Friday, December 7, 2012

My Life in Ministry, Chapter 1

Today I am going to do a little something different.  I realize that I many of you who read this, and even the ones that know me personally, do not know me very well.  They may know about where I am, but not really where I am coming from.  I suppose that is mostly my fault as I tend to be guarded about myself.  Today I want to talk about my life in ministry so far.  I have not been involved much over the past few years, but that has not always been the case.  Please do not think that anything I write is any means about bragging or pride.  It is merely a history and perhaps a glimpse into why certain things are on my heart.  Everything I was ever able to do was not a testament to any skill or ability that I have ever had on my own, but only through Jesus Christ was I ever able to do anything.  This is also not a testament to any kind of selfless dedication because while I went into most things hoping to be a blessing, I soon learned that the blessing was all mine and that ministry is not about works I needed to do, but works I was privileged to be a part of. 

My story begins as a young Christian seeing a posting in the church bulletin looking for servants for the Youth Crisis Hotline.  I signed up for the ministry, excited to be a part of something, but also realizing that as a relatively new believer I was in way over my head.  The hotline was something I was a part of for several years and handled many phone calls.  Of course, when you reach out to youth with a toll free phone number, you get more pranks than you do legitimate calls.  It was a challenge sometimes to switch from taking a prank call to a real one, but the Holy Spirit was always there to give us guidance.  After a time taking on shifts at church, I had the opportunity to take a home line.  This meant that for two hours, one night each week, the calls for the hotline were routed to my home phone.  During this time, I had the privilege of sharing the Gospel with countless hurting teens and even talked to one on the verge of suicide.  I think the most heart breaking call I received was from a teen girl suffering through the pain of terminal bone cancer and rounds and rounds of experimental and fruitless treatments.  She was a believer and she knew that unless there was a miracle that she was going to die.  Her question was whether or not it was alright that she just wanted to go home with Jesus and for all the pain to be over.  The real calls were heart-wrenching to say the least and sometimes the letters we would receive from those we talked to broke our hearts all over again.  You hear everything from relationship drama to thoughts of suicide to unspeakable kinds of abuse to the aftermath of children taken out of abuse.  Let me tell you, the whole idea of "happily ever after" after coming out of abuse is a myth used to end a movie and has nothing to do with real life.  I remember one coworker receiving a letter from a girl he ministered to who was being abused by her father.  It was the postscript to that abuse, with a father in prison, sisters who were embittered towards her, a struggling mother, and a house they could no longer live in.  She actually thought things were better while she was being abused. 

I was also involved with the food pantry ministry at our church.  I attended a large church and so we had a large ministry and many clients who needed our help.  My favorite times in this ministry was when I got to be part of the team that went to a local welfare motel.  It was an opportunity to minister to many different people in a relatively short amount of time.  It was also a great chance to see the same person several times over several months and really get to know them and their situation.  This is something I also did for several years in that time I had the privilege of being used by God to deliver countless food deliveries to many different families.  Its funny, as I write this and think of my own issues in life right now, I am really going through nothing next to what some of these people were going through.  It is easy to write someone off on the street looking for a handout, but when you actually go to their homes, see their children, and hear their struggles, it will really change your heart as to how you see those less fortunate.  In fact, it will break your heart.  The Bible is clear that God has a special place in His heart for the poor and desires to use us to reach out to them.  When you actually do it, you really understand why. 

Next there was adult prison ministry.  I really would recommend this to anyone who can do it.  Quite honestly, if you ever wanted to see just how powerful the Gospel is, go and visit a convicted murderer who now has a heart on fire for God.  Prison ministry is not easy.  It involved perfectly submitted paperwork, an all-day commitment, an an invasive pat down, all for one hour with whatever prisoner you were scheduled to visit.  I had a very different idea as to what it was going to be like than what it actually was like.  I thought I was going to cheer up a sad Christian prisoner and share some encouraging Bible messages.  What I received was a Bible lesson from an upbeat, on-fire-for-Jesus man living in the joy and peace of the Lord.  This man was a convicted murderer with next to no chance of ever being free again in this world, but he was free beyond what I can even explain or comprehend in his spirit.  And not just that one man the first time I went, but every man every time I visited.  In prison, there is a lot of down time, and that down time was spent praying and studying the Word of God.  Forget me sharing any Scripture, they knew their Bibles more then probably even better than I do now after years of more studying and learning.  I remember one time when my paperwork was not filled out perfectly and so my visit was denied (of course they do not tell you this until you are there!).  But a window visit did not require advanced notice so my prisoner was able to meet me for that.  I picked up the phone on the other end of the glass, said hello, and spent the next hour listening to an amazing testimony to what God can do, even to a gang member and murderer.  If you ever doubt the power of the grace of God, involved yourself in prison ministry. 

