As I have worked my way through the church’s discernment process, I have struggled when someone asks me this. And it gets asked a lot.
It is a good question because it seeks to understand my role in community, and how I view my relationship with others and my calling from God. But it is also a terrible question, because it is asking me to take the calling of my heart and distill it into something that can fit on a resume.
Isn’t it enough of an answer just to say, “I’m a Christian”?
A simple statement of identity should ground all of us as ministers of the gospel. As Christians we all HAVE a ministry. Some people are very deliberate in what they do, and some lucky few make a living doing it, but each and every one of us is a minister making their way in the world. As such, everything we do IS our ministry. Maybe it’s a big, loud, front-and-center ministry, and maybe it’s a quiet and diligent ministry. Maybe we are preaching to a congregation or leading a huge public charity, and maybe we are just being kind, honest, and decent to the people we see every day. Maybe we teach children or we sell cars, but even if we can’t talk about God to others, we are loving them through our words and actions.
Whatever it looks like, it’s kingdom work.
Preaching, teaching, leading music in worship, these things are easy to identify as my “ministry.” But when I hug and encourage Chris in the chow hall, or help Kenny find a book in the library, when I show Charles how to do something in class, or spend a recreation period walking, talking, and listening to Brad – these things are also ministry. I don’t plan them, or categorize them; I am just trying to do the right things, the Christian things, in each situation. These are concrete actions where the gospel of grace is being manifest through my life.
Sometimes those momentary opportunities have spawned plans and actions still going strong years later, other times it’s just a hug and a smile and we all keep moving. All of them matter.
Trying to keep track of them as if to check boxes on my “Christian resumé” somehow cheapens them. And whatever happened to the right hand not letting the left hand in on the secret?
I am a Christian, nothing more or less (and not always a great one), trying hard to live in grace in this place, at this moment, open to the leading of the spirit.
If I put that on my resume it’s going to be a short document, but it will still say a lot. Maybe that’s enough?
– Living God’s Mission is honored to feature this blog post, written by Matthew B. Harper, a resident in a Virginia prison.
“Our brother was washed in Baptism and anointed with the Holy Spirit; give him fellowship with all your saints….”
Recently a very close friend of mine died after a difficult illness, spread over a number of years. Throughout it all he maintained his optimism about life — and his own life. His smile could always light up a room. At Charlie’s Episcopal Prayer Book memorial service, I was struck as to how Baptism was integrated into it. The quote above comes from the Prayers of the People, with the concluding prayer including these words: “…. who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism….” The service uses the Baptismal (Apostles) Creed (rather than the Nicene) and that creed is introduced with these words: “In the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism, let us proclaim our faith and say…” Yet another way Charlie’s Baptism was celebrated. Nowhere, except in the homily, was it noted that he was a priest.
When our 1979 Prayer Book revision took place, there was a concerted effort to reclaim the centrality of Baptism in our liturgical life. That the Baptismal liturgy is the first of the sacraments in the BCP (rather than buried toward the back as in earlier prayer books) set a tone. Central to the baptismal liturgy is the “new” (as of 1979) Baptismal Covenant that has become a regular part of our Episcopal language these days. But, aside from the Burial liturgy, not much Baptismal language is used elsewhere in the book.
Most significant for me is the absence of baptismal language in the Ordination services. Ordination is a minor sacrament, yet nowhere in those liturgies — for Deacon, Priest or Bishop or in the Ordination Litany — is the word Baptism even mentioned. Yet Baptism is the major sacrament that undergirds each of them. Nowhere in the Marriage ceremony, another minor sacrament, is Baptism mentioned. And I could recount the other liturgies as well. The absence of even the mention of Baptism, in sacraments meant for the Christian, is striking.
For me, how Baptism is integrated into the Burial Office serves as a model for all those other Prayer Book liturgies. So my hope — and prayer — is that any future Prayer Book revision will take good note of that model. After all, Baptism is not only our major sacrament; it is our commissioning to baptismal living in our daily lives of home and job and community.
I had a conversation recently with a woman who was interested in serving on the team for an upcoming Come and See, Go and Tell weekend. Because Come and See is the Diocese of Olympia’s expression of the Cursillo Ministry, I was explaining the changes our diocese had made to the weekend to emphasize living out our baptismal promises in daily life. As I described the new focus, her eyes lit up!
