A comment in another great Christian Blog (Life Reference) yesterday, has moved me to discuss something I find to be a great “tension” both in the lives of the Church as a corporate body, and in the hearts of individual Christians now and again. The topic is really too big for a single post, so I’ll probably address it in pieces across some time. The poster made the following statement in his response to the comment:
If we feed, clothe and wash, it is for the purpose of reaching them for Christ. If we serve others it is for the purpose of reaching them for Christ, and if they are already in Christ, it is for the purpose of helping them to grow in their faith so that they, too will come to the point where they reach out… None of this “reaching out” is just to look good and be thought nice, it is always for the cause of Christ! [Don Merritt – Life Reference]
What I want to address here is an “Implied Conflict”, an apparent dichotomy or contradiction, seldom ever explicitly named and examined, concerning “Evangelism”. The tension exists between such phrases as “sharing the Gospel”, or “teaching the Word”… and “ministry”, or “community ministry”, or “meeting needs”. I sense this tension all the time, since I am a “Contemplative/Active”, and I live my life FULLY in both states at the same time. That has taken a lifetime to be able to say as a true statement. Most of my life was spent “trying to balance” the two, looking like a newborn foal trying to find their legs and how they work, or like a child on ice skates for the first time. *Truly, not a pretty sight at all*
But then, through the grace of God, and the unspeakable patience of those He placed in my path to teach, correct, coach, and encourage me, there came that wonderful day. “The Day I Gave Up”. I kid thee not, it was a wonderful day. I discovered, admitted, then finally embraced as a fact the truth that… I didn’t get it… I couldn’t get it… and I never WOULD get it! And when I finally gave up… really on ministry itself… it’s as if I flopped down exhausted, disheartened, maybe even dead.
And THEN… FINALLY… it was as if God whispered in great joy… “At LAST, Little Monk… We’ve waited So Long!” and He just breathed into me, and resurrected me, and it’s never been the same. I cannot balance my life, my mind, my heart, my spirit, or my ministry. As long as I embrace that truth, HE CAN, because I stay out of His way. Yes, Gentle Reader, the day I died was a wonderful day.
One would think that Truth, grace, lie on one alternative or the other. That God is an “either/or” proposition. “Life OR Death”. When I find so often, it’s simply not so. It’s in the dichotomy itself… the seeming contradiction itself… where Truth lies. It’s not “either/or” as much as it’s “both together”. “Life AND Death”, or “Life THROUGH Death” God seems not so much “Yes, BUT…” as He is “Yes, AND…”
So here we are, with this apparent contradiction between “Gospel Sharing” and “Ministry” or “Meeting Needs”…
And, quite true to form, I’m not gonna argue this or propose a white paper about it. I’m gonna tell a story. It’s a story of one of my most glorious failures, and what I learned from it, through the grace of God and godly counsel.
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I was quite young in my ministry. Fresh out of training, arrogant, omniscient, determined to “straighten out everything wrong” with Kingdom, the Church, and Christians. Oh, Yes, Gentle Reader… I was indeed, God’s Gift to Christendom! A Legend in My Own Mind. *You have no IDEA, you will NEVER know, the grace-filled patience of those among whom God nested this little life in that time! lol!*
But God had sent me to a new place, in a strange city where I knew no one. I had a ministry of my own to tend, and God placed me on staff of a local church within a tradition I was not familiar with. God made me accountable to the pastor of that church, both as to “staff service” (he became my “boss” in a work context), and as my Spiritual Director, coaching and guiding me in deepening my walk both as God’s child and as God’s servant. He was a Master Minister, well integrated in grace, and my task was to learn from him (among other things) how to allow the grace in my mind and heart to flow all the way through me and my life… to let grace flow through my hands, my lips, my tongue. For in my heart, in my head, in my prayer life and prayer closet… there was abundant grace, yes. BUT, in my ministry, my expression… well, not so much. So, I struggled with “balance”.
