Some weeks ago I came across something on Facebook that deeply saddened me. I realized that a friend's life is rapidly moving in a certain monumental direction, and while her announcement received the praise of hundreds of friends, this decision is something I'm pretty sure will be destructive. In the end only time will tell, but when I saw the announcement, I felt a lot of guilt. I've been out of touch with this woman for more than a year and we were never close to begin with. But there were times when she tried to bring me into her inner circle, and then there were times when I tried to befriend her. But the connections never really happened. It grieves me knowing that even if I started pursuing her now, by the time we could even start approaching the topic at hand in a context of trust, some things would be too late. It would be a very different conversation - how to deal with the results of the decision, rather than whether to go through with the decision.
I've worked in student ministry for the past eight years and I've faced these situations over and over again; but these things aren't relegated just to those who serve professionally. Everyone understands this dilemma - the guilt we inevitably face in attempting to love and serve others. Call it "ministry" or call it "loving your neighbor" or call it just plain old "friendship," but in my experience, the very act of engaging another person in the hopes of being Christ to her all so often leaves behind a hundred doubts. In the attempts at loving another person, how many times have you left thinking, "I should have done that differently," or "If I only I had noticed that." Often, it simply feels like a long series of wake-ups to other people's realities only a few moments, or days, or years too late.
After all of this news broke, I went for a walk with one of my dearest friends and I shared the situation with her. Because she loves people, she also understands this struggle and shared with me some of her own stories about regrets she has for not being there for certain people. We both have so many stories of times and situations that seemed to make sense, but in hind sight, as someone's life is falling apart, we look back and think about all we could have done to help them. Like me, "guilt" was the word she used over and over again to describe how it feels.
For a moment, let's be honest - more than fear or selfishness, I think it is guilt that actually keeps us from loving people as we should. Not guilt in the cosmic sense preachers and psychologists refer to, but specific guilt about specific people that we know we have failed in our attempts to love. It doesn't take long in trying to love people before you realize that you are your biggest obstacle in doing so.
In my attempts to be Christ to others, I have a body count. A long list of women that I tried to serve and whom I have utterly failed. Some of those relationships were from my work with students, some of those are just my personal friendships. Some of them are my family members. In some of the cases the circumstances were so murky and confusing that I am not really sure what happened. In some cases it is blatantly clear that I sinned against a sister. Or that she sinned against me and I simply couldn't handle it. And it is all of these cases, all of these people, that tempt me to disregard my fellow human beings moving forward. I mean, who doesn't think that they want to help and love people? Most people are taught some general idea of the rightness of that desire from an early age. But how in the world are you supposed to continue wanting to do so when it becomes abundantly clear that you often have just as much a chance at becoming their greatest stumbling block as their greatest blessing?
Loving people produces guilt. When we have all tried it and seen ourselves fail, we are left with a vortex of doubt and shame. In myself, I know that I generally trend in one or the other of two directions when that vortex arrives. I either become defensive - it was the other person's fault; no one could have known; the system is to blame. Or I cease to care - there isn't really a problem anyways; no one person can shoulder that many burdens; I need to take care of myself, too, you know. But all of these excuses are just covering up the real problem - I feel terrible that someone I know is suffering either from their own sin or from the brokenness of the world and I didn't do anything, or enough, about it.
For the last couple of years, I dealt with a good bit of burnout in ministry. Some of that was due to being too busy and the time of life. But a lot of it - in hindsight, probably most of it - was due to a really painful relationship. I failed a student miserably about three months before she moved away from Boston. Without a doubt, there was a lot that was her fault. But as equally without a doubt, I let so much pride and stubbornness rule my actions that my face burns with shame thinking about it. She wouldn't talk to me for three months because she was so mad at me and during that time I sank deeper and deeper into self-pity. I gave up on the possibility of me being able to be a blessing. I could list off all sorts of reasons why sometimes things just don't work out, but really, I was just seething with the guilt of a lost opportunity.
During that time, and in the years since, I came to realize more than ever that repentance must be a daily occurrence in the life of anyone trying to love another person. No matter what kind of advice or training is out there for people hoping to serve other people, there is nothing that will keep you going in ministry, whether professional or personal, other than repentance. Unless your heart is being drawn into open confession before the Lord, no amount of devotions, or fellowship, or team building, or strategy development, etc. can take the place of simple and consistent repentance for your failures before God. Otherwise, you'll either go crazy trying to defend yourself or you'll go dead with apathy. We cannot live with guilt - it chokes and kills any impulse within us to love others.
This is what you often don't hear from people ministering to others - from pastors and parents, from social workers and student leaders - that the people we are the most afraid of are ourselves. We try to talk about all of the ways God is at work transforming lives, but we rarely talk about how God is transforming our own lives. We don't openly talk about the times those we serve are so failed by us that they don't speak to us for three months.
But the gospel is real. And it is the only, only thing that can accomplish true ministry. The reason I can love people is not because I am that strong, but because I know that my love doesn't matter in the end. There is a bigger love and a bigger story for all of these people. For whatever crazy reason, God chooses to use small, unloving, broken people to demonstrate that. Maybe it's the only way to demonstrate it. We often talk about Christians demonstrating God's love and we usually mean doing so positively. But maybe the times we fail also demonstrate the love of God by demonstrating his patience and kindness to those he calls his own.
