By Tilly Dillehay
One year when I was in college, I agreed to go on a missions trip to Northern Ireland. The trip was an all-girls affair, the only one of its kind in the school’s missions department. There were about a dozen of us who signed on to go, all corralled in and drawn by the charismatic power of the trip’s leader, a girl I’ll call Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen was like a bottle rocket. Shimmering with personality and quip, she drew us all by the sheer force of her will. Each of us had been personally invited, and the effect was irresistible. When she spoke to you about doing something with her, you immediately experienced a sense of privilege. It felt as if you were being invited in on a secret, and you simply wanted to do it, whatever it was.
So Mary Ellen had gathered a motley crew for this trip. We were varied, but it seemed to me that most of us were very spirited, interesting girls, pretty girls. Girls with varying degrees of spiritual maturity (or, I would find out later, no spiritual maturity of all).
There was a sarcastic, modern-looking girl with choppy blonde hair. There was a shy beautiful girl who never spoke much. There was a thin, zany redhead with an absolutely delightful personality. There were a few preppy brunettes and a few Bible school girls…. And there was me.
We were going to go stay in a manor house near Belfast. The mission house was run by a middle-aged Welshman with a round pot belly, who was married to an Englishwoman. Also living in the large house was a young and handsome Scott, who was dating the one temporary female missionary also on the team—an American.
The mission house served a small village community. One of their main projects was hosting mission teams like ours; the teams would go out with the staff to do workshops for youth, street evangelism, and Bible camp types of activities.
Before we all left, we were given the task of fundraising. We accomplished this with heartfelt letters, which talked about “the work we intend to do for God’s kingdom, organizing and teaching a workshop for troubled teenage girls in a rural area of Northern Ireland.”
We also had the requisite girly late night heart-to-heart talks as a group, during which we all told our carefully curated deepest darkest secrets, prepared for just such an occasion.
Then we flew over the ocean.
We organized our material, we prepared a workshop for those troubled teen girls, and we waited for them to come. They came, and we taught them about self-acceptance, making them look in mirrors and identify beautiful things they saw there. We taught them about how skewed the culture of beauty is (I brought along one of my CD covers and pointed out to them in detail how they’d been Photoshopped); we led them through ice-breakers and discussions and exercises.
We were very very earnest, but none of us noticed that the material we gave them could just as easily have come from Oprah, from any old humanistic self-help seminar. The only real problems we had while delivering this material was keeping our 11-14 year old attendees from sneaking vodka into the end-of-week sleepover, and trying to limit their smoking to fifteen-minute breaks. There was no gospel for the girls to react to, or resist.
But we were spiritually on our way, we thought. Missionaries.
And then something happened, on the second to last night there, that shook my perception of our undertaking. Late that night, in the large room full of bunkbeds that all of us slept in, I was awakened.
Female voices were raised.
I sat up just in time to catch a glimpse of Mary Ellen, shouting into the face of our spunky blonde team member. She was just finishing a retort, which was returned with a screamed profanity from the blonde. She returned in kind. The two of them shot two final arrows at one another before Mary Ellen took off into the darkness, slamming the door behind her. She ended up outside the house (against the rules), wandering around in the surrounding highlands. A few hours later she returned, sullen.
I never did learn what had happened between them, or how things had escalated to such a point. Nevertheless, I was called on the following morning. A meeting was held between the two warring girls, the one faculty member who had come with us on the trip, and a staff member from the house.
They asked me to attend this meeting as a sort of mediator. I don’t know why—I hadn’t heard the argument escalate, and was not in any position of leadership. I can only guess that it was because of my face. I think I have one of those deceitfully wise faces; something about my face makes people think that I am mature and responsible, empathetic and understanding.
The two girls obviously didn’t want me sitting there, offering soothing words when I could think of them and trying to look patient. But this meeting proved to be an important moment for me.
As I sat there, listening to the girls sharply defend their positions, something struck me between the eyes:
This trip is a fraud. We are not missionaries. I’m not sure if we are Christians—I’m not sure if I am a Christian.
We are on a glorified chick vacation.
And that was a devastating thought. Because it made the mission seem petty, suddenly, spiritually bankrupt. It punched all sorts of holes in my missional vanity.
They ended up inviting me to stay on at the house there, as a short-term staff missionary, but in the end I refused. I slunk off home with the rest of the group, because I knew the truth about us—about me. I had no business doing ministry.
I was a Ministry Fraud.
This experience—almost a decade ago—came back to bite me last year, when I was in the process of starting a ministry to the local jail in my town.
I was about three years into my Christian walk. I’d been married less than a year.
Regularly, my job took me into this jail to get stories. One day while I was there, I encountered a woman who had been on the front page of the newspaper for her involvement with a drug ring. Loudly, she observed to her friend (glaring at me) that the newspaper loves to print the bad things about people, but we don’t go after the stories of people being exonerated and declared innocent. Actually, she said, we don’t care about people at all—we just care about selling papers.
