One of the regulars at the soup kitchen, a prostitute, came to Bible study for the first time last week. I was startled to see this woman who more than once had tested the limits of my heart. Being the water pourer at the soup kitchen over the last 18 months had given me more than a few reasons to judge her badly. Even though she was late, she slipped into the front pew with confidence that she belonged there.
We were spending the month talking about the Fourth Commandment (remember the Sabbath day) and how important it was to find peace so we could live it more consistently. These words of Jesus were a keynote: "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).
Tony, another first-timer, wanted to talk about the "not as the world giveth," and as we did, people concluded that drugs, alcohol, money, and sex are not a source of peace. What was this peace of Jesus that would be a permanent gift?
The woman in the front pew spoke up. "Every morning I have to pray right away to ask God to give me the strength to be sober. Because I learned that I didn't have enough strength to do it on my own." She had been off drugs for a year at that point. "If my day doesn't go well," she said, "I have to go back to my prayer in the morning and remember it. Almost always something good happens. Then I know that God answered my prayer. That's the peace Jesus is talking about - knowing that God answers your prayers."
Like a soldier whose mettle had been tested, she talked about how connecting God with good things is a great way to feel more peace. Then you don't take good things for granted, and even if life isn't going so well overall, you can still see God's presence with you.
That's why I find a weekly commitment to our local soup kitchen network is worth the time. To see Christ working in people's lives is the holiest thing, even if its spiritual influence doesn't work as fast as you want it to. I'm moved deeply by the courage and fortitude I see there.
I didn't always feel so settled in my thought about it. In fact, I'm ashamed to admit that for the first three months of going there, I wasn't sure we were making much of a difference. I found myself buying into a feeling of futility, the commonly held point of view that says, "These people have no interest in making progress; the soup kitchen is just perpetuating the problem. There are other people who would benefit by your time."
But Jesus also told a parable about the man who put together a great banquet and nobody came (see Luke 14:16-24). So the man sent his servant out into the streets and lanes of the city to invite the poor, maimed, and blind folks to come to the abundant spread. That spoke to me because at that time in our branch Church of Christ, Scientist, we were seeing very few new people and were questioning our relationship to our community.
Then some members got involved in one of the homeless shelters preparing meals. I must admit, I was not one of them and was wary of that kind of thing. But in praying about the church's place in the community it was clear that the Ecumenical Action Council was a place to connect. The Council's commitment to the homeless and hungry made me want to overcome my reservations.
Now I go to the soup kitchen near my office on Tuesdays at lunchtime, and stay for the Bible study afterward. All of us who are involved feel our own hearts expanding, able to love more freely. Very few of the people who come to the soup kitchen have visited our church, but the congregation at our services has grown amazingly over the couple of years that some of us have been participating in this activity. Every few months we welcome a new member.
I know it has something to do with opening our thoughts and hearts wider than before, with letting ourselves love where we might have condemned, with giving where we might have withheld.