Ministry: A Collage
Ministry. What is it? How do we do it? Ministry, as I understand it, can be done anywhere by anyone. As I think of ministry for myself, I cannot extricate my idea of ministry from my idea of the divine, and frankly, I haven’t come up with a better way of speaking of the divine than Paul Tillich who uses the language of the ground of being. To me, the divine is that which undergirds, transcends, connects and enlivens all that is. It is in and through everything, while also being beyond that. My feeling of connection to the divine, and through the divine to the world around me, has pushed me to think about framing my life’s work as ministry. So the divine (God), the ground of our very being, is at the center of my idea of ministry. Jesus falls further to the periphery (which is why I am not always sure that I belong in the Christian tradition or HOW I belong there). Jesus does have a place in my concept of ministry, an important place, at that. Jesus has a very human place: it is the place of teacher, example, role model. He holds the place of revelation – one whose life and deeds were in fact transparent beyond himself, transparent to the ground of being. Was he the final revelation? I have my own verdict on that, and I have to admit, it’s a point of contention between me and our dear friend Paul T.
So, this gives me a place to begin: ministry with God at its center and Jesus as the example.
What about an image? Ministry is a collage, an image made of pieces of other images, a whole consisting of scraps of multi-colored paper. It looks different for everyone who does it, and to do it well, one must do it authentically, honoring one’s own strengths and weaknesses and being open to how these strengths and weaknesses meet the needs and wonders of the world. Back to the collage image: I remember talking with my dad when I was a kid and him telling me that one of the things he loves about being a minister is that ministry requires him to be a generalist – to learn foreign languages, preach sermons, build water tanks, act as a social advocate, serve as counselor and teacher, balance a budget, practice empowerment, do community organizing, and simply spend time building relationships with a myriad of people all over the world. Granted my father (and mother’s) practice of ministry is unusual – picking up and moving, usually halfway around the world, every 4 to 7 years. So my image of ministry as a collage, as pasting together bits of other images, creating a role out of pieces of other roles, comes first, perhaps, from watching my parents. For this assignment, while I understand ministry as a collage, I will focus on a couple of aspects of this collage, a couple of color themes that I think run through the larger image. The image of ministry as collage also fits with me and who I am, the stories that I tell, for I often feel as if I am made from pieces of fabric or paper acquired over my life, scraps of culture and language and story, different names, even, pasted together to form a single entity: myself.
Seeing: Ministry as Visionary
I was thinking that the ideal place for me to have done this presentation would have been outside. Instead, I’ll ask you to close your eyes…. Imagine yourself out in the quad. Look around at the green of the grass, pick a spot and feel the warm of the sun or the shade of the trees. Take a deep breath of the air, perhaps you can catch a hint of lilac or clover or at the least the clean sweet smell of grass with the warm musty undertones of damp earth. Look up above you to leaf-dappled sky. Take another deep breath and remember that you are connected to an earth whose seasons turn, shifting one into another. As you look around be aware of the divine presence in this place, the divine presence with you. Now I’d like you to open your eyes and look around this table…. We’ve come to know each other over this last year; we’ve learned some of each others’ strengths and weaknesses. We’ve been gifted by each others’ presence, words, a smile, a hug, an affirmation. We have been challenged by each others’ stories, questions, and ideas. We have had our worlds expanded, our vision broadened, our ideas honed about what it means to be a ministry student, a Christian, a human being made in the image of the divine. As you look around, I want you to recognize the love that is in this room – the patience, faith, grace and generosity that we show to each other and that we spread to the wider world. Again, know the presence of the divine in this place.
