Sunday, 11 November 2018

Serving with our whole lives (not just a specific 'ministry')

'He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God' Micah 6 verse 8

'Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God- this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - His good, pleasing and perfect will' Romans 12 verses 1-2

Have you every wondered how you can best serve God with your life? Have you ever heard others talking about their 'giftings' and wondered what yours might be? Have you ever heard somebody decline an invitation to serve in a particular way because that, 'Is not my ministry'? Have you found yourself responding in such manner?

I think I could answer, 'Yes!', to all of those questions.

Lately I have found myself frustrated at times when it has seemed others have been so focussed  on what 'their ministry' might be that they seem to miss out on opportunities to serve and encourage those whose paths they cross on a regular basis. This seems to be a particular challenge for some groups of Christians more than others. I appreciate that most people have busy lives with multiple competing commitments and that it is never going to be possible for an individual or group of people to be able to meet the needs of everybody who surrounds them, all of the time. But I wonder whether those of use who work-cross culturally, and are often in a particular country to respond to a particular need, or to work with a specific project or organisation are more at risk of missing the opportunities that God brings to us every day.

One thing that challenged me on this recently was a couple of my local friends commenting how we are unusual for the way we have integrated into our local church. I love our church! It is the greatest blessing to us, and as a family it is wonderful to be up and down to different meetings and ministries through the week, and for the children to grow up seeing the central role of the church in our lives and community. It is not just a Sunday or midweek thing, and it is through serving together in these different aspects that we have been blessed with strengthened friendships in the country that has been our home for these past three years. Of course we have taken delight in embracing the fellowship and different opportunities to serve, and to learn more of the different needs in society here, the cultural beliefs and taboos, the biggest challenges that young people face, and generally the best way to reach out with the gospel. But our friends have mentioned that other foreigners tend to remain more on the fringes and be more distant, and I have found myself responding that we are maybe different because we 'are not missionaries, we are just normal church members'. But that has made me contemplate this area more. There are some areas of church life that are tougher than others, and there have been times when I have invited missionaries who live locally to join and support the work (actually, I am asking them for encouragement and support in a role that I struggle with), but the response is usually that they are too busy with their 'ministry'.

As a young Christian I attended a Christian Medical Fellowship conference where Helen Roseveare was the speaker. She was brilliant because of her honesty and humility. She spoke of her early years in Congo (more detail is in her books, 'Give me this mountain', and 'He gave us a valley'.) Two things struck me deeply, such that I remember more than twenty years later. Firstly she describes how frustrated she used to become by interruptions, because her task had been to build a hospital and establish a nursing school. How could she do that when she was constantly interrupted? But with time, she came to see that the plans God had for her on a particular day were delivered to her in the form of interruptions. The second thing I remember her saying referred to her ministry in later life. She said that when people asked how she was, she would always mention that she was tired and busy, but then she was convicted of that, and realised that if she really was serving God in all ways with all she had, then she would expect that she might be tired and busy. So she stopped saying that.

The other week I was visiting friends and saw a very beautiful quote on their fridge: 'Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you canto all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” John Wesley. This made me think again about the same area.

In the same week, I was able to enjoy a home Bible study with other friends, and we were discussing 'the body of Christ' and how each of us has a role. One friend gave a helpful illustration - he explained that in the army, a person may be a doctor, or a telecommunications expert, or another technical role, but first and foremost, they are a soldier. They cannot neglect their responsibilities as soldiers because of their technical role. I found this very helpful. Yes, the Bible does talk about specific gifts that are not given to everybody - passages detailing this include 1 Corinthians chapter 12. But there are more passages which give instructions as to how to ordinary Christian is to relate both to other Christians (as a Bible study, look up all the passages which use the phrase 'one another') and to those we seek to reach with the gospel. We are called to be wise, to make the most of every opportunity, to watch our conversation carefully, to visit and care for 'the least of these', to look after the orphan and the widow, to visit the prisoner, and to do much of this 'in secret' without drawing attention to our acts, knowing that it is seen and honoured by God. That is very different from publicly proclaiming 'my ministry' and sticking to that.

It reminds me also of the well known story of the 'good Samaritan' (Luke 10 verses 25-37). A man has been beaten and left for dead along a roadside. A priest passed by and also a Levite. They were the religious people of the day, and the passage indicates they saw the man, but they passed by and did nothing. The reasons may have been that they were in a hurry, and this was an inconvenience, or that they were worried about ceremonial cleanliness. Some of it could have been simple pride regarding their positions in society. But they did the exact opposite of what Christ would call us to do for those who are destitute and in desperate need. It was a Samaritan, the last person one might have logically expected, who showed the love, kindness, compassion, patience and generosity that resulted in the man's recovery.

It is too easy for us to justify being like the priest or Levite. We can excuse our actions, but I think the overarching theme of the Bible is along the lines of the John Wesley quote - to do as much good as we can, to as many people as we can, for as long as we can. This might not always be noted. It might not earn us prestige in our communities. For the cross-cultural workers and missionaries, it might not be the kind of thing you choose to report in your newsletters or during your presentations on home assignment. But it is through the mess and inconvenience of daily life that God brings gospel opportunities right to you. Your choice is simply whether to trust God with your time, your energy, your resources and then do your best to do what is right, or to turn the other way.