We are expecting, but…

Terence and I have the very wonderful joy of expecting a baby. She is due sometime in mid July. While we are over the halfway mark and things are looking good, we have been hesitant to share the news for a few reasons.

The first reason is fear. The truth is that I’ve been pregnant for most of the past 2 years. We’ve had 2 miscarriages in that time. These were under the form of missed miscarriages. That means that we only found out that the hearts had stopped when we went for ultra sounds – one at 13 weeks and the other at 12 weeks. It is very difficult to go through 12 weeks of hoping and imagining new life only to see death. So after 2 miscarriages we weren’t sure if this one would make it.

Another reason we’ve hesitated is because of our many friends who either have had miscarriages as well, who are having trouble conceiving, or who know that they won’t be able to have a child in a biological way. Before going through it ourselves we couldn’t imagine the full extent of the pain that these things bring. Even if our experience wasn’t lasting, we know of what it is to have hope turn to despair. So we’ve held off on Facebook postings of ultra sounds and baby bumps, just in case this is a vulnerable time for someone else.

And finally, I think we haven’t blasted the loudspeakers because we’ve had trouble really believing it ourselves. Even with the bounces and rumblings in my body, I find it hard to wrap my mind around the reality that there is living child in there – a miracle. Around the 15 week mark, when we knew things were going to be ok, I felt a need to speak out against our hesitancy and claim the hope that we have been given. The next week, we finally let our church congregation and friends know.

But all of our hesitancy and fears have left their mark. I think others picked up on this. As we’d announce our news, some understood our undercurrent of joy, but others saw our tentativeness and asked “This is a good thing, right?” or more to the point “was it planned?”. The fact that these questions were asked at all, indicated our own lack of confidence, our own story of disappointment and grief.

As we approach Easter, I am finding that the emotional roller coaster of the last 2 years, has somewhere to land. I find that Easter understands me and understands life. Holy week is filled with stories of disappointment, betrayal, and deep grief. The God-man takes on all the violence of the world and instead of confronting it, he lets it seep into himself. Death and all it claims remains in him for three long days.

Those of us who know the story, anticipate the bright light and pastel colours of Easter morning. The grey stone of the tomb is surrounded by lush green grass as yellow daffodils bloom. But perhaps we anticipate too soon. The reality of the resurrection is met with hesitancy, mistrust, and uncertainty. Even those first eyewitnesses aren’t quite sure what to make of the neatly folded linen wrappings – all the evidence left of a brutal and unjust death.

After grief and loss, the mind struggles to make sense that there could be an alternative to the darkness and powerlessness we are used to. The bright light blinds us and we seek proof and reassurance before we dare to hope. “Could it be He?”.

Indeed, He is standing there, before us, with his hands out. He rushes in to comfort us even before everything is in order, before returning to the Father. And he stands before us still, waiting to take on our griefs and disappointments, waiting to share our pain, hoping that we will believe so that we can share in his joy and in his glory.

As we hand over two children that have been lost to us, we are finding that we are finally able to enter into this joy and this hope. But I think that it’s normal to hesitate. There are many who are not hearing good news around this time. There are many still feeling death and all it claims. Many in our community are still in the grips of loss and distress and uncertainty. And there are many in between wondering if this is really good news. If this can be trusted. If this blinding light is really leading us to a new way of being.

All I can offer to those of you who may be in those places, to those who are not feeling hope and joy bloom afresh, is the true certainty that Jesus is indeed standing before us wanting to comfort us and be near to us. I know this, not because of the joys and hope of Easter, not because of the kicks of new life, but because it is He who got me through the long months of hopelessness and despair. I know this, because I knew then, as I know now, that I am not alone. The only way I can not be alone is if He lives.

As we go through the turmoil of holy week with its stories of betrayal, loss, and despair, may we see our own lives reflected there and may the deaths we face and the deaths we mourn be bathed in the hope of resurrection.

By Jasmine Chandra

Church: What’s the point?

Christendom has left us with an heritage of large buildings that rarely are full to capacity and that cost extraordinary amounts to heat and maintain. For the shrinking congregations who remain in these buildings the struggles are vast and ongoing. They need new members and yet are faced with a society that while still somewhat spiritual, no longer feels the need to walk through the door.

