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Monday, January 29, 2018

Ministry in the mess, or why the church misses the mark

For many weeks now, we've been pondering together on this blog about what the church ought to be and do. We've talked about this in terms of four tasks:

  1. Stewardship of Creation
  2. Stewardship of Community
  3. Proclamation of Jesus Christ
  4. Proclamation of the kingdom of God

The more I've reflected on these four tasks, the more I think they do a fair job of summarizing the high and holy calling of the church, from a biblical point of view. We haven't exhausted each of these four in our ponderings, but we have made a start. 

Why do churches so often miss these tasks, misunderstand our calling, get embroiled in self-interest, and settle for far less than the Bible calls us to?

There are good reasons why we miss the mark on this. Let me go way too far into my personal life by way of a parable. 

As I write this, my kitchen counter is accumulating dishes. Two days' worth so far. My living room carpet is full of dog hair, and that gets on my socks and my fleece blanket and my recliner, because (after dog-sitting for a couple days over the weekend) I haven't vacuumed in the last couple days. The cracking linoleum in my entryway still clearly shows dog prints because it was above freezing the first day the dog was here, and we both tracked in mud, though we tried (unsuccessfully) to keep our feet on the rug. 

I have a couple unruly stacks of papers sitting on my side table that I haven't gone through yet. Or rather, I've gone through them, but haven't finally decided which ones need to be discarded and which ones represent bills needing to be paid. Upstairs I have a stack of folded clothes on top of my dresser and a pile of dirty clothes in and on the clothes hamper. The bed is made, yes, but the covers are drawn hastily over a mess of pillows.

Overall my house is fairly well organized but there are "in progress" piles here and there that drive me more than a little crazy. 

My inner landscape reflects my home, not surprisingly. I'm fairly well organized -- my thoughts, spiritual life, work and emotions all have their place, but in each of these areas there are "in progress" piles that I wish were tidier. And the messiness of my inner life can vary greatly during the course of any given day. 

Currently my life includes a lot of solitary hours, and I go back and forth like a pendulum, sometimes loving the solitude and other times wracked by a bitter loneliness. I have good friendships and a strong church community, but processing my own difficult junk -- and I've accumulated quite a bit of that over the past few years especially -- is often an hourly challenge. 

I just walked up through the darkness to get the mail, and the night sky is a wonder -- nearly full moon, stars gleaming out of the inky black, everything lit with a glow that seems brighter than it really is. I am touched by the beauty of the place I live, and the privilege of dwelling here. God is good and faithful. Even as I say that, I'm stabbed to the heart with the realization how rarely I thank him for these gifts, and how often I'm obsessed with my own frustrations, faults, and unfulfilled desires. 

Now, allow all that to provide a background. Given some of the "difficult junk" I referred to above, I regularly question whether God could use someone like me. And yet he graciously opens doors -- portals to praying with people, serving in humble roles that facilitate the ministry of others, coming alongside a grieving family, and even (for the first time in many, many months) preaching to an eager, growing congregation. I have to remind myself that God is faithful to communicate his love, speak his word, and reach out to this beloved creation ... in and through and in spite of my brokenness. 

We face exactly this problem collectively, as a church. Each of us individually, and all of us together as a church called to gather in the name of Jesus, face these harsh realities. We are broken. We are selfish. We are divided. We are arrogant and fearful and rude and judgmental and obsessed with trivia. Yet God promises that in and through and in spite of our brokenness, he will get his work done. He will proclaim his love to this beloved creation. 

His promise is the mark of his goodness, not of our competence. When I was a very young man, I heard a word that has never left me: God is more interested in your availability than he is in your ability. If we make ourselves available -- realistic about our brokenness and limitations, but fully extended for God to use -- he will put us to the tasks that serve his loving purposes. That is, in fact, the message of so much of the Bible. 

Looking around my house, my life, it sounds to me like a sheer word of his grace, his mercy. And I believe it with all my heart. 

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