You see, Kathleen is a retired middle school teacher, one of those teachers for whom I have a great deal of respect, given the complexity of teaching adolescents. She shared with me several stories of how she strived to be Christ-centered in her public school classrooms – without intentionally mentioning religion. Often she would seek a moment of peace from God by closing her eyes and praying. If a student asked what she was doing, she was open and honest: “I’m praying,” she would say. Sometimes, a student might respond by asking her to pray for them or for a something that was weighing on their heart. If a student used Jesus’ name as an exclamation, she would ask, “What about Jesus?” Her intent was to model Christlike behavior and to share a bit of Christ’s peace in a secular environment.
Kathleen called the heart of her baptismal ministry FROG. “Frog?” I asked. “Yes, FROG: Fully Rely On God.” She graced her home and classroom with images and figurines of frogs. Whenever anyone asked about her frogs, she said that they reminded her to fully rely on God – always. FROG Power carries her through life!
The Theology of Work Project website is a blessing to many of us, offering a blog, Bible commentary, devotionals, and lots of resources for people who try, daily, to bring Jesus to work with them – whether that work is unpaid, paid, volunteer, barter, or involuntary. A recent ToW blog post invited readers to pay attention to whether their words are a blessing or a curse to the people around them. The writer invited us to reflect on whether our words participate in God’s work of reconciliation.
The blog offered five instances where our words might be a blessing:
Eliminating blame shifting
Reconciling broken relationships
Taking care not to judge
Looking beyond that list, there are ways that our words can, without sermonizing, witness to the sacramental presence of Christ in our work:
Claiming our work for the common good – “It’s important for each of us to contribute and each of us to do our best. That’s what makes our team strong and our work rewarding.”
Encouraging – “Let’s take a fifteen-minute break and then get this section finished so we’ll be ahead of the game tomorrow.”
Claiming grace – “Well, I sure wish we hadn’t made that mistake. Now that we’ve figured out how to do better, let’s support each other so we can move forward.”
Expressing joy – “Wow! What a great day. I wouldn’t trade anything for seeing how happy Mrs. Smith was with our work.”
We don’t need to think we’re bringing God to our work – God’s already there, ahead of us. We claim the blessing of our work by noticing where the Spirit is moving and by participating in every way we can.
Ramona, having passed her three-quarter century mark, continues to work half time as an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor. She sees her work as a mission.
“What led you to desire to continue?” “I don’t know what I’d do if I did retire. And we need the income. And God didn’t want me to sit around and clean house and travel.”
“What is mission-like about it for you?”
“It started years ago when I was thinking what I can do to work for God. As part of our church’s Women of Vision, I had discovered listening, encouragement, and teaching as spiritual gifts. I decided to use them in developing counseling skills.”
“How do you see God working in what you do?” “Just that I am able to get up and go to work on any day. When I see the clients understanding what I am teaching, then I am able to incorporate faith along with helping them grow spiritually, as well as begin to make significant changes in their lives.”
“How do you see God helping you to do that?” “I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t let God work through me.”
On May 9 I observed the 60th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate of The Episcopal Church. The same for the priesthood will be observed on November 14. As for the episcopate, it will be my 30th anniversary on October 7. Collectively they represent a full lifetime of ordained ministry and leadership in the church. In memory and experience they are richly indelible.
However, one other tally is missing in the above years of service. It’s the one that undergirds the others. The Prayer Book’s Catechism on page 855 informs us that the sequence of ministers and ministry in the church, not its hierarchy of clergy, are “lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.” This means my life in ministry in the church began when I was baptized not ordained. So on June 23 I will remember and celebrate the 84th anniversary of my baptism. Truth be told, it’s taken me quite awhile to make that observance as indelible as the others: baptism as the first order of ministry in the church, not bishops nor priests nor deacons.
Over the years this recognition of sequence and not hierarchy of ministers has shaped my understanding of the church as a community of fully graced baptized equals and not a top down organization of spiritual and sacramental unequals.
For me the realization of this pattern of community occurred when I was chairing one of those annual organizational planning meetings that parishes and dioceses, and their vestries and councils, regularly conduct to envision and carry out their common life and mission. It entailed the usual brainstorming and posting of ideas and comments on newsprint.
