It’s not often enough that I get to hang out with my missionary pals, even those who live relatively close. Living off of voluntary support does not usually lead to a monetary surplus, so travel is generally restricted to essentials, or at least to offers difficult to refuse. This is a shame because I have yet to leave a conversation with my missionary peers lacking encouragement. There is something special about hearing stories of God doing something amazing- a changed life, a small breakthrough, a small sacrifice. It is the best kind of fuel, and a demonstration of the power of community when we share a journey and bear each others burdens. A couple of hours over a latte with someone hungry for Jesus and hungry to serve is time well invested.
I am quite happy to have had the chance to spend an afternoon with two friends from Italy, one old and one new, a couple of weeks ago as they passed through London. It’s always a blast when someone comes to visit. I feel a certain ownership of the city, although I’m not sure any true Londoner is ready to accept me as a local given my regular pronunciation of consonants. Still, it is fun to show off favourite haunts and highlights, and act like I know my way around.
In between photographing Big Ben and avoiding the crush at Piccadilly Circus, I got to hear about a church being born and big ideas for the future. I regularly leave these conversations with the sense that God is up to something substantial in Italy. For too long a spiritual backwater where Jesus and the Bible were marginalized there is a change in the atmosphere, and no less in the church.
But this is taking place in the midst of significant opposition beyond the normal cultural barriers to non-Catholics in Italy. The financial crisis, among other things, has created a difficult situation for everyone. For missionaries, this means huge difficulties dealing with new tax burdens that are making it unsustainable for many to remain. Those that try to remain are struggling to navigate the legendarily difficult Italian bureaucracy and confusing rules to find out how staying put may be possible.
Having been through a difficult couple of months dealing with some similar issues, I deeply admire all of those who are demonstrating deep faith and commitment to serve God in Italy and elsewhere. What struck me from the conversation we had was how much trust was required to keep going when so much of the future was unknown, and uncontrollable. It cannot ever be easy to give your life to serve in an area without knowing if finances or visas will let you stick around next year.
In every ministry there is a moment where we hand it all over to God. It is not up to me whether this work succeeds or fails. I don’t succeed because of my effort. I don’t live and eat because of my financial accumen. Progress isn’t made through my gifts, personality or force of will. God does it, and although he invites me to join in the journey and participate along the way, he does not and never will ask me to bear a burden beyond my ability to lift.
I have learned that ministry is challenging enough without trying to take one all those things that aren’t our responsibility, like the way people respond to what we have to say. I suspect that one of the reasons why so few people last long in full-time ministry is because we are dealing with expectations we could never deliver on. The biggest thing that I have learned in this is to separate what is my responsibility (work ethic, faithfulness, availability, etc.) from that which belongs to God. When faced with difficulties like the missionaries in Italy it’s such distinctions that make all of the difference. I do what I can do and should do. The rest I gladly leave to a faithful and powerful God.