And while we may repeat (sometimes with guarded hearts) that the church is not the building but the people, we cannot ignore the existence of the building. Its size, its prominent location won’t allow us.

I’ve heard  Saint John being referred to as city with many steeples due to the number of huge architectural masterpieces that crowd together in or very near to the central peninsula of the city. The buildings speak of a time where the shipbuilding industry was in full force. When there was enough wealth and ready expertise to build these lavish sites and when there were enough people to fill them and enough division to justify needing so many churches.

The reality now is quite different. Of these many steeples, one has become a Theatre Arts centre, one has become a transitional residence for homeless youth, and one sits empty year after year with the hope of one day being turned into upscale condos. Our own Stone Church underwent an extensive renovation, knocking down the mold infested hall and renovating the interior of the church proper to create a fresh multi-purpose space.

 

But hiding behind these closures, repurposes and renovations is a much greater question that, for those of us who represent traditional and historical denominations, is actually frightening to ask: Do we need churches?

For some of my friends the whole structure of the church is incomprehensible. The religious systems, the massive buildings, the written and unwritten rules, the musty language, and the formality seem to all complicate what is really a simple desire to connect to God. Why “do” church when we can just talk to God on our own and in our own time?

The early version of communities of Christians gathering together, that we see from the book of Acts and from various early writings, point to churches as places where people are encouraged and instructed in their faith and where personal and economic support is free-flowing. These were people who as well as being bold in their faith, were highly involved in each other’s lives. They valued sharing food and resources, they loved and fought like a close-knit family. The result of all this we are told is that “The Lord added to their number day by day” 1.  – meaning that people were drawn to these communities and their faith that involved the whole person.

David Bentley Hart writes: “we know from sources both pagan and Christian that many of the essentials of Christian belief were open to all who cared to learn of them, and that the distinctive behavior of Christians – including temperance, gentleness, lawfulness, and acts of supererogatory kindness – not only was visible to their neighbours outside the faith but constituted a large part of the new faith’s appeal.” 2.

There are signs of this kind of Christianity, even in our large stone and brick buildings. I saw it the other day as a the wife of a retired priest lovingly spoon fed a member of the congregation with parkinson’s.  I see it in the sudden provision of needed items, in members who take the time to get to know those on the margins of our community whether at a drop-in or at the church’s free laundry program, and in the general desire to be there for others and offer support.

But as we imagine what the church may look like, I dream of more. For it seems that no matter how much we care, the heating and maintaining of these monstrous buildings keep nagging at the back of our minds. Financial constraints keep determining how much we are truly willing to do. And the much harder truth is that in the name of boundaries our own fears cause us to withdraw from those we are most called to share our lives with. But if our faith communities are to be places of life that draw others, we may have to shed some of these things that are holding us down and remember our original purpose.

A few weeks ago we gathered as a group of friends around a woman who is facing some unstable circumstances in her life. Over the course of a few hours we set goals together, promised to help support her, ate together, and listened as she shared about her life and her dreams. Since then we have taken her to appointments, or to get groceries, but most importantly we’ve spent time just being with her, learning from her tenacity and hope. And I wonder what would happen if groups like this formed around a number of others in our community who need a bit more support, and a bit more human contact. Perhaps then people would see the point of the church, not because we have big pretty buildings, but because we have expansive souls. And perhaps we will come to recognize the churches that are already around us, but that don’t have walls or electricity bills, but that are formed around the faith and love of those who gather in the name of Christ, our Lord, who descended into greatness.

 

By Jasmine Chandra

 

  1. Acts 2:47 to name just one example.
  2. p153 “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its fashionable enemies”. Yale University Press. 2009.

