent in complaints about feeling ignored or overwhelmed to “buck up.” People who wanted to blame others for their trials were advised to take responsibility—“get over it or get out of it.” And those who asked what they should do about friends whose situations needed fixing were usually told “MYOB.” Mind your own business.

As a kid steeped in his parents’ ministry of intervention, Ann’s “MYOB” response often struck me as uncaring and, well, unchristian. We were raised to assume the welfare of any and everyone was our business. When people asked for help, no sacrifice or effort was too great. Our home was a food pantry, a halfway house, a rehab center, a homeless shelter, an orphanage, and so on—usually all of the above—which meant a certain degree of chaos ruled the day within its walls. Yet as I grew older, I came to appreciate how diligently my folks guarded against imposing their calling on our community. While neighbors knew of their ministry, to all outside appearances my parents led quiet lives. It was understood their work resulted from the compassion through which they expressed their faith. Helping people was their business, and their vigilant mindfulness of that earned the confidence and respect of all who knew them. But Mom and Dad did their best to see their efforts didn’t make them notable or, worse yet, nuisances. Looking back, I'm sure those living around us understood that as well, which had much to do with the respect afforded my parents. (By the way, even though technically retired, they’re still “in business,” and neighbors in their Florida community admire them the same as those I grew up with did.)

Calling Attention

When we read 1 Thessalonians 4.11-12 and hear Paul’s admonition “to mind your own business and to work with your hands,” we sense he’s doubling up—pairing Ann Landers’ MYOB with instruction to fulfill our callings in Christ. Our duty to care and intervene doesn’t include meddling or faux concern that licenses us to discuss those we help. This corresponds exactly with James 1.26-27: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We make it our business to help others while minding our business to avoid losing respect. We lead quiet lives.

If we’re effective, our work will gain attention. Jesus tells us this in Matthew 5.16: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Notice the dynamic: our deeds glorify God, not us. Calling attention to our work wins us praise that belongs to Him. We do His bidding for His pleasure, which is why Jesus also says, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.3-4) When we put this together, it’s very clear. Our attention focuses on God’s intention to use us as His emissaries to attend to others’ needs. Seeking recognition defeats His purpose. Everything we’re taught contradicts the idea that “creating buzz” benefits anyone, including those we help, God, or us. This gets harder in a culture saturated with hype as causes compete for scarce resources. Still, the principle holds and must be heeded.

The Need to Feel Needed

It’s instructive, I think, always to examine our motives before we extend our help—not because they’re questionable, but to ensure they’re properly aligned with Scripture. It’s very easy to place ourselves in positions where what we do meets the need to feel needed. And, like it or not, that need is universal because when it’s met it compensates for other deficits, such as feelings of powerlessness, insignificance, and incapability. Relying on concern for others as our means of caring for ourselves is a dangerous gambit that promotes self-pride and fuels expectations we’ll gain respect and gratitude for our deeds. Quite often we will. Yet if that’s why we plunge into our work, that defines our reward. It reduces giving into a contractual, quid pro quo arrangement that may or may not be honored. On the other hand, giving without expectation or regard for our own needs adheres to the Biblical concept of quiet living, which promises we’ll win the respect of outsiders who observe our efforts on their own. Staying out of the spotlight allows God's light to shine through us.

More than that, Paul writes honoring these basic principles ends without our being “dependent on anybody.” We were to dredge up those old Ann Landers letters from people “wanting to help,” we’d notice hints of individuals defined by dependency on others. Implicit in their questions would be the need to feel needed, to win favor or appear wise or prove useful. Many of us—particularly we who are traditionally marginalized by faith communities—often succumb to this idea in hopes of validating our faith, sometimes even hoping to debunk myths about “people like us.” All this proves, however, is our desire to be defined by how others view us. We’re better than that. We know who we are because we know Who our Maker is. It is He Whom we seek to please. So we live quietly, doing the work of our hands, and trusting Him for our reward. This wins us respect and frees us from depending on anyone other than Him.

We lead quiet lives out of the spotlight so God's light can shine through us.

Postscript: Hushed Responsiveness

I'd already roughed out this post when I received a message from a longtime Straight-Friendly reader and my cherished brother, Maithri Goonetilleke. Many of you already know him, but for those who don't, Maithri is an Australian physician who spends part of each year working with AIDS victims and their families in Swaziland. In some villages there, he says, you find more coffin-makers than grocers. He's soon to return to Africa and resume his ministry there.

