502010431There is still the hint of a headache. Appetite not quite back to normal. Nor energy levels. But clearly the worst of the dengue attack is over. No more high fever. No more body aches. And platelet levels back to normal.

Still, almost two weeks have gone by, most of that time spent in bed. Much of that time was spent crying to the Lord to take away the fever and the body aches. For my son. (Andrew had to be hospitalized for four days.) For myself. It’s amazing what a sense of helplessness does for your prayer life!

I am surprised that I am not more disappointed. The dengue episode meant that I had to cancel a major teaching seminar on leadership I was to do in Singapore. It is a topic close to my heart. And the seminar was for a community close to my heart. But I accept that I had to reschedule.

15 years ago, such a change of plans would have vexed me to no end. Work was everything. Most things were sacrificed for work. Apparently no longer.

But there was a time when I defined myself by my work. After all, I was doing God’s work. I had paid a heavy price to follow God’s call to do vocational church ministry.

Children of middle-class diaspora Chinese went into medicine. Or law. Or engineering. But they never gave up a career in dentistry to go into church related vocations. (Yea, I was a dentist in a previous life.)

Trouble was, when you served in church related vocations, you were removed from the usual systems of rewards and recognition. No one got rich working for the church. Middle class parents don’t go around boasting to their neighbours that their kids were going onto church ministry. So the work was everything. It became your primary source of self-worth. The ministry became your reason for living.

But when you structure your life around anyone or anything that isn’t the Living God, that thing becomes an idol. And soon you can’t tell the difference between serving God and serving the ministry. But the ministry, like all idols, fails you, sooner or later.

Call it burnout. Call it disillusionment. Or maybe we fall victim to some combination of money, sex or power. Or maybe it is a slow descent into cynicism and resentment. Of course primary relationships die from neglect. The worship of ministry reaps its own bitter fruit.

But God is merciful. He will try to intervene and wean you off the worship of ministry. And return you to worshipping the only one who should ever be worshipped. If you are willing to learn.

I must have been a very tough nut because I needed some special tutoring. Hence the horrendous losses on the home front. Hence the closing of many, many ministry doors. There was the two years of ecclesiastical discipline. And the depression.

Maybe its just middle age. But at some point, I found that I couldn’t build my life around the ministry. I didn’t have much ministry left to begin with. I had to learn to live what I had preached. That our primary identity is “child of God.” And that our primary source of meaning, identity, and self-worth is in Christ. And that ministry at its best is one more way of “loving because He first loved us.” (1John 4:19)

Others of course learn the same liberating truth in less traumatic ways. But it is a truth that must be learnt. Our lives must be rooted in Christ. And ministry must be an outflow of that primary relationship.

But if we root our lives in the ministry itself, we find ourselves anchorless. Indeed ministry becomes a drug. We need it to feel good. But we never get enough. And the hangover is a killer.

The temptation to build our lives around our careers is not restricted to vocational church ministry. Christians in the professions and in business face similar temptations. It’s just that in vocational church ministry the temptation is a whole lot more subtle. After all aren’t we serving God? And doesn’t God deserve every sacrifice?

It takes a lot of wisdom and the right mentors to differentiate between serving God and serving our own egos through our ministry to God. And I suspect that it is a lesson we have to learn throughout our lives. (Maybe the dengue episode was a refresher course.)

Today, I had enough energy to do only one thing. I sent my mother a mother’s day card. It was a good day.

Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan