I gave the communion meditation last Sunday, and I received this note from one of the teenagers in the congregation:
Dear Mr. Pierce,
I didn't get the chance to tell you at church, but I wanted to thank you for your communion message. The Lord used your words in a very direct and specific way in my life today. I can't explain, but I wanted you to know. :) [or the equivalent symbol written out, anyway]
I'm not posting this because I think it says anything about me. It may not have anything to do with me. It's likely that something I said and something she was going through happened, in God's providence, to connect in a vivid way for her, which I couldn't have done anything deliberate to provoke anyway. I'm posting it because I think it tells us something about how followers of Christ should relate to those who are in any form of spiritual leadership over us.
When someone puts a lot of themselves into a task for the purpose of building up God's people, there are generally two kinds of positive responses people can give. One is to tell them what a good job they did. We do this a lot with musicians, congratulating them on how well they sang or played. We do it sometimes with teachers, telling them that they did a good job with the sermon or Bible study. This kind of congratulations sometimes has a place, but often enough it's more about the person than about the point of what the person was doing, and I'm not sure that's what someone needs to (or even wants to if their priorities are straight) hear when they're serving God for the sake of kingdom goals. It can feed the ego. It also puts someone in a difficult position of knowing what to say in response. If they deny that they had anything to do with it, insisting that it was all God, then it sounds like false modesty. If they take credit for it, that sounds even worse. In that kind of situation, I generally say "thanks" and little else, trying not to make a conversation out of it, but even that's uncomfortable sometimes.
On the other hand, another kind of positive feedback seems to me to be much more important and deeply in tune with the purposes of the Holy Spirit in using our giftings in various ways. Whenever I'm going to lead a Bible study, give some meditation like this communion one, or enter a specific ministry role where I'll have influence over people, my prayer is that I'll have an impact in some way on those who will be part of my service. In this case, I was praying that my words would speak to people in ways that they need to hear, whatever those ways might be. Here was someone who made it clear to me that such a connection had occurred (at a relatively deep level, judging by the way she described it).
It doesn't take much thinking about it to realize that whatever happened had nothing to do with me. Sure, I'm the one who said the things that had an impact on her as she was at the moment, but it's not as if I could have done more or less or adjusted what I was saying in any way with some goal of speaking to some particular heart condition of anyone in the room. I'm not privy to those details of people's hearts. This was something God did in her, and my prayer that what I had to share would speak into people's situations was clearly answered in her hearing of what I had to share.
In this particular case, that sense seems even more heightened because as I sat in my seat waiting for the meeting to start I felt so uneasy about what I'd originally planned to focus on that I decided to scrap it in favor of something that had just occurred to me, something that was a much more direct connection between the psalm and communion. In retrospect, I believe I was being moved by the Holy Spirit to focus in a very different direction, something I don't do very often in such situations. I usually have what I'm going to say worked out at least a day ahead of time when it's a matter of spiritual importance. So this does increase the sense that whatever ways people were spoken to had more to do with the Holy Spirit than with me. Of course, the same is just as true with prepared statements that the Holy Spirit can guide as you plan them from the beginning, and sometimes it's immoral not to prepare for something as important as guiding the hearts of those who are remembering the death of our Lord in communion. But it really did seem to me that this was a deliberate push for me not to focus on the main theme I'd wanted to share.
I say some of this with some reservation, because I do think it's nice for someone who has been leading singing in a congregation for years to be told that people appreciate it. Sometimes it's nice to hear that people are grateful for your service and think you're doing a good job. Positive feedback is a good thing. I just wanted to highlight the contrast between these two kinds of positive feedback. The second kind is much more meaningful, because it's nice to find out how God is working through things that are really out of your control once your job is done. The whole point of anyone doing any kind of service in a ministry context is for God to work, and I'd much rather be told of how God has worked in someone's life than to hear that I did a good job, as much as I like to know that I'm good enough at something that I should keep doing it.
So by all means be grateful to those who serve you, whether it's through doing physical maintenance to allow us to do the more obviously spiritual tasks that go on in a congregation, or whether it's through direct teaching or meeting of needs. Be grateful, but think about how you express it. Is it about how good that person is, or is it about how God worked through them? It should be the latter a lot more often than it is, and our words should reflect that. That's why I appreciated this note, even though she told me just about nothing that might let me know what I'd said that had meant so much to her. It's because that's not what it's about. It's not about what I said or how I said it, though those might well have been part of why it affected her or anyone else in the room the way it did. It's about my willingness to serve God and his use of that service for much greater things than I could seek to make happen.