I urge all of us to take a moment to watch his video appeal below and, if so moved, support his work via his foundation, Possible Dreams International. Our hushed responsiveness is in perfect keeping with Maithri's mission and character. (His personal blog, The Soaring Impulse, calls reader comments "whispers of hope.") You can whisper hope to those he helps by clicking on the foundation's "Be Part of the Dream" page.


Philomena Ewing said...

Hi Tim,
I agree with all of this and it is so so necessary to tell this to people as there are many "burnt out cases" in the helping professions and ministries. I don't know if you are familiar with Enneagram types but there is a preponderance of type 2's the classic "need to be needed" types and although they make great helpers the shadow side is that they can end up feeling resentful and/or washed out. An author called Guggenbuhl Craig also wrote an excellent book called Power in the Helping Professions( not sure if it is still in print) and this looks at the dark side of care provision from a Jungian viewpoint.
Nice thought provoking post as usual !!
Peace and blessings

Tim said...

Phil, I personally know so many "burnt-out cases" in and out of the faith sector who've grown bitter and despondent because "nobody appreciates them." By this point, it's generally too late to undo expectations their work will gain certain rewards they seek. This saddens me, as these people still have much more to give--and many of them are so effective in what they do their loss is significant.

But those of us who still have the desire to give and serve in us can do well by avoiding this pitfall. Giving is not an "if-then" proposition and our help should not be meted out like finances we invest on promise of return. Such thinking is a recipe for spiritual, emotional, and physical bankruptcy--burn-out.

We give because we have, not because we want. This activates Christ's principle of "give and it will be given unto you, pressed down, shaken together, and running over." Giving starts a cycle of blessings we receive in order to give again and again and again.

Thanks for this--and the added info. I'll check it out!

Many, many blessings to you, dear sister and friend,

Sherry Peyton said...

What strikes me so hard is that so many who do "care for others" exact a price in explaining to those helped how to live their lives. Much of missionary work has gone awry for this reason in my mind. If only people realized that if you LIVE the ministry, people will see that and become curious and then want to emulate it. That is the means of conversion, not preaching at people when you have them at disadvantage.

As to Swaziland--so good to hear of this. My church is deeply involved in Swaziland and one of our parishioners is taking 18 of her college students in a week or so. We are involved in providing chlorinators and teaching the making of same to improve the water problems there.


Tim said...

Excellent point, Sherry. Our lives are what persuades others to follow Christ. Attaching a mortgage to our help--i.e., compliance to our belief system, behavioral code, etc.--we're back at Square One: giving to get something. Many who do this do so altruistically; they mean well and truly want "what's best" for those they help. But help can never be a lever to manipulate others.

I think of the story of the 10 lepers, only one of whom returns to tell Jesus "Thank You." Yes, He's disappointed the remaining nine go on their way, but He doesn't express any regret for healing them. It's a good lesson. Not everyone we help will appreciate our kindness or choose to emulate our lives. Still, if they need our help, we must offer it.

I'm delighted to hear your church is involved in ministry in Swaziland. Right now, it's Ground Zero in AIDS and healthcare issues in general. Bringing all we can bear to ease this crisis is a must!

Blessings, dear sister,

claire said...

What I have found, Tim, volunteering at Last Duchas is that all I can do is walk a while with those who come for a shower, clean clothes, some food, and a connection, a moment where they are, in a way, like anybody else.

I cannot save anyone. Godde can, if the person accepts Godde's help, of course.

I don't believe I am particularly needed. I just feel I have been given the grace to enjoy working with homeless and drug-addicts.

Working with the homeless is fine. It's having to deal with the powers-that-be which is a royal pain in the neck :-)

PS: Your parents sound like fantastic folks :-))

Tim said...

Claire, I'm so glad you chimed in, because as I worked on this, I often thought of your work at Las Duchas as the antithesis of the syndrome I describe. You and your husband have forever earned my respect for your determination to set your needs aside and enter this place of refuge without any personal expectations whatsoever. Your comment here reflects this in its modesty and gratitude--traits I recognize having seen them in my parents over and over.

But I would challenge the idea you're not particularly needed. Servants like you are who God calls for--people who are willing to break through their sense of self, reservations, and the bureaucratic blockades that so often impede their service. (My folks know a lot about that, too!) And along with those you serve, I submit we need people like you to show us it can be done and share your experience with us. More than you realize, you've taught me and your readers a great deal by example and through the wisdom you've gleaned in your service.

If I could, I'd paste a photo of you at Las Duchas beside 1 Thessalonians 4.11-12 with the caption: "This is how it's done."

So many blessings to you,