Two comments have stayed with me over the past few years and for the same reason.
“Because of our Welfare State, it’s hard in the U.K. for the church to find social needs to respond to,” explained a young man to a group of European Christian leaders.
“The local homeless project has asked members of the church not to give money to anyone begging outside the church,” announced a curate to a local congregation, “because it undermines the longer-term work they are doing with people.”
It might be easy to see why the first one frustrated me with its shortsightedness. But perhaps the second one is more legitimate?
Maybe there was good sense behind the advice given to the congregation, but what galled me was the absence of any further advice about how the community of affluent London believers should respond to those destitute.
For example, “Please don’t give them money, but please talk to them, engage them, find other ways to express kindness and interest.”
But when the announcement was made to the congregation, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief. “We have been told that doing nothing is actually the right thing. Whew!”
I hate it when we look for “get-out clauses” to loving people. I hate it and I have a terrible history of doing it.
I remember at university how several friends campaigned with Speak, helped at homeless projects and were first to volunteer to run a local kids’ holiday camp.
I remember how I sat with them in church, reflecting on their choices, but thinking confidently, “It’s just not my calling.”
Then somehow I stumbled into working at the relief and development charity Tearfund. I thought it a worthwhile spot for some short-term money earning, and God set me on a long, slow journey of wrestling with the question of obedience.
Sitting at a computer at Tearfund, I found myself swimming in stories of need and suffering and transformation and hope. My worldview exploded.
Things that I thought mattered suddenly seemed vain and shallow and self-important. A lot of my theology was suddenly inadequate.
Justice became my new, unexpected imperative. I suddenly saw how the life I took for granted was impossible in most of the world (and probably unsustainable for me).
So I decided to abandon any sense of “calling” and instead obey the urgent needs of the world.
I struggled to reorient myself in a world reeling with harsh inequalities.
It was clear to me, for the first time, that to be human – in the sense of how God created us – meant to respond to the pain and suffering around us.
I tried abandoning all thoughts of performing and writing in favor of feeding starving people – it became that simplistic.
It wasn’t long before I realized that ignoring the passions and gifts I had was refusing to be the person God had made me. I was deciding for myself, rather than asking God what should be done in the world.
But if “obedience” to who God had made me led me back the way I had come? Where was the possibility of change?
Obedience, in the church I grew up in, was about personal holiness (Don’t lie, swear or have sex before marriage.) and personal calling (What specific job is Jesus calling you to do?).
I have come to see a gaping hole in this vision of obedience: a humanity-shaped hole.
We are called to be obedient to the fundamentals of being human, which through the lens of our Scriptures is expressed in loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
If we want more material to work with, it is expressed in the values and lifestyle of Jesus whose fundamental calling was to serve others. His example is of putting the needs of others ahead of his own.
I could go on to describe the simplicity of his lifestyle, how open he was to interruptions and his bias toward those with the most basic of needs.
But my guess is that it will take me a lifetime to get to grips with his profound compassion and his enacting of the possibility of a better world.
When we think of our daily living, this obedience is more of a “how” than a “what.”
So I haven’t walked away from my calling or the ways in which God has gifted me.
But I hope that their expression is becoming less oriented toward success in the world’s eyes and more toward becoming the best, most humane version of me.
Someone God might recognize as human in the sense he meant it.
Jenny Flannagan is part-actress, part-writer, part-filmmaker and part-Tearfund employee. She lives in South London with her husband, Andy, and blogs at JennyFromTheBlock.co.uk. A version of this column first appeared on the blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission.