Charm

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I distinctly remember a conversation during my limited year at Calvin seminary long ago about the idea of being zealous for God. We discussed the preacher’s ability to convey the urgency of the Gospel, and the need to be a compelling person who could convey some of the earnestness of the endeavor of ministering in the name of Jesus Christ.

Later, I remember a preaching class, likely with Jay Weener or Ron Geschwendt at Western Seminary, when we talked about the quality of winsomeness. The preacher’s style and person had a role in the message, not just in speaking words, but in presenting oneself speaking the message in such a way that was attractive to people, and made them find the message and messenger to be appealing, or winsome.

In my current setting as a chaplain in a major hospital (trauma and transplant center, with a large children’s hospital), I’m finding that it takes a certain amount of charm to “get away with” the kinds of conversations we have with patients, families, and those who care for them. Of course, there’s the expectation of a high level of professionalism in an institution like ours, and there are plenty of rules, regulations, and protocols to make sure that we not only know the right stuff, but also do the right thing. Nevertheless, as we engage people in a very short amount of time we to try to win them over to allow us to “dive into” a conversation about meaning, and significance, and changes in their lives.

Naturally, many folks don’t even allow us to charm them with much of anything, because they’re caught in fear. They tell us their fear: “if the chaplain’s here, somebody must be dying.” Or they carry with them a healthy (yes) skepticism of anyone wearing an official badge who sides with the institution. With that kind of perception, things can only get better…maybe.

Many folks, though, understand that a chaplain in a hospital intends to help people. For whatever they think we do, they know that we’re on the side of good, and not on the side of pain or harm or increased stress. At the worst, they might think we’re innocuous. We have a very short time to interact, and depending on what the patient or family member (or lack of interruption) allows, sometimes the interaction is indeed, significant, and proves to be meaningful.

The charm aspect of these interactions has to do with that quality of winsomeness. Can we convey concern and grace, even, with folks who don’t know us, and may never see us again? Can we discern from the patient or family member some small nugget that tells us what their concerns are at the moment–whether those are concerns about where the bathrooms are, or where they can find coffee or a place to smoke–or the greater concerns about “will their loved one make it,” or how this particular health episode may change their lives, either making them better, or more challenging. They may see our willingness to engage them as they are, and let down their guard enough to reveal some of the turmoil they’re facing.

I once worked with a hospice nurse whose charm was too potent. She tried too hard. She exuberantly greeted folks, which in a hospice setting, may not be the best style. Sure, she happily went about her work, she was enthusiastic, and she wanted to convey to the patients that she was eager to help. But the over-powerful charm was enough to make most of us want to take a step back, and often raised suspicions. After all, there aren’t that many people who are thrilled to sign onto hospice, and to acknowledge that their days are numbered.

I do wonder if charm comes more easily to those who have a gracious appearance, and naturally, that has something to do with one’s winsomeness. But most of us who work in the hospital also have the good sense to know that people don’t come to the hospital to see us. We are part of the infrastructure, and because of that, we know things. We know the usual rhythms, if there is anything “usual’ about the current patient. We know the people who work the place, the people who provide the care, and can navigate some of their tasks and style with the same kind of charm that allows us to do the work that we do.

Granted, there are plenty of days where my charm was left at home, under the covers in our bedroom. There are plenty of moments when my charm is overcome by fear that I did the wrong thing, or that the moment we’re facing has nothing charming about it. There are some awful, trying moments when the best we can do is to acknowledge and name the terrible. Then, the grim news of tragedy takes over, and yet I still get to help navigate, negotiate, and share my knowledge of the infrastructure. Interestingly enough, in some of the most tragic situations, it’s the family or a friend who shares an endearing story or quality that lends a note of charm or sense of endearment to a grim situation.

I don’t know if Jesus had much charm. Lots of the stories in the gospels tell us he came on like gangbusters. He used his authority; he had lots of certifications like, “this is my beloved son: listen to him.” and “I’m the Good Shepherd,” and “I am the light of the world.” He also said that we are the light of the world, which is a way of giving away his authority.

Even some of his 1:1 enounters–the woman who touched the hem of his cloak, the blind man at the pool–were kind of brusque. Who touched me? Do you want to be made well?

So, is there any biblical merit for being a person of charm? I’m not talking about the artificial, saccharine yuckiness of some people whose charms hang from bracelets or necklaces, whose charm seems mostly self-serving, and who run away from tragedy and seriousness. I’m also not talking about the slick superficial charm of folks who want to sell you something, and don’t want you to actually get to know them. Their slick charm is a veneer, and may have an empty center like the hollow chocolate Easter bunnies.

