Despite having years of experiencing health and emotional problems due to overwork and overstress, I still indulge myself in too much. One might call me a work addict (and some have) but the fact is that I spend a lot of my life avoiding guilt. I have, on my own accord, taken on projects that were too much for one person to deal with, and then made myself responsible if they were not accomplished. I have done this because there are people that need help and there seemed to be no one else ready to put the energy or drive to practically accomplish them. Nevertheless, I have found that I am human, just like everyone else. Stunning discovery, huh?
So it must be said that I write these principles with the deepest conviction and the assuredness of personal experience, yet I have rarely followed them myself. I give them to others, recognizing that they are necessary for a balanced life, and are necessary to keep one assisting and loving, yet I have always considered myself an exception to these rules.
I am not, and I want to publically apologize for my hypocrisy.
Despite my own neglect, however, I present these principles as necessary for those who are working full time with the poor. I recognize that not all of us have the ability to follow these principles, but we must all do the best we can or else we will find ourselves:
Without compassion, because our own needs are forefront in our minds;
Without energy, because we are completely spent;
Without health, because we have used up our immune system;
Without love, because stress rules our life.
Take regular breaks
Schedule in times away from the ministry and don’t break those appointments. No matter how important it is for us to help those in need, we must first have the reserves to give to others. One wise organization that works with the poor insists that their workers take a half day mini-retreat a week and a two day retreat each month. All of us who work full time in ministry to the poor should have a pattern something like this.
Allow yourself to experience joy and enrichment
Those of us who are full time workers among the poor can be pretty serious people. We see the world as a tough place, and it requires tough-minded people to face down the suffering of the world. However, we as human beings were built to both experience and need joy. We cannot function well without pleasure in our lives. We need to allow ourselves to spend time being enriched, to spend time simply enjoying ourselves. It isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity.
Don’t settle for lesser joys
When we have lived with deep stress without a fair measure of joy in our lives for a long time, we will find our hearts, by necessity, seeking pleasure in ways that undermine our bodies or souls. We will seek alcohol, prescription pills, porn, internet or television addiction, or various other pursuits. If we find ourselves falling for these broken reservoirs, we must recognize that this is our body’s cry for help. We need rest in God.
Seek the Spirit
We must not only be following God’s will, we must be living and walking in the Spirit. But we cannot be living in the Spirit unless we are waiting on the Spirit, even as the apostles did of old. In our times of rest, we must take some of that time just waiting, listening and expecting the Spirit to fall on us. How the Spirit will lead us depends on our relationship with Him, but for all of us, unless we wait on the Spirit, we will never obtain the power of the Spirit in our ministry.
Build a team
You cannot do the work alone. Even if you currently don’t have anyone to help you, keep your eyes open and keep praying for God to grant you partners in your work. No matter how difficult it is to train others to do what you do, it is important for both you and the ones who assist you to do this additional work of God. God wants us not only to serve the poor, but to train others to serve the poor.
Support your team
Make sure that your ministry team already has established patterns for rest and resuscitation. Don’t let them slack in taking the time and enrichment they need to persist in ministry.
Have a personal support team.
We cannot recognize our own weaknesses and stumbling at times. Not only do we often not know when we are faltering, but we often cannot make a determination of what our actual needs are. If we are a full time worker with the poor and needy, then we should have a counselor or team who we turn to in order to help us make decisions about the context of ministry and how we are able to persist in ministry. This team should be praying for us and interested in our spiritual growth. Most of all, this team should not be concerned with only the minister’s well-being, but the well-being of everyone the minister works with. There should be a balance in the team’s focus between keeping the minister healthy and allowing the minister to help others. They should recognize that sometimes sacrifices must be made, but not at the cost of the long-term ministry.
Often I hear the homeless speak negatively about social workers or those who process forms at Adult and Family Services. About how they don’t really care about people, how they are callous or downright mean. And while I cannot speak for each of the workers, I do understand the struggle to be consistently caring.
Think about if your job was to listen to dozens of the most heart-wrenching stories every day, each person vying for the limited resources, and all they have to offer in exchange is their narrative of suffering. When we, as a human being, hears a narrative, especially a well-told one, our natural response is one of empathy, of recognizing ourselves in the story, or of placing ourselves in the story. In our society, we are faced with more stories than ever through news outlets and various fictional entertainments, as well as our spiritual devotions. We are fully used to processing stories and making them reality in our brain. But the social worker has no defense against being involved in the thousands of stories they hear. They watch the heart-breaking films Precious or The Blind Side daily, over and over again. They do what they can, but they can’t do everything.
