No matter how long I do outreach, I am often surprised at how much impact serving others actually has on our own spiritual health. When we feed the poor, or do some small gesture of kindness, not only are we giving them a small taste of the kingdom, we get refreshed spiritually as well. I have heard more than one pastor use the metaphor that we are a conduit or pipeline for God’s grace when we let Him flow through us to others.
Sometimes, when that grace sprays through us, it clean our pipes.
This fall, I had my hot water heater fail on me. I live in an area that has extremely hard water, and frugal skeptic that I am, I have always resisted getting a water softener. I am also not the most knowledgeable guy when it comes to home repair. Little did I know that you are actually supposed drain and flush your hot water heater and lines at least once per year, because calcium, lime, and other minerals in hard water will calcify and gunk up your taps, fixtures pipes, and even the hot water heater itself. In my case I went 15 years without ever having the heater serviced. At first, I noticed white grit in the aerators and reduced flow from the tap. Then a few weeks later every hot water line in the house slowed to a mere trickle. After a few thousand dollars and few days with a plumber, my lines were very clear, I had a new hot water heater, and a softener. I had to help the plumber carry the old heater out of the house because it had over sixty pounds of sediment that had built up over the years. All of this could have been avoided through the simple discipline of flushing my plumbing from time to time.
Can’t the same thing be said for making outreach a regular habit in our lives?
Maybe it goes back to the idea of a man with no shoes suddenly being very happy with his life when he meets a man with no feet. When we serve people that are more impoverished than us, whether it be emotional, spiritual, or fiscal poverty, it helps put our life in perspective. It flushes our spiritual pipes and gets the gunk out.
I had a similar experience with my personal ministry right around the same time the hot water heater went out. Even though most folks assume I do outreach almost as often as I breathe, it does not really come natural to me. If truth be told, I am not a very nice person. I am actually kind of jerk. In fact, that is proof that effective servant evangelism is absolutely dependent on God’s kindness–not my politeness. Serving others does not come naturally to me. It might look that way if you were elbow to elbow with me doing ministry, but you aren’t seeing me in my natural element. You are seeing the power of God’s kindness transform me on the spot as it flows through me to those I am serving.
As such, sometimes I get in a funk. Sometimes, I slack off with regard to ministry. Weeks and months can slide by, and then I can spiral into a really funky spiritual place. I was in such a place this fall. I had a few serious set backs in my personal life, a few deaths and illnesses in the family, and a number of financial problems. While I wasn’t shaking my fist at God, we weren’t exactly on the best speaking terms. I certainly was in no mood to serve other people, much less be cordial toward them.
I am real big fan of Harry Chapin, and if you happen to have his Greatest Hits CD around, put it in. There is a little rant he goes on between two of his songs where he talks about the ludicrousness of churches and schools getting excited about feeding the poor around Thanksgiving: “sure they eat good for one or two days off of your food drive, but what are they going to eat the rest of the year?”
I happened to be listening to it in the car and it occurred to me, that not only do the impoverished go hungry the rest of the year, some of us get spiritually lazy the rest of the year. Before I heard the CD, I had not only skipped several planned church outreaches, I had even slowed down my personal servant evangelism. I wasn’t “making my rounds” as Steve Sjogren often teaches: simply follow your daily routine, but be attentive and ready to serve the people you meet as you run daily errands and go about your normal business.
My pipes were clogged.
I had actually even thought about skipping my church’s annual Turkeyfest, an event I helped start and refine over twenty-five years ago.
I was in a funk, and while I know and have often taught others that the best way to get out of a funk is to serve others. I didn’t want to. I conjured a hundred reasons not to join Turkeyfest. Spiritual inertia had set in.
It was a very rough autumn. My grandmother had just died just as I was finally really getting to know her and visit with her regularly. Sadly, I’m still a bit unsure just where she landed on the Engle scale before dying. I felt spiritually impotent. Here I was, a type of outreach guru, and I couldn’t even witness effectively to my mostly unsaved family. The rest of my family are pretty dang near the bottom of that same Engel scale. They have a casual awareness that there is a God, but they aren’t Him. It pretty much ends there with regards to faith with most of my family members.
Then my mom was attacked by the third type of cancer she has encountered in two decades: breast cancer, skin cancer, and now finally fatal stage four renal cell carcinoma. She is way down in Florida and, living in Ohio, I can’t really see her as much as I would like to. She has less than six months left. There’s a bit more. . .I am sterile, yet changed that into a passion for being a teacher and I was pretty good at it and even won a few awards, but then I had a heart attack breaking up a fight at school and I was diagnosed with severe CHF and forced to retire early.
I spent a great amount of time in and out the hospital and have several pieces of my anatomy sliced, diced, and removed. I tried to get healthier, but with a heart that works with less than 30% efficiency, my days in the classroom were over.
I threw myself into ministry becoming an outreach maniac and even became the editor of a national magazine dedicated to teaching folks around the world how to do two things:
- Notice the needs of people
- Help them notice God that is overjoyed to meet those needs for them
Sadly that groove only lasted a couple of years. Due to medical pension stipulations, I had to resign. In fact I had to curb all of my organized ministry endeavors for I am no longer able to lead or instruct others formally—even as a volunteer. I now have to submit a report to the state board delineating my activities proving that I am not doing any form of leading others; I can’t even teach a Bible study or lead a small group. All this for the joy of collecting 21.25% of my final year’s salary—before taxes.
