Faith When We Are Running on Empty
Two blocks from my house there is a small church. It has no signboard to indicate its denomination.
On a Sunday, the parking lot is rarely full and the tiny congregation is elderly and frail. The church appears to be mostly deserted on the other days of the week.
The church itself has a fresh coat of paint, but beyond that it doesn’t seem to have received any major upgrades since it was built, probably half a century ago or longer. A Google search reveals nothing about this little church and Google Maps does not even recognise the building on the corner of a busy road as a church.
The pastor is a man with greying hair whose weather-beaten face has been worn down by time. His greying black suit, which he is wearing every time I see him, Sunday or not, has seen better days. It looks as if it once fitted a much larger man.
The Spark of Hope
On the surface, both the little church and its pastor appear to be the forlorn remnants of a failed evangelisation project.
And yet…something about this little church and its pastor has captured my attention over the past two and a half years I have lived in the area.
Most afternoons, the pastor in his washed-out suit is standing at the chest-high iron fence, greeting people as they go by.
Many are tired commuters climbing off the train after their daily struggle with public transport. Some are neighbours walking briskly past on their way to pick up last-minute groceries, while others drive past in cars and hoot at him in greeting.
It seems that everyone who has lived in the area for some time knows this pastor who stands at his gate outside his church every afternoon, offering a kind word or a smile.
I don’t know his story or why he is still there, when there is a more-established Anglican church less than 300 metres down the road and a pumping Evangelical church down another street whose praise and worship songs often carry on the wind and wake me on a Sunday morning. Why would this man, who clearly has reached retirement age, continue to prop up what we might call a dying church?
I cannot judge from the outside. I don’t know his story or the history of his little parish. To me, his continued presence is a sign of steadfastness.
It is the faith of perseverance when we are running on empty.
It is the willingness to continue to be an instrument when we have nothing left to give.
It is the presence of Christ when the fire of youthful evangelism has passed.
It is the trust that the Holy Spirit does work, despite human weakness and frailty.
Running on Empty
Both for South Africa and in the Church, 2018 was a difficult year. Corruption scandals and political bankruptcy, and their effects on the economy at large, have made themselves felt in our own personal lives.
The backlash of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church has left us feeling a little less secure about the traditions and structures of our 2000-year old Church, and have made us the subject of ridicule from non-Catholic family and friends.
Like the old pastor on the corner, we are running on empty, unsure of what we still have left to give and fully aware of our own faults and failings. Perhaps there are not enough words in the world that can uplift us or fill us with a renewed sense of our mission and purpose.
But there is a lesson we can learn from the little church down the road. No matter how small our congregation, no matter how tired our structures where no polish or paint can fix what has been broken, there is always something we can do.
We can remain steadfast in the faith that nurtured us in our youth. We can remain faithful to our calling, even when it seems that we are serving no purpose. We can continue to smile and greet our brothers and sisters, not as the heirs of an ancient tradition but as simple followers of Christ, bringing the love of Jesus to those we meet along the way.
Steadfastness was the calling of the shepherds who first heard the Good News from the angels. They were far from the synagogues and on the peripheries of theological concepts and learning, but they steadfastly believed in the prophecies and recognised the truth in the angels’ message.
Steadfastness was the calling of St Peter who struggled to understand all that Jesus taught, but yet admitted: “Lord, to whom can we turn? You hold the words of eternal life.”
May steadfastness be our calling as we head into a year of great uncertainty, politically and economically. May our steadfast faith testify to the presence of Christ among us.
By our faith, may we bring joy, peace and a smile to those we meet in 2019.