It was a wonderful sermon to kick off an initiative to “love our neighbors.” My pastor ended by encouraging the congregation to join a campaign to get to know our neighbors in our respective neighborhoods. He gave us a simple charge: organize a gathering, which could be anything from a backyard barbecue to an ice cream social. No strings attached.
The main goal wasn’t to invite the people there to church, but simply to reach out and let them know we care. To jumpstart the campaign, he had a giant map of the city of Austin up on the stage and invited each family to come up and place a pin where their neighborhood was on the map to show their commitment to get to know their neighbors.
I immediately began to shift uncomfortably where I sat as I thought of my calendar over the next several months. I had deadlines, travel, and a multitude of other ministry obligations bidding for my attention. As I did a mental inventory of my calendar, I rationalized that I was reaching out to somebody’s neighbors, if not my own.
I was burned out. If I walked up there, I would be committing to the campaign from a place of guilt, rather than love.
I was feeling good about not budging from my seat until my husband leaned over and asked, “Are you coming?” The moment of truth. I gathered my courage and whispered back, “Honey, I can’t do it. I just can’t. Even if we could squeeze a neighborhood gathering into our already over-booked calendars, we have little-to-no margin left in our days to nurture any connections we might make at the gathering.”
There, I said it. I felt relieved. Saying “no” is hard for me. Especially when it comes to good things. I was burned out. Tired. Running on fumes. If I walked up there, I would be committing to the campaign from a place of guilt, rather than love.
I could tell by my husband’s expression that he was conflicted. As a church elder and Sunday morning Adult Bible Fellowship teacher (for 28 straight years, mind you), he feels a responsibility to lead by example when it comes to participating in church-related activities. (Oh, and did I mention he also leads a 6 a.m. men’s group where he mentors several of the young men in our Adult Bible Fellowship class?)
Committing to too many good things can lead to a full calendar and an empty soul, if we’re not careful.
Before I began writing and speaking full time, I had built my own impressive resume of service in the local church. I served on the Church Council, taught 5th and 6th grade Sunday school as well as the youth group, served as the women’s ministry director, and organized numerous ladies’ retreats and gatherings. At one point, I even served on the meals ministry, which in hindsight is comical, since I don’t really cook and truth be told, it was challenging enough to feed my own family.
In past years, my husband and I have co-led and taught marriage classes and parenting classes, and we’ve counseled young couples on everything from managing their finances to discipling their children. We have a long track record of faithful service to our local church and rarely say “no” when we are presented with another opportunity to serve. And therein, lies the problem. Committing to too many good things can lead to a full calendar and an empty soul, if we’re not careful.
Serve in God’s name only after sitting at his feet
God offers us a gentle warning to care for our souls with the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10. You might remember the story. Jesus paid a visit to their home and “Martha was distracted with much serving,” while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” Martha makes an appeal to Jesus to tell her sister to give her a hand and Jesus responds with a gentle reprimand. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
Jesus refused to take the bait and instead taps into the deeper problem at hand. Martha was distracted from the one thing needed. Jesus was not condemning Martha for serving, but rather He was making a statement about “much serving.” The Greek word for much is pŏlus, which means largely or abundant.
Martha had allowed her serving to distract her from the one thing needed: time with the Lord.
One Bible commentary says, “Some expositors have taken the expression to mean ‘a single dish is sufficient’ for my entertainment.” Another commentary notes, “Whereas Martha was in care to provide many dishes of meat, there was occasion but for one, one would be enough.”
Jesus was making the point that sitting at His feet should always precede serving in His name. Martha had allowed her serving to distract her from the one thing needed: time with the Lord.
When our serving reaches a point where it prevents us from sitting at the feet of Jesus, we will experience unrest in our souls. God created our souls for communion with Him, and no amount of service or good deeds will satisfy the longing in our souls for Him.
Often times, we grab His truths on the run, whether it’s a Sunday morning sermon our pastor spoon feeds us or a devotional that lands in our inbox that we speed read at the same pace as the Groupon offer that preceded it. We’ve settled for crumbs when we’ve been invited to sit at His banquet table and enjoy a feast. A relationship with Jesus Christ is our richest treasure in this life.
Is your identity in Christ or your acts of service?
Psalm 46:10 reminds us to “Be still, and know that I am God.” Being still can be difficult for those of us who are accustomed to serving. By sitting it out on occasion, we ensure that our identity is not tied to our acts of service, but rather to our standing in Christ.
The truth is that God does not need us to accomplish His purposes. He allows us the awesome privilege of joining Him in kingdom matters, but He wants our service to come as a natural byproduct of our relationship with Him. When our souls are rested and revived, we serve from a place of delight rather than duty.
But that’s not the only benefit. By taking a break from church service, we allow others to experience the blessing that comes from serving. It’s not by accident that the same people are usually tapped to serve in a church over and over again. They have a long track record of saying “yes” and have proven themselves dependable. However, it’s easy to overlook members of the congregation who are qualified, but might need a gentle nudge to serve.
We needed a break. We needed to redeem rest for our weary souls. Our energy was restored. Our hearts were revived.
Is it hard for you to “be still?” Do you struggle when it comes to saying “no?” Are you worn out from serving to the point where it’s begun to feel more like a chore than a privilege? Is your worth tied to doing, serving, and performing? If so, it might be time to take a seat and focus on the one thing needed.
Which is exactly what my husband and I chose to do on that Sunday morning while others around us walked up on the stage and committed to the neighborhood outreach. We sat it out. In the months that followed, we nourished our souls, and slowly but surely, we began to breathe again.
And a funny thing happened. We began to reach out to our neighbors from a place of overflow rather than duty. A young couple with two small children who had relocated from another state and is far away from family. A family from India with two teenage daughters who is curious about our culture and asked about our faith. A teenage foster girl who moved in next door and has taken a liking to our dogs.
It ends up, we didn’t need an assignment to love our neighbors. We needed a break. We needed to redeem rest for our weary souls. Our energy was restored. Our hearts were revived. Our passion to serve returned, once again.
All because we chose to sit it out.
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