Good news! It’s Christmas
As I sit here writing to you there is an icy draft making me shiver as the door opens, announcing the arrival of another student into the bookstore. A couple of weeks ago I had the furniture in here moved up against the walls to make room for an evening of intellectual discussion and hospitality for the skeptics and questioners who share this city. This was in fact my first big-scale event of my ministry here in America. Sitting with the floppy-haired youths from the local Liberal Arts college I was sitting next to a contradiction. I supposed that this community event was in some way entirely removed from what I am aiming to accomplish, in terms of how Christians serve and love their poor neighbours. Behind closed doors in community centres and basketball courts I see the hidden face of Annapolis, those who live below the poverty line who are overwhelmingly from the black community. Yet scruffy students in pea-coats are the icon most associate with the red bricks of downtown. There I sat, judging these people who also are my neighbour for their ignorance and cloistered, safe, wealthy lives.
I think I hated them because these students are so much like me. I see in them what I find frustrating about myself: The choking presumptions you pick up when you are raised in a context of wealth and opportunity. It is easy (or if not easy, at least simpler) to love those whose needs are profoundly clear. It is challenging to love those who seem to possess so much. Indeed would these have been the people who would have come to greet the infant Christ upon his Advent? Would they have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the shepherds? Perhaps St Matthew’s Gospel (visit of the wise men) would remind me that indeed they have their own mysterious journey to make as they come to find Christ in his humility. That night at the bookstore was a chance to be a signpost for them.
If it is the case that I have found something of great worth for which I am willing to give up all else in Christ, then any opportunity to share this is important and valuable. Am I going to convince the student who reads everything from Plato to Sartre that the Gospel is true? Of course not. Rather by ordering my life around including and serving the poor I get to show them that there might be something wonderful worth throwing away their lives for. This is the witness of the church which reaches further than the voice of any one preacher. The Magi had to travel a long distance to meet the humble saviour. The shepherds were close to him already yet the Lord welcomed them all. I have met those who are in extreme need and those in extreme excess. I was tempted to conceit and bitterness yet because it is the one Lord who embraces both I could not maintain such a stubborn pretension of holiness.
I have discovered that these kinds of contradicting and isolated communities are woven into the fabric of this city. It makes for an ugly blanket of clashing colours and as I find myself getting into the fiber of things I see that the reasons for much of the division here is not malice but lack of relationship. How can anyone love their neighbour when they have no idea who that person is? Maybe my unique piece in this is to be one of those who helps people cross the street and cross the borders into the unknown territory. I attend a number of regular events and programmes which help the people of the city but the need is far greater than this. By doing this I get to see over the fence into situations at once overwhelming in their challenge and rich in their possibility. Then I get the privilege of coming to church and sharing the wonders I have seen. As a missionary my role isn’t to patch every tear. Instead I try to encourage new friendships to happen just by saying ‘come with me and meet this new neighbour’.
In so doing perhaps, by the grace of God, the cause of Christ is served by many more pairs of hands.
Christmas has been the perfect season to begin this kind of ministry. Last week a small church who care especially for those vulnerable to substance abuse were singing christmas carols on Main Street. They had no musicians amongst them so I made a couple of calls to friends who lived nearby and soon we had some excellent musical accompaniment and it made the night for all of us. And even if some of what we call ministry around Christmas is somewhat shallow or short-term, I’ve chosen to engage with the feeding programs or gifts for kids schemes as a bridge with which to start a friendship, not as a one-off conscience cleanser.
Maybe if we keep walking over those rickety bridges, we will be will be known as the people who love the poor. Now wouldn’t that be something?
As always your prayers and encouragement are requested. Please pray for this new year as I begin to teach and lead more in the church that I will be received well and that people will be inspired to serve the city.
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Thank you for journeying with me, I look forward to sharing with you many more exciting stories in the months to come.
All my love, Ian.