Should we love people more than the health message?

Should we love people more than the health message?

The pastor and health

Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD,is associate director, Health Ministries Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

Three years ago, I worshiped in a relatively small church in the United States. After worship concluded, most attendees found their way downstairs for the fellowship meal. As the final preparations were being made, it became apparent there was one lady who was very much in charge. She insisted I come to the front of the line, offer the blessing, and be the first to receive my food.

Reluctantly, I walked forward, planning to drop back as the hungry kids surged forward to fill their plates. However, as I opened my eyes after praying, this lady was holding a plate right in front of me and indicated that guest speakers always got their food first. As I took hold of the plate, she pointed at one of the first dishes on the table and whispered, “This dish is made with real cheese.”

Everyone in the room heard it, and they were now looking to see if I would place some of this cheese dish on my plate. The dish that was now the center of attention was one I would normally have passed over, as it was not one of my favorites. Not knowing who had prepared it, I offered a silent prayer to heaven for wisdom and took one spoonful. The host gasped.

Nothing more was said about this as others joined me at the table. We shared conversations and fellowship together. As I prepared to leave, I thanked the lady who organized the meal and then I walked out. As I passed into the hallway, a lady was standing along the wall silently crying. As no one was talking with her, I took several steps in her direction and asked if I could help. Her next words jolted me from any lethargy I may have been feeling.

“I am the lady who made the dish with real cheese,” she replied, “and I have been waiting to talk to you. Thank you for taking and eating one spoonful.”

She then told me she was a new member of the church, having joined just a couple of months prior. She was thrilled with the message, enjoyed the fellowship with her new friends, but was deeply hurt by the fact that this was the third time a similar comment had been made about a dish she had brought to potluck.

“No one has studied with me about the health message, and I am com­pletely in the dark about what I should bring to meals, except that it should be vegetarian.” With more tears flowing, she continued, “As I was preparing this meal—and I left the ham out—I told my husband I would never go back to this church again if another hurtful comment was made about my dish. But you ate some, and I am coming back next week.”

While there is no excuse for treat­ing anyone the way she had been treated, I invited her to join me in the foyer of the church for a few minutes to share a quick introduction to our philosophy of health. Then I prayed that the Lord would give her courage and understanding as she grew in her walk with God.

On the drive home I called her pas­tor, who had been at another church in his district, and told him this experi­ence. He and his wife visited her the next day, threw their arms around her, invited her to their home for some simple cooking lessons—and today she organizes the church fellowship meals.

If we are going to experience suc­cessful health ministry in our churches, we need to love people more than we do the health message. That does not mean that we must lower the stan­dards by which we live, but it certainly expresses the importance of being lov­ing, understanding, and patient with those who are still learning. Extreme attitudes toward health (and other) practices disgust and discourage many to the point that a lifetime of living will never undo the damage.

It pains me deeply to see fellowship meal tables adorned with signs pro­claiming certain foods made according to one standard or another. These practices do not promote unity, but rather pride in some hearts and hurt in others. “But thank God! . . . [H]e uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume” (2 Cor. 2:14, NLT). Are you a sweet perfume to all?

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Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD,is associate director, Health Ministries Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

March 2013

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