This essay originally appeared on City Church of Baltimore’s blog in August 2017.
Although I call myself a writer, I’ve struggled to put thoughts into words for more than four months. That kind of stalling usually means I’m trying too hard, that I’m complicating something basic — something that should be told plainly.
So here it is: I want to tell you a story.
The story is simple — a service event and an unexpected conversation. It’s a quiet, unhurried story. It’s not glamorous. And, if I’m being honest, it barely has enough plot points to even be considered a story.
Yet, I feel compelled to share it with you.
In April, I was supposed to organize an event for City Church at the Epiphany House, a GEDCO residence on York Road. This should have been an easy task: schedule the event, beg volunteers, show up, play games, eat carrots, go home, feel good about effort, check service off my list.
It should have been simple. But it wasn’t, because in April, I was too busy having an emotional break down and doubting God to focus on service.
I’d been suffering with severe insomnia for more than six months; I was mourning the loss of a relationship I’d thought would last forever; I was in the peak of my event season at work; and, due to the stress from all those things, my appetite had plummeted, dropping me to my lowest weight since I was fourteen.
Several people suggested that the best way to heal was to focus on serving others, so I agreed to plan the service event. Cool, I thought. Got it. Because I do the right thing. Façade. And God has a plan. Façade.
And I’m in control.
Façade. Façade. Façade.
About a week before the event, I broke down during a bible study I was leading. It was less than ideal. I don’t remember what triggered it, but I remember pausing before my prayer request, thinking what’s the point?
Normally, I would have shared a carefully-crafted appeal that would have been honest, but not too needy. Because ain’t nobody got time for neediness in prayer and community, am I right?
In hindsight, if I had been able to articulate my thoughts, I would have said this: if God is my father — not just fatherly, but my father who loves me and is for me — then why are my circumstances this painful? If being faithful mattered, then why does my life seem harder with faith than it ever was without?
But that night I was broken, exhausted, angry, and for once, I really didn’t care what people thought. I think I said something more like this: I’ve got nothing. Really. I give up.
No one said anything, but one especially-empathetic friend cried alongside me and prayed through her tears on my behalf. Another woman emailed me the next day, graciously taking over the service event without further question.
When I was no longer responsible for the event, I felt a mixed bag of relief, embarrassment, and defeat. It’s not that I was handing it over to someone less than capable — it’s that I realized it was yet another thing I was finding my identity in. It was another label that was being stripped away: now no longer useful or helpful even in ministry.
What could I still turn to for identity and worth?
The night of the event, I decided that I didn’t even want to go. Two things kept me from skipping: the guilt of bailing on someone when I know how that feels, and my roommate asking if I wanted to walk down together.
I decided I would go, help set up, tell people hi, and then sneak out. But, as with many of my plans, that’s not how the night played out.
At the event, I reached a new level of unhelpfulness. I sat down and started painting a flowerpot meant for the residents, eyes cast downward. Soon, a resident I didn’t know passed through the common area. We invited him to paint a flowerpot. He told us it wasn’t his thing, but he’d sit with us anyway.
I’ll call him Barry.
When I found Barry later at a table apart from the rest of the group, we began talking about children’s ministries. This led him to share his memory of going to church and professing faith at the early age of six.
He then shared stories about his family and told me of some of the tragedies he’s endured. He even told me about the many times he’s felt like he stood alone, defending and resting in the authority of scripture.
At some point, Barry opened up about his first and only love and the aches of never being married when he deeply desired it. He told me that at times, he’s felt like he’s been faithful and yet God failed to show up.
(We also discussed Oprah.)
With each story, Barry was increasingly honest about his struggle to understand God’s plan for his life. With each confession, however, the depth and strength of his faith became more apparent. He spoke about faith in a way I don’t often hear in the church. He wasn’t offering platitudes; he was sharing a lifetime of death, rejection, loneliness.
And yet, at every step, he also professed the greatness of God. He testified to God’s faithfulness. When I shared my awe at his passion, he reminded me that faith is a gift that anyone can ask for. It was like reading a psalm. In one breath Barry confessed his struggle to understand and with the next he proclaimed God’s glory.
I gradually became very quiet, alternately biting my lip and popping my jaw to keep tears from falling. (I cry a lot so this isn’t extraordinary, but still…things were happening.)