In this case it was the diocese of my episcopacy and there were pages upon pages of newsprint taped on the walls throughout the meeting room. “How do we see ourselves as the church?” was the question to explore. And the image that was most common to much of the thinking was the triangle, and on the newsprint pages it was always visually vertical. At the peak point of the triangle was, of course, the bishop. Below that ministry came a middle rank of ordained clergy. And below them came the laity. This image of church was invariably three-tiered with me at the top, the other clergy next in line, and the laity at the bottom. Very hierarchical. Very authoritarian. Very Episcopalian. Just the opposite of the Prayer Book’s sequence of ministers.
It was at one such meeting that I had my newsprint epiphany. Rather than looking at the triangle vertically why not view it horizontally. To demonstrate this, I took down one of the newsprint pages and laid it flat on the table in front of us. From that vantage point all of the church’s ministers were now on a common playing field, all baptismally equal, a community of shared authority and accountability, of collaboration and consensus, of mutual responsibility and interdependence. In short, an authentic movement and community as revealed and mandated by Christ.
Here then is another image for ministers and ministry in daily life, gathered as a base camp and encircled and embraced by the triangular arms of the Trinity in “whom we live and move and have our being,” and sent forth to love and serve the world as Christ has loved and served us.
“…that we might receive a faithful pastor who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries….” Parish transition prayer (bold mine)
The congregation which my wife and I attend is in the search process for a new rector. Every Sunday in services and hopefully privately during the week, we offer prayer for the search, a phrase from which is quoted above. It is my hope and prayer that she/he will see “equipping us for our ministries” as a top priority. All too often rectors get caught up in their own ministry of running a parish and fail to help empower the laity in their own ministries – the every-day, daily-life ministries, in particular. After all, don’t we go to church in order to be the church?
This past Holy Week underscored that for me in a new way. On Maundy Thursday at noon the bishop led the diocesan clergy in the service of Reaffirmation of Ordination Vows. Not only did we have the servant example of Jesus in washing the disciples’ feet, but the collect spoke directly: Give your grace…to all who are called to any office and ministry…. This came as a reminder that all the Baptized are called to ministry.
At the Easter Vigil we affirmed that calling as the baptized in our daily lives as we renewed our Baptismal Vows to proclaim, seek and serve, strive….
The collect for the second Sunday of Easter puts it another way: Grant that all who are reborn (Baptized) into the fellowship of Christ’s Body, may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith….
The message is clear: Vocation and ministry are the province of all the Baptized, not just the clergy, that each one of us has a calling that we show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith….
As we do, our faith hits the street, our liturgy meets our life, our Sunday connects with our Monday. That’s why the Dismissal is the most important part of our liturgy. What else is the music and the readings and the prayers and the sermon and the bread and wine for but to equip us for our ministries beyond the church doors.
Christians all over the world say the Lord’s Prayer often, in worship and in private prayer, and typically know the “prayer that Jesus taught us” by heart. Like many of the things we do almost without having to think about it, we can come to say the words thoughtlessly. Sometimes the words lose their meaning for us.
“Your kingdom come” is one of those phrases that slips by, almost without our noticing – without our noticing that what we are praying for is the reign of God, on earth, right here, right now. And by offering that prayer, we’re acknowledging the part we have been created to play in the coming of that reign. We’re the children of God – whose kingdom we pray for – and “heirs through hope of [God’s] everlasting kingdom.” (BCP p. 339)
Learning to perceive God in action everywhere we find ourselves is one way we can begin to realize the in-breaking of the reign of God, sometimes in the most unexpected places. On occasion, we are allowed to see that our own actions might be aligned with living in the kingdom, in present time, in our daily lives.
This past weekend, the angels ushered Rachel Held Evans into the nearer presence of God, weeks after a reaction to antibiotics caused doctors to place her in a medically-induced coma. At age 37, she leaves a husband and two young children mourning her death, as well as a host of readers who found her a refreshing and liberating voice among writers who blog about religion. Evans was an Episcopalian and attended St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee. Her books have been much-discussed and debated. As reported in the Washington Post, “Rachel’s presence in this world was a gift to us all, and her work will long survive her,” her husband Dan Evans wrote on Saturday.
Rachel’s writing helped many people perceive the reign of God in a more-accessible, practical way. She spoke of God’s reign as allowing each person to be the beloved creation God envisioned. In honor of her life and her witness – her “baptismal mission,” her “ministry in daily life” – here are some of her words:
This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.
