Back in my college days I was a part of a scholarship “ministry team.” Which should let you know that I went to a Christian school, since nobody else gives you scholarships for “ministry.” The specific team I was on was called YouthQuest, which sounds really lame but it was actually pretty awesome. We traveled to various different churches on weekends and did programs and led discipleship groups with teenagers. During my first couple of years at school it seemed that the “ministry team people” had a generally terrible reputation on campus. The teams were audition and interview based which has the tendency to lead those who make the team towards arrogance and those who don’t towards bitterness. It was an unfortunate but unavoidable problem. Anyway, they had a bad reputation and in large degree it was earned.
The first team meeting of my sophomore year fell on the same day as the annual Block Party. Which was a huge welcome back party for all the students, including tons of food, games, concerts, etc…. Overall, it generally trashed the campus that had looked so pristine and empty just hours before. Anyway, at that first meeting, our team director, Andrew, gave an amazing talk on humility, of which I remember very little, and then had us put it into action in a way that I will never forget. He told us that he had already told the “Building Services” department, who was responsible for all the maintenance and janitorial work, that our team was going to assist in trash collection and clean up for the Block Party. So, it wasn’t going to be quite the evening that we had all planned for. And before I knew it, I was a human trashcan. Walking around with a large trash bag, picking up half-eaten food, ketchup and mustard covered plates, cups, cans, etc… And all of this while the entire student body was having a party.
I remember having this overwhelming urge to tell everyone that this isn’t really my job or anything, that we were doing this voluntarily. I had friends that I hadn’t seen all summer come up and start talking to me, asking me if I wanted to go check out the concert with them or something, and I’d just say, “yeah, well… I’m kind of doing this whole trash thing…. ” It was really embarrassing. I just wanted to tell them that we were doing this to show people how humble we are… but that seemed to kind of cancel the whole thing out. So, I just picked up trash with a smile on my face and I allowed the Spirit of God to teach me the discipline of humility.
I felt like He was shining a spotlight around in my heart and showing me all of the pride that still lived in there. All of those self-justifying statements running through my mind. Those things that I wanted to say to make sure everyone knew that I was better than this. That this wasn’t a reflection of my value. It was heart breaking to see how arrogant and dependent on other people’s admiration and respect I really was. I had served people tons of times before, but this was different. This isn’t getting someone a drink at a party, or cleaning up somebody else’s mess or even helping out at a nursing home or something. In all of those situations, you keep your dignity. You’re serving someone who knows who you are and knows that you are lowering yourself to serve them. In this instance, most people just assumed that I was the guy that picked up their trash and they ignored me. There was no glory in it for me. No recognition of my great humility or willingness to serve. Just a ketchup stained shirt and thousands of people looking through me. The truth is, you never know how much of a servant you really are until people treat you like one. All other expressions of humility fall short of revealing that part of you that still clings to the approval and respect of others for your self-worth.
This was a moment of gospel memory for me, an experience that sealed in my mind something that is easily forgotten about what God has done for us through Jesus. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippian church that “though [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus did not grasp for respect and admiration from everyone He met, even though He rightly deserved it. He did not derive His worth and value from how others treated Him or viewed Him because He knew that His Father’s approval was the only measurement that mattered.
And this is true for me too, even though I easily forget it. God’s approval is the only approval that matters and it has already been obtained for me through the death and resurrection of His Son. I am freed up to put myself last in line because I have nothing to prove. There is nothing left to add to my bank account, so I don’t need to steal from others. It’s only when we find our worth and significance in what Christ has done for us that we are truly freed up to serve others without the heavy burden of selfish ambition tied to it.