It's a tribute to my inflated sense of self that at first I thought this meant church with a capital C--Church, the institution. As a deacon, I'd shift the system, rage against the machine. While Jesus was a kayak, light and maneuverable through the complexities of the world, the Church is more often like cruise ship. Railing against the Church, I'd be heading straight for the spiritual breakdown lane. Thankfully, God seems to enjoy messing with my delusions. He gave me a chance to reframe this aspect of the diaconal call, and His approach was surprisingly and unusually gentle.
During the recovery from my surgery, I missed two nights of HT's Dinner Table ministry. For those of you who don't know about Dinner Table, it's a weekly free meal for our neighbors--not a soup kitchen, but a sit-down family style meal complete with tablecloths, real dishes, and food you'd serve to guests in your own home. You can read more about it here. I've been heavily involved in the founding of the ministry, but lately I've been stepping back. The deacon is called to be a catalyst for new ministry, then turn it over, and move on to the next need God presents to us. These were the very first Dinner Table nights I missed, so the surgery was an invitation to step back and see what would happen without me.
Like the Federation in Star Trek, Dinner Table has a prime directive: We treat our guests as we would welcome our friends into our own homes. A simple standard in a complex context. We serve a motley mix of homeless men and women, single moms with their kids, struggling families, and lonely elders. Some of our guests arrive drunk, disorderly, unwashed, unwell, and unhinged. From this, we try to weave community. All the while, we are welcoming new volunteers, many of whom have never served anyone different from themselves.
My fellow ministers rose to the occasion. It's always humbling--and liberating--to realize how easily things go on without you. At the same time, as I began to surface from the pain medication, complaints appeared in my inbox. Nothing big. Just here and there, reports of volunteers who had been rude to our guests.
At our next Dinner Table leadership meeting we talked about the primary pitfall of ministry: our expectations. Too often, we serve with expectations that those served will respond in a particular way--the way we would respond. We enter a world marked with the fallout of addiction, poverty, and abuse, and we expect it to conform to our reality. Most dangerous of all, we expect those we serve to become like us. When our expectations are denied, we judge, reject, or punish. We talked about what it looks like for a church determined to move into the world, hell-bent, if you will, on sowing the seeds of the kingdom in some very rocky soil.
It takes a certain fortitude. When we serve as Christ did, we risk true intimacy. We will love them. We will lose some of them. We must trust our own strength in the face of disappointment, and strip ourselves of our defense mechanisms--the guise of charity, our insistence on assimilation. And so the deacon not only invites, encourages, exhorts others to respond to the world's needs. She also accompanies those who would serve, calming fear and deflating expectation. Her voice is a mere whisper as she travels in a broken world.