The other day I was sitting on a pew in an old Methodist chapel. It was a pastors prayer gathering which runs for about 45 minutes each week and one of the other local ministers was asking about what I was doing in America. I explained how I was here to help the local church enter into the mission of God, which is to say to help them obey Jesus in befriending and serving the poor. He asked me what I “felt called” to and I paused to think for a moment.
“Some days I feel like I was made for this and that I’m making a real difference. Other days I feel defeated and inadequate, and like my skills are more suited to other work.”
I supposed then that an inward sense of calling-which is to say that bright clarity which makes all other things dull in comparison-is a pretty shortsighted way to think of one’s work. While such enthusiasm lasts a while, soon the cut of the cost of such a work as that which I do begins to trim the wick.
“Some days I do feel called to this” I continued, “but others it is my choice to respond to the actual words of Jesus which makes me do this.”
Upon reflection I suspect the length of my wait to come back to America grew within me the understanding that any substantial work (whether public ministry or personal witness) must be grounded in more than youthful enthusiasm. I do what I do because I understand that Christ asks it of me. Or, at least, this is my interpretation of what he has asked of all believers (Matthew 25:34-46). The point being that the source of my ministry is not my own imagination but rather a small piece of the vision Jesus casts for the world. The beauty of church is that so many others have the other pieces that together we are a mosaic displaying a picture of the coming Kingdom of God.
What therefore shines before the people of the world is not the charisma or character of any one person but the crowd of small acts of love which bring glory to the one God in heaven.
It’s been just over a month since arriving in America and I have encountered a small corner of the local picture, each piece unique and uniquely interesting. The pastor is a classically trained artist and the director of the church is a Marine (even if you’re not in active service, I learned, you’re ALWAYS a Marine). Between them they care for a beautifully imaginative and energetic church and are constantly asking how they can empower their members to do their part for the cause of Christ. From Joey the Pastor I am learning that ministry doesn’t mean doing everything and from Joshua the Director I am learning how to build teams and train people. While it is certainly slower than doing everything oneself I can see that this is how you form a church which does not depend on professional clergy.
Last week I sat in a local coffee shop to respond to some emails. I promise I don’t spend every day in coffee shops-sometimes I go to the pub-but that day was too good to be in the church office. There were two women on the next table, one older than the other and they were clearly friends. The older woman said to the younger one, recounting her years as a mother of young children, that there was a time when she would be at church every single week because there were faces she needed to see just to survive the next seven days. As I sat their, frankly annoyed by the amount of administration I had to perform I was convicted in my heart. This woman had reminded me that there is not one single thing in church which doesn’t matter. All of it matters because all the people matter. Yes, I can sit in alleyways with the street people sipping hot tea, or I can distribute meals at the local shelter or I can do any number of commendable things yet even the mundane ordering of a Sunday morning service matters to the souls of the people there.
I suppose I have been guilty of a snobbish cynicism (surprise surprise) because I get to do ‘real’ ministry with the ‘really’ needy which allows me to deride the middle-class christianity of the churches in Annapolis which so happens to be one of the most affluent cities in America.
Yet these people have faith just like I do, and their faith has not been in vain but has stood as a guardian and a shield for the desperate in the face of uncaring politics. St Anne’s Episcopal Church is the most famous and one of the oldest churches in Annapolis. It sits at the top of the hill at the top of Main Street. It is just a block from our church office so I frequently go there for their midweek communion (Did you know that in America only the minister says the Collect for Purity? Each time I go to say it and awkwardly blurt out “Almighty God” before silently staring into the prayer book (I digress)). About two decades ago they started setting up bunks at the back of the church and allowing the homeless to sleep there. All the local churches shared this work and it grew from that into a permanent shelter, to a sophisticated homeless prevention scheme called the Lighthouse which not only houses individuals and families but provides qualifications, mental health care and support to help people keep jobs.
I do not think such a thorough response to the needs of the homeless is generated by a spasm of pity for those who sleep on cold streets, a feeling of inner calling but rather by the reality of what we who are disciples of Jesus are asked to do. Now I have no expectation that what I’m seeking to do with one small church will germinate into something so vast. In fact such expectation is besides the point. I hope that this one small church will gain a love for the work of Christ and a desire to serve the desperate. Where that goes is determined by the Spirit.
So with gentleness I’ve been pursuing the work already occurring in the city: With the Stanton Center providing dinner and homework help to kids on what we in Britain would call a council estate; Spending time at a youth club in one of the rougher neighbourhoods where heroin has a terrifying grip; Keeping my eyes open to the street people who live downtown and spending time with them; and in all cases going with those who have already made a first step into these very different worlds.
Thank you for being with me on this long journey and I hope some of the stories I can share are encouraging to you. Please continue to pray for me, I know I need it. Thank you also to those who support me each month. I have been so liberated by the knowledge that my calling is affirmed by people who know me. This has given me the strength to walk into many difficult places secure in who I am and what I am there to do. I look forward to sharing more as these small seeds of relationship begin to show some fruit. The real goal is to see people from my church have the kind of relationship which was so important for me all those years ago, a deep friendship with a homeless man called Clarence.
I’d love to share more but then I’d be giving away the chapters of my book (I AM kidding) so please ask me things.