Thursday, September 16, 2010

Story of Love

As promised, I wanted to spend a little time talking about what Bart Campolo said at Forest Home's Briefing conference. Each night was incredible in its own way but the talk which has stayed with me the most since was his talk from night 1 (September 3). Bart said that in ministry and/or missions work "sometimes you get so busy meeting people's need that you never really get close enough to them to get to know them." He told a story from when he was the head of a big ministry (or was at least working with one) and he used to go around telling stories about how God was changing lives in order to solicit more funding and more support. He realized that he was talking so much about helping the poor that he didn't even know any poor people anymore and he was telling stories from ten years ago.

So, after a while, he ended up moving to a poor community in Cincinnati just so he could live amongst the poor again. Now, instead of a big program and tons of volunteers, Bart simply has dinner on Mondays. Every Monday, Bart and his friends have a meal together. They don't sing worship songs, they don't have preaching, they don't even do church, they just hang out. People ask him, "are you changing lives?" "are you impacting people?" and to these questions he simply says, "no." Bart says he's not changing any lives, nobody's getting healed, nobody's lives are being totally turned around for Jesus, nobody's getting saved. All he can say about some of the people he works with is, "I can't do anything about his future, I can't change his life, but he had a good night."

Bart's point in all this, I believe, is to paint a real picture of what working with the poor, and indeed ministry in general, is really like. We can't save them all, we can't even save most of them, but we can give them a good time, a good friend--we can truly love them. We can't save them all but we can love them all and that should be the end-all of ministry from our perspective.

He talked about God's will in all of this. He said, "the problem isn't that God's holding out," it's not like He doesn't want everyone to be saved and healed, "it's that God doesn't always get what He wants." He throws the full-court shot at the buzzer, not because He thinks he's gonna make it but because every once in a while... every once in a while we listen. Every once in a while we, broken people, respond to Him and the shot goes in.

If we live only for success, if we expect the miracle shot to go in every time, if all of our relationships are about influence and "changing lives" then we're sure to think that we suck at ministry. We'll say, "Shane Claiborne, Bart Campolo, Mother Teresa... they're good at ministry... I'm not." When the truth is, even for someone like Bart, stuff still falls apart in their hand.

So many ministry, my own included, are structured and measured in terms of success stories, of changed lives, and we're geared almost exclusively toward influence. We're all about "leadership" but love isn't about influence. Love isn't about success stories or even changed lives. We can't save them all, but there isn't anybody we can't love. If love was our end-all then we wouldn't be surprised when it all falls apart in our hands, we wouldn't be surprised when our favorite student skips town and starts selling drugs, we wouldn't be surprised that the miracle shot didn't go in. They call them miracles for a reason.

On what then do we base our ministry? How do we measure our success? Simply by love. Are we loving the people we work with? Are we serving them and being friends to them?

Mother Teresa didn't have a lot of stories of healing... she watch just about everyone she worked with die right in front of her... but man, her whole life was a story of love.

A book I just read and a book I'm just starting, both prepared me to deeply appreciate what Bart talked about that night... In The Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen and Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root.

6 comments:

Danny said...

This story is especially true for teachers, and I think youth pastors are in the same boat. It is really interesting for me to be in a teaching program for a second time, and to hear the newer student teachers talking in terms or "changing the system" of "closing the achievement gap" or something similar. I am not saying that we shouldn't be doing this or that we shouldn't be about helping students, but that if this is a teacher's primary goal, they will be sorely disappointed when they find that there are so many things out of their control.

We spent a lot of time in one of our classes talking about how most of the choices a student's make our outside of our control. Their biggest influence is their families, their friends, and the resources their community has to offer them. This is not a reason for apathy, but just something we have to realize.

I also think that change itself can be a bit of a problem because we tend to want to fashion people in our own image or in the image of a "culturally successful person," which may or may not be the kind of life Jesus may want for his people.

I really like what Bart had to say about ministry, too. I felt like that a few times in Camden. We spent so much time and we were so dependent on middle-class churches in the Pennsylvania area because the students there didn't have the funds that we thought were needed for "change." I am not saying that they were wrong to fundraise because we do all need money, but their budget was over a million dollars a year. When did ministry get so expensive?

Like you have said on my blog many times, I don't have a lot of answers, but I have a lot of observations. I would love to see people change, but as someone like Ryan might tell us who works with kids with problems, they don't often get "fixed" in the way we want them to.

I wish I had a six-step solution for us, but I guess there just isn't one or else Jesus would have revealed it in his first-century best seller, "Going Rogue: A Rabbi's Life."

WES ELLIS said...

Danny,
You would really like Andrew Root's book Relationships Unfiltered... I'm only two chapters into it but it's amazing!

"In true relationships, the only point is to be together. Once there is another point, the relationship withers under the heat of expectations and obligations." - Andrew Root

Great thoughts Danny! You'd have liked Bart... when his talks are available online I'll get you the link.

Andrew said...

Excellent!

Let us know if any of the audio becomes available.

Andrew said...

Great point Danny! I have been in teaching for 20 years, the past 7 in inner city. To say like Bart "he had a good night" comes off sounding apathetic to some, but I have really found myself taking that attitude... If my students feel safe, accepted, etc, then I am happy... the other stuff is icing on the cake, but reality is a bit more immediate.

Steve Swope said...

Two stories - you know how I like stories, Wes!

The rabbi Zusya was on his deathbed, and his servant asked him, "are you afraid of coming face to face with God?"

The rabbi almost said yes, but then he thought for a moment and answered, "when I come before the Almighty, he will not ask me 'why were you not Moses?' but 'why were you not Zusya?'"

And I read once of a church delegation that visited a downtown homeless ministry with all kinds of questions about their "success" ratio in terms of employment, further education, permanent housing, etc.

The priest running the ministry said, we are not often privileged to see the end result of our work in these persons' lives. But while they are here, we show them Christ.

Good stuff, Wes. And thanks for the post, weeks ago, about Pagitt's "Church in the Inventive Age." Finally got it, read it, enjoyed it.

WES ELLIS said...

Steve,
Thanks for the stories!
And thanks for one-upping me on Pagitt's book... I'm still reading it... I like it!