Vanity of Vanities: Does Ministry Really Matter?

Vanity of Vanities: Does Ministry Really Matter? August 1, 2013

Just a couple of days ago, I wrote an article about why some ministers tend to lose their faith. It was part of my weekly lectionary study, and the texts for the week particularly focused on the vanity of so many earthly actions. I resonated especially with the priest narrating the book of Ecclesiastes, whose cries of despair about the pointlessness of even his work in ministry are about as human as any portrayal in the Bible.

The very next day, I went into my office at our church in downtown Portland. For those who are not familiar, inner-city Portland has a remarkably high population of people living outside. Though this might suggest a lack of services for the poor, Portland actually is known so much for its social services that many migrate here to benefit from those supports. This, combined with our relatively mild climate, make for a fairly hospitable outdoor living experience, at least given most other options.

Our church is right in the heart of the city and as such, many who make their home outside find their way into our worship services on Sunday and throughout the week for various reasons. The first year Amy and I were here, we made a concerted effort to allow people to sleep on the steps and in the courtyard of the church if they so chose, as it seemed to be the bare minimum offering of hospitality required of us.

In the past few months, however, things have gotten a lot more complicated. Several fights have broken out over turf, a couple of people have fallen and lost teeth or broken ribs, and at least three times, people have broken into the boiler room to sleep. At least once or twice a week, we catch a group of younger folks shooting up heroin in the courtyard, their needles scattered about in the midst of the greenery. We have found every kind of bodily waste one cares to imagine in the common area, and this Sunday during our annual church cookout, I had to escort one man out of the restroom for masturbating to pornography in one of the bathroom stalls.

There comes a point when the hospitality afforded to those we are trying to welcome in has to be weighed against the safety of those already present in the community. Although the sanitation issues and the vandalism were less than pleasant, the violence, drug use and sexual indiscretions finally pushed us over the line. We met with the Portland police and had a notice posted that said any loiterers who refused to leave upon request would be arrested.

I came back into the office after lunch to find one of our cognitively challenged members with a sack full of beef tamales she was intent on selling. The fact that none of us ate beef did not seem to be reason enough to relent and, and it took about 20 minutes of explaining before she finally gave up. Next to her was a mildly schizophrenic woman, explaining to me her grandiose plans for nonprofit in a vacant warehouse downtown. She was seeking financial donations to make this dream a reality, and I had to tell her more than once way we could not help. After packing and unpacking her for bags at least three times, I showed her out.

Right outside the door was Joshua. He is only a couple of years younger than I am, but the ravages of cirrhosis and other symptoms of profound alcoholism have taken their toll on his gentle countenance. He has been in and out of prison, off and on heroin, lives with several un-mended broken bones, and now was contending with a broken heart. A young woman he cared for told him she was leaving him for good. It was the final straw; he knew he had to stop drinking. But he had been doing it for so long that he was afraid he would go into seizures if he stopped without help.

I had heard his excuses for not getting into detox before. Usually they had to do with the fact that Hooper, the primary facility in town, had a wait list of several days. The facility had recently moved to the other side of town, and he had to be there no later than 7 AM each day just to keep his place on the list. Granted, this seemed to be a particularly inconvenient process, but surely he was making excuses to keep himself in denial about his situation. He would either stop drinking soon or die. Those seemed to be the only choices he had.

I invited him into my office and I sat down to make a few phone calls. I figured that either I could get him the help he said he wanted, or at the very least, I could expose the fact that he was making one excuse after another for not getting well. Two hours later, and after calling more than 12 social service agencies, I was left with only three options. I could call the police and have him taken to the drunk tank, but they would just release him in the morning and would not give him the medical care he desperately needed to avoid seizures. I could call an ambulance and have him taken to the emergency room, but he would have to present an imminent danger to himself or others first. He refused to lie, saying that although he was deeply sad, he was hardly suicidal.

The only other option, at least based on the dozen or so case managers I spoke to, was to send him back to Hooper. Of course, by now it was 4:30 the afternoon, and Hooper closed every day at four. So I could not even call and advocate on his behalf. While I called, Joshua pulled half of a fifth of vodka out of his waistband and finished the whole thing off in a matter of seconds to try and keep the trembling in his extremities from getting out of control. His eyes teared up a little bit each time I hung up the phone, sighed and picked it up again. But he stayed and he listened, assuring me between calls that he was, indeed, a good person.

“I know,” I said. “I’m going to keep trying.”

But by 5 o’clock I had run out of options. I gave him a bottle of water, printed out a map with walking directions to Hooper and made him promise me he would be there by 6:30 the next morning. I offered to come down and drive him there myself if he needed it, but he said that would not be necessary. I hugged him and he thanked me, though his gratitude just made me feel worse than I already did. He limped back out onto the street, in search of somewhere to rest for the night since the church grounds were no longer an option.