 

The Peaceable Kingdom: One Man’s Vision of the Perfect World

The following blog post is based upon a sermon preached at Stone Church for the 2nd Sunday of Advent. To watch Terence’s sermon, click here: The Peaceable Kingdom

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

– Isaiah 11:6

 

The Peaceable Kingdom is the masterpiece of Quaker pastor and American folk artist, Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Based upon the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of an earthly paradise (Isaiah 11:6-9), the painting depicts a colourful menagerie of beasts- some domestic and others wild- sitting docilely together on a soft, grassy embankment, a tranquil gaze in their animal eyes. Numbered in their midst are three cherubic little children (symbolizing a redeemed humanity). One appears to float – in defiance of gravity – above the back of the lion, gripping the tiger in a playful and loving headlock. Two more rest along the base of the embankment, one gently petting the nose of a mighty leopard just as a toddler might fearlessly stroke a house cat curled up before her on the living room rug. Read on a strictly literal level, Isaiah’s vision of the perfect world (and Hick’s artistic depiction of it) points to an end of all violence even within the animal kingdom, with carnivores abandoning their penchant for flesh in favour of hay and oats, shoots and leaves. But, clearly, Isaiah’s words point to a truth beyond the mere literal. Indeed, they point to a day when the powerful and wealthy no longer take advantage of the poor and the meek. They point to a world where human beings live in delightful shalom with the rest of God’s creation. It is an image which beautifully articulates the deepest longings, the most passionate hopes, of the human heart.

 
But how easy it is to scoff at such a vision. In fact, around the time Jasmine and I were still dating, we had a mutual friend who did just that. He had just recently heard the Isaiah 11 passage for the first time (I believe it was read to him at a lessons and carols service held in our college chapel). Later that week, as we shared a lunch together between classes, he told me just what he thought of it. To him, the very thought of a predatory animal lying tranquilly next to what would ordinarily be its supper was positively absurd. Even if understood on a symbolic level, as a picture of peace between the nations, it still sounded, to his ears, laughably naive. Such a world – a world without war, a world without exploitation and injustice – just isn’t possible, he explained to me. At the time, I just starred at him dumbly, not having a clue what the best response would be. After all, my friend had a point: It is extremely difficult to believe in such a vision as this. However, that is what it means to be a people of faith: It means to believe in a vision such as this.

 
Admittedly, such a belief is extremely difficult to sustain – a fact which the painter, Edward Hicks, knew all too well. After all, Hicks was just like the rest of us: far better aquatinted with the realities of conflict and discord, anguish and pain than with the ideals of righteousness and peace. Within his lifetime, United States saw the war of 1812 – a war which resulted in 20,000 casualties on the American side alone. And, if that weren’t enough, Hicks was embroiled in a far more personal battle within his own denomination (the Quaker Church) – a conflict that ultimately resulted in a painful and bitter schism, ripping apart what was known as “the Society of Friends.” Perhaps this is why he painted no less than 63 different versions of the Peaceable Kingdom. Indeed, while most artists explore a wide array of subjects and themes, Hicks fixated obsessively on the perfect world of Isaiah 11:1-9. Why? My theory is that Hicks knew from experience how easy it is to dismiss such a vision as childish and naive. And so, to keep the fires of this hope alight in his heart, he reworked Isaiah’s vision over and over again with oil on canvas.

 
This, I believe, is the duty of the church. That is, to keep Isaiah’s vision of the perfect world – a world without war and exploitation; cruelty and greed – alive in our collective imaginations. It is to stoke the flames of this incredible hope. We do so NOT in order to make this ideal world a reality by our own efforts, forcing others to conform to our vision of earthly paradise. (Indeed, just think about the horrible things done within the 20th century, all in the name of creating a utopia!). Rather our calling is to enact or live out the practices and customs of Isaiah’s perfect world here and now. Or, to phrase it differently, our calling is to live our lives AS IF the Kingdom were, in a sense, already here. In so doing, we offer the rest of the world a glimpse of what Jesus referred to as “The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Heaven.” Like Edward Hicks did with his art, we are to show the world a vivid picture of the Peaceable Kingdom.

 
That’s what the Saints did, from Saint Chrysostom in the fourth century to Saint Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth: they lived their lives by an ethic that mirrored God’s Kingdom. Or, to take a far more recent example, it’s what Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists did in the American South during the nineteen sixties. The real world was a world where a brown guy like me and a white guy couldn’t sit down at the same table together in a restaurant and enjoy a sandwich as friends. But the civil rights activists acted AS IF that Jim Crow world of segregated cafeterias was long gone and AS IF a new world had already dawned – a world where anyone can eat lunch with anyone else, no matter their race. And so, they did just that: They went to segregated lunch rooms and cafeterias and broke bread together as brothers. Did that draw attention? Yes, much of it negative. They were cursed at; they were refused service; they were humiliated; they were thrown out. But, in their willingness to live out the way of Christ, they showed the world what the Peaceable Kingdom looks like and, more importantly, by their very actions, invited people to join in that world.