And they take these stories home, just like often the movies persist in our memory. At first they weep, stay up nights considering how to help these needy folks. They relive the suffering that they shared in the story-telling. They soon become exhausted from empathy, from living out the poverty of others, which makes their own poverty a paltry thing. Living in the midst of constant suffering swimming through one’s mind causes exhaustion and depression. To avoid this suffering, they find themselves in habits they never found necessary before—they try to dive into other activities to make them forget the other lives. Maybe they watch a lot of television (stories with tidy endings) or they play video games (specific, reachable goals), or they begin their own addiction (injecting joy into their depression). They find themselves in their own cycle of poverty—in need of counseling or psychiatric medication they cannot afford. This is why burnout is common among social workers.
Another defense mechanism for a social worker is to re-tell the stories in their mind with the poor as the enemy instead of the victim. This is an easy step to make because it is the poor that “causes” the depression in social workers. So every story is heard with the poor person as incompetent, as immoral, as having deserved the calamity that happened to them. This makes it easier to refuse to help, to tell the poor “what should have been told to them years ago.” In this way, compassion is reserved for the few whom they know and believe and all the rest of the world is a liar.
Or the social worker could just wall compassion out of their hearts. They cannot personally afford to feel empathy with anyone, so they don’t. Every story is analyzed and sorted according to policies and allocations determined by another. They no longer have room in their lives for compassion and so apathy is the rule.
The Christian worker among the poor has similar issues. They hear all the same stories, and they have some resources they sometimes can give and sometimes they cannot. But the Christian worker isn’t ever supposed to be apathetic, nor callous. The Christian worker must constantly be compassionate, be empathetic, to draw people out, to help through Christ’s love for them. And if you are a pastor to the poor, it is worse, because if you aren’t available twenty four hours a day then people consider that you are giving them less than your all. More is demanded of the Christian worker than any other social worker, because there are no imposed limits of time or resources.
This type of all-out ministry to the poor can cause one to drown in compassion. To cause one to suffer deeper than any of the individual poor they work with because they aren’t living out just one story, but all of them. You don’t know how many nights I have stayed up, worrying about someone I should have helped, but didn’t, or couldn’t. The times I wept because I was helpless to help. The times I couldn’t answer the phone because I knew that someone was going to tell me one more thing I couldn’t handle, or pressure me to do or give something I couldn’t.
Perhaps it sounds like I’m writing a horror story. Certainly when we begin ministry, we expect the Lord to keep us fresh and able to deal with any difficulty. But the reality is far from this. Some of the most spirit-filled people in the Bible also dealt with depression and anger. Elijah asked the Lord to kill him. Jeremiah suffered both externally and internally. Joseph struggled against the temptation to punish his brothers for the years of suffering they caused him. In his final letter, Paul gave in to self-pity, complaining that “all deserted me”, although in that very letter he gives praise to his support.
Jesus wavered in his compassion only a couple times, but his ministry was a different one. It was a bright, clear, bold light that shone but for a short time. What the human body finds difficult is enduring repeated stress over a long time. If we are going to endure in our ministry for decades instead of a year or two, we need to take steps to prepare ourselves for loving in the most difficult context.
We must remember that to love others, we must have something to give. We cannot assume that God will provide us with the strength to continue, especially if we never refresh ourselves in Him. There are two commands we are to follow: both to love others and to love God. And in loving God, we are renewed, restored and re-sent to love others. God never intends us to love others without first resting in Him.
Diane and I sat in our bedroom, assessing our reality.
We’d been working with the homeless for twelve years and we were more than tired. Diane finds herself constantly exhausted, always wanting to go to bed, hardly able to look at our home, let alone begin to clean it. I am constantly struggling with anger with people who ask me questions or who even try to help me work because my emotional need is a gaping hole. Diane plays computer games for hours a day. I struggle with an addiction to porn I had left behind decades earlier. We were a mess.
In our bedroom, I talked about the fact that we might just have to quit. To shut down the feedings that were serving hundreds of people a week. To close the church that was giving spiritual life to a hundred folks who otherwise wouldn’t participate in corporate worship. To invite those who lived with us to leave, many of them back to homelessness. To move to a different town, where we didn’t know so many needy people. For me to get a “regular” job, with an actual salary, so we didn’t have the stress of unpaid bills.
Diane let me spell out this scenario and then looked at me sharply. “We could do that. You could get another pastoral job—which, by the way, would stress you just as much as this one—and we could live a quiet, middle class life. But for how long? How long would it be before we began inviting the homeless to come to eat with us? How long before we invited someone in desperate need to stay with us? How long before we end up with the same ministry we have here, just in another city, and you having full time middle-class responsibilities on your back as well?”
I quickly recognized that she was right. Serving the Anawim was a calling, a vocation, not a pastime. It wasn’t a job, it was a lifestyle we chose that we cannot set aside. We could take breaks, but we cannot just move away from the work. It will follow us wherever we go.
Eventually, we worked a schedule to give us three months off, which was the beginning of healing for us. We still struggle with exhaustion, but we are in a better place than we have been. We still don’t get the rest we should, but we recognize the signs of burnout and we generally know how to avoid it.
