August 20, 2013

Ministry Up and Ministry Down

In church planting there seems to be no “off-switch”, or if there is it’s broken or stuck in the “on” position.  That’s probably true of pastoral ministry in general.  I have learned over the past 20 years or so that you have to engineer the off, by allotting the time to other things.  Bracket creep is always standing at your elbow, ready to fill that gap.  Or perhaps that just me!  Whatever it is, the situation in ministry becomes increasingly pointed when it involves church planting, as so often the planter is the go-to-person for just about everything. On top of that the plant often feels fragile,  ready to shrivel up and die at any minute.  Not that people who attend necessarily feel that, indeed anecdotally, they don’t.

This idea of the “off-switch” in ministry struck me recently as I examined my own life.  Jill and I have two children – a pre-schooler and a middle-schooler.  Different schools, different drop-off times, different needs, different expectations.  People say they are busy with little children.  The busyness merely changes the older they get.

At the same time I have a father who is ageing and ailing.  He lives some distance away, and I have spent three of the last eight days doing hospital pick ups, waiting rooms, shopping, cleaning house etc.  Parenting “up” is often just as hard as parenting “down”, and we have suddenly realised that we are in that place of having young children who need us, and ageing parents who will increasingly need us as well. And of course, “we” need us more than ever at this time!

Which all caused a slight simmer of resentment recently when I came to the conclusion that the critical role of church planting was getting short-changed by…well…by the rest of life. How could I keep doing this thing, when I am so distracted by other stuff?  I distinctly remember driving in the car with a grumble in my heart about “all the stuff I could be getting on with if I were not driving to this school/doctor’s appointment/clinic/pre-school activity.”  It lingered for some time, until that is, I started to see my need to repent of this, and God reminded me again to reframe my idea – and ideal – of ministry.  Oh, I know, I know, all of life is our ministry as Christians, but let me tell you – and if you have not been involved in a paid ministry position perhaps you will not understand this – often  resentment trickles in to all of the cracks of our lives, threatening to poison us, should we take our eyes off the gospel. Everyone’s a minister of the gospel, right? Every aspect of life is sacred, right? Yep, but often our theology is streets ahead of our practice, and map-pages ahead of our attitudes.

And it was the gospel that saved me (always has, always will – Ed) from that particular Pity Party blowing out to becoming a full-scale Resentment Reunion Party.  What happened? Simply this: I reminded myself that not only was I parenting “looking up” and “looking down” I was also called to minister “looking down” and “looking up”. It was a liberating moment.

So how has this ministry been working “looking down”? There is our daughter – one year baptised – and about to hit the teen years.  Praying for her/with her in the car, talking about her friend who no longer goes to church, figuring out ways to help that friend get some Bible study material for home.  Our daughter getting out of the car for school being reminded of the great plausibility of the gospel in a world which does not care for it, that does not see it as credible.  Jill and I want the gospel to look as real as it sounds to our daughter, and that is a 24/7 ministry.  I note too my tendency to be slightly sarcastic, too quick to fire off a remark, and realise that she is at the age when those things sting.  Reminding myself of how my tongue needs to be tamed, because like it or not, I seem to have less solo car rides in heavy traffic these mornings.

And for our son?  He is further “down” again.  For him he needs to see concrete evidence of our lives as God’s people – concepts explained clearly, how to express love and forgiveness towards his older sister (and vice versa!) The opportunity on the way to school to talk about how Jesus will enable him to cope with the minor fisty-cuffs in the playground and the insatiable self-centredness of five-year-olds.

And how is this ministry working “looking up”? This was a particularly difficult one for me to reframe. My Dad needs a good deal of care and oversight and increasingly so.  I was driving to his place to pick up food shopping that he had forgotten to ask me for, when i found myself grumbling “When am I ever going to get church work done!”  I had to stop there and then and repent.  My Dad was away from God for years, and only recently repented and returned to the gospel.  We get on well, but it’s a reacquaintance relationship.  But now I have the opportunity to bring the gospel to bear on his life. I have noticed since the change in my attitude it is starting to bear fruit.

Now it may not sound much, but as I cook and clean and visit and do trips to doctors’ surgeries, I am grateful to God for being able to bring order out of chaos to Dad’s life and  his house. In fact it’s a reflection of what it means to be made in the image of God to so order things.  To be honest Dad’s pretty neat and probably has the tidiest house in the whole block of units, however his ability to clean, take out rubbish, stock the pantry etc, is pretty limited and getting lesser.  I began to realise that the OCD nature I have when it comes to cleaning my own home – which can tend towards idolatry when I want everything “just so” – is actually redeemable when it came to Dad’s house. It’s not a chore, it’s an act of worship and love, rather than an idol that controls me.  He needed the help, but he – and I – also needed the time together.  We lost a lot of years in there somewhere, but we are redeeming the time, and if part of that is me on my hands and knees scrubbing the shower floor, then praise God for that.

Oh, and let’s not think that God wastes any time – not even Dad’s often “wasted” years – something he feels from time to time.  He told me recently of his neighbour and her husband, both ailing and both struggling with the last years of life at an emotional level.  His neighbour was in his place the other day and picked up his Bible.  They started talking.  She is afraid of death, fearful of the concept of an afterlife in which there might be a hell.  But life is pretty harsh here and now, so what’s left to look forward to?  Is there any hope?  Dad had a good chat with her. Her eyes filled up as he spoke. Later he asked me “What kind of leaflet or book can I give her about this?”  I happen to have plenty of copies of Luke’s Gospel – “The Essential Jesus” lying around, so I am going to bring that over.  We even prayed for her before I left. If cleaning Dad’s house and doing the shopping gives Dad the physical, emotional and spiritual energy to share the good news of Jesus with his neighbour, then pass me the Ajax, the rubber gloves, and write me out a list!

As I left it struck me that Ministry Up and Ministry Down is not simply me doing all the ministering, as if it’s just another bunch of stuff I have to do in my busy church planting life.  But it is me helping my family to minister as well.  Our daughter to her friend: My dad to his neighbour.  The only wasted car trips are the ones we waste.  The only lost hours are the ones we waste.  For God everything bit of time is redeemable – time spent “down” and time spent “up”.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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