An important part of ministry, as I understand it, is being willing and able to help people SEE the world around them and the presence of the divine in that world. This is the work of the minister as visionary, the person who takes the time to look closely at the world and who chooses to share what she sees. This role involves first and foremost recognizing the divine all around us, the ground of all being whose presence in all being connects all beings with each other. Portraying the world as we do not usually see it, the minister as visionary invites us to adjust our gaze as we look around us, invites us to feel surprise, wonder, awe and delight in this rich world of which we are a part. But the minister as visionary’s role does not end here, it extends to a vision of the world as it is and as it might be. This requires a recognition of not only beauty, joy, rejuvenation, and life abundant, but it also requires recognition of brokenness, suffering, injustice, alienation, sorrow and sin. The minister as visionary has a role in recognizing and communicating these realities to others, in sharing these perspectives on the world. For we cannot transform the world if we deny the authentic state it, and we, are in. In order to play this role, the minister as visionary must pay attention to the world around her, and she must be willing to see both the divine and human sin in the messiness and complexity of the world around her.
Finally, the minister as visionary must see a world of possibility beyond the limitations of the world as it is already. She must hold on to hope in the face of despair. Recognition of the divine presence in the world, seeing the world’s beauty and brokenness, acknowledging and affirming people in their authentic humanity gives the minister as visionary a basis from which to paint a picture of what the world might be like – an image of the beloved community. As its name implies, the beloved community is neither achieved nor lived alone. Thus, another element of ministry: relationship.
Relating: Ministry as Radical Love
In addition to the role of minister as visionary, helping people to see the world around them in different ways, ministry involves moving people to recognize their relationships with the world around them and to live these relationships deliberately. The divine as the ground of all being, is also the basis of all relationships; that which is being itself is surely present in the relatedness of those beings. It may even be said that the relatedness of beings is part of the ground of being. Thus, relationship is fundamental to participation in the ground of being. There are four fundamental relationships (or categories of relationship) with which I am concerned: our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with the people around us, our relationship with the wider world, and our relationship with the divine. The latter of these relationships, our relationship with the divine, may be both an individuated relationship fostered through prayer, meditation, worship and other spiritual practices, and it may also be expressed and fostered through the other three relationships: our relationship with ourselves, other people, and the world. Ministry asks of us to relate with radical love.
What does it mean to relate with radical love? This requires, first and foremost, an invitation to authenticity – an invitation for oneself, for others, for the earth and for the divine to be what they truly are, not simply what we would have them be. This is no easy task – all too often, I find myself wishing someone would pull their weight some more, trying to mold the divine to fit my view of it, attempting to deny my weaknesses or ignore the terrifying possibilities opened up by my gifts, ignoring the finite nature of the earth and its resources. To love radically, the minister must relate to things as they are. She must engage people in their authentic humanity, complicated and messy. And truly, it is sometimes easier to love another person radically, with patience for messiness and ambiguity, than it is to love oneself. I think this is something, self-love, that ministers (of all varieties) are not often taught, and are not always encouraged to practice, but it too is important.
As a minister invites others to authentic self-hood, she also extends a hand of hospitality. Hospitality involves recognizing space for another person at the table. In order to be hospitable out of radical love, the minister must remember that the table is not ours, in fact it belongs to the divine. We are not doing the inviting, but simply living into a hospitality we have experienced ourselves and extending that to others. Hospitality in the context of ministry means making room for all people and being open to changing as the people sitting around the table changes. Hospitality involves sharing what we have with others, and doing this with radical love, means we must do it reciprocally, inviting others to share with us, opening ourselves up to learning from them.
Finally, ministry as radical love requires courage, for when we love radically, we must hold ourselves and others accountable. Radical love demands that we challenge those we love – challenge them to act more authentically, challenge them to live into their best selves; we must ask them questions, and we must love them enough to tell them when we disagree or when we believe they have made a mistake. Furthermore, the minister must do her best to do this in a loving and constructive way. She must do it with and through love.
Ministry is seeing the world differently, recognizing the divine as well as sin and brokenness, and sharing this vision with others. Seeing the divine in the world around us, ministry involves relating to this world with love, acting as a conduit for divine love, allowing ourselves to be filled to overflowing with this love and finally relating to the divine in and through our relationships with ourselves, others and the world around us. As I said at the beginning, the divine holds a place central to this idea of ministry – we must look for the divine in the world, and seeing it, or seeing its absence, we must respond with the divine’s own love.
This vision of ministry, like the image of a collage, is a work in progress. It will continue to change and grow as I think about and do ministry.