Vanity of Vanities: Does Ministry Really Matter?

Does Ministry Really Matter
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.

Related: The F Word – written anonymously

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.”

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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.

Also by Christian: A White Pastor’s Miracle in Trayvon Martin’s Church

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.


Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004.He is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. Christian published a memoir on faith, family and parenting in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due DateVisit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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About the Author

Christian Piatt

Christian PiattChristian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004.He is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. Christian has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. Visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.View all posts by Christian Piatt →

  • evelynsydelle

    Thank you for your honesty. So much i read on rlc seems to take on the champion of the marginalized without inserting the reality of how we all got here. I grew up in poverty and adults who were making poor choices. Some of them had made poor choices and were figuring out how to make better ones. But many had no interest in change. Many of the stories from my neighborhood were absolutely heartbreaking and i’ll spare you the bitter details. One thing i think i learned from it before my mother was that there are some reasons someone is in their position and more often than not reasons someone has no friends. My mom was always a champion of the friendless. One “friend” came over to use our phone making long long-distance calls or “borrowed”our vaccuum cleaner for months at a time. My mother had no car and only wages garnished from my fathers checks dependent on the mercy of others to take her to the store to get food for 4 (then) children and we of course all lived in the same govt housing complex. In short. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to help people until they decide to help themselves. In my family i watched angel tree presents from many well meaning christians (and perhaps some not) do nothing more than foster a spirit of entitlement in myself and my siblings rather than gratitude and humility and inspiration. The tides have turned in many ways in all my siblings lives and it has been interesting to watch. I have been on the side of a child in a family needing govt assistance, an adult who, with a husbands income plus my own did not require government assistance,and an adult who,after my bipolar husband decided he wanted to smoke a bunch of pot instead of being a part of his family, is ,although i have always worked, never done drugs or been a slave to alcohol, have overcome my depression for the most part and dont suffer from debilitating mental illnesses or disability, i cannot really support myself financially without outside support. So i suppose i can see both sides of how people get into my position. However, i feel both govt and well meaning churches assistance can be both hurtful and helpful but most of all when real change happens i think it always happens in the context of real relationships. Blind handouts will never change the attitudes and hearts of those who have dug themselves into a hole. Two books that have greatly helped me to flesh out my own perspective are boundaries by cloud and townsend and when helping hurts by who i cant remember. May God bless your heart and desires to see a less broken world and give you a better direction for how and when to help others.

    • ivory tower

      Very good article and very good comment. To me this article begs the question “can we really help people without personally getting involved in their everyday lives.” I know that for me giving money or spending one day in the inner city, or going on a short term mission trip makes me feel good about myself. However, are we really making a difference or are we just kidding ourselves, or are we doing more harm than good? Just as important what is the responsibility of the person receiving the handout to change?

      • evelynsydelle

        The questions you ask: “I know that for me giving money or spending one day in the inner city, or going on a short term mission trip makes me feel good about myself. However, are we really making a difference or are we just kidding ourselves, or are we doing more harm than good? Just as important what is the responsibility of the person receiving the handout to change?” are precisely the ones dealt with in the book When Helping Hurts. Not that God can’t use our well meaning but impersonal handouts for the good of other people who really need them sometimes. But regardless, I have always generally avoided the angel trees etc since becoming an adult but had no words to explain my disillusionment and frustration with our hands off ways of making ourselves feel better while doing something that really doesn’t require our own commitment or safety or convenience, nor do they address the spirit of poverty that surrounds the poor, the sense of helplessness, the sense that things can never get better, that the person is doomed to make bad decisions and live enslaved to drugs and alcohol, etc. which propel the cycles that keep generations stuck in poverty. We have to come alongside people and work with them, empowering them to work out their own solutions somehow instead. Providing hope for those who are ready for change and encouragement but, mostly, not handouts. I really can’t recommend reading it enough for anyone who wants to help and champion the poor and/or homeless both in America and abroad.

        • ivory tower

          When Helping Hurts. Heading over to an online retailer to check it out. Thanks.

        • ivory tower

          “We have to come alongside people and work with them, empowering them to work out their own solutions somehow instead. ” That sounds messy and hard. Oh and don’t forget the s word. sacrifice Just to be transparent I’m as guilty as anyone.

        • ralph

          I think we saw in 2008 with the great recession, that you can make good choices and decisions, and work hard and follow the rules, and STILL end up in poverty because some gambling stock broker made decisions which you had no part of.

      • loudshirt1120

        Hi… I think you’re right… in order for us to really help people, we have to get involved in their everyday lives… meet them where they are… I don’t think, however, that we’re doing harm… I think any time one can show compassion for another, there will be benefit on some level (even though it may be intangible to us, as helpers)… re: the responsibility of the person receiving the help to change, I think it behooves them to do their best to do what they can to improve their life’s quality. If they do, great… if not, then we have to move to the next who needs help… it’s kinda like the quote from Mother Teresa: “The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway…”

        Peace.

  • Stephanie McGuirk

    So…if there are suffering people, and you devoted your day to being as helpful as you knew how to be to a few of them, and in the end the complicated & long-compounded troubles were beyond you, and you have a nice life, then you aren’t following Christ today? If you can’t fix it, then you aren’t Christ-like? Especially if you have a house? In the suburbs?

    I read it differently. I’m reading love and sacrifice and honesty, humanity, and all of us awaiting the return of a savior who IS able to make our [alcoholic, or homeless, or ill, or just fallen human] bodies like his glorious body.

  • Peter Fodera

    Now THIS is good stuff. Real good stuff. Hell on earth is real and may be not much more than preparation and orientation for an eternity of the same for some; and to scare the bejesus out of the rest of us so we escape to heaven with death.

  • Raquel

    Acts 3:3-8

    3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

    6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.

  • Sandhya Jha

    Yup.

  • John

    Don’t know what to say, I just find this so powerful. I suppose the lesson is tomorrow. It’s not what happens today. It’s what happens when you wake up the next morning. And decide to keep trying.

  • jonathan starkey

    Good article. Ecclesiastes doesn’t speak to me that way, but I get the point.

    We’ve had people bring guns to church and puff pot in the bathrooms. It’s just jaw dropping. But that type of realness is what has made some feel safe to come. And others scamper for safety.

  • loudshirt1120

    Keep at it, Christian… as a pastor, I know that of which you write… Peace.

  • http://about.me/jonathan.boegl JS Boegl

    The Church desperately needs to be straight forward about this: Nowhere does Jesus exhort us to serve the common good, dispense justice or enact legislation in a way that’s disconnected from our being crucified with Him, or in a way that lets go of the proclamation of His rightful and inevitable claim over this planet. We will live emotionally and spiritually bankrupt if we look to the object of our ministry efforts for consolation. Our consolation and significance comes from Him, Whose Person we magnify and by Whose grace we serve at all.

    • John

      Without wanting to put words into his mouth, I think Christian’s frustration is at his attempts to reflect Jesus, and how the reality of that is difficult, and how we can be challenged in our lives by the apparent bridge between the Gospel and life “in the trenches”. I think Christian’s actions are a direct consequence of his connection with Jesus.

      • http://about.me/jonathan.boegl JS Boegl

        Great observation John. †

  • John Carothers

    “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 you get up and do it again tomorrow there, and I’ll get at it here. Broken systems are no excuse for giving up.

  • ksv

    I have a brother — homeless, alcoholic, mentally ill — I feel this way everyday and sometimes it feels like it is killing me. I would sometimes rather be my brother, than a person who is not able to help him or serve him. He never wants the help “we think” he should want. I don’t have resources. It’s painful.

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