My first pastoral ministry appointment was to a church that rented out its parsonage (called 'parsonage' because of ye olden days when ministers were called parsons) and so my wife and I were on our own for housing. I loved living in a house we could call our own on a dead-end street a few miles away from the church and downtown and with good neighbors. As much as I loved that house, though, I looked forward to someday living in a parsonage. Why? Well, partly so I could stop pretending I knew anything about caring for a house, and mostly because I had an image in my head of parsonages. That image consisted of living on the side of a main road so that people could walk by, stop in and talk, or drive by and ask for directions. My image turned out to be an illusion.
That's right. No one is driving by and asking for directions. I guess my illusion had been informed by film, perhaps, in which people would stop and ask for directions and then the person they asked directions from turns out to be a serial killer. And I guess, at some point in my life, I watched a film or video in which someone knocked on the door of a minister's house and the minister turned out to be a creep. Now, I did not have hopes of being a creepy serial killer. For whatever reason, though, I watched or created those images in my head and thought, "Yeah, parsonages are often on main roads, people need directions, people will stop by." I thought I could be the love of Christ for any stranger who stops in to ask for help. But that has yet to happen. In fact, I seriously doubt any stranger will ever stop by asking for help or directions. I doubt it for two reasons: 1) when people from the town walk by the parsonage, which is right next to the church building, I get the rather strong feeling that not even they know the house is where the minister lives, and 2) why would anyone need help with directions?
The other day I saw from my window (I like to look outside, so I often am being creepy without intending to be) a couple drive in to our parking lot and both the driver and the passenger had their phones out. Obviously, anyone can guess what they were doing. Rather than say to themselves, "Hey, we've pulled into a church parking lot, there's a house here, the pastor must live here, surely he or she will help us, and he or she is local and will probably know where we're trying to go," they said, "Let's ask our phones and try to figure this out."
Before I go any further, let me state that this fairly regular occurrence is not a criticism of the world today or 'kids today,' as we like to say, because I probably would not have been able to help, since I'm actually not any good with directions or knowing where crap is, and so phones and GPS are the only recourse lost folk have when they pull into our parking lot.
What I am saying, however, is that the world has changed. Wherever I got the idea that people stop by parsonages on the side of main roads to ask for help and/or directions, whether from an old film or story or my imagination, people simply do not knock on the door or ring the doorbell for help or directions. Because I don't know where I got this notion, I can't actually say that the world has changed, that once upon a time people would have knocked on the door or rung the doorbell. I can say that the world has changed from what we'd like to have happen. We'd like for people to hear our minds' shouting, "Hey, I'm right in here, I'd love to help!" Unfortunately telepathy hasn't been developed fully yet. We're working on it.
How we help one another, whether as a person of faith evangelizing or spreading God's love, or simply as a compassionate fellow human being, is thus affected. We like to say to people in emotional or physical need, "If you ever need anything, just let me know." Look at the most recent Facebook post that you or a friend wrote in which you complained, vented, or shared some trouble you're experiencing, and count how many times people said, "Let me know if you need anything." We love it. We love that phrase because, a) it puts no pressure on us, and b) we live in a society in which every individual is supposed to care for themselves. The person needing directions is supposed to look on his or her phone for directions rather than asking a local. If someone is going to have a license and drive places, it's his or her responsibility to get there. More than that, because every person is supposed to look out for themselves, we no longer appreciate intrusions into our space and time. "Why ask me for help? I don't know. You figure it out." We have so engrained this train of thought in ourselves that when we actually need help, there's just about no chance whatsoever that we will tell anyone or ask for help, even those who have said we should let them know if there's anything they can do.
In this climate, we can't rest at making ourselves available. I think churches really struggle with this. We're still stuck in the, "We're here. Everyone knows we're here. How can we make it more known that we're here so more people will come in?" But that's not the question. The question isn't whether or not anyone knows we're here. Even if they do, it won't matter. No one is going to come to a church and ask for directions anymore, physical or spiritual directions. Instead, if we want to help and guide those who are lost and in need, we need to go out and do it. Again, whether we're talking church or simply our lives with our friends, then we can't sit around and wait for more people to know they can come to us. We need to go out and just help.
Unfortunately, going out and helping without waiting to be asked can be dangerous for the very reason no one will ask for help. As I said, no one likes intrusions upon space and time. Still, when we see someone who is walking through life with little hope or direction, rather than say, "Well, maybe it's my imagination, they'll ask me if they really are feeling hopeless," we should go to that person, wrap our arm around her or his shoulder, and say, "You know, I love you. Because I love you, I'd also love to share with you what keeps me ticking. Maybe it will give you even more meaning in life." No waiting, and no judgment that the person is hopelessly lost; just a kind gesture.
And, if ever you see someone pull into a parking lot or your driveway looking confused and staring at a phone or GPS, maybe you go out and ask if you can give them directions from an experienced resident. I'll work on taking my own advice, too.