 
That is and always will be the true calling of the church – to live out the Kingdom of God. It is to be a living work of art displaying for all to see that Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah’s vision. The world may behold such a vision and fall in love with it, even long to be a part of it. Or, the world may mock it and laugh at it. But our calling remains the same: to walk in the way our King and to live out the politics of the Kingdom of God. If the church in North America persists as a vital, life-giving force into the twenty-first century it will be because we have lived up to this calling. If it continues to whither and die, it will be because we have failed to live up to this calling. But let us not fail. Let us allow our imaginations to be inspired by Isaiah’s vision of a perfect world and live out our true calling as the people of God.

 

By Terence Chandra

Why I was ashamed of my kid’s mouth

My wife and I were first made aware of our son’s poor teeth when we took him to see the dentist over a complaint concerning what we naively thought was just one cavity. As Sam lay beneath the sterile glair of those fluorescent white lights, the dentist probed his open mouth, speaking to him in the soft and dulcet tones used by adults to sooth and placate nervous children. From time-to-time, however, she would— in a far more clinical voice— call out certain codes to her assistant, codes which I could only guess were in reference to the kinds of cavities her trained eye was identifying in my son’s mouth. “3MOD,” she would say coldly, interrupting her own stream of soothing chit-chat. Every time she did this, I felt a cold stab of anxiety. Indeed, my son had not one, not two but five or more cavities. By the time we left her office that day, Jasmine was nearly in tears and we both felt like the world’s most incompetent parents.

 
To make matters worse we eventually realized that, in order for all of our son’s cavities to be treated, he would have to go to the OR in either Saint John, or for less of a wait time, Sussex. There, he would be put to sleep by an anesthetist while a dentist tinkered away in his open mouth, all the while (as we imagined) cursing the incompetent and neglectful parents who had allowed their kids teeth to rot in this manner. Needless to say, the anxiety that my wife and I endured during that six-month long waiting period between diagnosis and the surgery was considerable. Would the procedure take place before Sam’s dental situation worsened and extractions were necessary? How would he cope with the pain of the tooth aches between now and then? Is it safe for a child that young (Sam was 4 at the time) to undergo general anesthesia? And, in addition to all of these questions there were the feelings of guilt and shame— feelings that were vocalized in the hardest question of all: How could we have allowed the situation to have become so bad?

 
Here’s what I’m getting at: There’s a lot of shame and guilt that comes with finding out that your kid has bad teeth. However, that sense of shame and guilt is not mitigated but, rather, intensified if you happen to be a single parent living in poverty (and, hence, at a statistically greater risk of having children with poor dentition). In fact, we have observed that, for many people living in poverty, the shame surrounding tooth decay is emblematic of a far greater shame that comes with being poor.

 
Indeed, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about poverty in the course of my three years of ministry in inner-city Saint John it’s this: Poverty is one, great quagmire of shame. For example, I just recently met one man who was ashamed of the fact that he never finished high school and, despite being in his thirties, is barely able to read. Before then, I met a woman who was ashamed of the fact that she didn’t know how to cook a simple meal from scratch using basic ingredients. But the shame often runs deeper than these relatively superficial things. It can flow from sexual abuse experienced at an early age or a mental illness that has made the task of living nearly impossible. I even, at one time, befriended a young man who would punctuate nearly every other sentence with the phrase, “I’m so ashamed!” Whenever he said that, he seemed to be speaking, not only for himself, but for his entire family— indeed, for his entire neighbourhood

 
Intertwined with the economic issue of poverty and all of its accompanying ills there is the spiritual problem of shame— a collective and pervasive shame that holds whole neighbourhoods in its grip. Needless to say, any church community that lives in such a neighbourhood and is intent on serving it must bear this in mind. No doubt it is a fine thing to offer free meals, run literacy classes, offer addictions recovery programs and even provide free dental care services. However, as we do so, we must not treat our impoverished neighbours as mere objects of our charity— guinea pigs upon whom we inflict our good deeds. (Indeed, this only intensifies an already great shame). Instead, as we go about serving them, we must offer them the same dignity and respect as we would anyone else. This may, frighteningly enough, involve allowing them to serve us. In short, we must bestow upon them the honour that every other human being is due as beloved creations of a God for whom Christ died. This, perhaps, is the greatest service that any church can provide; namely, to exorcise the spirit of shame that holds so many of our neighbours in its grip.

