Yesterday I met with the head of a local nonprofit state-funded mental health provider. We talked about homeless and low income needs in the neighborhood. Later after leading worship at NLEC a man came up and engaged me in conversation about many things, very little of which was intelligible. I just listened and tried to be patient. Then he let me pray for him. It’s one thing to talk about policy it’s quite another to patiently engage. I don’t know that I’m really gifted at either but I’m here trying.
I grew up here in St. Louis until I was a teen and I love this city. In many ways I feel like I’m finally home. In many other ways this can never be home because I am and we are looking for another city whose planner/builder/maker is God. Every day I meet folks who can’t be at home here for a variety of reasons—mostly financial. As a pastor at New Life Evangelistic Center I’m trying to encourage many people every day to trust God. Usually I get more encouragement from the other members of the church here than I feel I’m giving. Sometimes I say aloud that instead of being part of the solution I’m adding my own forgetfulness, impatience, fear, anger, frustration, etc. to the mix.
But everyday I get to pray for somebody. I get to remind some one that God is for them. I get to listen to so many stories and share in so many little battles. In some small way I know God is using me to touch someone else. What else could I want?
The NLEC headquarters where I work is a three story dark brown brick building that was built nearly a century ago for the YWCA. I love this old building. I know many others in the neighborhood do not but I love it. Since I was a child I’ve gotten to know its many rooms. In the last twenty years their uses have changed a lot. Currently there’s a lot of remodeling going on. I’ve been promised a new office, right now I’m sort of squatting in my dad’s office. I suppose my real office is just the lobby where we serve a wide range of people and needs. Things like utility assistance, rental assistance, transportation and travel, and prescriptions are all in a week’s work. And that’s just the folks that walk in the front door. There are many more in house needs.
My wife has begun leading bible studies for the women here in the last few days. Yesterday she reminded me that God is enough. That statement is so profound and when I hear it I’m reminded of how little faith I have. I walk around praying for and encouraging others but I myself forget so easily that God is enough. God is present. God has provided in Christ all the grace and peace and mercy and encouragement we need for this suffering world. Christ is present here in His people reconciling sinners to himself. For nearly forty years this little family of people has been trying to share Christ with the people of this city. We’re long past trumpeting the number of souls saved, we figure that’ s God’s business. God knows His own. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling by trying to love each other in Christ and practice mutual submission. We try to receive and give freely in so far as we are able. And God is good. God is able. Every new day is a miracle if we don’t first receive it as a curse.
I hear things like, “You’re new here and you’ve got energy. Wait til you’ve been around awhile. Then you’ll feel like me.” I admire the folks who say that to me. I can’t walk in their shoes, but neither have they been in mine. I don’t know what God pulled them through, but I know what he’s pulled me through. Some things do wear on a body. Like the other day I’m trying to help this vet with his application to get an air condition for his home. He’s talking to another vet in the free store who promptly turns to me and says, “I’ve been coming here for years trying to get something like this from you people and you all never give me nothing. I want to know whose butt I have to kiss.” And I hear that kind of thing all the time. Of course, like any other ministry trying to do what we do we have a process and people have to go through that process to qualify to get what they need. I usually start mumbling about the process when someone says this kind of thing to me and I know the conversation is already over. I know he didn’t really want to hear what I had to say, he just wanted his say.
Those of you who read my blog know that I’ve had a lot to say about processes and systems and how they often don’t get around to actually serving people. It’s hard for me to hear from a Black military veteran that he thinks he’s got to kiss my butt to get something from me. Somehow I’ve got to answer as part of an establishment and he’s fighting me as part of an unfair system. And yes I’m that typical young white man in control telling him what he can and can’t have. And that just grates on me. This is just one small example of the simpler pressures.
Being a pastor, a “man of the cloth,” has all its own connotations. People think they know you, what you believe, how big your God is, how you’re going to talk, stand, and what you’re going to tell them to do. So I get to work within all these expectations. Every man or woman who comes in our door and hears me talk about Jesus may or may not have just had the worst sort of religious show tune crammed down their throats somewhere else. And I get to be the latest white preacher to talk about pie in the sky and gold when you die to someone who doesn’t know where they’ll eat tomorrow. With all those expectations how do I represent? What am I representing?
I have a lot more questions than I have answers. Divine discontentment is what I hear it called. The only way I know to keep doing what I’m doing is to get up every morning and repent that I haven’t loved God and my neighbor enough and then call out for God’s Spirit to guide us for this day to just serve maybe one person faithfully. Like I said, the day follows as a miracle or a curse contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. All outcomes get left up to God. What am I expecting? I’m expecting God to make a new heavens and a new earth. I’m expecting God to give gifts to the poor and humble the rich. How do I know that’s not too much? Because the Scriptures promise that all that is happening, and has been happening according to plan long before I was thought of, and will be happening long after the ashes my body will become are forgotten. That’s the big picture. I’m content with that.