This incident, while jolting me awake and evoking a protest, also confirmed a growing desire that I’d already been ruminating over.
I wanted to get inside the jail and start a ministry there.
It had nothing to do with the paper and how it was run. I was simply tired of printing the names of these women, week after week, and never connecting with them as human beings. I’d begun to feel parts of my heart that were closed off towards them, that regarded the people in the mugshots as belonging to some other world than the world I occupy. How could I stop this crawling hard-heartedness without finding a way to meet and serve them?
But this problem does nothing to describe the urge to get inside that jail—how can I describe a conviction? It was the sense that I would never get comfortable until the thing had been started; a restless knowledge that in order to mature as a Christian, this thing had been laid on the path in front of me.
The thought was to do something that was more interpersonal than the services that were sometimes held in the jail already, something with an element of Biblical counseling. I wanted to talk about Jesus Christ with them, and the power and authority of scripture in their lives. I wanted them to know that I was dirty, too. I wanted to see what the power gospel looks like in Macon County, TN, when it is offered to people who have already burned bridges and lost children to the System and done damage to their own bodies.
After this conviction came to rest with certainty in my heart and mind, another three or four months expired. What was I waiting for during this time?
I was afraid.
I was afraid of the Ministry Fraud. I was afraid of watching myself quit another thing, walk off the set of another good intention. Flakiness. Immaturity prevailing. My own sin and unbelief complicating the work of the ministry. My moods, shooting holes in the gospel even as I tried to relay it.
It wasn’t messiness of the women that I was afraid of—I romanticized those things. The dramatic things that might occur when you get mixed up with drug addicts and petty thieves and women with three dangerous ex-husbands. Those things were almost part of the draw (and this shamed me to know)—because for some reason, people raised in Christian culture are fascinated by ‘gritty’ things.
I was afraid of the ordinary stuff. Of 3:30 on a Monday, hours before I drive over to the jail, realizing that there’s just barely enough time to cook dinner for my husband and finish printing off outlines for the lesson. Of logistics and tiredness getting in the way. Of the excitement from new connections with the women giving way to relational laziness and comfort.
Even, on some level, of screaming fights in the middle of the night—or my version of that, which would be polite passive-aggressive arguments about curriculum with my fellow ministry volunteers.
Even worse, I was afraid I had seen enough of my own reliability to wonder whether the idea would last. Would we start this thing just long enough to get tired and quit, leaving the ladies in the jail with another miniature abandonment? Would I get into it for bragging rights—because it’s a nice Christianese tool, to be able to say ‘my ministry to the blah-blah-blah?’ Did I feel a true conviction to go and do it, or did I simply feel yet another moment of obsession with a romanticized idea of living on the cultural edge and making friends with criminals?
Did I, in fact, care about connecting people with the gospel? Did I, in fact, care enough to go do so, week after week after week? Was I, in fact, setting myself up for another chick trip to Northern Ireland?
It took months of this discomfort and indecision for me to see that the idea was a conviction, rather than a fancy.
Three ideas helped with this:
1. If you doubt that you’ll finish something you start, you should START by doubting whether you’ll finish the biggest thing you’ve ever started. The Christian walk, after all, is the longest-running, scariest commitment you’ll ever make. You’re already in. If God has put himself in charge of your sanctification (a miracle), then surely he can be trusted to take charge of keeping you faithful to a little local ministry.
Remember: God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). He ensures the growing process, the flowering process, the harvest. He is also in charge of the planting.
2. The question of time was another doubt for me, but these were also sifted away. Yes, I realized, I work full time and have a husband, but I’m also childless. There will always be a reason to say no to things. Many of them will be better than the ones I have right now.
3. I understood, finally, that I was actually in need of a means of strengthening my faith. The desire for this was the final push.
I needed to practice the feel of the gospel in my mouth. I needed to see ‘proof’ of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the lives of others. I needed to keep growing in my belief. Isn’t that part of the reason we are commanded to speak the gospel to others? As you talk about something to new people, your love for that thing grows. They are not the only beneficiaries.
It was spiritual blessing that I was looking for—and relief from that nagging pressure of conviction that I, this year, for as long as I am able, need to be with the women of the Macon County Jail. In the end, it made me bolder to see that the only stakes riding on this small town endeavor were exactly the same stakes that ride on every Christian’s endeavor to live the Christian life, every day that they wake up.
You get up, you make coffee. You try to do it to God’s glory. You kiss your family, you go to work. You try to do it to God’s glory. You sin, you repent and confess, you realize that something was learned. You try to go on to God’s glory. Over weeks, months, and years, you look behind you and see that something has been done. You realize that something supernatural has sustained the whole thing. God has accomplished something in you.
And your faith is grown again.
So you get up, you make coffee. You go to work. You make dinner for your husband, you print off your lesson, and you drive to the Macon County Jail…
“Likewise the spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
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