Celebrating Christmas with our Brothers and Sisters in Teaneck
“But by the grace of God I am what I am”
Last Saturday, Grace-in-Motion hosted its second annual Christmas banquet: an evening filled with fun DIY activities, dinner, hand-picked presents, and performances we put together for the local community in and around Teaneck. Almost three months in the making, the special night came together with the help of 40 volunteers and 80 guests, many of whom we were able to meet through the local food pantry and a turkey drive leading up to Thanksgiving.
Having joined the GIM team recently, I was asked to come and help set up the day of the event, which mostly meant cutting out and pasting a family of adorable gingerbread people all over the fellowship hall (very therapeutic and made me feel like a kid again) as I caught up with brothers and sisters. I was also asked to write a blog post about the banquet (which is what you’re reading now!), which made me reflect on why GIM plans and hosts events like this in the first place—what the endgame is for GIM, and also for me. But first, a quick recap of the festivities.
The evening started off with a hodgepodge of activities for the children: build-your-own Christmas ornaments filled with hot cocoa mix, marshmallows, and mint; reindeers made of painted popsicle sticks and plastic googly eyes; a studio-grade photo booth; and even a kid-sized gingerbread house made of recycled cardboard box! As the guests arrived, they were ushered down the activity stations and to the fellowship hall, where tables were handsomely set and steaming hot food was being served. Once everyone finished their meals, a choir from Grace Community Chapel (GCC) sang a medley of Christmas and worship songs. A dance team from the church followed up with a stunning performance of Mandisa’s “Voice of a Savior.” MCs Kat and Larry then announced the main attraction—Christmas presents individually selected and donated by members of GCC—and called up the children one by one to receive their gifts. Finally, Pastor Jae came up to bless the guests and remind them of the love that compels us to serve: Christ’s love for us. Then just like that, the banquet was over. The evening flew by so quickly, but it felt like we were a step closer to building bridges into the community that God placed on our hearts.
On my way home, I started wondering why we go to such great lengths planning events like this between our busy weeks—going to the local food pantry to get the word out, asking church members to donate presents, cutting out and pasting every last gingerbread person. The hot meals, the hot cocoa, the works—do they make a real difference? Do they address the real needs of the local community to which we are opening up our church? The cynic in me asked. We even invited a councilman of the Township of Teaneck to come see what we’re doing, in the hopes that he might steer us toward more ways of reaching out and serving the Teaneck community. But similar to the times when I served on a homeless outreach ministry during college, I heard a small, persnickety voice in my head go off: “Is this for them or is it really for us, for me?” Is this just a way for me to snuff out my embarrassing sense of not having done enough for the poor or my neighbors? A means to end the year on a slightly happier, more conscionable note?
1 Corinthians 15:10
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
As a recent graduate and inductee into the 9-to-5 lifestyle, I have started to feel very protective of my time outside of work. Between catching up with friends, family events, cell group, and accountability the rest of my wakeful hours and minutes seem to slip away. And though I’ve been craving this hard separation between “work” and “life” since sophomore year of college, now that it’s arrived, I find myself investing more and more of my energy into the “work” portion of my day and where it’s headed. I’m constantly asking myself, “Am I on the right career track? Am I meeting the right people?” It is a weekly battle of unlearning and relearning my priorities, again and again, of getting through the week with a broken and contrite heart, repenting for the counterfeit gods I chase after, with ears to hear, and with hands ready to serve Jesus Himself in those I meet. Some time after the banquet, I realized that it is a similar struggle with service. The right question isn’t how much or how little I have done for the Kingdom of God on a given day, but rather, am I after God’s own heart? As always, the root of the problem is in our heart condition and not the religious activity itself.
1 Corinthians 15:10 is Apostle Paul’s way of saying that the grace of God is what changes hearts and saves lives. This same grace is the enabler of Kingdom work that matters, which begins and ends with kindled hearts. Despite his reputation and lengthy resume of sinning against God, Paul helped found the early church, not because he was a brilliant, righteous individual who could pull himself up by the proverbial bootstraps—not even because he was a worthy vessel—but because the Holy Spirit decided to enter and burn inside of him. Paul was who he was by the grace of God, which builds us up to do bigger things for the Kingdom, while bringing us lower still, in a position of desperate, but also calm dependence.
And so the same for GIM—and for me. Hyper-effective outreach isn’t what’s important to God, but rather that we find our way back to Him with hearts bent on humility, hope, and meeting Jesus in our neighbors. As Heidi Baker (one of the people I look up to in faith) likes to say, “If God can use a donkey, He can use me.” God can and will use GIM if we just let Him do His thing. God can and will use me too. How fitting that our name, Grace-in-Motion, emphasizes that movement—the miraculous and necessary economy of God’s grace.