We might say the kingdom is like St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn where strangers come together and remember Jesus when they eat. The kingdom is like the Refuge in Denver, where addicts and academics, single moms and suburban housewives come together to tell each other the truth. The kingdom is like Thistle Farms where women heal from abuse by helping to heal others. The kingdom is like the church that would rather die than cast two of its own out the doors because they are gay. The kingdom is like St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, where you are loved just for showing up. And even still, the kingdom remains a mystery just beyond our grasp. It is here, and not yet, present and still to come. Consummation, whatever that means, awaits us. Until then, all we have are metaphors. All we have are almosts and not quites and wayside shrines. All we have are imperfect people in an imperfect world doing their best to produce outward signs of inward grace and stumbling all along the way. All we have is this church—this lousy, screwed-up, glorious church—which, by God’s grace, is enough.
“God’s kingdom in the preaching of Jesus,” explained [N.T.] Wright, “refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ . . . Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension of ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.”
― Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again
Marriage is not an inherently holy institution. And it cannot magically be made so by the government, by a priest, or even by the church. Rather, marriage is a relationship that is made holy, or sacramental, when it reflects the life-giving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus. All relationships and vocations—marriage, friendship, singleness, parenthood, partnership, ministry, monastic vows, adoption, neighborhoods, families, churches—give Christians the opportunity to reflect the grace and peace of the kingdom of God, however clumsily, however imperfectly. For two people to commit themselves not simply to marriage, but to a lifetime of mutual love and submission in imitation of Christ is so astounding, so mysterious, it comes close to looking like Jesus’ stubborn love for the church.
― Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
Jesus made it clear that he did not come to abolish the laws of the Torah, “but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The life and teachings of Jesus, then, embody all that these laws were intended to be. Jesus is what the living, breathing will of God looks like. This includes compassion for the poor, esteem for women, healing for the sick, and solidarity with the suffering. It means breaking bread with outcasts and embracing little children. It means choosing forgiveness over retribution, the cross over revenge, and cooking breakfast for the friend who betrayed you. As Elton Trueblood put it, “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.
― Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again
Rest in peace, Rachel Held Evans. Your words will continue to enlighten and disturb us.
“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you,” Jesus says to his disciples in the upper room on the evening of his resurrection (John 20:21). We hear this verse every year on the second Sunday of Easter as part of Jesus’ greeting to his startled disciples, who are gathered fearfully behind locked doors. Note that after offering his peace, Jesus’ first message to his disciples is to go back into the world to continue Jesus’ ministry.
This serves as a good reminder that Jesus consistently meets people where they are, physically and spiritually. During his earthly ministry he healed, taught, forgave sins, reconciled people to God and to one another, and gave hope to the poor and marginalized. Jesus called his first disciples while they were in the midst of their daily lives, working as fishermen, as tax collectors. And Jesus also calls us to follow and serve him in the midst of our daily lives.
Jesus reminds both his first disciples – and us – that we are to continue his ministry out in the world and not within our church walls. The Episcopal Collect for the second Sunday of Easter also emphasizes this message: “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess in their faith.” At a time when we are still savoring the joy of the resurrection, Jesus sends us out of the comfort of our rooms and churches to continue his ministry by helping to heal a hurting world with our love for one another, wherever we might be.
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day all offer signs of life on mission.
Maundy Thursday (“maundy” from “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you” John 15:12) recalls the Lord’s Supper where we are fed and strengthened by the nourishing power of bread; and refreshed by enjoying wine. In truth, God feeds and refreshes us in every moment.
Good Friday is “good” because Jesus does not run out on his mission to confront the wrongdoing of his day. The wrongdoers of his day, Pilate, the crowd – and all of us, now – indirectly if not directly are all wrongdoers, unable to stop wrongdoing on our own. We, as well as they, need help to avoid wrongdoing.
Jesus, risen and with us on Easter Day, is the decisive sign and helper that all of us need. Jesus gives us the power we need to resist wrongdoing when he gives us his Spirit, the Holy Spirit. “‘As the Father has sent me I send you’ . . . he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22).
The Gospel: In Jesus, God tells us to live lovingly and justly and helps us to do it by God’s Spirit at work with and in us.