Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”- Ezekiel 37: 4-6
Every night, at about seven o’clock, a church group serves hot soup to the homeless in the downtown area. About two hours later, a group of spiritualists bring sandwiches and juice for the same people. Almost immediately after, a Pentecostal Church gathers all the homeless adults and children and they sing a short hymn followed by a longish sermon before serving some rice and beans with a piece of meat. There may be five different groups serving food to the same group of homeless people every evening. Unfortunately, many times the food goes to waste. A homeless person told us that they feel obligated to accept the food even when they are not hungry because they don’t want to offend the good people who serve them. It sounds like the homeless are doing the people who think that they are serving them a service. Something is definitely not quite right about this situation.
Everyone wants to do something to help the homeless. Usually serving food is the first thing that pops into everyone’s mind. It is a good way to get everyone involved and we feel like we are doing something concrete. The result is also almost immediate and the commitment has a beginning and an end. We hand the food to the homeless and they are fed. We go home happy and the homeless are no longer starving. I am not saying that serving food is a bad idea. It is not a bad thing but it should not end just there. We have something important to offer to the world as a church. Our vocation is to preach the gospel. Actions can give us the feeling that we have done our part for the gospel but in reality the message of the gospel is a message of Truth. Feeding the poor is never a substitute for the Truth. For that matter, no action can be a substitute for the Truth. Our actions are good and valid when they open the door for us to share the Truth.
Last week, we had interesting experience. While we were in the streets, a young man in his thirties came up and started talking to me as if we have known each other for ages. I just stood there smiling politely and wondering who this man was. I was a little taken aback when he asked about Mary by name. He even knew the number of years that we have been married. He eventually figured out that I did not recognize him and he told me that his name was William and he lived in the streets when he was a teenager twenty years ago. His words almost miraculously triggered my memory and he began to look familiar. Even then, I could hardly remember any specific detail about him. However, he was able to remember vividly our time in the streets with him. To make the situation even more bizarre, as we were talking, a young woman, Marcia, happened to walk by with her children. She used to live in the streets when she was teenager during the same period as William. This encounter was just a coincidence. William and Marcia started reminiscing about their time in the streets. They talked about the dangers and difficulties they experienced together in the streets. They said that throughout this time, they never forgot the times we spent with them.
Twenty years ago, our work was much simpler and we were much poorer. We did not bring games to the streets. We had limited resources. We went to the streets with a First Aid kit kept in a small tupperware. Sometimes we would bring some paper to draw with crayons. Most of the time, we just sat where the children and teens were and waited for them to come up to us and talk. Many times we felt like we were doing absolutely nothing. Occasionally the children would ask us to pray for them. Other times, they would just sit close to us and whenever they felt like it, they would talk to us. They knew that we were there when they needed us. There were occasions that we were able to say something profound to them but this opportunity only came after a long period of listening and waiting. I don’t remember saying anything significant to William and Marcia. However, they remembered spending time with us. They remembered talking with us. They remembered our presence with them. This was the most important thing for them. Life is a constant struggle for Marcia and William but they know how to survive. They don’t need our help to survive. They are fighters. However, in their daily struggle, it is hard for them to see God’s presence in their lives. It is easy for them to think that they are alone in this world and that no one cares. They desire to see that God is with them and they will never forget anyone who helps them see God’s presence in their lives.
We live in a world that values actions. I have repeated the cliché, “action speaks louder than words”, many times without understanding its implications. Action is power. It is a means of imposing our influence on others. It gives us a feeling that we are in control. Before we do any outreach activity, it is important for us to realize that the gospel is not about asserting our power and influence in the world. The essence of the gospel message is summed in one word, “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us” . The beginning of the gospel of John states that the Word became Flesh to dwell among us. The Word is the Truth and this Truth is manifested in the person of Jesus. However, we tend to overlook the fact that Jesus waited thirty years before He begin His ministry. The gospel of Luke tells us that He was aware of His vocation since his youth and yet, He waited for thirty years. Jesus waited for the right moment to speak the Truth. It is His waiting that gave Him the authority when He spoke.
Waiting is not doing nothing: waiting is learning and perceiving how God works in our midst. This cannot be done if we do not learn to listen to the Holy Spirt moving in our daily lives. The first few verses of Genesis tell us that first the Spirit of God moved and then the Father spoke. There was a period of waiting for the right moment even in creation. First we have to see and understand what the Spirit is doing before we can speak the Truth.
We cannot separate listening from waiting but they are not the same thing. Waiting is required even when we don’t hear anything. In our ministry, I have mistaken the silence of the God has a license to do things as I see fit. In the process, I desensitized my spirit from discerning God’s voice. Our words can only be powerful when we learn how to listen and speak from what we hear from God. Jesus waited because He knew that the Father was active in this world. Even Jesus needed time to understand how God works in this world and He acted in partnership with the Father. The Truth of Emmanuel means that we work in partnership with God to testify His loving presence in this world. The gospel is not about ending world hunger or solving the problem of poverty. These situations will always be our reality. Jesus Himself was born poor and died unjustly in a brutal and violent manner. When He resurrected from the dead, He did not give us a mandate to end all these injustices in this world. This is something that goes beyond our vocation. This does not mean that we turn a blind eye towards injustices. However, we should not forget that we have a higher calling. He gave us the commandment to preach the Truth that God is with us. He is with the sheep that wanders off into the loneliness of the wilderness. He is a God who suffers with those who suffer and mourns with those who mourn. He is the God who is able to touch the lepers of our society and heal them of their isolation and abandonment. This Truth when spoken at the right moment cuts into the deepest being of the human soul. It has the power to lift these people up and give them the voice and strength to stand against the injustices of this world. No political ideology or social program can do this. They can only perhaps identify the problem. The solution is found in the good news. God has given those who serve Him the privilege of sharing the good news. However, it is not an action. The Word of Truth needs to be spoken into the souls of the people. It is not the preaching of empty doctrines. It is the sharing of Truth that can be spoken with authority if we are willing to wait and listen to Holy Spirit.
This is a little longer post than usual. I don’t want to criticize actions without leaving an alternative. Actions are not bad. However, they should not be the first step if we want to serve those who are forgotten in our society. The first step is to go where they are and learn to discern to God’s presence in their midst. We should not talk first. We should wait and listen to the Holy Spirit who is already working there. We don’t bring God to the people. We are called to participate in His work. He is already there waiting for us.