In the end, loving people is only ever going to reveal more of my own brokenness to myself. If that's the case, then I am going to need to learn to repent more. The good news is that through Jesus, that is possible. In him, I am free to repent and without fear. I can look at my friend on Facebook, name the ways I failed her, and freely repent of them. I do not have to hide, I do not have to live in guilt. Only then will I have the courage to love again.
(Artwork: "Two Part," by Patrick Fisher)
My brother wrote a song recently and within it exists my childhood. With the opening lines, memories flood into my mind's eye in soft dappled light. The song starts soft and beautiful and my childhood is quietness and melody. The windows of Illinois graduate student housing and screened doors that lead out to porches overlooking cornfields. German walking paths and a trampoline. Learning to say prayers and goodnight songs singing the ABCs. I see four heads, my siblings and I together. Moments on the couch, in the woods, in the back alley - shades of brown descending into blonde, blue eyes melting to brown.
And then chaos breaks loose and the memories move in rapid motion. Movement is everywhere and childhood becomes one large scream that contains all of the joy and anger of growing up. I am throwing rocks at my siblings, afraid of their togetherness against my isolation. We are playing tag and catching fireflies in summer evening hours. We walk the dog endlessly around neighborhood blocks. I am left at the table to eat food I don't want. Roller blades, scrunchies, and beaches. The American landscape whizzes by outside a minivan window, there and back and there again. We try to learn to listen to each other as we're told to do, but tears, depression, anger, yelling, and fear are so much of what we hear. Porch swings and thunderstorms. Junker cars and flat tires. Teasing about early romances, helping put the pieces back together when the heartbreak comes. We have each other’s backs at school dances. We compete with each other and it hurts. But always pride, pride, pride for the wins of each individual.
And then at the 3:45 mark my mother's hands appear in a benediction over us. The chaos of life parts and over us is spoken a blessing. Sanctification works itself out in painful and brutal slowness. But she is there, speaking peace and kindness. A moment of silence, a pause in the storm, and my father's bass breaks through to push us all ahead, deeper than we knew we could go. With my mother's hands over us and my father's bass keeping us in motion, we four go forward into the world and see what lies therein. It is terrifying and amazing, a beautiful melody and a chaotic reality entwined together.
And as we embark on transcontinental visits, weddings, and graduations, we four stay banded together. There are long distances and years of ache, but I see the dappled light go with us and we four still descend from brown to blonde, from blue to brown.
Lives unknown by fame.
And it’s tempting to hope
In the dream that caught your eye
But it’s left your heart undone.
These shoes are all worn out
From chasing flawed designs
And they’ve left me alone.
Now I’m bold enough to trade
Ambition for some rest.
Hearts restored through shame.
I envy your peace.
There’s nothing left to lose
When all your pride is gone.
The simple things in life
Are all that’s left to do
When you realize your heart
Has hope for something more
Than all your dreams can give.
Souls unseen by time.
Now it’s waiting for you,
The life you’ll have again
When this sorry world is gone.
I have never been one for goodbyes. Tending to have a semi-tragic attitude when it comes to saying farewell, I melodramatically forget that more likely than not, I will actually see my friends and family again this side of heaven. And even if I don't, the plethora of communication options available via internet make it almost impossible to actually ever forget a person. My penchant for the dramatic has quieted in recent years, but some people dear to my heart will never stop laughing about the night I cried in a sleeping bag on the living room floor at the thought of saying goodbye to Pittsburgh. ;-)
Just this week, though, my perspective may have started to truly change. My dear, sweet, friend and neighbor, Estelle, took me to an Asian teahouse (www.chingchingcha.com) before parting ways since she heads home to France for the rest of the summer and I set my face towards the East before she returns. While sitting on the floor, slowly sipping my rosebud brew, we discussed the passing of time and our hope to be reunited one day. I started to explain my attitude towards goodbyes, but something she said stopped me. "I like time." What? You like time? What could that mean? Time has always been my enemy. It is what causes us and our surroundings to change in between the goodbyes and hellos. There is never enough of it between the hellos and goodbyes. Time forces us to comply with its speed, when I so often want it to stop and let me be. Stop poking me in the back, Time. I want to stay where I am just little bit longer, ok?
But Estelle likes time. It heals, it teaches, it promises, it hopes. I started to think about my upcoming goodbyes. I thought about the goodbye I would soon say with Estelle, and in a couple weeks, the goodbyes to DC, and after that, goodbyes for my family. And I thought about my biggest fear concerning all of those goodbyes - what would the passage of time do to us? My automatic assumption was that time would not be nice. But what if it was? What if time didn't have it out for me? Estelle liked the passage of time; could I like it, too? "I will have to think about this," I told her.
I look back on my life and see that time's passing has only ever been a good thing. Sure there are pain and difficulties, but what does that have to do with time? Those come at any point, when we expect them or when we don't, when we are young or when we are old. Maybe, just maybe, I can starting seeing time as a gentle friend. I can leave behind the fear of something prodding me onwards and get to know the uncertain, but steady embrace of this thing that never lets us go. I struggle against it and loose. Why not hold its hand and enjoy the story time tells? The goodbyes won't be so painful and the hellos will hold more promise.
Hello, Time, my name is Hannah. Will you be my friend today?