My outside work and ministry, were among “unchurched” people with what were often deeply broken lives. One weekend, at the home of an Elder Deacon couple who had sort of “adopted” this waif in a strange city, we were discussing some of the challenges of my apostolate. He, this wonderful warm and loving man, became very serious and earnest…
He said, “You know? You have to be careful with what you do…”
I looked at him a bit quizzically. Yes, my work was not the safest, but I seldom felt vulnerable at risk of violence, and I said so.
“No, no. I don’t mean that. But I mean you have to maintain your Boundaries. You always have to be aware, when you serve, of whether this is a ministry moment, or a fellowship moment. “Fellowship” is something you do with Believers. We fellowship in church. We’re in fellowship now. We both surrender our lives to Christ, and so we can have Fellowship.
“But OTHER people, Non-Believers, or sinners… you can ‘Minister’ TO them… but you cannot ‘Fellowship’ WITH them.
“You always have to hold yourself apart, hold your standards as a Christian. You can’t let sinners drag you down with them. You must always be trying to raise THEM up!
“You see?” he looked hopeful…
And, unfortunately, I DID see…
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OK, so scene changes… Narrator speaks for a moment…
Now, it’s important to note right here that the pastor (we’ll call him “The Pastor” for convenience)... was a bit of an odd duck. He lived, managed, administered, taught, fathered, husbanded… only as he could discern Jesus willing him to, as expressed through the Gospels. Now, did he have all hs right “ologies” covered, and wall paper? Sure he did. But years before, God had branded on his heart that ministry was much simpler than all that.
Example: When I first began to work as part of Staff, The Pastor called me in, sat me down and said, “Let me explain something a bit different here, than you may be used to in other churches where you’ve served…
“This,” and he indicated all around us, “this building, this church, this staff, all of this… is NOT mine. I am NOT the one in charge of this. It does not belong to me. BUT, now here’s the unusual part, it does not belong to the people either. It is not ‘the congregation’s’. We work here by a simple principle… and I’d like you to adopt this as you work here.
“This is NOT ‘Our House’… this is ‘God’s House’… but treat that literally. We are not a staff with a hierarchy, and I am not ‘on top’. We are ALL jointly, Children of Our Father, and we all exercise our gifts, talents, and training in whatever way we are called. But we are ALL ministers, servants, bond-servants living out our lives in His service. Therefore, you are to treat the Church Secretary, or the Bookkeeper, or the Custodian, with the same regard and respect that you do or would me. I do so, I expect you to do the same, as all the staff.
“Second, we are but ‘household servants’… footmen, butlers, handmaids… to God Our Father and King. We maintain this house, His House, in His Name on His behalf, as we are called and equipped. We are accountable for that. And He will invite whomever He chooses, whenever He chooses, however He chooses to come interact with us as His Family and keepers of His House.
“That is, whether it is a ‘stranger at the door’, a ‘walk-in’, a ‘call out for visit’, or a ‘phone call’… there is NO SUCH THING, in this house, as an ‘interruption to your day’. Every person, at every moment, who encounters us is to be considered an honored guest, personally invited by God Himself from before the beginning of time, to come to His House and encounter Him through one of us in this moment. All such moments are sacred. All such people are sacred, and that is NEVER an ‘inconvenience’ or an ‘interruption’.
Uhhhh… nope. That about summed it up, what?
Now… is that a “conservative”, or a “liberal”? I always loved watching people trying to label him. Now, before you answer that, let me tell you… loose cannon that I was, wild child of ministry that I was, if YOU were so unfortunate to have been assigned me as your intern, what “rules” would you have posted around my life, my training, my schooling, my apprenticeship, my ministry? Well, I’ll tell you, he gave me, basically, just One. I call it, (and we’ve discussed it since), his “One Rule”. He argues that in this One Rule, are contained all other right rules.Here it is:
The One Rule: Hear the clearly discerned and scripturally consistent will of God as expressed by the Holy Spirit through conscience, and obey that without argument, hesitation, or remainder.
When I “messed up” (frequently), THIS was the only issue that mattered. If I had not violated conscience, then the issue was one only of “education”, and he would teach me. Sit down, go through Scripture, show me where Jesus handled a parallel situation in a way differently than I did, send me off to pray and ponder, and then affirm transformation once God had renewed. Simple, gentle, painless…actually I found that process rather fun! Certainly it was exciting!