What Barry didn’t realize was that he was speaking to desperate prayers that I’d been praying for the previous two months, and in many ways, the two years before that.
I stopped Barry to confess that I’d been struggling with loneliness, a broken heart, and longing to know why God failed to show up when I’d tried so hard to be faithful.
Where was God?
Barry nodded, listening to my story as I had his. He seemed a little surprised by the details, but didn’t offer any cross-stitched verses. When I was done, he simply confirmed that some seasons are tough. He encouraged me to believe beyond my circumstances and to cling to what I knew to be true, especially when I didn’t feel it.
I was awed that despite our many differences — age, race, sex, socioeconomic status — we faced similar challenges with faith. Our shared loneliness made me feel a bit less lonely. In fact, for the first time in months, I felt quite known.
Barry and I talked for more than two hours, long after the event was over. We continued to talk about faith, we talked about hymns, and at some point we had an in-depth discussion about Dallas: really though, who killed JR?
He preached the gospel to me, and because he did so with such earnestness and at a time when my very-raw heart was desperate for it, it’s a conversation I will carry with me forever.
That’s the whole story — or at least the main plot points — but it was more than just a conversation for me.
My words now are inadequate reporters of the comfort and deep peace I felt that evening. It was a reminder that God is simultaneously big and in the details. He made the mountains and yet he knows the deepest over-thinkings of my heart (and loves me still!). He is an intentional God who used an unexpected interaction to answer the silent questions I thought had gone unheard.
And listen, it’s not as if I got any of the “stuff” I was lamenting. God’s answer to my prayer was not I will give you sleep; I will give you a companion; I will give you success.
Actually, it was better than that.
It was as if God had heard my heart’s pleas and whispered back: I hear you. I hear your cries. You matter. And I’m not done with you yet. Keep going. Keep trusting. You aren’t by yourself. Ever.
Sometimes, when I look for God and am disappointed, I think it’s because I’m actually looking for a golden calf instead. What I mean is that I’m looking for comfort in comfortable things instead of looking for comfort in God. In those instances, God serves only as a vehicle to other things I believe will make me happy (instead of God Himself).
When I left the Epiphany House, there was no change in my circumstances. I still couldn’t sleep; my heart was still broken — although maybe now not so crushed; and I still didn’t understand the reasons behind any of it (and maybe I never will).
And yet, I left that event comforted, known, and more energized than I’d felt in months. My heart was full, when it had felt empty only hours before.
This entire experience has not only challenged my understanding of God, but has also changed my perspective on service. I used to think service was about helping those less fortunate: I have things. You need things. Let me help you. Oh yeah, and you’re welcome.
Then I learned service isn’t really about the “haves” and “have nots,” because the Gospel unites us all. We’re all needy for a savior no matter what our position in life. We serve others not because of what divides us, but because of what we have in common.
Practically, however, I think my heart has tangled these messages along with my bent toward legalism, and I’ve approached service with an exhausted and joyless attitude.
I now think we aren’t just called to serve because we all need God. We’re also called to serve others because we need each other. This stranger soothed my soul with his faith and his kindness in ways that none of my friends or family could have. And that’s not a slight to anyone. Could God have used others? Yes, of course. But He didn’t.
Through this experience and a few others this spring, I was forced to face my brokenness, opening my eyes further to the lonely in our city and community. Whether you can see it outwardly or not, many of our friends and neighbors, including those at the Epiphany House, experience profound loneliness on a regular basis.
As neighbors, I don’t believe it’s enough to say well here’s the Gospel; it’s for everyone, good luck. Community, and in turn, service, means entering into the messiness with each other, even when we’re not sure what we’ll find on the other side.
In a world of coffee house concerts and young professional happy hours, our game nights at the Epiphany House may be the least-sexy event City Church hosts. I feel like I’m weirdly defending the ministry constantly, all the while I’m wondering myself are we really doing anything there? Why do I keep pushing this?
The truth is that the needs of our community and city overwhelm me. I’ve had little to no understanding of the ways I could even begin to meet the needs of the hungry, the poor, and the sick. I’ve focused so much on how to fix problems, that I’ve forgotten how to first love others. And why I love others.