Speaking of prison ministry, there was also youth prison ministry.  This was not like adult prison at all!  In this case, our team would go in and basically set up a church and fellowship service in the common room in one of the prison cottages.  This was a medium security facility so there was more freedom of movement for the inmates.  Most came just because it was something to do and not because they were Christian or even cared to become one.  They were not hostile at all, in fact, they were very friendly to us.  We saw a variety of inmate types.  Our first assignment was the sex offender cottage and after a short while there we were moved to the administrative segregation cottage (where unruly or endangered prisoners were kept under stricter confinement).  Mostly, we dealt with gang members and drug dealers from the worst cities in New Jersey.  We took turns teaching the lesson, we played some worship, and we played games with them.  I learned how to play Stratego (but never very good) and prison-rules Checkers (which I actually excelled at leading to everyone wanting to always play me). Our night to go inside was Tuesday.  One of the years I was serving there was 2001.  I am sure you can see where this is going.  Our team was scheduled to go in on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.  I was sure we would get the call to cancel our service, but the opposite happened.  They called to make sure we were coming.  It was that night, that moment when it really struck me that my role in this tragedy was not to grieve but to share Jesus with those who were grieved.  I did not know how, but I knew that God would somehow be glorified and that night seeing those hard hearts softened I began to see just how that was going to happen. 

One of my most rewarding ministries was Sunday School.  My regular class for several years was 7th-9th grade and sometimes 5th-9th grade depending on whether or not there was a 5th-6th grade teacher.  I filled in various other age groups including at one point back to back services of 4th graders.  I learned that I am in no way equipped to handle young children, 4th graders were tiring, and my regular class was right where I belonged!  I remember my first night teaching.  I wrote an outline, I thought I was prepared, then I stood behind the microphone in front of around thirty students, and I do not remember the rest.  I think I spoke somewhere around the pace of an auctioneer and my 30 minute lesson took about 10 minutes.  God grew me though but that first night was humbling as I learned I really needed Him to grow me.  My night was Saturday night (it was a large church in a small building so Sunday services spilled into Saturday night) and my room was the teen center.  This was more like a large high school gymnasium than it was a classroom complete with basketball, Foosball, air hockey, snack machines, and lots of other distractions.  Our pastor had a reputation of going over time and with no next service on Saturday night, he often did.  I loved every minute of it.  I taught my lesson and after they all got to have fun with the various activities available to them.  I think, for me, one of the peculiar things I loved about teaching was that when I was up there nothing else at all mattered.  Whatever I was going through, whatever my day was like, whatever stress was going on in my life just vanished and the only thing on my heart and mind was sharing that lesson with the class.  I do have some funny stories, but I this post is starting to get very long and I still have one more ministry to talk about.

That last ministry was definitely the most rewarding.  It really was a culmination of all the others and allowed me the freedom to serve as God allowed.  This was basically a youth outreach to several inner city areas around where I lived.  It was supported by my church in that we brought the kids there for church and youth group and we were allowed to use the church van, but it was separate in that it was not officially a church ministry.  I could write a whole book on this one, but it was really hands-on mentoring.  I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program.  It was so much more than bringing them to church.  It was being there, in their lives, as part of their lives. I remember getting phone calls all the time from whatever group of them that day wanted to go to the movies or get something to eat.  As trite as those things sound, it was time away from them getting involved in gangs, drugs, and other issues common in those areas.  It was being a positive influence and doing positive things in an otherwise hard environment.  It was being a role model when they just about all came from very broken and very dysfunctional homes.  In fact, they were the reason I had a minivan up until a few months ago.  I was driving them around in a small car and realized how overstuffed the car was.  My car had some problems so I made my next car a minivan.  I could go on forever with memories of my time in this ministry, and there were many challenging kids along the way, but that really was one of the happiest times in my life. 

And so that was more about Ben than you ever really wanted to know.  Then again, if you made it this far, maybe you did.  There was more than just those formal ministries like that time a friend of mine had me preach a gospel message to a group of Satanists he invited to a backyard barbecue!  That was truly an experience!  But anyway, that was chapter 1 of my life in ministry and chapter 2 has been too long in coming.  I pray that my time frees up again and that those opportunities come again and I am able to get involved again.  Even as I wrote this today, memories that have not crossed my mind for some time have become fresh again and that itch to get involved grows all the more.  I know God has a plan and I can not wait to see what adventures Chapter 2 may have for me.  Quite honestly, I can think of nothing better than the privilege and joy of being part of the Lord's work except having that other half of you to do it with.  I have that now in my beautiful wife and while chapter 1 was a solo act, I know that chapter 2 will be even better now that I have someone to share in all the adventure with. 

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.  Ephesians 2:10 NKJV

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