 
I’ll end this post on a positive note. Thanks to both the fine dental coverage provided by our Diocese and some highly competent dentists, all of my son’s teeth were fixed (thankfully, without any need for an extraction). We were then able to maintain his new thousand-dollar smile with a strict dental care routine that we had instituted the day after that fateful first appointment. We greatly limited his sugar intake (which, to our surprise, was coming from a pre-bedtime glass of milk) and insisted on following a twice (sometimes thrice) daily routine of flossing, brushing and rinsing. Once those cavities were fixed, so was our sense of shame and guilt. It would be a joy to see the far greater shame experienced by our friends and neighbours now living in poverty lifted also.

 

By Terence Chandra

Ladies and Gentleman: David Watkins! (Homeless Shelter Worker)

At around 7:15 this evening- on whatever day you happen to be reading this post- a knot of roughly half-a-dozen men will begin to form by the heavy oak doors of the former baptist church on Waterloo Street- now the headquarters of Saint John’s only men’s shelter, operated since 2015 by Outflow.  As the hour progresses, this little knot will grow into a huddle: men with their shoulders hunched and backs turned against the spiteful wind, stamping their feet, bumming smokes, spitting, muttering  curses and trading insults both playful and malicious.  Then, at 8:00 sharp, those oak doors will open wide to receive them, welcoming them into a world of light and warmth.  The first thing they’ll do, after descending the stairs into the newly renovated church basement, is stop by the front desk and give their names to one of the shelter’s staff.  Depending on the night, there’s an excellent chance that the staff member working will be David Watkins.

If you were to simply look at David you wouldn’t guess that he works at a men’s shelter (not that I know what a typical men’s shelter worker is supposed to look like!)  Dave has a slim, somewhat lanky frame, making him appear taller than his actual 5’9 height.  His shoulder-length hair and thick frame glasses suggest that he’d be most at home skulking around the rear aisles of a dusty vinyl record store or sifting through back issues of The Amazing Spider-man at Hero’s Beacon.  Indeed Dave is, like the author of this blog, a bit of a geek.  During the quieter moments of my evening shifts as a volunteer at the shelter, I’ve sat around with Dave in the office, listening to him lecture authoritatively on all of the various incarnations of Doctor Who since the series began in the early 1960s.  When he smiles (which is easily and often) you catch a glimpse into a heart that is genuinely open to nearly everyone he meets, no matter how damaged.

Dave, being the son of two Salvation Army officers, is a peculiar mixture of army brat and preacher’s kid.  While he was still toddling around in preschool, his parents were enrolled in the Salvation Army training college in Saint John’s Newfoundland.  A short time later, they were stationed in the town of Spryfield, Nova Scotia- the first of many towns that David and his four other siblings would inhabit before finally settling down (at least for a seven year period) in Woodstock, New Brunswick.  Like the typical preacher’s kid, Dave found himself being dragged along to a myriad of  church functions and outreach programs, unconsciously acquiring a whole toolkit of interpersonal skills along the way.

“It wasn’t conscious learning,” he is careful to point out.  “My parents were very good at teaching without your realizing that you were learning.”

When I pressed him further on this, trying to get a sense of exactly what kind of skills he managed to absorb from them, he responded without hesitation: “Easy interaction with people.  My father can walk into a room and talk with anyone.  He can have a free and open conversation with somebody who has been homeless and addicted to any three substances and, ten minutes later, a millionaire and be completely comfortable with both conversations.  He has a very smooth, simple way with them.”

“I see that ‘very smooth, simple way,’ at work in Dave as he interacts with the men at the shelter- particularly in the way he uses humour.  It’s a peculiar mix of humble, self-deprecation and facetiousness, often resulting in an affectionate laugh directed his way.

