Since mid-August we have been ministering at a small inner city church. A dear brother had begun the work four years prior, and through a set of unusual yet unmistakable circumstances, God brought us there. Ten years before, my husband, daughter, and I had served in another ministry actually located in the same building where this church met. Then He began to enlarge our borders, first with my volunteering at the Rescue Mission women and children's shelter, then my husband preaching weekly at Samaritan Inn, then our daughter employed as an Americorps volunteer at Refugee and Immigration Services. Several years ago our former church family had held monthly services in the city...again, in the same building where our present church first met. More importantly, God kept placing our city on our hearts...the hidden needs, the lonely and forgotten people. God moved the dear brother who had first planted the church and enlarged his borders in a fruitful sphere of ministry. And we seemed to fit in the vacancy.
Immediate challenges hit us. The folks who owned the building where we worshiped told us we had to find another meeting place...with three weeks' notice. Before we came, interpersonal conflicts and disagreements had surfaced in the flock. The treasury was almost depleted. Discouragement had set in. We prayed and sought counsel. Here was a handful of dear people desiring God's heart for the city. But together we faced "giants in the land." We found ourselves clinging to this one thing: if God doesn't come through, we are sunk. We would pray, "Lord, if Your strength really is made perfect in weakness, then our church is a prime place for You to show up!"
So in God's kindness He provided a very reasonable place to meet, with high visibility and among many kinds of people, including refugees. We had a church picnic in a nearby park, providing more opportunities to engage people with the gospel than the church had ever experienced. Our men visited in the neighborhood. We have prayed expectantly. We sing loudly. (One woman we contacted told us she had heard our singing a block away and asked about us!) At a member family's home we held a cookout, offering hot dogs, conversation, and the love of Christ. We love each other fervently. We welcome visitors warmly. We've invited so many people to worship with us that we joke that, if everyone invited ever shows up on the same Sunday, we will be an instant megachurch.
Often my husband and I are asked the question, "How is the church doing?" We always answer, "We have discouragements and encouragements." The major discouragement is that we have seen very little fruit. The learning curve of doing inner city ministry is steep. People may feel desperate, demonstrate conviction of sin, and seek help, both physical and spiritual. Then they may get a little relief or be lured back into the "comfort zone" of their addictions, dropping completely out of sight. People in the inner city sometimes move often, so we may be building relationships and then never see some folks again. Poverty is complex and multi-layered, never presenting by itself. People in poverty often have chronic illness, joblessness, disrupted relationships, and much more. Many have been "burned" by organized religion or have trust issues with religious people, and/or God Himself. A deeper discouragement is within ourselves. We face the fact that we often have unrealistic expectations of people. We want quick(er) results. We have assumed that, if we just pray and love and work, we will see things happen!
But God has His own timetable...and His own purposes. The real work, so far, is in us. The major encouragements are three. One, a felt spirit of prayer is on the church. Prayer is our weapon of first resort. We love to pray. We believe God loves to hear us pray. So, we pray. Second, we have many opportunities to share the gospel and show the love of Christ. In fact, opportunities abound. No, we have not seen the fruit we long for. But we have sown gospel seed in many lives. Maybe we have planted, others will water, and others will reap the harvest. No matter...it's the same Kingdom. Third, we are learning to suffer well together.
If I were to list the suffering of various ones in this one little flock, it would astound. Among us we have experienced or are presently experiencing depression, financial loss or uncertainty, rebellious children, substance abuse, jail, mental illness, eviction from house or apartment, chronic illness, sexual victimization, death of a child, and loss of a spouse. We are faced with the stark fallout of sin, our own and others wreaked on us, and so we feel...FEEL...our need of the Rescuer. Life is not pretty. Oh, it may appear that way on the surface of some of our lives, but deep down, we are a needy bunch. We are learning to embrace our sufferings, not just endure them. As our friend Pastor Tim says, all of us as followers of Christ are called upon to re-enact the gospel, over and over, to die in little and big ways, and then to see God transform those little deaths, resurrect dead dreams, and redeem all our losses. It's a painful yet beautiful way to live.
Perhaps the most devastating truth about myself that I've had to face is that I don't like feeling needy. I enjoy feeling (and appearing) capable and in control. God has revealed that I...not just the people to whom I minister...have trust issues with Him. In perfect love, He is relentless in challenging this in me. I am so uncomfortable! He is uncovering big gospel gaps in my life, and I want to turn away from what I'm seeing in myself. I see how anxious I can get with no guaranteed income. I see how I like "normal" church life, where everyone is pretty much like me. I see how rigid I am about certain expectations in people. I see how scared I can become...quickly...in the presence of things and people who are "different."
But God is in the gaps. In those very gaps in my life, I am finding He is there, waiting for me to come to the end of my felt resources, my self-sufficiency. He waits with a patience and persistence foreign to me. He pursues with a love that sometimes frightens me. His purposes for good in my life are inexorable. He just will not stop, until Christ is formed in me and I desire His glory more than anything else on earth. For now, I live in the big gap, "the already but the not yet."