If ever there was a time when I felt like ministry was an act of complete vanity, this was it. I could just as well be the priest in Ecclesiastes, wailing to the heavens about the pointlessness of it all. Three people come to me; three people are turned away with little or nothing. Those at the margins of society – ominous, violent or unsavory as they may be – are threatened with forcible removal if they trespass on our sacred space.

I have no good news. If there is any, I am hopelessly blind to it. The system is broken, and we are broken with it. The religious systems have failed the people they claim to serve, and our social safety nets have holes large enough for lives to slip through, nearly undetected. So I wept bitter tears at my desk, threw a few things against the wall, packed up and drove to my house in the suburbs where my family waited for me.

I am not in the likeness of Christ today. Sometimes I wonder, for all of our studying, worshiping and evangelism, how many of us even ever catch a glimpse of what we’re really supposed to be about. For today, my only prayer is taken straight from Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.


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  • Doug Worgul

    Ah, but then you wrote this. And the ministry that God has called you to has been fulfilled again.

  • Brent Allen Reynolds

    I feel you. That’s why Jesus talks about mercy. Not because we don’t try but because we try so hard…

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I hope this doesn’t come out as trite – I certainly don’t mean it to be. But I’ve loved some pretty hopeless cases over the years and have come to believe that maybe fixing anything for anyone isn’t the point. I think we’re supposed to just love the best we can, without regard for results or appreciation or anything. Just love in order to learn to love the way God does. Just because that’s who we are – loving people. And then just trust that God provides the increase and the real power. And maybe the least of these really are like Jesus – not subject to being rescued or delivered from their suffering, but with a role to play the likes of which we can hardly imagine now.

    “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
    ― Julian of Norwich

    • Charles

      Yes, I think you are right. Fixing is not the point. Christian was present with them, working with them, loving them. That’s the point.

  • Ruth Shaver

    This summer, I have had the opportunity to help two young women who landed on my doorstep at the parsonage homeless, penniless, and untrusting of anyone because of all the broken promises made to them in the foster care system and later as they tried to make a go of it without support. Because the church I serve believes that people deserve at least the initial benefit of the doubt, I was able to provide them a safe place to stay over a desperately hot weekend, and then for another very hot week while we worked together to get them the help they need to get on their feet. I’m happy to say that they are in an apartment now and have job interviews tomorrow at a good employer. I’m also stunned that I’m now “Mom” because, as one of them said in the midst of this whole thing, she would never have been on the streets had someone like me ever been a mother to her in her life. Ministry matters; in this rare case, I’ve been privileged and humbled to see just how much it matters.

  • Jamie West Zumwalt

    Oh! So beautiful. And so terrible. This was my day yesterday. Thank you. Thank you for saying this. . . and we struggle on.

  • Jeremy Lucas

    Dear Christian,
    I spent 3 1/2 years in Namibia in SW Africa and felt like this almost every day. The helplessness and hoplessness can be crushing. After speaking to as many people as I could I came to the conclusion that to change one life, even a little, was to change the world, and changing the world is what we are about. Blessings on your work.

  • Robert

    This has left me feeling absolutely hopeless. I wish to God I had never read it because it sums up all that I feel. It is all utterly useless – and that is after 26 years of ministry! N o longer have I any belief as to what is the point!

  • JaneyGirl

    Thank you. I think the honesty of our lives, of living in Christ, of Christianity in general, is much more profound than the most eloquent sermon.

  • Al Cruise

    Christian, Jesus says thanks for helping his children.

  • MikeK

    Thank you for this! May you continue to find faith wherever you can.

  • Rev. Nan Sollo

    As a pastor for 14 years, I too have felt like you did on many occasions. Here is what I have learned- I can’t fix anyone. I agree with Rebecca in the comments earlier said, I can love people and invite people into a different kind of life but I also can’t wake anyone from their own illusions. I have learned to offer some help but I wound up learning that enabling people with too much help didn’t help. (I am now re-working a 12 step program to make sure I am not helping to make myself feel better) I now ask those who need assistance to take part in helping themselves, even if it is just a small step. Some will take it. Some do not. I don’t let anyone go hungry or without shelter but all I can do is sow the seeds and keep moving forward. I no longer have a Jesus complex (common to the clergy). I am a person called to love and tell the Good News with my life and my actions. Sounds like you are a fine pastor dear Christian. You are the kingdom in the midst of some despairing people. You do make a difference. I promise.

  • Grant Anderson

    Thank you for your honesty Christian, to yourself and to us. It doesn’t feel good when you/I/we have to kick out the one we are wanting to help. But when hope is gone, then the helper is truly with the hopeless. That is even harder.

  • Carl F Gilmore

    A bit late to this, but it has me wondering if the one who was (and is to be) changed is you – and all of us who can choose to make the effort of some small assistance or relief. Perhaps the change we effect in others isn’t the point; instead, we gain experience as we show love to “the least of these” as we are called to do so that we can do it again. And again. And maybe somehow, we do make some actual change for someone else, or we model the ability for another to choose to help out as well, and maybe that’s enough …