“The thing about the person whose been homeless for most of his life and the millionaire,” explains David, “Is that they’re people and want to be treated like people.  When you’re joking with the guys at the shelter you break down one of the barriers that stands between you and them.”

David, however, isn’t always about the jokes.  In fact, there have been a number of occasions when I’ve seen him get tough.  One night, for example, I was the sole volunteer working in the kitchen and, consequently, a bit overwhelmed by the orders. When a couple of the men, frustrated with my slowness, began to act rudely, Dave immediately walked into the kitchen, coming to my defence.

“Be respectful, guys,” he said quietly but firmly.  “He’s the only volunteer on tonight and he’s doing the best he can.”  After some muttered apologies, the complaining stopped.  Later on, as the activity died down and most of the men were turning in for the night, I had a chance to ask Dave about the incident and how, in general, he deals with hostility form the guys.  He suggested the need to be calm and assertive, even when the tensions are high and it’s looking like a fight is going to break out.

“You’ve gotta be the alpha male,” I recall him saying to me at the end of the conversation.  The thing is, I don’t see David as the Alpha male- as one who achieves compliance by means of threat or intimidation.  Rather, he achieves compliance by means of respect.  David has spent so much time living with these men, serving them, observing them, interacting with them, learning from then that they can’t help but hold him in esteem.  It is a respect born, not so much from fear, but from hard-earned trust.

“Like the men of the shelter, I too respect David.  Indeed, since Jasmine and I began our ministry in inner-city Saint John, I have come to respect, not only David, but people like him- the ‘front line workers,’ as they’re called, who see urban poverty face-to-face in their day-to-day lives.  People like David toil away in the hidden anterooms of our society- the messy little closets of our collective urban home that we know exist but that we dare not look into, deliberately opting for ignorance.  They work with addicts for whom no treatment program seems to have worked.  They work with the kids of those addicts whose little psyches have been scarred beyond repair by things that no child ought to see.  They work with the outcasts who have fallen through one or more of the web of cracks that mar the face our our society.  They have seen people cheat the system but, more often, they have seen the system cheat them.  Needless to say, the kind of work that people like David do is difficult and, as he himself admits, the burnout rate is high.

So, until we fix urban poverty, we’re going to need people to run homeless shelters and soup kitchens, food pantries and drop-ins.  In short, we’re going to need people like David Watkins.  If you happen to see him sometime on the streets of our little city (or haunting the isles of a vinyl record store) maybe you can introduce yourself, tell him you read this blog post and take him out for a coffee.  I myself plan on doing that very thing sometime soon.

by Terence Chandra

The Trouble with Martha: Volunteer Burnout in the Church

It was at an inner city Toronto soup kitchen on a September evening in 2003 that I first came face-to-face with the reality of volunteer burnout. I was working behind the kitchen counter with a fellow helper named Ken- a middle-aged hospital administrator who had been serving here on a twice weekly basis for as long as the soup kitchen had been run from this location. Before we unlocked the doors to let the “clients” in, he seemed to be in a fine mood, making small talk with me in an easy, amicable tone. There was no indication that he was in any kind of distress. However, as he began to serve our guests, I quickly discerned that all wasn’t well with him.

It began with the little complaints he would mutter- half to me and half to himself- as we stood side by side, ladling the oily beef stew into the row of soup bowls laid out along the counter. He was frustrated with the board of the soup kitchen for not getting the broken dish washer fixed or replaced as they had promised to do weeks ago. He was frustrated with the volunteer coordinator for not managing the pool of helpers as efficiently as he felt she should. Most of all, however, he was frustrated with the clients themselves- some of whom were (in his words) “demanding” and “entitled.”

And he was right. Although most of our guests were gracious and polite- indeed, almost to a fault- some would return to the counter again and again, ordering around the volunteers like we were the paid help. That evening, Ken had little patience with any of the clients- let alone those who fell into that latter category.
“What do you want?” he would snap. “Why are you asking me for napkins? Can’t you see there’s a whole pile of them in the middle of the tables? No, I am not going to give you extra stew- you’ll get what everyone else gets!