Who are the charming ones in the Bible? The prophets certainly weren’t very charming folks. Boaz must have been charming in a gentlemanly way; Esther might win the charm prize, actually. And maybe Mary, the mother of Jesus, in saying “Let it be to me according to your will.” Charm in this sense is an outward demeanor that reflects a life of integrity, of contentedness, of spiritual depth. I’ve often thought of the Old Testament character Enoch as one whose life was taken up as he walked with God, as a most charming description of the spiritual life. Walking with God, chatting, engaging, appreciating each other, being lost in each others’ presence on a walk that just keeps going into the sunset.

Approachability or accessibility might contribute to the quality of charm. People expect pastors to be approachable, likable, and even nice. But don’t hang around too long, or get too comfortable. We want to like you, but we also want you not to forget who you are and what your role is as a leader in a faith community.

Charm also seems to be the opposite of many people’s experiences of Christian character. Indeed, when we’re rule-enforcers and “thou shalt not” people, there’s not much about that to charm anyone. However, if indeed Christ is our peace, then charm should automatically flow from the peace within. If we are rooted and grounded in God, wouldn’t that sense of groundedness allow us to engage the world with eagerness and delight?

Perhaps, fundamentally, a charming person of faith is a signal or a symbol, an agent commissioned to share the good without concern for who gets it right. To be charming, then, is really not the point, but the pointer–the one who points to the glory of God.

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3 thoughts on “Charm

  1. Cindi, thank you for these words about charm! I kept thinking about Paul, and about how it seems he may not have been the most dynamic of preachers. And yet, how winsome he was with his words in the epistles! I think charm has something to do with our giftedness and our ability to live into our true selves. In that regard, Jesus manifested perfect charm. He spoke with authority. He baffled his listeners. He drew crowds. But, if charm meant always being liked or approachable or giving people what they wanted, Jesus certain lacked that kind of charm – intentionally!

    That all reminds me a bit of Proverbs and the idea that charm fades and that beauty is fleeting. But, what endures is our praise of the Lord. That is the only testimony that doesn’t fade. It isn’t human charm, but it is the ever-enticing and pursuing love of God. Amazing stuff!

  2. I love your form of witty writing. It’s charming (ha!). And, I must confess, the thought of leaving your charm at home between the sheets made me blush a bit. No lie.

    But that is beside the point.

    This is the comment that got me thinking: We want to like you, but we also want you not to forget who you are and what your role is as a leader in a faith community.

    So often, I find that pastors (myself included) are more inclined to ‘be liked by’ than to ‘like’ their ministry community. Because we are so vulnerable to the criticisms and praise of others, the need to be liked causes the charming meter in us to rise. It’s when I remember my call as a leader to increase awareness of the sin that engulfs us and lead each other to the only venue offering true forgiveness and wholeness that I can loosen my grip on being liked and be ok with causing discomfort. As you said, Jesus wasn’t necessarily the most charming Rabbi on the road, but he definitely lived into the call of salvation… all the way to the rather discomforting cross.

    So, the invitation in this for me is to check that my ‘charm’ is not hindering but helping me live as the woman, pastor, mother, wife, friend that I am called to be in Christ. And, since I am sure you’ve already discovered just how insanely charming I can be, I suppose I should chew on this little nugget for quite a while.

  3. Cindi! Thank you for this, your inaugural post here at “That Reformed Blog.” I hope it is the first of many to come. I have been wrestling with this post for the last week & 1/2 or so. I love your expression that Jesus sometimes “came on like gangbusters.” In the past I have used a less humorous expression, but some of the same examples from his ministry that you cite to argue in favor of more traditional expressions of Christian worship that don’t seem so much like “artificial, saccharine yuckiness” as some more contemporary attempts to be “seeker sensitive.”

    I know that I sometimes desperately need the jarring approach of Jesus and the OT prophets to snap me out of my daze and memorization by all things mundane and wake me again to a world alive with God. Likewise I need a liturgy and a Christian community spacious enough to let me praise and rejoice as well as lament and cry out with the Psalmist and Jesus “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

    But I also know from my internship experiences at The Warm Friend and Holland Hospital that what you are saying is sooooooo true that sometimes the things you mention: a certain level of charm, winsomeness as well as approachability and accessibility are necessary to have any hope of conveying the love of Jesus to another, especially in the hurried fast pace setting of the hospital.

    I think one of the chief implications I draw from your post here is that there is a time to come on like gangbusters, or like Jesus and the prophets and a time to model ourselves after the charm of Boaz, Esther or Mary. I think the hardest part for me is discerning which approach is appropriate for the various circles and different contexts I move in.

    Thanks again for this thought provoking post!

    ~Wayne

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