That time God called me to lead a ministry...
In 2014 God called me to create and lead a meal sharing ministry. I was completely unqualified. There was no money for such a thing. Many people at the church were offended for various reasons. My explanations for many of the things people questioned me about were usually: “I’m not really sure, but I’m certain God will make it great.” or “ I don’t really know, but I’m sure God will let us know.” I used to scoff at people who gave such explanations. Even more annoying; as I said these things it was usually accompanied by a huge smile and a proclamation about how great God was. I devoured the gospel of Luke and various supplementary readings and realized that Jesus himself laid out the importance and purpose of sharing a meal. I have seriously never been more convicted by God in my entire life. I asked two people I barely knew to help me: an ex-convict about one year out of jail and newly saved, and the church secretary. They didn’t even hesitate when I asked them. The way things lined up for that ministry to start, and then to successfully carry on, can only be explained by God.
The intention of the meal sharing ministry was to open the doors to the church, in a way that welcomed in those who might otherwise never cross the threshold. Once they were in, we could share the love of Jesus. And food obviously. But the food, although the focal point for many, was secondary to our intention. We called it a free meal and slipped in words like love, grace, then Jesus. We prayerfully and intentionally created a welcoming atmosphere. We prayed about entrances and exits; where things would be placed; how to keep the flow; how, when, and where to greet people. The more opportunities there were to greet people, the more they could experience the love. Some people welcomed it. Some ran in, ate, and barely made eye contact. Some people were easy to show love to. They graciously thanked us and returned our smiles. Some people challenged me to my core and made me re-evaluate what I understood God’s grace to be. If you measure the success of a ministry by the number of people who crossed the threshold to the church; we were stewards of a successful ministry. We fed a lot of people. We shared a lot of love. But the number that always comes to my mind is ONE. The number of people I know for certain accepted Jesus as their savior. Maybe the number is much higher. But, I know for sure the number is at least ONE. Because I was blessed with the experience of meeting Don and sharing in part of his story.
Don was a regular at the meals. From the first time I met him, he expressed gratitude for the food as well as the company. He rarely missed a meal and he usually stayed right until the end, frequently helping out if we asked him. He loved to chat and over time I learned his story. Happy parts, tragic parts, good choices, bad choices, a series of events that led him to be alone and coming to our meals. He had good insight and awareness about how he had got to this point. He took accountability and I felt like he was honest in what he shared. He expressed sadness and loneliness, talking openly about his struggle with depression. I encouraged him to come to church. “Just come for the music,” I’d said. “Or come at the end and you can have some coffee and desserts.” I answered all the usual questions: wear whatever you want, sit with me and my family, sit alone. I showed him the sanctuary - a beautiful old church with lots of stained glass. I explained what happened in a service. I showed him the different entrances. I tried to help him be comfortable with the idea of showing up. He never came. Then he started missing meals. He told me how he didn’t feel good. He certainly didn’t look good. I know depression can have physical manifestations. He talked about chest pain and a persistent cough and I encouraged him to go to the clinic. The pattern continued. Finally, Don came to a meal one night and told me he had been to the doctor. After a series of tests, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. They said it was inoperable and had no treatment to offer him other than to make him comfortable. They had wanted to admit him to the hospital immediately but he had declined because he wanted to let us know why he wouldn’t be back and thank us for all the meals and conversations.
About a week later, on a Sunday morning, I was sitting in a pew by myself. The pastor had just asked me to speak to the congregation about the meal sharing ministry, and to be honest, I was sitting there thinking grumbly thoughts about how no one in the congregation ever showed up. Our congregation really had no idea about how the Holy Spirit moved through the other side of the building twice a week as we served 150 people food and the love of Jesus and I was very frustrated with trying to make them understand it. And then, Don showed up for church. He slid into the pew next to me with his hair slicked back and a huge grin on his face and said, “I’m here!” The hospital had given him a pass to go out for the morning. I was so surprised to see him. He looked great, grinning from ear to ear he said, “I’m here for ALL of it!” I told him how I had to go up and talk and how frustrated I felt. He looked at me and said, “ So, you just have to tell them how great the meal ministry is? Can I do it?”
When the pastor called me up I looked at Don and he nodded.We walked up together and I introduced him and he spoke about all the reasons he loved coming to the meals and how much he missed it when he couldn’t come. He gave voice to everything about the food, the love, and the grace that we had always intended the meal sharing ministry to be. At some point he started crying, and I started crying, and I know there was a moment when it was just us crying and hugging on the platform as the congregation looked on. The pastor prayed for the ministry, and for Don, and myself. We sat back down and as the service continued, Don participated in all of it - singing, bowing his head, standing, sitting, listening intently, and occasionally making eye contact and giving me a smile. The time came for communion and the pastor explained what it was. Don whispered, “Can I do this?” I told him if he repented of his sins accepted Jesus as his personal Savior he could accept the bread and wine that represented the body and blood of Christ. “I do,” he said nodding at me. “I accept Him as my Savior. I’m here for ALL of it!” So, after all the meals we had shared over the past 2 years, Don and I shared the Lord’s supper that day. That was the last time I saw Don. He died about 10 days later.
As I traversed the ups and downs of the meal sharing ministry, I have thought that maybe the point of the entire ministry, was all for that one moment when Don accepted Jesus as his savior. Don’s story makes me think of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15: 1-7, New International Version):
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
If we consider the context of this parable; Jesus gives it in direct response to the Pharisees questioning His eating with “sinners”. A sinner being someone deemed unclean by the rules and the Laws that the Pharisees took great pride in abiding to. To enjoy a meal with such people was social scandal in Jesus’ day; but something He did regularly. He knew that the act of sharing a meal was an intimate way to get to know someone. A way to let them know He was personally invested in their well being and salvation. The only thing scandalous that it demonstrated was His grace. The parable Jesus replies with is about the Shepherd leaving the flock of ninety nine sheep to find the one that has been lost. When he finds it, he lovingly carries it home on his shoulders and invites his neighbours to celebrate in it’s return. Jesus says, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” This parable tells us that God is concerned about the well being of every single one of us. That he will leave the flock to seek us; to find the one who has gone astray and then celebrate our return. He doesn’t get angry that we have rebelled and gone astray. When we repent, He accepts us back joyfully and celebrates our return. This parable celebrates the ONE.
If you measure the success of the meal sharing ministry by the number of meals served, we were blessed to steward a successful ministry. We fed thousands of people. But, I always think of that ONE. I am grateful that in the midst of all the challenges that came from being called to do something completely outside of my comfort zone or skill set; that God blessed me with the opportunity to meet Don and share in a part of his story. I am always amazed at how He works. God is great.