As I prepared to speak, people were coming up to introduce themselves, to welcome me, and to chat about various topics related to ministry and Five Practices. An informal line formed as people waited their turn. Suddenly, an eager young man (20’s? 30’s?) moved ahead of all the others, interrupted my speaking with someone else, thrust his hand solidly into mine and introduced himself as Tim. (I’ve changed his name for this story.) He told me how glad he was to see me, gave me a little hug, and then proceeded to do the same with each of the other people in line. It was clearly evident that Tim lives with a severe developmental disability and that he engages the world through the perceptive lens of a young child. It was equally clear to me how well-received, accepted, loved, and cared for Tim is within his congregation. Everyone readily shook hands with him and returned his greetings. Some chatted with him in a good-humored way about subjects that I could tell they had discussed many times before. Some moments later, Tim came back to me and repeated the greeting all over again, shaking my hand and welcoming me once more. This time he asked my name, and we talked some more. The pastor came by and put his arm around Tim’s shoulder. As they visited, another church member came up and did the same. I absolutely loved the way the people of the congregation loved Tim!
When it came time for my presentation—a lengthy treatment of the Five Practices—Tim sat in one of the first rows. He intently followed my every move and gesture, listening as I spoke. Once or twice, he turned around and spoke to someone in back of him, a little too loudly for the setting, but the people responded kindly and engaged him warmly, and he immediately returned to his focus on me as the presenter. At one point he noticed everyone taking notes, and he picked up a stack of offering envelopes and a pencil from the back of the pew in front of him. He began to write, and even as I was actively speaking to the larger crowd, I found myself wondering what he was writing, curious about his level of functioning in the literate world. Eventually my presentation came to a close, and my hosts closed with remarks of their own. After the benediction, people again gathered around to speak to me, to express appreciation and offer comments. Tim again moved quickly to the front of the line and handed me one of the offering envelopes he’d been writing on. He had drawn two simple figures of flowers. He offered the envelope to me as a gift, and asked what I thought about the flowers. Since I’d just finished a talk about vines and branches, fruit and harvest, seeds and fruitfulness, the drawings represented a fundamental engagement with me and with the material. I complemented Tim on the drawings and graciously expressed my appreciation. I spoke with others for a while, and again Tim came up and asked what I thought about the drawings, and I told him I had them in my pocket and was going to keep them, and I thanked him once again.
Later back at the hotel as I emptied my pockets, I found the drawings on the envelope. I thought of all the gifts that pastors, congregations, and lay members give to me as I travel around. In my office there are many church mugs, pocket crosses, bookmarks, photos, pens, and other mementos from congregations. Now there is an offering envelope with two simple pencil-drawn flowers.
It takes many gifts to support the work and ministry of a congregation. The body of Christ has many parts that perform countless tasks to fulfill the mission. Some people have a huge capacity to shape the church’s life and to sustain and expand its ministries. They lead building projects, provide vision, coordinate mission trips, teach classes, direct music programs. They are visible and highly acknowledged. Others work in supportive roles, in quieter ways. They visit and cook and greet and give and encourage and pray. The church depends on those who contribute huge and magnanimous gifts as well upon those who take attendance, paint the nursery, sign the third-grade Bibles before giving them to children, and mow the church lawn. No gifts that come from the heart and represent our best go unnoticed or undervalued by God. No gifts are too small or so incidental or too personal that they fail to make a positive difference in the community of Christ.
Tim offers the gift of love and teaches us to love in return. He welcomes and greets people and puts them at ease. He makes a cold, formal sanctuary into a home where it’s safe for everyone to be himself or herself. He turns a crowd of acquaintances and strangers into a family. By his gifts so extravagantly and unreservedly offered, he contributes to the needs of the saints, and I’m thankful for his ministry to others, and to me.
Yours in Christ,