Last night I visited in the home of a family relatively new to this country. I had met them previously in a social setting, so we were past the awkwardness of the exchange of names, greetings, and initial chitchat. But I still felt shy and uncertain. The children are learning English in school, but the mom, looking for employment, desperately needs improved conversational English. So I was there to examine and discuss the picture dictionary that has both English and their native language labels. We delved into the book, discussing various nouns, verbs, even prepositions. She diligently wrote each word, copying, refining her pronunciation, puzzling over sound-alikes and other complications in English, of which there are many. She was so eager to learn that the questions began to pour out. "What is this?" "How do I say I am happy when baby comes?" "When wedding comes, what do I say?" "In restaurant, this is check for cost of meal, but why do you say you check my work??" We would laugh over silly words, over my attempts to speak their language, over the inconsistencies in English. (The children ride the "bus" to school, but the busboy will "bus" the table after the diners finish their meal!?)
I was settling comfortably into this moment with the family, when the father came into the kitchen to greet me. The mother began to speak rapidly in her language, wanting him to show me something. I wasn't prepared for what came next. He turned his back to me, lifted his shirt, to reveal several perfectly round dime-sized scars, healed over, purple and red. The couple put their English skills together to explain that the scars were the result of a drill systematically used to torture him. She pointed out the long scar on his still-handsome face. They together showed me pictures of his striking brother, murdered with ten gunshot wounds to his head. The children sat by, silent, obviously accustomed to this family narrative.
I sat silent, too. I wondered, "How do I say I am sorry for this?" Or, "I am sad that your lives were so riddled with persecution and torture that you left behind all that you possessed, all that was secure and familiar, to start over in a land often hostile to people like you?" I was truly speechless, hoping that somehow the horror and compassion I did feel would register in my facial expression or tone of voice. I've never had to find words for this particular situation. I need tutoring in speaking to such great suffering.
Later the thought of Christ's sufferings came into my mind. He was a Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He was homeless, sometimes friendless, an alien in a strange land. He endured misunderstanding, accusation, and shame. In heaven, now exalted at the right hand of His father, He still bears the scars of His earthly sufferings. Mark Buchanan claims that our own scars are a way of intimacy with our scarred Savior. That same Man of Sorrows sends families exiled from their homelands to our homeland. What difference would it make if they could know Him, who helps me make sense of my own suffering, not to be compared with theirs but real nonetheless?
I still do not have adequate words for this family, but I can go for them to the One who does.
Last evening my husband and I were driving to a restaurant for dinner. He had received a gift card for his birthday, and we were set to enjoy a meal together. The air was cooler, and the clouds were lit with the afterglow of the summer sunset. As we were enjoying the drive, my phone rang. It was our daughter walking home from work, and she said that, as she was crossing the Wasena bridge, a young man stopped her and asked if she would listen to him. He was drinking, emotionally disturbed, and was threatening to end his life. She listened and then called us to pray for him.
My first reaction was fear for her safety. Was he following her? How close to home was she now? My second reaction was concern for this man. Would he really harm himself? Who was there to help him? So we prayed there in the car. But when we realized we were minutes from the bridge, we took the exit ramp to drive to the bridge and see what we could do.
We crossed the bridge and easily spotted the man, beer in hand, peering over the edge. We parked the car, and my husband got out to go to the man and engage him. "Tim" was weeping continuously, and his story poured out with his tears. He and his girlfriend had been evicted from their apartment, and she had told him to get lost. He had no family nearby. He had nothing. His life was over. He talked, Randy listened and tried to reason with him. But the agitation increased, and he perched on the railing with intent to jump. So Randy moved cautiously away, calling the police for help as he walked toward our car.
Within a couple of minutes they arrived, blocked off the bridge, and attempted to talk him out of his plan to end his life. When it appeared nothing would work, they apprehended him so that he could be taken to an area hospital for evaluation and help. I called our daughter back to report on what had happened. The whole episode was over in a brief space of time, but the memory hovered over our dinner and in our conversation.
Most of my daily life in this city is characterized by beauty and order. The City Market teems with vegetables, flowers, and friendly people. The coffee shops are hives of intense, lively conversation and laughter. The halls of the school where I work are safe, clean, and lined with students' artwork. The greenways are groomed, enjoyed by young people and families walking, biking, or rollerblading. Our city is ringed with the Blue Ridge mountains and even has its own mountain within the city limits.
But parts of our city are characterized by poverty and disorder. Random, or not so random, shootings, occur. Close to a major interstate, the city has ready access to illegal drug traffic. Almost fifty percent of high school students drop out before graduation. Some nights this past bitterly cold winter, the local rescue mission was filled to overflowing, people sleeping on the floors of the kitchen, parlor, and sent to sleep in other buildings commissioned as temporary shelters. People like "Tim"...
