Daring to care

“Do you have a cigarette?” the young woman muttered as I walked out of our local hospital. I didn’t even glance her way.  She persisted, “Can I get a ride into town?” My guard was up; I had just experienced the hurt and disappointment that comes from trusting a practiced liar. That person managed to take money from me and from members of my church before we realized she was simply conning us for whatever she could get.  That incident left me wary.

So who was this person approaching me at 7:15 a.m. on a frigid weekday? When I finally looked closely at her, I saw a young woman just few years older than my children. I was glad to see she was wearing a winter coat, hat, and gloves, but she looked tired. She smelled faintly of alcohol.

“Are you all right?”  I asked.  She rejected my offer of a cup of coffee or a breakfast sandwich, insisting that a cigarette would start her day off right. I drove her the short distance into town. She got her cigarettes and lit one with shaking hands.

“I’m on my way to go grocery shopping,” I informed her.

“I can wait for you,” she said. She seemed lonely and at loose ends, without any plan for the day ahead.

She perched on a chair in the store’s coffee area while I gathered supplies for Christmas cookies.  As she helped me load my groceries into my car, I asked, “Now what? It’s too cold to stay outside.”

When I asked about family or friends, she explained that her boyfriend “wasn’t that nice” and she didn’t think her family would welcome a phone call from her. I put on my best mother voice as I assured her that even when I’m mad at my children, I still want to know they are safe and cared for. She was unconvinced.

“Do you want to go to the homeless shelter?”  I was certain that suggestion would shake her out of her indecision. Instead, she agreed that was the best course.

During the 20 minute drive to the shelter, she kept me amused with her description of growing up in our area, studying at community college, even attending our church’s Fourth of July Jamboree. My heart ached for her as she casually confessed she was an alcoholic with little hope for the future.

The shelter’s in-take clerk was brisk and to the point:

  • Arrest and sex offender lists are checked before entry.
  • No smoking, no drinking
  • Inside hours are 8 PM to 8 AM. After that, everyone needs to be outside.

I realized just how little I was giving her. She had a warm place to sleep that night but had a long, cold day ahead of her. I gave her my name and phone number and encouraged her to call. I described de-tox programs that could help her and counselors who could offer guidance.  I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from her again.

What I wanted, of course, was a happy ending. I wanted to solve her problems and help her find a safer, healthier path. Instead, I was left a lingering sadness and unsettling glimpse of a difficult life.

Will my small gestures help?  Maybe. Maybe we are all pieces of a much bigger puzzle. Maybe someone else will offer her another helping hand. And then another and another. Maybe each one will add up to make a difference.

Just because we cannot solve a problem is not a reason to hesitate to do what we can.

There are needs all around us. One way we share God’s light is by offering our hands and our hearts. Let us do what we can to help one another on the journey.

How does the church work?

As a small-town pastor, I marvel every day about our church – this unlikely collection of volunteers who allow the love of God to shine through them. Our church looks something like this –  When I arrive early on a Sunday morning, the building is empty, locked and dark.  I begin the weekly process of resuscitation by opening the shutters and unlocking the doors. The real vibrancy arrives as people drift in. There’s the guy who makes coffee each week, here are a couple of people who baked cookies and cut up fruit for fellowship time following worship.  The choir, those impossibly busy people who somehow squeeze in weekly rehearsal time, clamber into the choir loft, eagerly anticipating their anthem.

Dedicated parents and grandparents are organizing paper, scissors, and glue sticks, anxious to share Bible lessons and crafts. The sanctuary hums to life as someone flips on the sound system, another carefully places flowers on our communion table, and some friendly volunteers welcome visitors and regulars alike.  The building is brimming with activity now, as neighbors greet one another and weary young mothers grab precious moments with a kindred spirit. Gray-headed seniors lean in for conversation as teenagers casually compare phones and screens.

Before entering the sanctuary, the deacon questions her ability to draw the attention of this noisy, somewhat unruly crowd to the still, small voice of God.  There is Good News to share – God has promised to show up, right here, in our little corner of CT, because we are gathered in God’s name.

Good morning! The deacon asserts boldly.

Good morning!  The congregation booms in reply.

Peace, one might even say the Spirit, descends upon those gathered, not at all distracted by wriggly babies or bored teenagers. Somehow God meets each one of us, exactly where we are this morning. God is in this place and suddenly – we become the church.  We are the people of God, flawed, imperfect, falling very short of the glory of God, yet blessed and renewed by God’s love which welcomes every single one of us. And because God names us the church, the Body of Christ, we can claim that title as well. Together we can endeavor to serve God by sharing God’s love.

That’s church on a Sunday morning.

How does it work on the other days?

  • Someone drops by to donate skeins of yarn she found on sale. Less than an hour later an older woman stops by to ask for prayer shawl materials. She leaves, eager to knit and pray for some yet unknown recipient who will receive a reminder of God’s encircling love. The church works when we share.
  • Two $50 Visa gift cards arrive in the mail. An out-of-state daughter wants to honor her parent’s anniversary by passing along the love and compassion she inherited from their relationship. Later that same day a young woman was weeping in my office, devastated by the husband who abandoned her and their two-year-old child. $50 wasn’t going to solve her problems, but it heartened her to know someone cared. The church works when we celebrate love.
  • One of our snowbirds returned from Florida, bubbling with excitement. “I discovered Tai Chi,” she exclaimed, “and I want to share it with others.” Her enthusiasm draws in 15-18 people, members and visitors to our church, twice weekly as they share fellowship and gentle exercise. The church works when people follow their enthusiasm.
  • “Art makes people feel good,” a gifted woman in our congregation told me. She has the ability to transform paints, fabrics, or flowers into beautiful creations. “More people should be exposed to art,” she declared. Her invitation inspired 20 artists to gather for a show and sale, transforming our fellowship hall into a combination art gallery and cool craft store.  Visitors receive a transfusion of color and creativity on a cold winter morning. Church works when we share our passion and abilities.
  • Meals shared, prayers offered, cards sent, clothes distributed, hugs given, a listening ear offered.

Seminary professors call this “incarnational theology; the Word made flesh.”

I call it making God visible to the world.  That’s church.


*Oil painting by Karen McFarlin:  kmcf3470@gmail.com