We elders are called to rise above our own personal reaction to people’s outward presentation of themselves and go deeper in trying to understand and minister to them. Yet, as human beings, we are so limited by the external, whether it be a person’s appearance, personality, social status, financial resources or past interactions and behaviors.
It is so easy for an elder to assume a pseudo-spiritual posture, “Of course I treat everyone the same.” But the reality, if we are honest, is that this is sometimes not the case. Preferential treatment to some believers and inconsistent attention to all believers create an integrity issue for shepherds of God’s people.
I have seen it in others and I have seen it in my own life. We are so easily drawn to some people and not to others—on a superficial basis. The Lord speaks directly to this and as leaders we absolutely must model this behavior and attitude in James 2:1-9.
We are to go below the outwardly observable appearance of things because our judgments based on the superficial will more times than not be dead wrong.
Examples from the hockey world
I was chaplain for a local professional ice hockey team for a number of years and discovered how easy it is to be fooled by the outward appearance. Ministering to them is similar to ministry in the local church. By faith, I know professional athletes have spiritual and emotional needs inwardly, but you wouldn’t think that when they are on the ice banging away at each other.
Contrary to common perceptions, most pro players I have met can be gentlemen and very polite. We have had many in our home and know that firsthand. One even played classical piano music! He came to most of our chapel services. Another was outgoing, friendly, gregarious— and a Christian. People were drawn to him for he was very likable.
Rough and tough
Let me describe some others. One was six foot four inches tall and rugged, with a somewhat hardened look about him. The first time he came to chapel, sitting at the opposite end of the table with a scowl on his face, he asked straightforwardly, “How do you know Jesus was really God?”
I figured he was just trying to nail me with an argument. My answer didn’t change the look on his face, and didn’t seem to convince him. I invited him to lunch one day, and discovered he had trusted Christ as a young boy, but that no one ever followed up on him when he moved away to play hockey in another town.
His live-in girl friend was raised in a Christian home, where her father, who was a leader in the church, ran off with another woman in the congregation. This young man, it turns out, was genuinely interested in learning more about the faith he once experienced.
Another player met me in the hallway one day outside the locker room. He was the “enforcer” for the team, the one who fights against the other team’s enforcer to protect his own teammates. He was new to the team, and I had not met him before.
With chiseled body and face covered with welts from the previous game, he stopped in front of me and glared straight in my eye, about 12 inches from my face. He said nothing, not even a blink.
Other players milling about stopped to watch. He was known as a trouble maker, not very well liked because of his wild, undisciplined life off and on the ice. The atmosphere was tense. Looking down at his clenched fist raised up to stomach level, I silently prayed for help!
I must have been motivated at that point by the Spirit, for without thinking I formed a fist with my hand and brought it down to hit the top of his fist playfully, just like a fellow might do with his friend. He then did the same to me, smirked, then walked off! I let out a sigh of relief.
A short while later he showed up at the chapel service. He sat quietly until the end, then lingered around, obviously wanting to talk. I invited him out to lunch and for 90 minutes, he told me about his life, failed marriage and a six year old son he hadn’t seen in 2 years.
He was hurting. And he said he was tired of making a living by fighting. Underneath the unlikable, hardened fighter image was a man who was struggling with deeper things of life.
The guy with it all together
Another player, was clearly the sort who was the “big man on campus” in his college days. He carried this into the pro ranks, strutting around, flirting with the women (he was married). He had a way of making you feel he was doing you a favor by talking with you.
He wouldn’t let me get past the exterior, so I don’t know the real person underneath. Something in me wanted to write him off because of the arrogant attitude. But, like the others, I am sure there is a story behind the face, a human heart and a soul.
Dealing with real people and real issues
Hockey players are humans who struggle with real issues in their lives, which is often covered over by the surface things. We may be drawn to some, but not to others, and in the process miss out on the real person underneath each one. The same is true in the church.
Editorial Note: This article was first published in Elder’s Shop Notes in July 2004. It is used here with permission of the author. We will post part 2 tomorrow.