I spent some time this past week doing what I do on occasion—making calls to inactive members of the congregation. I made the calls while I was out and about on visitations.
When it comes to this process, I’ll admit I’m noticing a trend. It used to be that for the calls made, I could expect to receive a decent percentage of returned calls in response. Of course, the tenor of the responses would vary. Some would be heartfelt apologies expressing the intention to return. Others would be the expected, prickly moments of excuse-making. And still others would be unequivocal requests that I stop calling altogether and consider them no longer as members. But no matter the call’s place on the spectrum of emotion, the fact that they called me back proved a basic courtesy between two human beings.
I called them. They were kindly enough to call me back. Easy enough.
That doesn’t happen all that much anymore. I’ll call, and I’ll never even receive a reply.
I can’t say for sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the ease brought on by mobile phone technology is playing a part in this. With such a swift, and sometimes overwhelming, current of accessibility to everyone and everything, prioritizing information becomes essential. It’s a lot harder for people to manage the bombardment, and so in the process, the important messages rise to the top and get immediate replies, while the lesser ones sink to the riverbed, sometimes being forgotten in the murk.
Of course, I won’t discount the fact that people are drifting further and further from the ability to communicate with others, and in the damaging mudslides of it all, basic decency is a casualty. The artificial barriers that technology has groomed among us keeps us quite comfortable in our avoidance of real human connections.
Everything goes away with the press of a button.
Still, the whole process has a way of proving the things that matter to us. We learn of the conversations we want to have and the ones that we don’t. We learn of those people we appreciate and those we don’t.
Again, I can’t say for sure, but I get the feeling some of the folks I’m calling truly hate it when I do. They see the incoming number and their first inclination is to send me straight to the riverbed. And I get it. I do. The stream’s flow is about to get choppy. The sediment of an uncomfortable conversation is about to be stirred. The strangest part is that it only took a glance at a pestering cellphone to start it. Face it. That’s the potency of God’s Law in such circumstances. The objects He uses, no matter how dull their surface, become chrome-like. One glance and you see your distorted reflection. You see who you really are on the inside, and how the innermost person—the Sin-nature—is capable of responding to someone bringing concern for your spiritual wellbeing and the refreshing encouragement of Christ.
You see that it’s very possible to behold a call from your pastor as one from an enemy, and with this, it’s very possible to hate him.
Someone shared with me the words spoken by a fairly influential member of the Livingston County Republican Party leadership. Apparently the person described the immovable nature of my position on certain issues as irritating, saying it makes the interparty give-and-take a lot harder. To summarize the sentiment, the person said nothing short of “I hate that Thoma guy.”
I wish the person who said this could’ve seen me chuckling and continuing on in my day when I heard it. I wish the inactive folks I’ve called knew why someone’s discourteous silence would cause me to grin and keep calling, anyway. There’s something I know about being despised for Christ. It’s actually a bit energizing, in a weird sort of way. It’s not that one is looking for such a response. Being appreciated certainly has a better feel. I suppose Minna Antrim, an American writer from the turn of the 20th century, had somewhat of a clue as to what I’m talking about when she said so crisply, “To be loved is to be fortunate, but to be hated is to achieve distinction.”
Within the office of Law and Gospel—the proclamation of God’s Word as it meets with Sin, and the countering of such dreadfulness with the powerful message of Christ crucified—there exists the ever-present possibility of being loved or hated in the work. This is a very simple premise to digest. And once you accept it, the hues of life change drastically. Person-to-person interactions are a little less scary. Besides, Christ wasn’t stingy in communicating such things in the Scriptures. Take a look at any of the following portions of God’s Word: John 15:18-21; 2 Timothy 3:10-14; 1 Peter 3:13-14; Revelation 2:9-10; Matthew 10:16-20; Matthew 5:11-12.
These are just a few. There are plenty more.
In essence, Christ tells us that while it’s nice to be appreciated for the work, one must never go into it with the sole expectation of being loved. Be ready and willing to be despised and rejected. In fact, get used to not knowing which will occur. But no matter the outcome, measure your biggest concerns against being faithful in the task. And finally, if a disposition of hatred is the end result, remember the words of Matthew 5:11-12 and take comfort that you remain just as fortunate in the hatred as you do in the appreciation. Either way, you are blessed, and Christ has only ever attributed the same divine distinction to Himself and to the Old Testament prophets.
So, to boil this all down…
If someone you know is calling you with concern for your spiritual care, take a chance and call him back. What could it hurt? Well, a lot, I suppose. But remember, first, the person is calling because he cares. Second, know it’ll be a momentary hurt easily remedied by the balm of the Gospel. And in the meantime, take care with your despising of the one calling you. Reconsider shelving him for a little while as an annoyance, too. You can’t avoid the person forever. My guess is that by God’s continued grace, he’s tenacious. This is true because he’s a Christian regularly fed by Word and Sacrament substance. By this, he has access to a peace that keeps him keeping-on when everyone and everything else are riding the rapids in terror.