If you look at my writing about my faith you’ll see a recurring theme: I’m trying to figure out how to express it in the way I live my life. I want my faith to be far more than just going to church, reading my Bible, and praying. Those things are necessary, but far from sufficient.
Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And James 2:17 says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” From these passages I conclude that I need to be doing good, loving things in the world. This is not about earning my salvation, as it was a gift freely given. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rather, this is about responding gratefully to that salvation and the enduring love that God expressed through it.
But what would that look like?
When I was a new Christian, I began by serving in my church. I used my technical skills to build a Web site for the church I attended then. I passed out communion and counted the offering. Eventually I taught Bible study to preteens, and later to senior citizens. But that wasn’t exactly doing loving works in the world.
One day while driving I saw someone pulled over with some sort of car trouble. I had the time, so I stopped. Turned out they had a flat tire, but had never put on a spare before and didn’t know what to do. I did it for them.
Then I said to God, “Maybe this is something I can do in the world. If you send me more flat tires, I will stop and help.”
I changed a dozen flats over the next year or so. I just kept coming across people with them.
Then one day I couldn’t be late. Sure enough, I came upon someone pulled over, struggling to pull their spare out of the trunk. I passed them by. It has been easily 20 years since that day, and I’ve never come upon another motorist with a flat tire.
I learned a couple key lessons. First, if you aren’t doing the work God puts in front of you, he’ll give it to someone else. Also, all ministries end.
In 2004, just as my first wife told me she wanted a separation, I was asked to go on a mission trip to Mexico. I went because it would be a new experience in serving God, but also because the trip would let me set aside my sadness and anger for a while.
The trip was to Piedras Negras, a town on the Texas border in the state of Coahuila. A flood had wiped out a number of houses, and we were one of several successive crews who were building new houses for people there. I knew nothing about construction so I was taught to apply stucco, and then with a small crew stuccoed a just-built house. I have one photograph of me doing this work, shown here.
The people in that neighborhood were trying hard to come back from staggering loss. And here we were just giving time and effort to try to restore some of the people there to normal life. This was doing loving works in the world.
I went back to Piedras Negras the next two years. In 2005 I built teacher’s desks for a preschool, and in 2006 I installed computers in that same preschool. (To read much more about these three mission trips, click here.) Each year, I came home feeling like I’d really lived out what I believed God was calling his people to do — go out into the world and help meet their needs, in the name of love and in the name of God.
But surely, I wondered, I didn’t have to go to some distant place to do this. Were there not people in need everywhere? Couldn’t I do this right where I lived?
It was at about this time I was asked to become an elder in my church. In my faith tradition, elders are the church’s leaders. (They’re supposed to be, anyway — in my faith tradition we’re seeing more and more pastor-led churches.) I quickly learned that the church was in dire financial straits, as the offering didn’t cover expenses and our reserve was spent. We were plunged into the intensely stressful work of trying to save our congregation from extinction. We managed to sell the building and with the proceeds begin building a much smaller one on a new site. I chronicled the whole thing in these posts; when you click that link, scroll to the bottom and read the posts in reverse order.
I thought being an elder would be much more about caring for the spiritual and physical needs of our congregation than it actually turned out to be. Primarily, it turned out to be about figuring out how to pay bills, sell a large church building, secure temporary worship space, purchase land, and negotiate construction contracts. The main area of caring we attended to was to guide a grieving congregation through the loss of not just a building, but of land that had belonged to the church for 170 years.
Occasionally, a family in deep need would find us, and we’d try to help them. It usually led to us letting them live in a house the church owned. This always blew up in our faces, and we learned some lessons from that that I ought to write about someday.
But the congregation almost never came to us with their needs so that we could walk alongside them in love and service. I think this is in part a failure of we elders to create the deep trust and safety that would have enabled them to do so. This is hard work that requires constant maintenance. We were so consumed with our immediate practical problems that we couldn’t devote the energy to it. But our members were of at least middle-class means and had the resources to take care of their problems on their own.
Before we finished building our new building it became clear that I should move on from that church, which I wrote about here. In time I landed at an urban church in a severely disadvantaged Indianapolis neighborhood. I had known the pastor there for years. I went just to visit, but felt so welcomed that I stayed. Soon I saw that this could be the very situation I had been looking for.
People in poverty, I learned, are very willing to tell you just what’s going on in their lives, and to ask for help. They all have challenging circumstances. One stroke of bad luck, such as their beater car breaking down, or an illness that makes them miss work for a week, can throw their entire lives into disarray.
There was plenty to do for them. Some things were obvious, such as running a food and clothing pantry out of the church. We also connected our people to social services, helping them find the right ones and guiding them through the complicated and confusing approval processes.
There were also plenty of spot needs to meet – paying a bill so the electric didn’t get turned off, filling up a gas tank so someone could get to an interview, buying a few days of groceries for a family out of food until the next paycheck. Sometimes the church paid for these things, sometimes we did it out of our own pockets.
We also listened to them talk about their troubles. So often their relationships were unhealthy, and they had nobody they could really trust to talk things out with. Most of the time, just listening to them with compassion was all they needed. Knowing that we’d keep it confidential really helped them open up. Occasionally we had some wisdom and experience to share that helped them navigate whatever they were facing.
But it all wasn’t enough. The congregation’s troubles were never ending. And then the church itself ran into troubles. Our offering was covering expenses, but then the pandemic hit and the offering fell off dramatically. We burned through savings at a frightening rate.
But more than that, we elders were running on fumes. We were reeling from the failure of a daycare we had started (I touched on that here), and from the exit of a pastor we had hired who turned out not to be the right fit for us. We elders took turns preaching for several months, until we got connected to a preacher who had a regular job but was willing to preach for us on a freelance basis.
In the end, we went looking for a larger church or parachurch organization that was well funded, aligned with our beliefs, had urban mission on their mind, and would be willing to take over. We finally found one, a church that wanted to operate a satellite location, or plant a new church, in the inner city. As we finalized the details to transfer our property to them, I decided to exit, as I was burned out. Also, as my wife and I had talked it over, it had become clear to us that for me to be a truly effective elder, we would need to live in that church’s neighborhood. I have never really wanted to do that, and thankfully I wasn’t feeling called to it.
My life had changed radically since I joined that church. I had been a divorced dad when I started, with time on my hands for the church — my kids were with their mom half the time. I had since become a married man again taking on four additional children. Most of our seven kids were in their late teens and early 20s, all trying to launch into independent adulthood. A few of them were struggling with the transition and were leaning on us. We also had parents near the end of their lives who needed our help. It was clear to me that my family needed my time and energy now.
And so that’s where I am and what I’m doing. Margaret and I are attending a church in our faith tradition that’s a few minutes’ drive from our home. The teaching is good. We’re making easy connections with people there because Margaret has lived in this community for a long time and knows lots of people.
I still have a heart for the urban mission. But I don’t know whether my time with that is over, or it’s just on hiatus.
I am trying to be open to what God wants us to do, when the time comes. Until then, while I focus on my family I am also focusing on refreshing my faith. My service at my last church was exhausting and, frankly, at the end of it I felt distanced from God. This is a good time to get back to the fundamentals — attending worship, prayer, reading my Bible. These very things that I earlier called necessary but not sufficient will reestablish that connection.
Then I’ll be open to following the paths that God seems to be lighting in my life, wherever they may lead.