by Christa von Zychlin—
It’s the season of Lent which means I’m trying to listen to the Lord a bit more.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking: You want me to love WHO, Lord? And serve them too? Lord, if working with your people weren’t so hard to do, I could be much better at it!
This was my not-very-pious prayer as I attempted to help Helena, who told me she was looking for a ride to Albuquerque for herself and Rosie, her parrot. She also wanted to know if she could park in our church parking lot for a few days. Plus she would need transport for her 1994 Ford Aerostar, which she and Rosie called home. This old white van had stopped being highway-worthy about a decade ago. Seriously, Lord?
Members of our congregation soon began noticing that van parked in our lot. I assured everyone, including Helena, that we would have her on her way very soon. When that didn’t happen—because it turns out to be complicated and expensive to transport a barely functioning vehicle and a woman and her parrot—I found myself growing perturbed.
I attempted to get Helena to ditch the van, or to sleep inside the church where it was warmer, or better yet, go to the nearest food kitchen or homeless shelter. These ideas were all met with testy resistance.
“Rosie’s my family,” she explained. “And the van is specially outfitted for her home. We’ve been together for 25 years. I’m not going to give her up now.”
I’d thought of myself as kind-hearted, but I became short-tempered and downright hostile with this implacable woman who met me nearly every morning by complaining about how uncharitable our church was. “Why can’t anyone help me out?” she asked. “What kind of Christians are you?” I did not respond with love.
WE CAN GET BETTER AT THIS.
Someone once asked Pablo Casals, who was in his 80s and arguably the best cellist in the world at the time, “So why do you keep practicing for hours and hours every day?” He answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”
Now there’s a grand reason for us to practice serving one another with love during Lent. Lent is a journey with Jesus. It’s an opportunity to learn from Christ’s human path to the cross, in the company of saints and sinners.
Walking with Jesus, we can get better at this “serve one another” business. Can’t we? My friend Don May, a seasoned swimming coach, says, “Be careful. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.”
Don says he has seen many swimmers become really good at swimming badly, using a stroke pattern that’s “just slowin’ em down, but it’s the pattern they’ve practiced and practiced.” Could it be that we Christians sometimes practice the wrong “stroke patterns”? We’ve become efficient with spreadsheets for committee work; skilled with medical equipment and building projects; successful at setting up food distribution and social service networks. But are we getting better at serving with love?
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). These biblical words ring in my ears accusingly. But then I remember I’m not alone in this. I’m walking with Jesus.
“Watch and listen,” the Spirit says to me, kindly.
CALLED AND CAJOLED
“Don’t wait for people to sign up!” I admonish our congregation committee chairs as we hope and plan for participants in Lenten worship, soup suppers and service projects.
“Don’t wait for volunteers! We aren’t a volunteer organization; we’re a collection of people who’ve been called to serve!”
They are skeptical, and I understand. It’s easier for most of us to design a colorful sign-up sheet than to patiently, persistently call or text a list of potential soup servers or worship assistants.
Here’s what gives me comfort: Sometimes Jesus seems to need to be called and cajoled too. I’ve noticed in Scripture how hesitant Jesus often is to jump in and help. Then I consider that Jesus was both divine and human as he lived among us. Sometimes we humans see what needs to be done and do it, and at other times, we ask, “Who, me?” Could Jesus be more like us than we realize?
Consider that wedding at Cana, when his mom says (rather sharply, I imagine), “They have no wine!” In other words, “Do something, son!” Only then does Jesus (magnificently!) pitch in to help (John 2). Then there’s the Canaanite woman with a tormented daughter. She calls to Jesus no less than three times—and won’t take no for an answer—before the Lord heals her little girl (Matthew 15:21-28). A blind beggar shouts louder and louder so that Jesus notices him, and gives him sight (Luke 18:35-43).
SERVICE IS COMPLICATED
“Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,” St. James writes in his letter (James 1:2). Easy for a saint to say! So often trials come in the form of people, don’t they?
Jillian tells our Gather group how hard it is to practice what Jesus teaches. During a recent trip to the grocery store, a woman in a wheelchair asked Jillian to reach for cheese from the refrigerated section. Even though she was tired from work and hoped to get through her shopping quickly, Jillian was practicing to be extra loving in Lent. She grabbed the cheese for the woman. And then the woman said, “Oh, and get me some eggs too.” The third thing she asked for was milk, and then, Jillian says, “I kinda felt like saying, ‘Well, look, lady, I didn’t come to the store to be your helper for the day.’”
It’s like the old saying, “You can tell how you are maturing as a Christ-like servant by how you react when people treat you like one.” My reactions aren’t always so great; how about yours?
Or as another person in our group observed: “Practice and theory are the same in theory, but different in practice.”
WHEN LOVE WINS
Sometimes, though, service with love just wins.
Last Lent we welcomed three families to the congregation, refugees who had made it through the first part of a harrowing journey from Guatemala, trying to save their own lives and those of their young children.
Carlos, one of our guests, said it took him and his young son 22 days by foot, bus and truck to finally arrive at the border. They spent five days sleeping on the crowded floor of a cold detention center, where they were each given one thin Mylar blanket. Carlos covered his son with both of them, rather than use one for himself. “When we came here,” he said, “we travelled from hell to heaven.” As he patted the blankets and cots our church members had felt called to provide, his tiny son hugged the giant panda given to him by one of our congregation’s grandmas.
Dozens of servers, from all points on the political spectrum, humbled themselves to try and speak un poquito (a little) Spanish, set up those cots, fix beans and salad, wash tables, do laundry, fetch diapers and entertain children with games.
That first night, my husband and I also stayed on cots in the fellowship hall—not because I wanted to or had signed up, but because my husband couldn’t find anyone else for night duty. I was a reluctant servant.
In the middle of the night, that young dad, Carlos, got up. I was uneasy; it was dark, and I didn’t really know these people. Carlos almost brushed my cot as he walked to the other side of the fellowship hall, turning my unease into fear. What was that man doing? When he knelt down, I understood. He was a Christian. This was a church. He was praying. My fearful and unloving heart melted.
The next night was our regularly scheduled Wednesday intergenerational program. The dozen or so church kids who gathered were shy and standoffish when they saw the refugee families. Then who should come in from the cold? Helena and Rosie. All of the children, Americans and Guatemalans alike, suddenly gathered around Helena, who allowed them to admire Rosie. Spontaneously, Helena and her green Amazon parrot were at the center of a miraculous, holy circle.
The three refugee families? Greyhound buses took them to their next destination the following day. Helena? One morning soon after, the van, Helena and Rosie were gone. I never heard whether they made it to Albuquerque.
The Holy Spirit breathes in us. With practice, we are getting better at walking with Jesus. This Lent, we watch, listen and learn to serve better, with love.
The Rev. Dr. Christa von Zychlin has served Lutheran churches around the world through ELCA Global Mission. She currently pastors Trinity Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
This article is from the March 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.