Last night, in God's plan, our stories intersected on a bridge. What's the rest of the story? We don't know. We do know that we cannot follow Jesus and look the other way. But we need to learn how to love and appreciate the beauty and safety of our city while loving and appreciating our neighbor who is desperate and hurting. I don't know how to do this. But I want to learn.
Lord God Almighty, I understand that I am unable to do anything without your help, so I ask you to enable me by your grace to fulfill your will.
Give me grace to do whatever brings most glory and honor to you, pleasure and profit to me, and life and love to others.
Help me to number my days, spending my time wisely, living my life with all my might while I still have breath.
Humble me in the knowledge that I am chief of sinners; when I hear of the sins of others, help me to not look upon them with pride, but to look upon myself with shame, confessing my own sins to you.
When I go through difficulties and trials, remind me of the pains of hell from which you have already delivered me.
Place people in my path who need my help, and give me a compassionate and generous spirit.
Fill my heart with such love that I would never do anything out of a spirit of revenge, nor lose my temper with those around me. Hold my tongue when I am tempted to speak evil of others.
Thank you for the gospel and for the hope of glory. Help me to live in light of these truths every day of my life, so that when the time of my death arrives, I will rest assuredly in you, and you will be most glorified in me.
In Christ’s name…
- Trevin Wax (adapted from the first 21 of Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions)
Vermeer's The Milkmaid My friend Maxine Gross is again a guest blogger today. She has written such a lovely and intimate account of her husband's return home last week and his gift to her:
Ed arrived safely home the night before Thanksgiving. He had been traveling in several countries, either training pastors and leaders in one country or arranging for training in other countries. His last visit was in Holland, the country my great grandmother was born in. We had visited there together once when we were blessed to go to the incredible Billy Graham Evangelism meeting, Amsterdam 2000. Later we had hunted out the village Great-Grandmother was from and even found her home. I stood on the cobbled-stoned street in front of the little lace-windowed home with goose bumps all over and imagined her there. We also visited the famous art museum in Amsterdam. There, with great excitement, I was thrilled to find my favorite painting, Vermeer's The Milkmaid. I had seen it in a book as a young wife and longed to see it in person. We rounded the corner where she sat. People were crowded around her. But as I saw her, tears sprang to my eyes. The painting itself was much smaller than I had imagined. But it was the blue of the painting that took my breath away. No reproduction could possible duplicate that remarkable blue. She was a commonplace woman doing a commonplace task. The blue of her apron, the brown of the jug and the texture of the bread made it feel homey. She was me. Ed's plane was late, but only by forty-five minutes. We were going to do the traditional thing and go out for dinner the night before Thanksgiving. Our eldest son was kindly treating us to Chinese Buffet. Ed was so tired but we still had a lovely time and the food was delicious. When we got home, I thought he would head straight for bed. Instead he said, "I have some gifts to give you." He simply couldn't wait any longer. He plowed through his luggage and presented Josh with some Dutch chocolate, Beth with some Dutch cheese and a little Delftware couple kissing, for me. (I have collected Delftware since we were young and my other little kissing couple had broken.) But then, with great ceremony, he took out a little plastic covered packet. He very very carefully opened it. As it was being opened he explained what this little treasure was. While he was visiting Delft, he had walked by an ancient paint store, just down the street from where the painter Vermeer had lived. This store was hundreds of years old and was the paint supply store for the local artists. It was the very place that Vermeer himself would have gone for his art supplies. My husband entered and spoke to the man inside. He asked him if he knew of the special blue in the painting, the Milkmaid, if he had any idea about it. He told the story of my tears at seeing the painting. The Dutchman smiled and told him he knew just what it was. The man brought out the packet. After he wrapped it up and handed it to Ed, he smiled and said, "It is a gift to you". I love Dutch people. Ed opened the packet after he had told the story to us. Inside was blue powdered paint, the very blue of the painting, the very Vermeer blue I love so much. It made my heart leap, and my eyes, my poor tired eyes, rejoiced. And yes, I cried. He had given me the gift of blue. Not just any blue, but this blue. The most beautiful blue in the world. It was to be added a few grains at a time to mineral oil, or strained egg whites and then transported to canvas. We closed up the packet and placed it inside a tin, a special tin. It was something he had brought Dutch chocolates home in last year. On the top is a picture of Sunflowers by another Dutchman, Van Gogh. I placed the tin on the same shelf I keep my tea pots, to be kept safe. It is going to take me a long long time before I will actually apply it. I want it to be just right. I am quite sure that is the most romantic gift I have ever gotten. It is better than diamonds or flowers. It was the gift of blue. What a man the Lord has given me.
So this does not address your latest post, but I wanted to say Happy Birthday!!! Mama, You mean so much to your family. You mean so much to me. I love how you laugh, the fact that you value feisty strong women, your delight in English literature, your mentoring of younger women, your desire to