What if service is as much about not trying to fix “the mess” as it is about fixing things and addressing needs? What I mean is yes, action is important (including showing up). We are called to care for the sick and needy. But, at least for other doers and fixers like me, service is also about realizing that we don’t actually do the hard work.
Our job is to show up, try our best, and appreciate the ways God chooses to use our gifts and talents. The Holy Spirit is really in charge of the heavy lifting.
I showed up with nothing to offer except a listening ear and an eventual-willingness to confess my doubt and questions. Barry showed up not wanting snacks or flowerpots. He wanted to share his story with someone.
And it mattered. It made a difference.
It’s been four months, and that conversation still hangs with me. What though, have I done with this new understanding of service since April?
The answer is a sad one: not much.
In many ways, I’ve easily reverted back to my self-reliance and my but I’m so busy…it’s someone else’s turn to care about that stuff mentality. I offer no defense or celebration of that attitude.
Wait. Hold up. This woman writes an entire essay about service…and she hasn’t done anything in four months? What a hypocrite!
Well, yes. I’m inclined to agree with you…to a point.
But try to hear me out on one more thing: this is why we have to talk about service. Writing this story has served as a reminder to me of the experience and why this experience was so powerful.
I need reminders. Even the most amazing truth — say being saved by grace from a life of damnation — can fade into commonplace without regular reminders. Even as I’m writing this in a coffeeshop now, a stranger keeps fighting for my attention. I keep getting annoyed with him thinking, stop bothering me! I’m trying to write something really important about loving people!
Oh…wait…(God is funny and puts me in my place often.)
I needed Barry to remind me about the gospel. I need this community to remind me about the importance of service. And I need service to remind me about my humble position before God.
I need. I need. I need. I am needy — are you getting it?
At the beginning of this post, I said I felt compelled to share this with you. Why? Because maybe, just maybe, some of you are like me. Maybe you think you have to wait to serve until you feel like it. Until your life is less busy. Until you find the service event that really lines up with your talents and your passions. And maybe there’s some truth in that…but I’m going to challenge you anyway and say maybe you’re as wrong as I was.
Maybe that’s sort of the same thing as saying you have to wait to come to God until you’re all cleaned up and put together. Maybe it’s that wrong.
We are human beings who cannot begin to get things right without the work of Christ. And yet, we get to try to love others and serve them, because we no longer have to fear getting it right. What beautiful juxtaposition and confusing grace that is!
When you serve, you don’t have to come with checklists, casseroles, good conversation, or even good feelings. Jesus multiplied five fish and two loaves, he can multiply your offerings into something much greater, too.
Now, it may go without saying, but in the interest of reminders (and so that the elders don’t call me), I need to say this: service is an outpouring of the grace poured on us, but it’s not a requirement for that grace. Even serving can become a temptation to try to use “good works” to earn something that can’t be earned, especially if you’re a doer like I am.
What I’m trying to illustrate with my story, however, is that although service is done out of gratitude, sometimes you have to show up out of duty, for all the wrong reasons, before your eyes are opened up to the joy and power of gratitude. God can use you when you come for the right reasons, but he’ll also use you when you come for the wrong ones (the latter might just be a bit more uncomfortable than the former…).
Listen, I am by no means a seasoned Christian (and an even less-seasoned adult). I come to you as someone who fails a lot. I come to you as someone who clings to the rules to keep her safe and struggles to rest in work that’s already done. I come to you as someone who would rather watch Dawson’s Creek than talk to anyone after a long day at work, much less serve. I come to you with all the ways I’m a hypocrite and blind to my own sin.
I am not the measure of getting this right — I might actually the measure of getting it wrong. But still, I feel compelled to remind us all to serve, even when…
Serve when you feel like it. Serve when your heart is so full of grace and gratitude that it overflows into everything you do.
But also, serve when your heart is completely broken. Serve when it hurts to leave the house. Serve when you’re not sure if God is real or if he can hear you.
Serve when you have thoughts you dare not tell your closest friends because you think you go to a super-certain-of-truth-at-all-times, people-never-struggle-with-real-sin church.
Just serve. Simply show up.
Show up needy. Show up broken. Show up if you have an attitude problem like I do. Just show up. Ready to serve. Ready to love. Ready to let God do all the rest.