What is Christmas about? Christmas is about tradition. The things we were raised doing, we want to keep doing. And Christmas is one of the main times of year to keep old traditions alive that have survived at least thirty years or so. What is your Christmas about? Check the items below that apply to you:
- Giving gifts
- Spending time with family
- Lying to children about Santa Claus
- Spending time under the mistletoe
- Setting up decorations
- Getting drunk
- Hopping from free meal to free meal
- Arguing with friends and family
- Catching Miracle on 34th Street for the twentieth time
- Singing a mix of old hymns and silly songs
- Avoiding family
- Eating meat and stuffing until you burst
- Spending time in the mall with thousands of others
- Listening to Christmas music until you throw up
- Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas for the fiftieth time
- Receiving gifts
- Returning gifts at the mall with thousands of others
Unfortunately, none of these things get to the heart of Christmas. They are all substitutes of the real focus of the festival. Once you dispense with this list, what is left of your Christmas? Watching re-runs of the Simpsons? Being morose because your Christmas doesn’t match up to your expectations? Or just being depressed in general, for no particular reason?
Christmas seems so important, such a significant part of our year, that it must be about something important. Of course, we all know that Christmas is supposed to be about Jesus. But that’s hard for us to really make practical as a holiday or feast. Or even to get our heads around. Jesus was a cool guy. And he taught some good things—most of which we can’t remember right now (too much egg nog, probably). But why is Christmas about him?
The Christmas Story
Well, part of Christmas is the Christmas story. Just in case you weren’t sure, the story isn’t A Christmas Carol. It’s about Jesus. Does Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men ring a bell? Yeah, that’s the Christmas story. Well, what is that story about, anyway? Most of us know about the “peace on earth” part. But how do we get peace on earth?
The interesting thing is that the Christmas story doesn’t give us a strictly religious answer, like what we’d expect from the Bible. Instead, it gives us a political answer. That’s right, the Christmas story is about politics. It is propaganda about the kind of political system it thinks would be best. (Propaganda isn’t always bad, you know—it depends on whether it’s true and beneficial to everyone or not.) And the politics the Christmas story is recommending is to have the right ruler, the right government, and then you can have peace. That’s really not that different from an election year, really.
So what kind of ruler can give us peace? According to the Christmas story, it’s got to be somebody who knows what it’s like to be poor. At the same time, it’s got to be somebody who has authority. It’s got to be somebody who cares about the needs of the poor. But it’s still somebody who could capture the interest of the wise and wealthy. But most of all, it’s somebody who really upsets the status quo politics that makes everyone’s lives miserable. That’s why Jesus is uniquely qualified to be ruler of the world.
Jesus was born in poverty, and lived among people who had next to nothing. He drew to himself shepherds, who were rejected by “proper” society. Jesus’ mother sang a song about unimportant people ruling over everyone else. Yet Jesus drew magi more than a thousand miles—walking—to himself with rich gifts. At the same time, he had the current rival king so upset at him, that the king killed a village of babies and toddlers to get rid of him. At the same time, Jesus grew to establish laws that would benefit everyone that lived within his kingdom.
On top of all this, he received authority. He had the right to be in charge. God told everyone that Jesus was the one in charge, and that they needed to listen to him. Most people didn’t listen to God, but what else is new? Jesus still had the right to rule.
Choose Jesus as King of the World!
So why didn’t Jesus rule? Why isn’t he in charge of the world right now? Because he wants to give everyone a chance to choose him, first. (What other dictator would do that?) You see Christmas isn’t so much a holiday or gift-giving opportunity as an election. Jesus is presenting himself as a candidate for office. He want you to elect him. His platform is peace on earth and benefits for everyone who chooses him. What kind of benefits? Forgiveness of sins. The possibility of both receiving and giving love. Being content with your circumstances. Having your needs met. A life without suffering. Some pretty unbelievable campaign promises—but Jesus has a track record. Thousands, even millions of people have experienced Jesus’ kind of living. And it works, it really can give one peace.
So have you really got Christmas? It’s simple—is Jesus your king, your Lord? If you live having Jesus as your ruler, then you can experience what Christmas is really about. So how do we do that?
Read the gospels to find out what Jesus is really like. (You can start with any of them—Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Just skip the lists of names in Matthew or Luke). If the reading is too tough, then you can ask a pastor what it means to have Jesus as king (That’s what a pastor does, you know—he reads the Bible to explain it to those of us who can’t make heads or tails of it. If you don’t know a pastor you can call the phone number below.). Look at what Jesus is promising if he does rule. Look at what Jesus is demanding to see if you really want him to rule.
If you are ready, then accept Jesus as your Lord. You can pray to him, “Jesus I choose you as my King and Lord.” Or you can go to a church to get baptized (that’s the initiation ritual). Then you’ll really have Christmas. And a whole lot more.