Then I found out I have a brain chemistry problem that the doctors still have not put their finger on. I have become a test subject for pharmaceutical companies, only I am paying them, rather than them paying me as they try medication after medication to stabilize my brain chemistry. Quite possibly it is never going to be fixed and could be a result of all the other medications I take for my Congestive Heart Failure; Hypertension and the fact that I no longer have part of my intestinal tract and stomach.
Some mornings I wake up and wonder why Job was being such a cry-baby.
In other words, I still love God because He is my Father, but lately I haven’t been in the mood to talk to him very much and being around people that are more “cheery” than me makes me even edgier than some of you have ever seen me, and if you thought me rude and brusque before, I am down right spiritually cantankerous at the moment. . .kinda like a crotchety Christian Dennis Miller who thinks he is funnier and smarter than he really is, and says everything he is thinking out loud. So I began to stay away from gatherings so I am not toxic to others.
My spiritual pipes weren’t just clogged—they were backed up.
Anyway, I was almost in such a funk that I dang near took a pass on handing out turkeys this year, causing me to miss my first Turkeyfest. . .well since before we really didn’t have a name for it. Back when we started it in the late 1980’s we just all pitched in out of our own pocket, loaded up a few pickup trucks with frozen turkeys, stuffing, canned goods, pumpkin pies and just doing the best a group of loving amateurs could do to hand out mercy and kindness from the back of a tailgate.
Twenty five years later and we were feeding over a thousand families each Thanksgiving—with a really nice spread. I was going to bail on it.
Then two things changed my mind.
1) I heard a rumor that we might revisit the “old-school model” and have a bit more freedom to freelance/pray and stretch a few atrophied prophetic muscles and find random families to serve as the Lord led rather than use leads (with triplicate paperwork) from a social services agency making us little more than pizza delivery boys. One time last year I was yelled at by the person I gave the turkey dinner to, that I bought out of my pocket, because I was ten minutes late arriving.
2) My youngest nephew, Adam, would be joining us for his first Turkeyfest. This precocious young man is the life of any party: a kid that is two parts scoundrel and three parts saint. You never know what is going to come out of his mouth, but more times than not it would be profound and sometimes even holy.
We reduced down, not going with a larger group this year; just our little extended family of me, my wife, and some of my inlaws. They are Catholic, but let me tell you, that particular faith has forgotten more about service and kindness than any cutting edge parachurch you can name. We bought two turkey dinners to give away. The organizers at my church provided heavy-duty laundry baskets (This is an awesome idea by the way—it holds a great deal of food and a full-sized turkey without breaking, and can be used to do laundry later!) and we just went to the store and filled it with a Thanksgiving bounty including a good sized bird.
The worship was awesome, but I had to chuckle when little Adam leaned into his mother’s shoulder and said: “Uhhmm, mom, I think we went to the wrong place cause this sure ain’t no Catholic church.”
It was going to be a good day.
We drove through Lincoln Heights with our turkeys. The landscape has sure changed since the days of the white bus and food runs I used to organize in this impoverished neighborhood when I was on staff over twenty years ago. The entire place has been gentrified, but if you look close, you can still see the hidden poverty sprinkled around all the new condominiums city planners put in when the bulldozed the eight block grid housing project. I almost go lost.
As we were driving down Chamberlain Ave. little Adam was inspired: “Uncle Kenny, Instead of driving around all day and looking at houses, why don’t we just stop and ask that lady if she knows anybody that is hungry–she looks like she knows where we should go with the food.”
I look over and there is a single mom trying to load her car with a ton of laundry in plastic bags as she also herded two young kids. I hop out of the van and help her load her car introduce myself and ask her if she “knows of any families in the neighborhood going through a bad time that could maybe use an thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings?”
She stared and me blankly for a moment and started crying and pointed to the door of the house. “I don’t live here–that’s my dad’s place,” is all she said, but kept crying.
I motioned to the van and we all carried the pies and stuffing and potatoes and turkey etc inside to meet Marcus and his grandson Javonian.
Marcus explained that his wife had just recently passed and he was trying to make things okay, but it was real rough on the family. To make matters worse, the heater was out, his car was broke, and he was about to lose his job. On top of all that, his wife had always put out a large spread for the family at Thanksgiving, but not only did he not have a clue how to cook, he didn’t have the money to afford such a spread
I started to show him that we had even gave him some basic cooking directions and showed him the cooking tips guide in the basket, but he stopped me. He pointed out the window at his daughter, “She won’t come in here right now ’cause she’s mad at me and the rest of the world. She can cook just like her ma could though, so we are good there. Don’t worry. She’ll come around. She just knows we’re about to do church in this living room, and that is probably more than she could bear right now.”
Adam frowned up at the man, “Why is she mad?”
“Well. . .” tears welled up in his eyes, but he laughed, “we were just arguing this morning about what to do about Thanksgiving this year, and I told her I would pray and God would provide–then you all showed up a few minutes later. She ain’t really mad-mad, she just knows it is time to get right with God again, you know? You folks showing up is just God messing around with her–and some folks don’t think God has a great sense of humor,” Marcus smiled down at Adam as he wiped a tear from his face. “Little man, you and your kin are an answer to prayers this morning,” and with that Marcus grabbed all our hands and we did church in his living room.
We prayed for Marcus and his grandson while his daughter lingered and watched with curiosity from the porch. Then Adam tugged on my jeans: “Aren’t you going to pray for his heater?”
I picked up the broken thermostat in my hand and Adam covered it with his and we prayed that God would “send a friend over that could help him hook it back up right.” The phone rang just as we were leaving. It was a friend of Marcus calling to see what would be a good time to come over and rewire the thermostat that had been lying on the floor.
My pipes are clean now.