Another Message Inspired by Isaiah 49: 1-7
Isaiah 49: 1-7, entitled, “The Servant’s Mission,” is my new favorite scripture. It seems to say, in seven consecutive verses, everything there is to say about being a disciple of Christ, a Chosen One sent on a servant’s mission. Of course, to really hear the Scripture, to feel it in our bones and to know it as our own, we must understand ourselves to be Chosen too, to be called to servanthood too, to have been formed in our mothers womb and named too, to be a light of the nations, too.
The way the Scripture begins it would seem we were being prepped for a listing of achievements and awards. This Chosen One was called before he was born! God shaped him and named him, sharpened his tongue and polished him as an arrow. God spoke to him! God literally explained, with words, the servant’s mission for this Chosen One, which seems like cheating, or, if not cheating, then it’s at least super unfair. And, it would seem, that within such a divine relationship of intimate favoritism, the world would have fallen into this Chosen One’s lap, but we only get three verses in when the, “But I said…” arrives.
“But I said…” I have worked my tail off and I literally have nothing to show for it! Without doubting the favored nature of Divine connection, an assumption is made that the fruits of his labor must be somewhere else…because, apparently, there ain’t nothing to see here.
So, that’s not great. It’s actually my professional worst nightmare. To have worked and worked, knowing God has gifted me and supported me, only to have nothing to show for it, nothing to offer back in return. In other words, to have completely failed to effectively do my job; to have proven myself to be the wrong pick, a poor investment, a glitch in a holy human prototype. This lineage of imaginary failures upon failures, then, leads me to wonder what it even is that I am imaging or hoping to have to show for the work of my own servant’s mission?
Every quarter, I submit a grant report to the New Church Development Team. It would be problematic to have nothing to show on that report. No narrative, no numbers, no completed plans or fulfilled goals. To write, in our own words, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing…” would result in the end of our financing and the loss of our credibility.
But the Chosen writes exactly this to the One who has created and chosen and called him. God reviews this report and responds by giving the Chosen One a promotion. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
An annual evaluation shows zero profitability in a branch and the branch manager is promoted to regional manager. Maybe, if the manager was the child of the company’s president. Maybe, if the manager had already been Chosen before the job had even begun. In any of these scenarios, one could argue, there would be nothing to prove because the promotion was given before the beginning.
I feel that such a scenario would be unfair. I hate when things are unfair. It’s the trigger to my immaturity. I see someone get something they don’t deserve because I do not think they deserve it and I want to scream and stomp on the floor until mom comes and takes what they don’t deserve away from them. Life isn’t fair but it should be so why would God select this Chosen One and promote him without a thorough review of his qualifications. God doesn’t even ask for references!
I have learned a tremendous amount over the eighteen months as the Pastor of The Land. Starting a church is like starting a business. The administrative work can be daunting and consuming, but it is manageable because there is always the option to look up the answer. It’s an open book test with the initial test being to figure out which book it is that should be looked in.
This is also true of church growth and fundraising. There are books and there are answers. There are plans and there are programs. There are steps and there are strategies. There are trainings and there are certifications.
Unfortunately, unlike the legality of the administrative work, which guarantees there does exist a book or a website or an IRS employee with the right answer, fundraising and church growth are rather complex and perpetually complicated. More complicated than I had originally thought and, consequently, less answerable than I needed. What I have found is that with both fundraising and attendance, there are no end marks where one feels as though they are safe or stable or satisfied. Too often, in the pursuit of success, our ego mimics a spiritual version of a digital Pac Man eating up any moment of success, any opportunity for celebration.
Three new families start coming to The Land. Over time they come to know The Land as their spiritual home. They see me and trust me as their Pastor. I focus on the one person, not counted in the three families, who once was coming and then one day never came back. I ruminate on the things I did or did not do which may have caused them to never come back. Without certainty on which of these horror stories are true, I accept the biographical plot that whatever version of The Blair Witch Project is true, it is definitely all my fault.
Four new people subscribe to the newsletter. I worry about what I must have said that caused one person to unsubscribe. In the past five days, The Land gained four new followers on Instagram. We also gained two people who unfollowed us on Instagram. It is embarrassing to admit how long I spent trying to figure out who unfollowed us without getting any answer to my obsessive desire to identify the alleged un-followers. This left little material to prompt my mind in the scripting of a Broadway musical explaining what I did to solicit this form of rejection which surely would impact everyone at The Land. The Land’s 2019 pledge campaign was fulfilled 119%. One hundred and nineteen percent and I fret about the one person who pledged but never gave. I will wonder why they said they wanted to give and what I did that made them not give what they said they wanted to give.
What I have learned at The Land over the past eighteen months is that even when the goals are met and the plans work out perfectly resulting in outcomes beyond expectations, disappointment lingers and anxiety drops us into an unspoked concern about why I didn’t do more or why I couldn’t make things go better. What I have learned at The Land, is that I excel at unqualifying myself for an invisible promotion granted before I even began. In eighteen months at The Land, I have realized that being a Chosen One has no correlation with the number of people who choose, or do not choose, me.
“But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”
I wonder if this was actually true. Or if the Chosen One was in a similar situation. Distracted by what didn’t happen. Obsessing over what he couldn’t do. Blind to all the beautiful things that were happening. Because God’s no dummy. And, the Chosen One isn’t “one” at all. It is each of us. Every one of us exists as chiseled and chosen and challenged to trust God’s work in us over measuring our qualifications by the work we do ourselves.
“And he said to you, ‘You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified…”
God said this about you. About me. And, I wonder how we live our lives as if this were true? As if we were Chosen, Beloved and Called? As if what we did mattered because, although each one of us is Chosen, only one of us has their unique call? And, I wonder, in the landscape of this type of life, what we would imagine there would be to show for it all? How would we know we had done it all right?
I have become a fan of reading obituaries. More specifically, of having them read to me. By accident, one day, I stumbled across a podcast series by Fred Murphy entitled, “Obituary of the Day.” That’s exactly what it is; each day he reads an obituary. And each evening, I listen to the reading and sink into the story of another Chosen One who has lived their life the best they could with what they knew and with what they had.
It has been in the spiritual practice of listening to the lives of other Chosen One’s that I have begun to imagine my own shopping list of what I might have to show for it all. A garden growing from my soul, tended by God, feeding each person who passes by. A setting sun, offering rest. A rising sun, a day new and fresh. A meal, a cup, dogs with wagging tails, flowers and cactus that bloom without ever being planted. Curious snakes and wandering antelope, geese flying to a choreography of community in the sky above. A fresh breeze pulling seasons from us and carrying new seasons toward us; as if each season comes to us as an old friend seeking a visit. A witness to the movement and a guardian of the unseen, unappreciated, undeserved. A vacancy of numbers shaded by the absence of recordable achievements and resume worthy qualifications.
These resting beyond an insatiable craving to qualify for something granted in our very creation. These rising up in the rare moments we accept that even before we were formed and named and born, we were qualified. We were chosen. Isaiah 49: 1-7 is a story of surrender, a remedy to release us from our egoic reluctance so we might trust the judgement of God when we were granted the promotion. God needs no proof of productivity. God requires no report that we have met measurable markers to name us as a Chosen Ones, to send us on a Servant’s Mission and to promote us along the way.
And, God says today to each of us the same words spoken to us in every one of our yesterdays, “You are my servant…in whom I will be glorified.” May it be so. Amen.