As the evening wore on, Ken seemed to grow progressively more embittered and his comments increasingly sharp and caustic. It felt like the already tiny kitchen where we were working was somehow getting smaller and smaller- the emotional tension building to a level that made me quite uncomfortable. And then it happened.

An overweight man somewhere in his early twenties came to the counter for the fourth or fifth time, asking for an extra sandwich. His skin appeared unusually clammy and pallid. His eyes had that languid, hooded look that I’ve noticed in people who are high on narcotics.
“I want another sandwich,” he said in an even tone, holding the edge of the counter for balance.
“No!” Snapped Ken. “I’m not going to get you an extra sandwich! You’ve been up here five times before and, now, I’m cutting you off.”
“ But that isn’t true!” returned the man. “This is only my second time!”
“The hell it is! Now go away!”

At this point, I noticed two things: One, that our friend on the other side of the counter now seemed less stupefied. His eyes had lost some of that drugged sleepiness and his body stood upright into what could be interpreted as a fighting stance. Two, Ken was standing at his full, six-foot-one posture, his hands balled into fists. I was sure that, were it not for the counter separating the two of them, one of them would have thrown the first punch of an epic fight the likes of which this soup kitchen had never seen. But it didn’t. To his credit, Ken didn’t let the situation escalate but, instead, stormed out of the kitchen (but not before spitting out a final insult that I’d rather not reprint in this blog). After that, he was finished. His work at the soup kitchen was over.

The incident just described took place over ten years ago. However, as one who has spent most of his career either serving as a volunteer or coordinating volunteers, I have met countless Kens: exhausted and embittered workers who feel that they just don’t have anything else to give. Indeed, like so many of you, I’ve been there myself: serving in a ministry that I should have stepped away from years ago, but continuing on from a sense of duty or obligation.

But burnout in Christian ministry isn’t a new thing. Take, for example, that familiar story from Luke’s Gospel- the one where Jesus and his disciples visit the home of a woman named Martha and her sister Mary from the Judean village of Bethany. Here, Mary does something rather surprising: Rather than taking on the traditional role of hostess- the role that women of this time were expected to fill- Mary sits at the feet of Jesus with the male disciples, listening to the Rabbi’s teachings. This means, however, that Martha is left on her own to prepare the meal and serve the guests. My five-year-old son’s picture bible features a cartoon depiction of Martha: Her face fixed in an embittered scowl, sweat dripping from her forehead, one hand holding a broom, the other stirring a pot- a woman locked in multi-tasking overdrive. Eventually, the poor woman reaches a kind of breaking point- lashing out at her sister by scolding (believe it or not) Jesus himself: “Lord,” she says, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Have you ever been in Martha’s position? Have you ever felt like Ken? Are you there right now? If you can say “yes” to three or more of the following conditions, then perhaps you’re on the verge of ministry burnout.

1. You were COMPELLED rather than CALLED to do this ministry: Did Martha genuinely want to serve the Lord and his disciples in this way? Or, did she feel compelled to take on this role of hostess by social custom? I suspect the latter. Perhaps you too have found yourself serving year-after-year in the same frustrating ministry because you were pressured into it. Maybe that pressure was external: Somebody (your pastor, perhaps?) used just the right combination of subtle shaming and ingratiating praise to get you to sign up as a youth leader. Or, maybe that pressure was internal: You feel you need to stick with this ministry to prove something to yourself. One thing’s for sure: You never truly felt that this ministry is something that the Lord himself ever wanted you to do. In short, you have no genuine sense of call.

2. The work is exhausting and gives you no life: With the kind of volunteer work that you do, you never feel that pleasant sense of weariness that comes after having laboured at job that was challenging but, at the same time, deeply fulfilling. Rather, you feel empty and drained, as if none of your efforts, in the end, actually amount to anything. This is probably how Martha felt.

3. You have grown resentful: Like Martha, you’re resentful of the people whom you think ought to be helping you, wondering why they’ve stuck you with all the work. Like Ken, you’re resentful of the people you’re serving- people who seem to be “entitled” and “ungrateful.” You may even, if you’re honest enough with yourself, be resentful of Jesus himself, offering prayers that sound a heck of a lot like Martha’s: “Lord, do you not care that my sister (or brother, or pastor, or fellow volunteer) has left me to do all of the work by myself?”

