by Jan Wood
In the community of faith of my childhood, it was very clear that once a person committed his/her life to Christ she needed to be about the business of ministry. And since I made the decision to follow Jesus at the age of four, I’ve had a lot of time to observe stages of ministry in my own life.
Journey from fear to anticipation
The first model I saw and tried to imitate was the necessity of winning everyone for Christ. It necessitated that I tell folks about Jesus and encourage them to make a decision–right there and then. So by junior high school I was living a daily life of fear of what inappropriate conversation I would have to create that day to fulfill this great commandment. In my earnest youthful spirit, the ideas of what God was calling me to do got increasingly bizarre. While the church praised my zealousness, I am deeply grateful for God’s good sense that showed me this was not the way to be God’s person in the world.
The next stage lasted well into adulthood. I am aware that hearing sermon after sermon, testimony after testimony, reading Scripture with great devotion, I formed notions of how things work. Those ideas don’t really come from any explicit teaching; rather it was a homemade, working integration of all that I had taken in. Around ministry, mine went something like this: God rescues us and gives us everything we need to go do God’s work. While we can ask for help, God’s redemptive work is done and it is now all up to us. In this stage, ministry was anxiety ridden. Was I doing the right thing? Would I be empowered in this situation? Would God’s Spirit show up to fill in my inadequacies? It was a sober and heavy responsibility!
The liberating stage didn’t arrive with a blinding aha of insight; rather it was a blessed process of transition. When it blossomed into full flower is went like this: God’s Spirit is still actively moving in our world. The Holy Spirit is directly loving, wooing, challenging, correcting, leading, rescuing. God’s spirit is still hovering over the darkness speaking transformation and life. The work of ministry is not to make “God happen,” but rather to join what God is already doing in others and in the world. To paraphrase MaryKate Morse of George Fox Evangelical Seminary, the job of ministry is not to make the wonder, but name the wonder that God is already doing. We live in a world that has much darkness, yet if we have eyes to see God is amazingly active in our world. God’s goodness is bearing heart-satisfying fruit all around us.
The Quakers call this “answering.” For me there seem to be two levels of answering that fill my days with joy.
Answering the heart and needs of another.
This is the ordinary seeing and responding with the love of God. A great place to practice this kind of answering is in the grocery store. By tuning in to the folks around you, you begin to really see folks’ in a different way. Holy Answering is usually fast, practical and common–like getting a product from a top shelf for someone in a scooter. Or really noticing and caring about the folks serving you. Or transmitting God’s love through intentional eye contact and smiles. Or holding the person who comes to your attention in prayer and Light. Sometimes we even get to speak a word of care for a stranger we encounter or help pay for someone who is coming up short in paying for their groceries. The inward practice of answering every person and every situation with the love of God through our giftedness becomes the warp and weft of our daily lives.
Answering and joining what God is doing in the other.
This second kind of answering is to be attentive to what God is doing in the other person or the situation. It is looking past what we see on the surface, to see how the Spirit is moving, wooing, opening new possibilities. Then when we sense that, we join those motions. If the person has cloaked confession in a joke, we hear and answer the desire to be free of this weight. If the person is being challenged inwardly around something that needs to be changed, we humbly join them there rather than perkily cheering them up. If a person is bubbling with the goodness of God, we linger with this joy and savor it with them. We often see the little green shoots of God’s movement in the darkest of situation–and answering by putting our inward and outward efforts toward what God is doing rather than blindly responding to what is clearly visible.
Ministry-as-answering changes the energy of ministry from “what-do-I-want-to-give-you” or “what do I think you need?” to “how-is-God-working-in-your-life?” and “how-can-I-come- alongside-that.” It changes ministry from an agenda to a collage of interactions and relationships. It means that we get to put on our “Spirit eyes” and join a grand adventure of learning to see like God sees. Loving like God loves. Making space everywhere for God’s motions to be recognized and known. Naming and making visible the God of Wonder that is still very powerfully at work in our world.
“Walking cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone. . . .” George Fox