The Struggle to Embrace Limitations

Last week, I shared an excerpt from The Other Face of God, in continuation of my summer reading project.  The excerpt praised the notion of a limited ministry; indeed, it maintained that such a ministry was rooted in reality.  After all, we can’t go everywhere and do everything; it is time for us center-worlders to embrace the fact that, like everybody else, our abilities to change the world are limited in scope.

I get that.  I really do.

And yet, sometimes my actions seem so tiny…too tiny.  They are so insignificant that they make me want to scream at my own impotence to do anything of of worth.  For example…

…on Friday, I had plans to watch my niece, who was in town with her family at the same church camp my husband was attending.  I was to babysit her while her parents taught one of the classes.  Then, Greg, Anna, and I had big plans to go see Brave, as all of us wanted to see it except for Luke, and he was out of town with grandparents.  Those two plans were supposed to take up most of my morning, and I was looking forward to them.  I hadn’t gotten to spend any real time with my niece, Tatum, in so long, and I was excited for the chance.


The night before, I got a text from a young mom of  a newborn daughter.  This mom does not have transportation and has been needing rides to the hospital downtown for doctor’s appointments for her baby, who was born with complications.  At this time, I don’t really have a relationship with the mom, but she has asked me several times for rides to her doctor’s appointments.  And I can never do it.  This was the third or fourth time she had asked, and she needed a ride for the next morning.  She usually calls me last minute, as I am a bit down on her list.  Thus, I get the call when others have backed out, leaving her stranded without a ride.

Her request brought me face to face with my limitations.  I could not spend time with Tatum and take her to the hospital.  And I could not keep saying no to her in her hour of need and still hope to form a relationship.

I thought about it, and I decided to see if Greg could cover for me, since he was already at camp, and then I would take the woman.  He could.

The next morning, I dropped Anna off with Greg so that at least one of us girls could have some Tatum-time, and then I went to pick up the woman.  The next two hours of my time was spent taking her to the hospital to fill out some insurance forms and then taking her back home.  And…it felt so useless.

For one thing, when it was all over, it turned out that there was a miscommunication between her and the hospital, and she didn’t actually have to go and fill out the forms.  Thus, I sacrificed my morning for a pointless trip.  Useless.

And here is where I’m supposed to tell you that it was all worth it, though, because of the great conversation we had in the car on the way, right?  All that relationship-building that happened made it worthwhile, you know?

Except…we didn’t really have great conversation on the way.  Or much of any conversation, despite my best efforts.  I guess she was in a quiet mood.  I did try, though.

But, but…it is the effort that counts, right?  Mother Teresa says that we can do no great things, but just small things with great love, you know?  So as little as my effort was, as little as it amounted to, I did it with love in my heart, which brought me closer to God.

Except…I didn’t really have love in my heart.  No, I was more perturbed by the ruffling of my well-laid plans, to be honest.  I tried my very hardest not to let that show, and was very cheerful throughout the whole process, but in my heart, I was not exactly filled with warm-fuzzies.

And there was a moment, while I sat in the hot car and waited for her to be finished inside, where I looked around and pondered my own finite nature.  I thought about all the kids starving around the world, all the orphans, all the injustice, and atrocity that just breaks my heart.  I thought about my new favorite verse in the Bible, Jesus’ prayer that God’s kingdom come, His will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.  I thought about my earnest desire to do something, anything to help bring that kingdom, as impossible as it is.  And in all those big-picture thoughts, this silly little effort seemed so…useless.  So fruitless.

I know that here is where there should be a “but.”  Here is the place where I explain to you that it wasn’t fruitless, that it was somehow meaningful.  And I could say something like that, if I wanted to.  But I wouldn’t believe it, so what’s the point?  The truth is, I am so limited in what I can do.  So finite.  I can sacrifice a morning, sacrifice time with loved ones, and see no dividends at all from it.  It happens.  But we don’t really do things for “dividends,” do we?  We do things because they are the right things to do.  And we trust God for the rest.

Those rather morose reflections bring me to my excerpt from Leddy today.  Here, she speaks about the hard, slow, laborious work of trying to minister to a specific community.  My insignificant actions on Friday was part of that process for us.  In light of that experience, I find her passion-tempering thoughts here to be helpful:

There are many books on community development, and I have read some of them.  However, I now know that it does not work the way it is usually described in the books.  The literature on community development makes it appear as if it is possible to go into an area, identify an issue, and organize around it, and voila, a neighborhood.  According to the experts, this can be done in a year or two.

Wrong and wrong.  Building a neighborhood takes a very long time.  It takes at least twenty years and then some.  It takes every day.  Like a garden, a neighborhood must be tended regularly and by many people.  There are seeds to be sown, little plants to water.  And yes, every day there are weeds to be pulled, small problems to be solved before they overwhelm what is good.  It is a humble task, and it is never over.  There are days when you think the slightest storm could blow all this loveliness away.

From my own experience working in this neighborhood in college and now, and from the church’s collective experience of the almost ten years we have been here, I generally agree with Leddy’s assessment.  Building a neighborhood, a community, takes a long time and a lot of effort–lots of little and big sacrifices, by lots of people.  And yes, some of those efforts seem wasted.  I’m not saying that Friday’s effort was a waste, but it definitely wasn’t rewarding in any way.  And that’s okay.  That’s how ministry is sometimes.  That’s how it is when you are trying to do something of worth in this world.

I am glad I had read this book, though, because it gave me a framework in which to process my disappointment.

And on the plus side, we did get to see Brave.

Have you ever been disappointed in your efforts to help others?


Quote taken from:

Leddy, Mary Jo.  The Other Face of God.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011. 80.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on June 25, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Those ministry moments can actually be quite a downer for me, Kim. I try not to get hung up in them but I do sometimes. Not always and not as a rule, but occasionally and certainly more often than I’d like. When I catch myself feeling that way, sometimes I can take a mental step back and consciously rest in God while it’s happening, and that usually gives me a broader (or perhaps eternal) perspective.

    Re Jesus’ teaching on prayer, I heard Darrell Johnson once explain that the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” actually modifies all three of the preceding clauses. The ideas Jesus covered there can be understood as: “hallowed be your name on earth as it is in heaven”; “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”; “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. It’s a call for God to be glorified in all we do here on earth the same way that he is glorified in heaven right now. Mind blowing stuff.



  2. Yes, Tim, it can be depressing, for sure. In a weird way, though, seeing how tiny and insignificant certain actions are helps to remind me how tiny and insignificant ALL my actions are, and for some reason, that gives me comfort. It is less disappointing when I realize that the alternative scenario is not me changing the world. Instead, the alternative scenario is me doing a smidgen more good. I don’t know if that makes sense, but the idea of my smallness in general sometimes helps me when I am feeling especially tiny and insignificant.

    Nope, that definitely doesn’t make sense.

    Okay, moving on. Thanks for sharing Johnson’s thoughts. I have always thought of “on earth as it is in heaven” in relation to the two before it, but not in relation to “hallowed be your name.” I like that. And yes, it is mind-blowing. That’s why it is my new favorite verse (replacing Prov. 3:5-6):).

    As always, thanks for your thoughts!


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