All religions, it seems, come down to dealing with the problem of self. The pesky self-grasping, self-preoccupied, self-aggrandizing, self-loathing, self-in-control, self-conscious, self-determined, self-concerned obsession that permeates our lives. As a Buddhist, my husband sees this as the source of all delusion and suffering. As a Christian, I see it as the source of our alienation from God.
My self-fixation was in high gear that Sunday morning. I was mentally entrenched in a work-related dilemma: to make a big change or to stay put on my current track. Listing the pros and cons had become an inner funnel of neurotic indecision. I wanted to make it a God-centered question. What was God's will regarding this one? But my mind couldn’t shut up long enough to fully ask the question, let alone listen for an answer. I had been contemplating Jesus’ command: “Follow me” (John 21: 19). I wanted to follow, but which way?
I approached the communion rail that morning at church silently asking, “How do I follow you?” Recently, I had started coming to the Eucharistic table more and more frequently with a specific, prayerful question, and had been blessed by remarkable, Spirit-filled insights from this practice. But that morning, nothing. No big ah-ha moment, no answers, no nudge. All I noticed was how the communion bread sort of stuck in my throat. It was dry that morning, or rather, my spiral of wondering and worrying had left me dried out.
I was determined to try again. I was going to grab a cup of coffee and then head back to the sanctuary during the Sunday school hour to pray some more. I wanted to get it right, to figure out what this following Jesus thing was all about and try to discern his will on this one. Distractedly, I picked up a mug. Just then, a teenage girl standing next to me who was serving herself some tea suddenly dropped her cup to the floor. The near-boiling water kept flowing out of the urn, splashing on her legs and covering the table. Making no move to shut off the valve, her fingers flew to her lips and her eyes welled with tears.
“Are you okay?” I rushed to her. “Did the water burn you?” She shook her head. “Are you sure? Are you hurt?”
“No,” she whispered, immobile. “I’m fine. I can’t believe I did that. It’s just....” Her voice trailed off.
Some kind of strange certainty filled me. I gripped her by the shoulders and tucked them against mine. “Come with me.” Leaving the mess, hoping that some fabulous church lady would come along and handle that end of things, I steered the girl to a small room nearby. “What is it? Tell me.”
The words tumbled out of her. School, clarinet lessons, screwing up her acolyte job that morning, her parents, her friends, ninth grade finals. The pressure, the fatigue, the conflict. It was all just an exhausting, swampy mess. I listened to her for forty-five minutes. I didn’t say much, and at the end—at her request— I located her mom downstairs and sat with them for another ten minutes while I brought her mom up to speed on some of what I’d heard the girl say. As I slipped out, they were sitting together, the girl sipping the fresh cup of tea I’d handed her, her shoulders more relaxed, nodding at something her mom was saying. I looked through the small window in the door, and remembered Jesus’ words, “Follow me.”
Follow me out of self-preoccupation. Follow me into love. Follow me out of self-obsession. Follow me so that our crazy, swirling minds can shut off for a little while, so that we can listen to someone else’s pain and uncertainty for a change. Follow me so that instead of heading back to try to ‘get things right’ in our prayers, we get things right by sitting with a stranger, handing them a fresh cup of tea.
My husband is a self-employed psychotherapist. He treats some really ill, really poor, really confused, really challenging people. He tells me that when he’s focused on all of the aggravations of the day—the scheduling headaches and insurance nightmares and the thousand tasks that need to be done to keep his business running—then he suffers. When he’s in a session and stops thinking about himself, and fully puts his attention on someone else—he feels good. Even when listening to the crazy, heart-breaking, unfixable stuff. He’s gotten out of his own way; the pesky problem of self subsides for a moment.
And this is what Jesus helps us to see. When trying to discern and do God’s will becomes just another excuse to become constipated with self-grasping and self-concern, we’re not following him. We’re following him when the self fades away as we look for any opening, any excuse to love and cherish others.
In my line of work, however, I don’t have hurting clients showing up at my door, hungry for healing like my husband does. In fact, part of my work dilemma was that the new job option would take me farther away from the people I’d be hypothetically serving. Joining a research team to develop new health products that won't hit the market for fifteen to twenty years (or may never be commercially marketed at all) would mean that not only would potential beneficiaries be physically distant, they’d be temporally far away as well.
In these circumstances, it is easy and tempting to focus on self-service: trying to maneuver office politics successfully, focusing on personal gain, seeking first to engineer an environment that I find pleasing and comfortable. So how can we get out of self-preoccupation then? Is the task to keep the intended beneficiaries of our work always in mind? Even if—as a computer programmer, or a factory worker, or a project manager, or a truck driver, or a data analyst, or a writer—the recipients of our efforts can feel very far away? Is the job to keep those anonymous people out there always close to our hearts? Or is it to love the co-worker, who may drive us crazy at times but who needs to be listened to and heard just as much as the tearful teenage girl at coffee hour? Or is to serve the work by asking oneself: what is the bigger goal we're trying to achieve here and how can I align myself with that instead of focusing on whether I have the cubicle set-up I like or if I'll earn a bonus this year.
Is it all of the above?
In these cases, we become like God's undercover cops. Out in the world, we don't publicize our ministries on our sleeves. Unlike the doctors, therapists, ministers and social workers, most of us are not explicitly in the "healing profession." Even when internally we try to frame our work as Christ-centered, we generally keep it under wraps. Yet our everyday work can be just as infused with an orientation toward service and love. In fact, I imagine that God wants it this way. It's strategic to have some of your cops stationed on the street corner, and to deploy part of your force undercover.
In the same way that the ministry of an ordained priest is just as likely to happen while scrubbing pots with a parishioner after a church supper as it is to happen at the pulpit or in a pastoral counseling session, our undercover ministry can—and usually does—happen during our most mundane encounters and tasks. The result is like God sneaking zucchini into a chocolate muffin recipe. There is a hidden, unnoticed ingredient that creates a healthier and more nourishing final product.
There’s only one risk, I suppose, when we accept the assignment to be part of God’s undercover team. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another….By this everyone will know that you’re my disciples” (John 13: 34-5). I imagine that if we take our assignment seriously enough, we’ll become so unreservedly loving that we might blow our cover. People might start to suspect that something funny’s going on, and that we’re not just the hospital administrator, or cashier, or stay-at-home mom, or attorney, or waitress that we appear to be. I guess this is the risk we take.
Regardless of whether we’re in a role in which we wear our ministries on our sleeves or whether we’re part of one of God’s more covert operations, the key is that all of this takes practice. Practice to learn to turn the dial down on self-preoccupation. Practice to learn how to shut up long enough to really ask the question, “What is Your will?” and be ready to listen for something quiet that emerges. Practice to wait for a warmth, a little glow, a small insight into how we might be able to serve. Because when the self-cherishing voices that are clamoring to be heard over one another can be stilled, when the self can take a back seat for awhile, we can start to understand what that near silent whisper can mean in our everyday lives: “Follow me.”
Kate Rademacher is the author of Following the Red Bird, available online and from local booksellers.