I started this week reading a blog that was lamenting the lack of true friendship a former missionary has been able to find in his local church here in the United States. I found myself becoming impatient with the writer, because it has been my experience that we missionary families often live by different rules when we come back to the States than we did in the country of ministry. While overseas, we will labor with patience and endurance, counting each accomplishment as a blessing from the Lord, and praying over each failure, trying to see how we could do a better job at bridging the gap. We make allowances for cultural differences, and see the work as being a long term project, not expecting immediate gains. When we come “home” our expectations of the people around us are quite different. Although we may be more in line with the culture of our ministry, we look at any differences between us and the American Christians with whom we come in contact with disdain and impatience. I have often wondered how things might change if we could approach our lives here with the same patience, prayer and heart to minister as we do on the mission field.
These self righteous musings were still going around in my head when I received a call from a friend who voiced much of the same frustrations mentioned in the blog. “Christians are so busy they don’t have time for relationships,” she said, “it’s so exhausting!” As the conversation unfolded, I had to admit that there just doesn’t seem to be enough teaching and effort put into building relationships in our churches today. We are all too busy doing this project or that project, being involved in this ministry or that, running our kids to whichever sport, club or youth activity has won the attention of the day. We have, in a lot of ways, lost the “art” of dwelling together. Whatever relationships we have usually have to do with what we are involved in at the time, and when that particular project is over we intend to stay in touch, but there just never seems to be enough time.
I think this is a sad state of affairs. I have often been amazed at the wisdom of God in creating us to be relational beings. It is a part of His image that we bear. Time after time in the scriptures God uses our earthly relationships to teach us of himself. He compares Himself to our earthly fathers, Jesus is our brother, He is the bridegroom of the church. And we, the church, are to consider ourselves to be one body, suffering together, rejoicing together, dwelling together. If we don’t make time to really have these relationships, I think we miss out on a huge part of what God wants to teach us about Himself. “You have a good father? I am a better one.” “You have a bad father? I will not leave you as an orphan.” “Love your wife, because you are a picture of how Christ loves His church.” “Submit to your husband, because Christ willingly submits to the will of the Father.” How we relate to each other is a reflection to the world of who God is.
I heard of a study years back done by a large church that was great at evangelizing and bringing people into the church, but had begun to realize that after a couple of years people were leaving the congregation. As I recall, the study revealed that the emphasis of the church was so geared toward the unbeliever and new Christian that there was little to help someone once their growth took them past the “milk” stage of their maturity. I think this is a common problem. Part of it has to do with the excitement of being a part of that process to bring people to Christ. It feels good to actually do something tangible to contribute to the Kingdom. And in this culture, numbers mean something. If the church isn’t growing in numbers, there has to be something wrong, right? Somehow we have begun to equate spirituality to how busy we can be doing “the Lord’s work”.
I have come to believe that much of the Lord’s work isn’t all that flashy. It has more to do with being faithful in the mundane and difficult than it does in big programs and busy – ness. It isn’t always exciting, and it doesn’t always have that feeling of, “wow, I just really did something great for God!” Don’t get me wrong. I am all about evangelism, and ministering to those who are in need. I just think that sometimes we are so involved in the world at large that we forget to evangelize our own children and to help our fellow church members who are in need. Often we don’t know about the needs of our fellow believers, because we don’t make time to sit beside them and listen to their hearts. And sometimes that is what they need most of all, especially if they are struggling with a thorn in the flesh that will be with them to the end of their days.
Chronic illness can make it difficult for someone to be involved in anything with any regularity. In our case we have to make sure that there is a proper toilet available. Some people have to know every little ingredient in the food, or are just not able to eat from the common pot. Some people have to have a certain type of seat to avoid excruciating pain. Often extreme temperatures or lurking germs make it necessary for these people to stay home. It is a very lonely existence. What is often the case is that people are more than willing to run errands, make meals, provide rides, etc, but they just can’t find the time to come regularly to sit and visit. This contact with the outside world: This reminder that my problems are not the whole universe: This is what is craved. And ultimately, this is what is most beneficial for both the giver and the receiver. It is how we learn from each other, it is how we bear one another’s burdens.
The friend who called had to be coaxed to tell me what was on her heart, because she didn’t want to ruin my day. It didn’t ruin my day. It made me happy to be able to lighten her load a bit and bring her encouragement. After all, if I am not learning something from this experience that I can use to encourage those I meet in the journey, then it really would be a useless endeavor.
What does your day hold, dear reader? Can you carve out a few minutes to stop by and have a cup of coffee with a homebound friend? Are you investing in the relationships with fellow pilgrims God has put in the road beside you? I think it was Jim Eliot who was known for saying, “Wherever you are, be all there”. I would encourage you to really see the people that God puts in your path today. To really look at them, listen to what they are saying, and what they might not be saying. I would encourage you to consider the many verses that instruct us how we should be considering others in our church community, and begin to ask God to help you be mindful of how you might be used to help someone get by. Chances are, if you will put in the effort you will find that the blessings return to you pressed down, shaken together and running over.