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A garbage collector is someone to be

There are a couple of things on my mind right now — not pleasant things. One is an adage and the other is something my pastor told me a long time ago, when I was on his staff as minister of children for a large, multi-staffed suburban church in Sacramento, California.

The adage goes, “Don't look a gift horse in the mouth”. What does that actually mean? It can be traced back to England during the reign of Henry VIII, in a collection of proverbs published by Henry Heywood, but it goes back even further and can be found in St Jerome's letter to the Ephesians — “Never inspect the teeth of a given horse”. Basically, it means that one should be grateful for what one is given and not go poking around so as to evaluate and judge its relative value. If the horse has been given to you, just accept it and put it to work. Quit grumbling, and for sure, don't chase the horse away. That would simply be stupid. You might as well shoot yourself in the foot, which is another adage.

It seems like a whole other lifetime ago that I was on staff at that church in Sacramento. There were about 2,500 people who went there, and I was in charge of the children's ministry, including staffing the nursery. I organised and led a group of over 300. I taught them how to tell stories instead of simply reading them to the children. I revamped the disciplinary process so that children and teachers were relating to one another instead of sparring over rules on the blackboard. I supported the handicapped and helped institute special ministries that took into consideration their needs, and I taught elective classes like one on suffering for the adult Sunday school. After several years, I felt God might be leading me to leave and to take a pastorate of my own — to become the pastor who preaches on Sundays.

The senior pastor of that church led a staff of six or seven associates and assistants. When he learned what I was thinking about, he called me into his office to talk about it. He told me many things, and one of them had to do with garbage. Garbage? What did garbage have to do with discerning whether or not it was time to leave the comfort of my established position? I had been offered a similar job at a large church in Arizona, but had turned it down to remain where I was. Why keep thinking about a change? He told me that with every ministry there comes a certain amount of garbage. Garbage is all the distracting or irrelevant nuisances that interfere with a person's ability to get the job done, be the person one is meant to be in that situation, and generally hold one's head up without having to pinch one's nose because of the stench. He said, “When the garbage has piled up so far that you can no longer get to the work of the ministry, then it's time to move on.”

I have thought about that over the years of being in various kinds of situations. There seems to be garbage wherever one finds oneself.

One particular kind of garbage that I think takes place here in Bermuda involves volunteers for any number of non-profits or benevolent organisations. And that is where the adage comes in. People are too quick to look a gift horse in the mouth, too quick to defend their own perceived fiefdoms, and too apt to coldly freeze a volunteer right down to the ground for something as simple and well-intentioned as offering to help. It makes no sense to me to greet a new volunteer with a stare that says, “What are YOU doing here?”

Now, perhaps I am stepping on some toes — more an aphorism than an adage — but I can live with it if I am. Like me or don't like me. I tend to be a person who speaks his mind. People sometimes don't like what I say or how I say it, but at least they don't have to wonder what I think. I am also available to be confronted and will stand in the circle of contact with another person to work out our differences so that we come to a point of understanding. If people would simply do that with their volunteers, showing them how to fit in and welcoming them with gratitude, that would be different. That would not be garbage; that would be more like the garbage collector.

The garbage collector picks up the refuse that other people create. The garbage collector is the servant of others, attending to the loathsome task that other people don't want to bother with. The garbage collector is the one who uses grace, speaks grace into a given situation, extending undeserved favour to others. The garbage collector forgives people for not tying up their garbage bags so that smelly, dirty trash falls out and has to be picked up one piece at a time, creating more work than necessary. The garbage collector removes the reasons a person might feel like they have to move on. The garbage collector makes a more welcoming space for others.

We need more garbage collectors in this world. We do not really need the naysayer, the negative person who excels at finding fault and creating a harsh and adverse atmosphere. Sometimes there is garbage, and it really stinks up the place. Sometimes it's just too much to deal with anymore. However, there are also garbage collectors who make the world just a little bit more bearable. God help me to be more the garbage collector than the garbage producer.

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Published April 10, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated April 10, 2012 at 9:07 am)

A garbage collector is someone to be

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