Am I the only one who has asked that question? I know people who seem so confident, so self-assured that they are exactly where they should be. The neighborhood they were meant to live in. The career they were born to do. The social circle where they belong. I don't know if it is being in the ministry or just my natural tendency to over analyze every.single.thing, but I often find myself questioning if I'm where I should be.
I mostly ask this question when things feel hard. When life is busy, when crisis occurs, when I feel like the demands of life significantly outweigh my energy level.
You see, over the last, oh, decade of my life, things have changed. Obviously there have been changes in where we've lived, where I've worked, if I've worked, the church where we served, and the number of children on the journey with us. We've added friends. We've lost loved ones. But when I talk about a change, what I'm talking about is a change in mission of our ministry. Mostly, that now we have one. :) I don't know that we necessarily set out with a mission. We just wanted to serve God and His people. Our intentions were good, but our understanding of what that really means, well, that was lacking. Growing up in church it is easy to have the idea that "being in ministry" means shaking people's hands on the way out of church and cooking casseroles for the church suppers. Of course *everybody* loves you because you are the preacher's family. (g)
But here's what we've learned in the time since-there's not a thing easy about it. Not even making the casseroles y'all. Do you know how hard it is to live up to the cooking skills of the older ladies in the church? :) But seriously, as our years in ministry have progressed, so have the trials. Sometimes those trials have been our own. Sometimes they are the trials of those we are ministering to. Sometimes the church itself is in a deep trial. And sometimes two or more of those hit at the same time and it always leads to the same thought: This is hard.
Fight or flight. We've all learned that this is the brain's response in tough situations. Sometimes it happens physically. We physically fight or run away as fast possible. Sometimes it's emotional. Sometimes we shutdown and sometimes we do the hard work to face things in life we'd rather not. And then there are spiritual hard times. Lately I've been thinking a lot about the church as a whole. And it's hard to group an enormous amount of people into a neat little box where everyone fits, so I would never try to do that. But on a day to day basis as I observe life around me, I question if at times we are guilty of taking flight spiritually. I'm not talking about the Rapture here. Before you break out in a chorus of "I'll Fly Away", what I mean is that I think that as life gets hard and the situations in the world get tougher, we are spiritually fleeing.
When we first went into ministry learned a new term: White flight. It referred to the number of neighborhoods and churches that had an increase in diverse populations and the white people were moving out. There. I don't know any PC way to put it. And I may create a firestorm for even talking about it, but it was real and it was happening.
That being said, I feel that we are also guilty of "right flight". Regardless of race or any other factor, we just want to get to the closest group of Christians and live the right way and thank God we are not like "those other people". You know what I'm talking about. People who don't agree with us on every thing. Basically, anybody who is different.
I feel like I need to stop here and clarify that I am not trying to paint Christians with a broad stroke. I absolutely know for a fact that there are many who are ministering and serving and loving on others. I just share this because of my own struggle. My struggle with the fact that it is tempting to huddle up with other Christians and do life our own way and be completely oblivious to the struggle of those around us.
I have to tell you that God has continually put me in places that I can't ignore the struggle. We are blessed with an amazingly loving, caring church family. But it just happens to be located in a community where we have faced some unique ministry challenges. The only word to describe our ministry is "need". So much need. There are always financial needs. Always, Everywhere. Need for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Need for sobriety. Those are hard needs. Sometimes impossible ones when it comes to our personal ability or our church's ability to meet them. We can pay a light bill or buy some groceries. We can pray for healing and offer counseling. But some things are just out of our control. And so I understand where churches feel at a loss in how to help some people. But as our ministry has taken us to a more personal place with many of our neighbors, I've realized greater needs. A need for attention and company. A need to be seen and heard. A need to feel just as valued as the most upstanding church member. A need to feel a part of a family. And while those seem like easier needs, they're not.
It's not always easy to provide attention to someone when your own life is already overflowing with responsibilities and activities. It's not always easy to develop relationships with people who take more than they give. It's not always easy to invite people to be a part of your family when you're not sure you can trust them. Are you getting what I'm saying? It's hard.
It's hard to discern when someone will benefit from your time and attention and when it might just enable someone else in a negative way. It's hard when their issues get all up in your business and remind you of your issues. It's hard when people have crisis situations at the most inopportune times. It's hard when God opens your eyes to suffering around you and you realize that you are His plan to be His hands and feet in hard places. It's hard when you rediscover 1 Corinthians 13 (the love chapter) that once seemed romantic, but now reminds you that love is patient. And you begin to understand why that is the first characteristic of love, because some people require SO much patience to love.
I don't share this to point fingers or call anyone out. Every word is written for me because I need it the most. Over the last year I have continually felt the Spirit prompting me to be brave and do hard things. Our natural human tendency is to figure out-how do I make this is as easy as possible? Right? Where do we think microwaves and dishwashers came from? We spend a lot of time trying to make our lives easier. It doesn't come naturally to do the hard things. I think of the saying that firefighters are the only ones who run into a burning building when everyone is running out. Can I be so bold as to say that we as Christians have got to become brave enough to run into the hard places when others run out? I am reminded that God never told us this was going to be easy. Somewhere along the way we've decided that being in God's will equals ease, comfort, and our personal happiness. But in truth we are told,
"In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’
As I read that I realize that for me the phrase 'it is more blessed to give than to receive' has always conjured a nice thought of a gift wrapped in a beautiful box and the warm fuzzies you get when you give a good gift. But as I put this in context by including the part before it that says, "I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak" I think of a different kind of giving. The giving of ourselves. Our time. Our attention. Our hearts. Our minds. Giving of everything we have that others would see the love of Jesus in a tangible way, with arms to hug, ears to listen and a mouth to speak words of life.
As I've been made aware of so many painful, hard things I have continually found myself wanting to not know about them. To question if it is in my best interest to know about such dark things. But knowledge is power, and we cannot meet needs that we are not aware of. We cannot pray for situations we would never dream existed. And we cannot meet people in places we are too afraid to go. The story of The Good Samaritan is a perfect example of what God expects from us. I love these two quotes:
“We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves. We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like. Jesus will have none of that. By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone at all in need - regardless of race, politics, class, and religion - is your neighbour. Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith, but everyone is your neighbour, and you must love your neighbour.” ― Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just
“On the parable of the Good Samaritan: "I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” ― Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to LoveMy human self may always question if I'm where I should be. It will probably always long for an easier path, a more comfy location. I may question if it's a Christian's responsibility to wade into hard places, but I will always know the answer. 1 Thessalonians 1:5:7 tells us that it is was "in the midst of severe suffering" that they received the message of the Gospel. Somebody had to deliver it "in the midst of severe suffering". Someone had to be brave and do hard things.
"You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit."1 Thessalonians 1:5-7