BY SUSAN AGEL
Do you remember this conversation from the movie “A League of Their Own”?
Dottie Hinson: It just got too hard.
Jimmy Dugan: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.
What about this Bible passage?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:6–8).
American culture emphasizes comfort. Movie theaters, automobile manufacturers and homebuilders all focus on comfort. We are overwhelmed with options when we search for furniture. Have you looked for a mattress lately?
It is easy to become sucked into the assumption that our level of success corresponds with our level of comfort. According to Isaiah 58, however, God’s measurement of success includes one of the most uncomfortable experiences — fasting. He makes fasting even harder than just a time-limited experience focused on ourselves. He asks us to continually “fast” by focusing on serving others sacrificially.
To quote alcoholic, washed-up baseball coach Jimmy Dugan, “The hard is what makes it great.”
Jesus went so far as to identify His service as “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It’s a challenging thought for Christians today. We think we understand service; we believe in it, but we also equate it with volunteering to be an usher, teaching Sunday school or being nice to the counter help at McDonald’s.
In her book, “Interrupted: An Adventure in Relearning the Essentials of Faith,” Jen Hatmaker describes this conversation with God in which He challenged her love for Him: “You do feed souls, but 24,000 of my sheep will die today because no one fed their bellies. … If you truly love Me, you will feed My lambs. My people are crumbling and dying and starving, and you’re blessing blessed people and dreaming about your next house.”
Our culture’s focus on comfort helps us feel OK about comfortable service. But Scripture makes it clear that real service is difficult, focusing on people we would never meet or things we would never do without God.
Stretching Our faith
I grew up in a traditional Free Methodist home and a rural, working-class congregation back in the ’60s. I never went to a school dance and only saw a couple of movies by the time I was in college. We didn’t go to restaurants that sold beer. I was part of the Christian subculture.
Susan Agel, the president of Positive Tomorrows (positivetomorrows.org) and a recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award, serves as the Free Methodist Church – USA Board of Administration vice chair and as a Central Christian College of Kansas trustee.
I remember the first homeless person I ever met. During a tour of a local homeless shelter, I was introduced to one of the clients. He shook my hand and was friendly and open. I came away from that encounter convicted, pondering how he was very much like me except he was an alcoholic living in a homeless shelter while I drank too much coffee and lived in a middle-class suburban home.
Our churches include people like me who grew up in Christian families, live a middle-class lifestyle and stay separated from worldly culture. We don’t testify much because we don’t have much of a testimony. Could it be that our testimony is weak because we have failed to stretch our faith to the level where service is really hard?
In “What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty,” authors Ruby K. Payne and Bill Ehlig blame the affluence of the last 50 years for middle-class Christians’ surprise at deep poverty in our cities: “The flight of churches from inner cities has only exacerbated the difficulties. Many Christians are not only too far away from the problems to help, they are also too far to easily understand what is going on.”
Do we love and serve any homosexuals? Have we picked lice out of a homeless child’s hair? Have we held a Bible study in a Section 8 apartment complex complete with gang graffiti and unemployed men passing time on the sidewalk? We rail against sin, but do we know any sinners?
We are called to take risks and experience discomfort in our service to others. In the parable of the talents, the servant who took no risks and buried his talents displeased his master the most. Reluctance to leave our comfort zone is based on fear of the unknown, antithetical to God’s expectations.
The truth of the matter is that true service is difficult and painful. As Hatmaker says, “We are the body of Christ, broken and poured out, just as He was. Mercy has a cost: Someone must be broken for someone else to be fed.”
Not only will we sacrifice our time and money while facing fear and opposition, we will also experience what looks and feels like failure. Individuals who have grown up in generational poverty will disappoint us by making bad choices. A homeless person will take our food and laugh at our earnestness. We will be reviled and cursed. Sound familiar?
There are many joys in my work with homeless children. At the same time, I see traumatized little ones who live in horrendous circumstances. People often ask me how I am able to cope with the sorrow, and I admit it can be difficult.
In my devotions one day, as I prayed about that very topic, God said to me clearly, “The pain is part of the calling.”
Basically, He told me to suck it up and get back to work.
Pouring ourselves out for God does not mean being nice and helpful. It means tears and sorrow, exhaustion and pain, uncertainty and sacrifice. The concept of taking up our cross means just that — taking up our cross.
But we have no choice. Scripture is clear. The Holy Spirit’s role as Comforter presupposes that we will need comforting, not that we will be comfortable. If He has not comforted us lately because we have not
expended ourselves in ministry, we are missing the mark.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”