Monday, September 11, 2006

They will know you are a Christian by your fruit

This is how I long to be. For years I thought it was about serving in my church. It is NOT about church. It is going outside the walls of the church and serving others. When they see this, they will see God. Serve your community. Serve others. Be Moved by Love. Amadeo!

by Vanessa Stern

Monday September 11, 2006

When I arrived at college, I was eager to begin my education, gain ministry experience, and start my life with a clean slate. I had spent the first four years of college at a secular university doing life the way most secular universities do things: without God, so I had great expectations for myself as well as the spiritual atmosphere of a private Christian college. What I didn't expect were the lonely places, serving without recognition, and the character building moments that continue to shape me today.

Being an older student, I wasn’t keen about living on campus; thankfully, I was given the opportunity to live with an elderly woman named Claire. Claire was a widow who's husband had been a church planter for a large denomination; soon after he passed she started to weaken and mentally debilitate, later diagnosed with Dementia. As her caregiver, I received a stipend that paid for my tuition; however, I still needed to work at a restaurant in the evenings to cover debt that had accrued along with other bills. As a Church Ministries major, I was surrounded by students who were leading in roles of traditional ministry on campus or at a church. Traditional meaning interim youth pastors, youth leaders, street evangelism, and overseas mission trips. The pressure to be "involved" to gain experience was rather intimidating. Many of the students were faithful participants in street evangelism on the weekends which were the most profitable days for a server so I was often asked why I wasn't out witnessing or attending the halfway houses. I naturally accepted the condemnation in their voices since I longed to serve God by "doing" something of the kind. Unbeknownst to me, God had that something for me and it began the first summer I spent in Florida.

There I was, 24 years old, starting my life over as a college student, waiting tables to make ends meet, studying in what spare time I had, all the while, taking care of an elderly woman who asked me everyday whose car was in her driveway. I often felt obscure and isolated keeping this schedule, but low and behold, doors started opening at the restaurant, and coworkers began asking questions about my lifestyle and language. I wasn't necessarily a preacher of any sort; I just had clean language. Most of the employees’ language consisted of explicatives that would make your grandmother faint. As time passed, I became aware that my lifestyle was more effective on a daily basis than passing out religious tracts on the weekends with my classmates.

Facing the same people everyday motivated me to live above reproach hoping my actions would draw them to Christ more than my words-"they don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care" often came to mind. Being surrounded by a variety of life choices: drugs, sex, and New Age practices, I observed one common characteristic—a search for identity and unconditional love. Burdened by their behavior and animosity toward Christians, I resolved to be a loving, consistent influence in their lives. Each one had his/her own way of hearing the message of Jesus Christ. But the message would have fallen on deaf ears if I hadn't committed to being a person of integrity: a person whose beliefs were fully reflected in their lifestyle. What they didn't need was another invitation to a passion play or the pressure to live up to a standard in which they didn't even believe.

In this season of hiddenness and isolation, I realized not only was I sent to impact and influence, but they too were sent to impact and influence me. I had to be sensitive to each journey, listening for their view of spirituality and truth. The Wiccan would often ask me questions about "my deity," another would ask me to pray for her since I had "a direct line to heaven". And there were evenings when God strongly urged me to leave my tips for the person having a low night; no announcement, no credit, no flashing lights, I had worked just as hard for that cash, yet God's words were the same—serve them. The irony of this epilogue is that I wasn’t the only Christian working in the restaurant, there were plenty of them “talking” up their Christianity; I am not sure who was listening though.

In the midst of this repertoire of lifestyles was “Tom”, a young gay man that often questioned God's love and the ironic hatred for them among so many Christians. In particular, I remember having several conversations with Tom who had been told by "Christians" that he was an abomination to God headed straight for hell. One afternoon standing in the kitchen after talking about a made for TV movie about the life of Jesus, Tom asked me, "Who is Jesus exactly?" My eyes wide open, filled with tears, I looked at him with confusion asking, "You've been told you're going to hell, but no one’s told who Jesus is?"There I was serving tacos in the midst of disillusioned youth seeking for answers, studying to be a pastor, all while taking care of an ailing woman who barely knew my name.

Claire’s condition mandated patience from anyone who cared for her. Often, as I was falling asleep after working a long dinner shift, she would call for me from the bathroom. Pulling my tired, aching body out of bed, I realized she had "messed" herself. So there I was, 3 a.m., cleaning her frail body while she cried out of embarrassment. Being faced with this reality on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but ask God what he was seeing from his perspective.

One Saturday afternoon, after convincing her to take a shower, I decided to take more time drying her, carefully maneuvering the towel between her toes. Her feet were all scrunched up, her toenails hard as stone, and not very appealing to the eye. Sporadic thoughts started to fill my mind: What did they look like in her youth? Where had these feet been? I wanted to trim those wretched toenails, but that usually brought Claire to tears. These feet were precious feet, aged with experience, sensitive due to her years, and clean, because of me. I knew this day was different. Tears began to swell in my eyes and fall down my face, and that is when I heard these words in my mind, "When you have served the least of these, you have served me."

I wish I could tell you that I made "care-giver or employee of the month". Instead, the lessons I learned have been stamped on the forefront of my mind, enabling me in every season of life since then. I learned to embrace the spiritual significance of my positions; I learned that no matter where I was, how lonely or obsolete the job, God was present, and sometimes more tangible than being in a church service. Often we think ministry in the narrow realms of the church walls, with being seen, known, and applauded. I have found that God’s voice is much louder in the obscure, lonely, isolated times of my life. His presence supersedes the mundane and commonalities of what we think are just our jobs. The reality is that I was set free from “doing” anything for God’s sake and that in serving tacos, bathing an elderly woman, and even late night study groups, I was serving Christ with being. This awareness gave ease to many more midnight interruptions and humbling conversations. I discovered that no matter where I was placed, my identity and duty were in Christ alone—without credit, without title.


Blogger Hannah said...

Wow, that was awesome and so encouraging.

8:02 AM  

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