4. The tasks involved with your role have become more important to you than the people you are serving and, indeed, the Lord himself. It could be that, at the beginning of the evening, Martha began serving food out of a genuine love for Jesus and his friends. However, she eventually becomes “distracted by her many tasks.” Perhaps the same is true for you. You’ve lost sight of the very people your ministry was created to benefit. Indeed, you’ve lost sight of Jesus himself. The greater purpose of your volunteer work (perhaps what Jesus means by “the better part”) has been eclipsed by the details: making sure the event flows smoothly, making sure the paper work is submitted correctly, making sure that there’s no mess in the kitchen afterward. Nothing else matters.

My heart goes out to Martha of Bethany. I see her in so many good friends that I’ve served with over the course of my ten years in ordained ministry. Indeed, I see her spirit at work in my very own heart- driving me and pushing me to do things that I think count as ministry but, actually, have nothing to do with Jesus. I want to tell Martha that she doesn’t have to do all this stuff- that I can get my own figs and olives, thank you. I want to fix her a drink and invite her to sit down.

Are you Martha? If so, then maybe its time to graciously step aside from whatever volunteer work is driving you insane and, instead, take the time and space you need to renew your bond with Christ. Don’t let it get to the point where, like Martha, you find yourself scolding Jesus over his inability to manage his disciples. Don’t let it get to the point where, like Ken, you’re on the verge of punching a homeless man in the face. Instead, step down, choose the better part and take a seat next to Mary. She’s saved a spot for you- indeed, the very best one- closest to the feet of Jesus.

By Terence Chandra

One Good Thing

There are seasons in life when things are just hard. It could be emotionally, financially, spiritually, or any of the many factors that affect us. We can probably all think of a time when we’ve thought “Can’t anything go right for me?” In these times we have our coping mechanisms- our supports that help us get through. We may scroll through Facebook, turn on the T.V, call mom, or eat a whole package of cookies. If you’re anything like me, prayer usually ends up further down the list, once I’ve tried a few things and still feel drained and empty. And even when we do pray, we sometimes lack the belief that prayer will actually change anything.
It was during such a season that I ended up at the beginning of August praying for “one good thing”. It had been a hard summer with multiple losses and unexpected challenges and it felt like hope was too distant a thing to grasp. And even as things settled down, I invoked the “one good thing” prayer a few more times before I noticed that it had been answered. Thankfully, it wasn’t the only good thing that’s happened in the last couple of months, but this one good thing was clearly God’s answer to my prayer.
This one good thing began on one of the days that I did my community outreach shift in the Waterloo Village area of town. On Wednesdays, members from various organizations in the neighbourhood go out in pairs to walk around and talk to people. The idea to do this emerged from the observation that there were people in the neighbourhood who clearly need help but who aren’t walking through to doors of our respective organizations to get it. So, as representatives of these organizations, we go out, in big yellow vests (the joke is that NASA called to say that they can see us) and meet people where they are.
On this particular shift I was paired up with Erin Cortes, the program director for Sophia House. The Sophia Recovery Centre is a place for women to go who are recovering from addictions. As Erin and I got to know each other, we discussed the need for God in the recovery process. Erin expressed that she would like to have more of a spiritual element for the women who attend programs at the Centre. We met with the director the next week and soon had plans for a 6 week program on prayer and spirituality.
As I write this, we just finished the 4th week of this program. We’ve had 8 women attend faithfully. And we’ve discussed our experiences with spirituality and prayer. We’ve looked at ways to pray including journaling, prayer through art, using the Psalms, and using prayer beads (the Old English word bede actually means prayer, showing that prayer beads have a long standing tradition in the Church). Over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at praying with music and going on prayer walks. Each week we talk about where and how we’ve encountered God and where God seemed absent. Many of the women have little to no religious background and for some praying has been an entirely new experience. The group is amazingly diverse, open, engaged and absolutely wonderful!
They have been my “One Good Thing” and since they asked for the group to extend passed the six week mark, I may have something good for a while yet to come.

By Jasmine Chandra