Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Gift of the Stranger

I preach regularly here at St. Mary Magdalene that God is working in the hearts of the people in our neighborhood, training their hopes and desires, and that by grace he may well lead these strangers to us. I also pray regularly for the same: that God would be at work in the people of St. Vital, drawing them unto Himself, and that if it might be pleasing to Him that He would send them our way.

I'm conscious that this is a little bit different than thinking of the stranger as a person with spiritual needs that the church might fulfill. I don't mean to say that people will not have spiritual needs, or that the church shouldn't make some effort to fulfill them. There is, however, an important difference in emphasis. Rather than placing pressure upon the local worshipping community to be a kind of spiritual boutique according to our own efforts, the emphasis is on God's work in the stranger. It recognizes His prior action in the lives of others, before we might even meet or see them. It also recognizes that God might continue his transformation of the church, preparing us to see His work in the stranger before we get too anxious about our ability to meet the needs, or the perceived needs, of others. To pray for God's work in others, and that we might see that work when it is shown to us, places us in a receptive and perceptive mode, rather than a kind of consumerist exchange mode.

(This is not an apology for the passivity of the church, by the way. Engaging a neighborhood in simple service, and meeting needs in accord with Christian discernment, is essential to being the church. So is engaging in all the different ways we might actively invite others into the embracing love of God in Christ through the church. Neither of these is to be ignored by an emphasis on God's priority in the work of service and evangelism.)

What I didn't quite realize, until recently, is how this kind of emphasis would affect me. There's been some recent evidence that God is doing exactly the work that I pray for. God is working in extraordinary ways in the hearts and minds of the people of St. Vital. And God is sending them our way. What this has meant is that, rather than being caught in a concern for some supposedly spiritual remedy to some kind of perceived spiritual malaise, the stranger is arriving as the pure gift of God. God has worked some miracle in the life of another person, and has entrusted them to us and into our care.

I can't say just how personally transforming this has been. God is gifting me, and us, with the stranger. God has set to work in training the desires of those whom we do not yet know, and is sending them to this little neighborhood parish. He has prepared our hearts to receive. God is doing a great work.

I have been convinced to see differently. The stranger is not a spiritual consumer. The stranger is a pure, delicate, and precious gift given by God Himself.

It leaves me humbled to know that He would be so gracious.

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