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Not the Greatness of the Work, but the Love in the Doing
by Dan Kidd
In 1989, in a wonderful little book of reflections on Christian leadership, Henri Nouwen wrote:
Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of, but most of us still feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo. […] But most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully. Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church.
Indeed, most of us aren’t masters of but a few skills. So, naturally, we are likely to find distinction, pride, perhaps even identity in those skills. This is healthy to some degree. You are, in fact, fearfully and wonderfully made—with a unique set constellation of experiences, thoughts, loves, and gifts. And because many of us have only those few things for which we stand above the fray, those are the things we hold most dearly about ourselves. They are often the things that bring us joy to do. Those are the activities that, when we see others doing them, we are most equipped to judge the quality of their performance. The trained musician hears missed notes. The career engineer knows the difference between a good and great CAD design. The seasoned interior decorator is likely to spot the clashing shades of furniture. Certainly we want people who know and do things expertly. But, as anyone of us who has some skill mastery can tell you, watching others perform these things stirs up all kinds of feelings; and all too often they are not positive, selfless, or kind feelings.
What Nouwen has put his finger on is how tempting it is to put our worth into the things we are uniquely best at. Simultaneously, I want you to do this thing so well that I don’t cringe when you do it, but I do not want you to do it so well that you show you’re better at it than I am. On second thought, maybe it’s best if I just do it instead of you.
This impulse is why today’s story about John the Baptist is so impressive. Baptizing people was John’s whole gig. Centuries of people have identified him for this one thing: baptizing. John’s disciples are concerned. The man that had been with John in the Jordan was now calling disciples and baptizing within eyeshot of John. How could John allow someone, especially someone that was clearly a friend, to rip off his work?
But John knew better. He knew that Christ had come to baptize in the Holy Spirit. John knew Jesus was anointed and worthy of preference, praise, and John’s humility. And even though baptizing was central to his identity and purpose, John knew that Jesus—imbued and empowered by the Holy Spirit—was no threat to his work or identity, but the central figure and meaning behind what he was doing. What a good and healthy way of thinking about our work! Surely we would all do well to see our skills as gifts, and the doing of them for the honor and display of our generous God. When we do our work for the love of the Lord, our identity is fastened to him, and not in the task itself. Unfastening ourselves from these false, fleeting identities frees us from scrutinizing the shared work of others. And more importantly, an identity rooted in the perfect, firm, and flourishing soil of Jesus is utterly secure.
In imitation of John the Baptist, we can pray, "Jesus, these gifts you have given me I want to use to your glory. Make yourself the central purpose for everything I put my hands to. Strip away my tendencies of comparison, and replace them with the truth that my identity and worth are only secure when they are fastened to you."