How shepherding others through messy situations brings our own sin and insufficiency to the surface.
Over the past two decades, I’ve read a number of Christian books that make the case for walking alongside people in need and offer a framework for how to do it. Some have been written by prominent theologians, others by pastors, activists, missionaries, and organizational leaders. They’re all compelling and helpful. But I’ve always found the actual process messier, murkier, and more protracted than the tidy frameworks, guidelines, and stories of transformation would suggest.
Seven years ago, when my husband and I agreed to serve as lay leaders over a racially and socioeconomically diverse church community, we had no idea how challenging it would be. One family who became homeless lived with us for just under five months. During that time, we worked closely with them to resolve their most pressing concerns. But we were also busy helping others under our care with problems ranging from dating issues and financial stress to pornography addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, racism, sexual assault, and divorce.
Even in that small community, the needs were overwhelming. And the books we had consulted didn’t provide us with much practical or spiritual guidance on navigating the mess in real time. Even the pastors weren’t sure how to help us. They mostly said, “Thank you for all you’re doing. We’re praying for you.” Eventually, burnout set in and forced us to take a sabbatical.
For a while, we went back to our comfortable, upper-middle-class existence, but the conviction to walk alongside the needy didn’t subside. We had seen too much evidence that God “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). We still believed that our gifts, time, energy, and resources were given by God to serve, love, and refresh others.
In time, we befriended two people from a background of multigenerational poverty and trauma. They struggled with chronic housing insecurity, disability, and other forms of disenfranchisement. After supporting them through a health and housing crisis for a year, we decided to make a serious financial and relational commitment to walk alongside them for the long haul. If we thought our previous experiences prepared us for this commitment, though, we were wrong. It brought a whole new awareness of how the combination of structural injustice and personal sin derails people and conspires to keep them derailed. It also forced us to wrestle much more deeply and intensely with our own sin and insufficiency.
Servants and Sinners
Last fall, just as some of the pressures with our ministry reached new heights, a new book arrived in our mailbox: Eric McLaughlin’s Promises in the Dark: Walking with Those in Need Without Losing Heart. In it, we found both a fellow traveler and a contemplative field guide for the weary servant.
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