Thursday, June 03, 2021

The Butler Did It

When John Milton, the famous 17th century poet and eventual author of the epic Paradise Lost realized in mid-life that he was going totally blind, he felt a rising sense of panic. How could a wordsmith be of any value, to God or anyone else, when he had not even the use of his own two eyes?

When the great night finally descended, he was reduced to dependency and darkness. And understandably, he agonized over why the Lord would allow such a thing. He recorded his struggles in a short poem — perhaps his most-quoted piece of work.

“When I consider how my light is spent …” he began. With half a life left to give, what point would there be in him losing the one great talent he had? It would remain, he worried, “lodg’d within me useless”, and yet his “soul [was] more bent to serve therewith [his] Maker”. How could he give an account to the Lord if he could no longer serve, and in fact, could no longer even see?

That’s a serious problem. What do we do when we can’t do anything? And it’s not one that the scriptures have failed to recognize. Sometimes we end up in a place that is not of our own choosing, where our gifts and talents seem to lie fallow and useless while others rush on. We feel sidelined, taken out of the game, chained to the floor.


I was reminded of this while watching a dear friend take care of her aging mother. Caretaking the elderly is hard, hard, heartbreaking work at times. And this woman is both multi-talented and brilliant. There is much more she could have done, one would think, than eldercare, nursing, and running errands. But the need of the moment is clear: she must be where she is. And so she must be reconciled to the tasks at hand, not to the exercise of what one might judge to be her greatest gifts.

Others are chained by their jobs, or the duties of family. Some are chained by circumstance. Some are physically bound. Some are trapped in an ailing body. Some are chained by age, or by the past. There are many reasons why a person can find him- or herself locked into particular circumstances, maybe powerless to engage in the opportunities and mission to which the heart is drawn.

Life in Chains

Something comparable is involved in the New Testament passages that deal with the situations of believing slaves, I think. It has troubled some of us that God does not simply condemn slavery outright and banish it — we think that’s maybe what he ought to have done: after all, it’s a horrid institution. It’s also definitely not a divine one.

At the same time, we realize that it’s one of the oldest and most durable institutions. Whenever men have the chance, they enslave each other. In fact, there are more slaves today — and in worse conditions, in many cases — than at any time in history: did you know that? estimates that there are perhaps 40 million around the world. In contrast, the whole course of North American slavery produced only 400,000. So it’s not an institution that has been disappearing.

So long as some men are free, they will choose to enslave others. And the New Testament instructions on that are clear: if a slave can obtain his or her freedom, that’s what he or she should do immediately. But if that is not an option, what is a saved person to do? Does that mean the end of his or her usefulness to God? Has the wicked institution of men defeated the plans of God for his people? No, says the word of God. Those men have enslaved are still valued in his eyes. Not only that, but they can serve in every way as a full and faithful Christian, by turning their circumstances into an opportunity to serve the Lord. No free Christian is free from service to the Lord; neither is any Christian ever capable of being chained so as not to be free in the Lord. It is the Lord Christ in whose service we all equally stand.

Slavery’s a serious issue. But I think we are unwise to avoid looking at those passages of scripture that deal with it. They teach us something important about circumstances we can all sometimes face, circumstances like those John Milton faced. What do we do when we are locked down, limited, cut off from opportunity, and trapped in a situation in it seems to us our gifts and talents are simply impossible for us to use. Do we then become useless?

Milton reflected this way: “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts; who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Not only that, but the work of God itself cannot be arrested by our lack of motion: “His state is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest.”

Very true, perhaps. But what is all that by way of consolation to us, if we are the ones trapped? Milton concludes, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Our Standing Service

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” What does that mean?

Think of a guardsman at Buckingham palace. What does it mean to say he does his duty? It is to stand — to stay at attention and to wait. He may have to defend the Queen one day, but probably not. However, his whole value is to stay on watch. If he does so for his daily shift, then he can go home and sleep well at night: he has been a great guardsman. He has done his duty. He has a right to honor, dignity, and the thanks of Her Majesty. And all he did was stand and wait.

Or think of a butler. The whole value of a butler is to be on hand to do whatever the master requires. The agenda is not his. He is not to interfere with the master’s life and plans; his role is to wait quietly and unobtrusively for a need to arise or a wish to be expressed. And at the end of an eight-hour shift, he has done good service if all he did was to stand and wait.

Service that Counts

Who says what counts?

The Master. If, by way of duty or command, or even merely by way of unchangeable circumstance, we find ourselves standing still, we can be encouraged that there is no higher duty than obedience to whatever our Lord commands. In fact, who would exchange a faithful stand for a flurry of self-motivated activity that is not according to his purposes? And would we be true-hearted servants if we chose anything less than the Master’s will, whatever that might be?

Even if that’s standing and waiting.

Who did the master’s will?

The butler did it.

Photo credit: go ask alice [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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