When No One is Watching
Often when people find out that I’m a pastor for the first time, they will gradually, at some point in the conversation, summon the requisite courage or boldness or curiosity to ask some version of the question, So what do you actually do all day? I will usually “um” and “ah” and “well, you see” for a while, before settling on things like sermons, worship preparation, writing, visiting folks, various administrative tasks, and whittling away at the ever-present mountain of email that is the bane of twenty-first century existence among the joyful privileges of participating in the Lord’s work. [Ahem] I don’t very often get to say things like, Well, this week, I’m actually spending a bit of time with an international journalist who is in town working on a story about our community’s responses to the Syrian refugee crisis. Like, roughly never.
And yet—incredibly—that was what I spent a good chunk of last week doing. Somehow, our little collection of sponsorship groups in our little city grabbed the attention of someone in a faraway place who wanted to come here to tell a good story. Which was pretty cool. There were interviews and photographs and informal visits and conversations en route to here and there and tagging along for exciting scenes of Syrian families being reunited at the airport. It was nice to have the opportunity to tell and participate in what I think is a pretty remarkable story of friendships forming and people of all kinds coming together to do something good and meaningful and desperately necessary.
This morning, I returned to more ordinary tasks. There was a cluttered desk and phone calls to return and articles to write. The aforementioned mountain of email had not, alas, magically disappeared while I was engaged in more glamorous pursuits. And there was an Ash Wednesday service to prepare for. I turned to the lectionary texts for this day that marks the beginning of the Lenten season, and was greeted by these words that begin the gospel reading:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
I have, over time, discovered that Jesus has this very irritating habit of shining a spotlight into the least convenient corners of my soul.
Ever since I became involved with the response to the Syrian refugee crisis, I have had many opportunities to tell the story of what we are doing and why. I have spoken with TV and radio people, with journalism students, with newspapers and websites. I have written about it extensively here on this blog. It’s an opportunity to tell the story, I tell myself each time. It’s a chance to advocate, to raise awareness, to help shape public perception in more accurate and helpful ways. All of this is probably true. No, it’s certainly true.
But it’s interesting to think about how I spent last week, and about my media engagement more broadly through the lens of this Ash Wednesday text. And by “interesting,” I mean, “sobering.” It’s so much easier to be good and pious when people acknowledge and honour you for it. It’s flattering, after all, to have people express an interest in all the good and admirable things that have been going on locally. It feels good when people write down what I say or hold a camera in front of my face. It’s easy for the public display of one’s pious deeds to take a rather sharp turn toward decidedly impious opportunities for self-congratulation. All of this is particularly true in our social-media age that provided limitless opportunities to broadcast our virtues far and wide (and often). Our deeds don’t even have to be particularly good to be deemed Facebook-worthy. They just have to be ours!
And to all this, Jesus simply says, “Don’t.” Don’t do things to be seen. Don’t crave attention. Don’t seek out praise. Don’t make your moral performance contingent upon the recognition of others. That’s a fool’s game, and it will have you fruitlessly chasing shadows. It’s corrosive to your soul and the rewards it offers are trivial and fleeting. So don’t.
And now, I’ve gone and written a (pious) blog post about how I shouldn’t need to have my piety acknowledged by others. Maybe I should forbid anyone to like or share this. Yes, that would be very
humble/ necessary/ laudable/ pious, um, conflicted of me. Sigh.
At the conclusion of the passage that began with the words above, Jesus tells me that where my treasure is, there my heart will be also. I am grateful for the upcoming season of Lent for the way it holds stark and necessary reminders before me. I am a sinner. I will one day return to the dust. My heart often pants after meager treasures. But this heart of mine, it wants to do better. It wants to be able to do good even when—especially when—the cameras are off and the notebooks are put away, when the lights fade and the din of social media is silent. It wants to want the right things for the right reasons. Even when no one is watching.