It’s the first Sunday of the year. I step into the freezing cold empty church hall and my heart sinks a little at the prospect of setting out all the equipment, leading the service, speaking to people afterwards. I’m not looking for your sympathy – just giving you a quick peek into my mind. In reality I needn’t have worried; we set the hall out fairly quickly, the service went well, the message from the guest preacher was engaging and challenging, and overall it was a good morning. However, it goes to show that all it takes is some cold weather, a strong stench of fresh floor polish and the prospect of a mundane task to cause me to lose some of the joy I should have had that morning in serving the Lord.
This is just a microcosm of the ongoing highs and lows I experience. There is the encouragement of seeing a family we’ve not seen in months, and the disappointment of another that’s been absent for a few weeks now. In spite of seeing the encouragements of seeing God’s people gathered, from a range of ages and backgrounds, there was still a lingering regret that there weren’t more people, that the change in people’s lives wasn’t more sudden and pronounced, that there wasn’t something a bit more spectacular. In one morning I was acutely aware of both God’s blessings and also the disappointments where my own hopes and expectations weren’t being met.
It is of course human nature to experience highs and lows in life. For those of us privileged to be involved in Christian ministry this is something we experience intensely. Peaks and troughs follow each other in surprisingly quick succession. Just one day can have the frustrations of people disinterested in the gospel, church members unconcerned with the mission of the church, and a lack of growth and activity that I want to see. The same day, however, can be filled with many encouragements – people wanting to hear about the church’s work, growing friendships in the local community, seeing brothers and sisters grow in faith. This rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows can all happen in the space of a few hours and can be very draining.
This seems to be particularly true in our context – a small, struggling church on a housing estate in Middlesbrough. Where the ministry seems so fragile, the highs and lows seem to be on rapid reload.
Naturally, this has a lot to do with our own vulnerabilities – when we are hit by these highs and lows, it tends to be because we aren’t secure in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. If we are basing our happiness on our situation, rather than our status in Christ then our emotions will be dictated by the situations we’re in. it’s taught me a lot about our tendencies to place our own value in our work or in “success”, rather than in Jesus.
This has also taught me a lot about expectations. Highs tend to occur where the reality exceeds our expectations. Lows, meanwhile tend to be where our expectations have not been met. When somebody lets us down, it hurts me more because I’d had personal hopes of what they could achieve (and how that reflects on me), less than because of a genuine concern for their spiritual welfare. Our expectations need to be realistic; if our expectations are merely our own desires and wishes then we will inevitably be disappointed.
All of this has been brought into sharper focus for me over the past few months. Whilst I never expected a revival in the first 6 months of my time in Middlesbrough, the progress made in 2 years was disappointing. However, after two years, I finally felt my hard work was paying off. An older man in a local sheltered accommodation block seemed receptive to the gospel. I visited him when he was in hospital and was convinced he was going to become our next church member. At last I had a breakthrough in the local community. All of a sudden I had great expectations for him and for the local community – or rather, for my own personal project. He passed away within two weeks of being released from hospital.
Around the same time, a Christian guy I had spent a couple of years with let me down and is no longer part of the Church. In addition, a non-believer I had been studying the Bible with stopped meeting with me and no longer attends on a Sunday. All of these things are gutting on a personal level, but affected me more because I had invested my identity in these things.
I’m not saying this just to give a “woe is me” attitude and to get some sympathy. I’m simply highlighting some of the struggles in the work I’m involved with in Middlesbrough. We do also see highs – in recent times I think of someone who has accepted the gospel and is now sharing it with others, the (non-Christian) caretaker who’s never even been to one of our services but recently commented to me, “Your church is just like a family,” and of course the ongoing service and growth of believers in our fellowship.
Unfortunately we don’t tend to notice these highs quite so much as we notice the lows. The highs tend to be a bit more ordinary and everyday; easily missed compared to a sudden disappointment. My aim for 2018 is to focus on the positive things God is doing –not just the things I’m hoping will happen. When things don’t go my way, or I feel impatient, it’s important not to jump straight to navel-gazing and a pity party. My identity is not in my own ideas and projects, but in Christ. Let’s hope I remember that when I’m setting up this Sunday morning.