BUT, if I had done what I did in violation of conscience, that was an entirely different matter. Something of my heart was resistant to God and grace, and there was rebuke leading to conviction, contrition, and repentance. Equally, this was always simple and gentle… but never painless. There was always that “remorse” thing. This happened exceedingly seldom, for I truly serve (and served) out of love, not fear, and sought to be pleasing to God almost always, no matter how clumsy the effort.
But Now we return you to your regularly scheduled story…
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Anyway, the week after this conversation with my “Uncle in Christ Elder Deacon”, I was invited to a birthday party for one of the folks I minister to. It was in the afternoon, I walked to the house, people gathered… and “stuff” started. Music was loud, people paired off in couples in corners, and “uncomfortable stuff” started happening.
Now, people “knew me”… Knew who I was… Knew I was the Assistant Chaplain at the workplace we labored and lived… so they tried to be “discreet”. But, it was a really small apartment, without a lot of room for “discretion”. And then “more stuff” started happening, and people began following one another, in quick succession, into and out of the bathroom.
This was a major metropolitan area, very urban, and not in the best part of town, and lots of this “stuff” started making me twitch vastly beyond discomfort. I had to go! I had to leave! I had to get out and go home! This was wrong, this was sin, and it was all around me! I needed to DO something! I needed to SAY something! I needed to ACT!
And God said… “No.”
WHAT? I had to FIX this!
And, in His calmest, clearest voice, God said, “No. You need to simply sit still and let people be people around you, while you be you in their midst. You don’t know it, but you’re making a difference, and you simply need to keep Me there, this way, and sit still.”
Long story short (or at least short-ER), Gentle Reader. When “stuff” started happening right in front of me, at the coffee table, I… had had… enough… of THIS! God would not give me leave to speak or to act, so I would simply LEAVE. I’d been there long enough, it wouldn’t be impolite… I needed to go!
God repeated, “No, sit still…”
But I didn’t. I arose, said my goodbyes to my host, got to the front door.
As my hand touched the door handle, God was intense, clear, unmistakeable, saying… “NO! Do NOT leave yet! Go back and sit DOWN!”
And I shook my head. This made no sense. I could not fellowship here, I could not minister here, so I didn’t need to be here. God was clear, my conscience had clear awareness that this was defiance, but my pulse was racing so… my fear was so great…. I’d like to say I was simply overwhelmed, but that would not be true. I was not overwhelmed. I was in charge of the hand that turned the nob and closed the door, and of the feet that carried me hurredly down the block.
All the way down that sidewalk, my spirit protested, “Stop! Go back! You’re NOT supposed to leave yet!” But I studiously ignored and defied it, until it stopped when I reached the next corner and crossed the street. I paused, considered, breathed, prayed… and repented, saying, “Shall I go back?”
In a somewhat sad voice, God said, “No, the moment has passed. It is over now, I only needed you there those few more minutes. You’re done.”
And I felt the crash of conviction and remorse. I can’t explain it, I won’t try to describe it. You’ve either been there or you haven’t. I was WRONG. I trusted my own judgment rather than God’s direction, and a moment of grace had slipped through my fingers, with fruit that would never come to be.
I apologized to God, asked His forgiveness and He gave it. But, He said, this had been straight up defiance, and I did not know or understand fully where my error was. I knew WHAT I’d done wrong, but not WHY. This would be opened the next day, to The Pastor. And so it was…
So, I went home, wrote this up for the following day of “Supervision Study” (we did about an hour of that one-on-one each weekday… (*imagine that, if you can, Ministry Brethren! That’s what God had of us, and it grew us both, but 5 hours a week of “ministry tutoring”… tremendous gift of grace!*)
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Anyway, looking at this word count, I am going to stop here, ask you to imagine how you would deal with your own intern disclosing such an “adventure”… and pick this up in a Part II. I suspect the results will surprise you a bit.
Lol.. I don’t do “Cliffhangers” as a rule, but this story has to be split!
Blessings and grace to thee, Gentle Reader. From your Oh-So-Frail-But-Blessed… Little Monk