It’s a Monday evening in mid-July- an unusually balmy summer evening for a coastal city perpetually air-conditioned by the chill sea breeze blowing in off the Bay of Fundy. Jasmine and I are sitting around the diner table with our son, Sam, and a newlywed couple who are themselves about to embark on their own pioneer ministry here in Saint John. We’re explaining to them the benefits of living in an apartment building situated in the heart of the very same inner-city neighbourhood where we are ministering. As we chat about this, our five year old son grows increasingly restless. So, at his request, we set him lose to play in the courtyard of our building- a courtyard that we can survey from the windows of our second floor unit. As we finish our coffee and desert, we watch him play fighting with the eleven year-old-boy from the apartment immediately below ours- a boy who has become a kind of big-brother to my son. From time-to-time, the two of them will try to make a toddler laugh while her mother watches from her picnic bench nearby. These people are our neighbours and friends- people whom we have come, over the last couple of years, to know and to trust. Indeed, the scene unfolding beneath us, just outside our kitchen window, is a living illustration of the very thing that we are talking about; namely, the importance of living, incarnationally, with the people whom we have been called to serve.
The doctrine of the incarnation is, as most of our readers will know, at the heart of the Christian faith. It is the teaching that the Eternal Word of God himself- the one through whom all creation came into being- became one of us- coming to live with the very ones whom he came to serve. In coming and living with us, he set an example of what Christian ministry ought to look like- an example that has been followed by the great Saints whose lives have spanned the two millennia since our Lord’s life, death and resurrection. Take Saint Patrick who, despite being forever associated with green beer and four-leaf clovers, wasn’t Irish at all. He was a Briton who, as a young man, was captured by pirates and enslaved by Irish masters for six years. It was only years after his escape that he returned to Ireland- this time not as a slave to men but as a slave to Christ- wishing to live among the very people to whom he had been called to preach the gospel. Indeed, his incarnational ministry was so effective that Saint Patrick became more Irish than the Irish themselves- turning into an iconic symbol of their nation!
Far be it from me to compare the ministry of Jasmine and I to the ministry of Saint Patrick (let alone to the ministry of Christ!) But, our ministry is a small, admittedly imperfect example of what incarnational ministry looks like. My humble definition of incarnational ministry is simply this: living life alongside the people whom we have been called to serve. Its that simple. For us, incarnational ministry has meant moving into the Abbey apartments in Uptown Saint John- a 98 unit apartment complex, 55 of which are reserved for tenants whose rent is subsidized. Living in the Abbey means being neighbours to the people in our “mission field.” It means having our son playing with their kids. It means chatting with the bachelor from the unit down the hall as we wait around in the common laundry room for our clothes to dry. In short, it means integrating the daily rhythm of our lives with the rhythm of the neighbourhood.
It is through our living at the Abbey that we have gotten to know the single mother in the apartment unit directly below ours- an outgoing and lively woman raising a teenaged girl and preteen boy on her own. This is the boy whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post- a boy whom my son idolizes as a kind of surrogate big brother. This afternoon, he and I are headed off to the library together where I’ll be helping him with a summer research project- a project that had been assigned to him by an older couple from his Vineyard Church. Among other things, he has been tasked with writing about what he wants to be when he grows up and why. (Physicist and marine biologist are on the top of his list but, given his recent obsession with Youtube Vloggers, his attention has now shifted to Videography). This is a mentoring relationship that my wife and I highly value- a mentoring relationship that we simply would never have developed had we not chosen to “incarnate” in the Abbey.
It is through our living at the Abbey Apartments that we met a wonderful woman whom we now know as “Nana Jen”- a woman who has adopted us as her children and our son as her grandchild! When Jasmine and I are exhausted from our ministry and in desperate need for a date night, it is Nana Jen whom we call to come over and look after our son. Sam, naturally, is thrilled about having her over as Nana Jen is, for him, a kind of third grandmother.
On one occasion, Jasmine helped Nana Jen resolve some problems with her computer that were preventing her from accessing her Facebook account- a very small act of service that she greatly appreciated. When Jasmine explained that her “tech support” was effortless- nothing worth even thanking her for- Nana Jen quickly corrected her: “This is the anniversary of my husband’s death,” she explained. “Instead of spending the night in tears, I can distract myself by chatting with my family. You don’t realize how important this is to me.”
This, for us, is incarnational ministry- living our lives with the very people whom we have been called to serve. Indeed, over the course of the last few years, we’ve found that our neighbours have come to serve us as much as we have come to serve them, making the relationship reciprocal. The technical word for this, by the way, is “friendship”- the fruit, it seems, of ministry that is truly incarnational.
As his days in this world were coming to a close, our Lord said to his disciples in a moment of great intimacy, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” We, the friends of Christ, have been commanded to love as Christ loved; to walk with others as he walked with us. By the grace of God, Jasmine and I are striving to do this through our little incarnational ministry. The blessings that we have received from this are enormous!
By Terence Chandra