Embracing Downward Mobility

Throughout my working life, I have often borne the title of “Assistant.” I’ve been a medical assistant, an administrative assistant, a loan assistant and a ministry assistant. My current title is “Associate Pastor,” which means I serve as assistant to the pastor, among other things. I am also an ordained deacon and, as such, one of my functions is assisting priests and bishops.

I came of age during a time when assistants were often thought of as second-class workers, people who couldn’t quite “make the grade” for anything more. Yet I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school, and made the dean’s list in college. Being an assistant has always been more about my personality than about my abilities. My natural dispostion is to help and to encourage; my spiritual gifts align with my dispostion, as do my learned skills and natural abilities.

There have been seasons in my life when I objected to the assistant title. I didn’t necessarily object to what I was doing, just to what I was being called.It felt like I was being relegated to a lesser role, to second chair. It precluded recognition as any kind of leader. I preferred to identify with Jesus the King rather than Jesus the Suffering Servant.downward mobility

What about Jesus? He certainly practiced downward mobility. God became man–Jesus–and came down to earth, where He willingly stepped into the role of  Suffering Servant. From God to man, to servant washing feet, to criminal nailed to a cross, to death. Downward mobility…in order that He could lead us out of death into eternal life.

I am reminded of the wisdom of two Anglican bishops. In commenting on his role as bishop, one said that it appears to the world that he is climbing the ladder of success. “In reality,” he said, “becoming a bishop has nothing to do with upward mobility but, rather, just the opposite. It’s about downward mobility, becoming more and more a servant.”  In the Anglican tradition, one is first ordained a deacon before he/she can become a priest; one must be a priest for years before being considered for consecration as bishop. Deacon means “to serve.” Which brings me to the wisdom of the second bishop. As he was preparing to ordain a priest, he said to the ordinand, “Remember, once a deacon, always a deacon.”

It has taken most of my life to embrace downward mobility, to realize that being an assistant is a good thing, and that I can indeed lead from “second chair.” This is who God created me to be; it is what God created me to do. And it is where I find true joy.

 

My part to play

David and Paul. Two very famous men in the Bible, each in his own right. Both were warriors, David employed slingshots and swords while Paul used words. One man remembered for his adultery, the other remembered for his zealous persecution. Both transformed by God’s love for them, and their love for God. Two men separated by hundreds of years, each instrumental in God’s plan for his Kingdom.

Did either of these men know the impact their lives would make? I doubt it. Scripture tells us that each knew that God was with them, guiding and empowering their ministry. They surely dreamed of the legacy they wanted to leave, but I can’t imagine that they could begin to comprehend how their actions–their very lives–would impact the Kingdom of God for all eternity.

I, too, have a role to play in God’s Kingdom. From where I sit today, I can hardly imagine that it is anything near the magnitude of David’s or Paul’s contribution! Nonetheless, by God’s grace, I still have something to give. To allow false humility, fear, or low self-esteem to dissuade me from doing my part is to throw a monkey wrench into God’s plan.

Surely Nathan knew that confronting the king was taking his life in his hands, yet Nathan responded obediently to the Lord’s direction. He went to David and pointed out that he had despised the Lord and done what was evil in God’s sight. Rather than killing Nathan, David confessed his sin, repented, accepted forgiveness (and the consequences of his adulterous behavior), and was restored to his role in God’s plan. While Nathan was a prominent figure in David’s life, in comparison to David, his role in God’s big picture plan is minor.

Or what if Ananais had submitted to his fear of Saul, rather than to God’s instruction that he go lay hands on blind Saul so that he would regain his sight? What a critical moment in God’s plan! Yet we never hear another word about Ananais.

Not all of God’s faithful are renowned.

I cannot clearly see the whole picture of God’s plan. Yes, I understand some of it and, the more I study scripture and pray, the more revelation I have. But I can’t fully realize the impact of my contribution to the whole of the story. I can only do what I can in this time and this place, obedient to God’s instruction. Today I can pray for someone to be healed. Today I can point the way back to God’s grace and forgiveness. Today I can trust that, whatever my role–whether it is known throughout history like David or Paul or Nathan or Ananais, or whether it is only known by those in my little corner of the world–it is an important part of God’s plan.

So is yours. You have a part to play, too. And when we all play our parts well, we join Jesus in bringing God’s Kingdom near.

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A new perspective

I am a lapsed blogger. Yes, it’s sad, but true. There was once a time when I wrote a blogpost every week. Over time, I slipped to one every other week. Now I do well to write one a month. I keep telling myself that it’s OK…I’m certainly not alone! But the renewal notice for my domain name popped into my mailbox last week. To renew or not to renew? That is the question.

To be honest, I have struggled to find a voice lately. For years I have written about equipping, aka volunteer ministry. I’m definitely for it, and have had lots of thoughts and ideas to share about it. But over the past year or so I’ve wondered if I have said all I have to say on the subject. Nothing new or particularly interesting has come to mind. I still equip volunteer ministers in my church, and I still work with church leaders to help them develop their volunteer ministry. But when it comes to writing…well, I just don’t have anything new to say. It’s easier to point to the stuff I’ve already written.

I was blessed to lead a retreat recently, speaking with women about the deeper journey of living from the Christ-self. Not my usual presentation material. But preparing for the WP_20160520_018retreat helped me understand why I feel I’ve lost my voice for equipping ministry. God has been changing my perspective.

I’m a second-half-of-life person. I’ve turned a corner, so to speak, and am finding that the old me and my old way of doing things is something less than satisfactory now. I recently prayed with a woman who is also in the second half of her life. She had been experiencing health problems that sidelined her from ministry she loves. As we talked, the Spirit showed me that she was fearful, prompting me to ask her if she was afraid that God was taking away her ministry permanently. She wept, confessing that she was indeed afraid. “I know this is the ministry I’m called to do because I am so excited about it,” she cried. “It’s what I live for. It’s who I am.”

For several years I’ve asked the question, “What excites you?” during ministry discovery conversations with people. I think it’s a valid question for people in the first half of life. But once we turn that corner into the second half, we begin to see that excitement isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

A few years ago, God decided he had something new for me to do. I didn’t like that idea, but my arms are too short to box with God. No amount of protestation would change his mind, so I reluctantly submitted. These days I have fewer opportunities for gifts discovery conversations with people, and many more opportunities for offering healing prayer. Which brings me back to the woman I was praying with.

God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.                          2 Corinthians 1:4 (NLT)

As we spoke, I was able to share my experience of God calling me to a different path and a new ministry. I was a bit surprised to tell her that I don’t get as “excited” about healing prayer ministry as I do about discovery conversations. And yet this new ministry is equally as fulfilling and life-giving as the former. As it turns out, excitement is not the litmus test I once thought it was. There’s a lot to be said for obedience.
I guess it’s OK that I don’t have anything new to say about equipping. God is revealing some new things, giving me a fresh perspective in this season of life. Hmmm…Maybe I should renew that domain registration after all, just in case I find a new voice!

 

Don’t forget the blueberries!

In his book The Healing Reawakening, Francis MacNutt notes that people rarely come asking for the fruit of the Spirit. Rather, they come asking for the gifts of the Spirit. He writes–

…many people ask for us to pray for them to receive the charismatic gifts, such as, “Please pray for me to receive the gift of healing.” Relatively few ask for the fruits of the Spirit, saying something like, “I have trouble loving other people. Would you pray that I receive the gift of loving and caring?”

Francis MacNutt wrote about me. I have often asked for God to give me a particular spiritual gift. I rarely have intentionally asked for the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, I have joked for years about not asking for patience because the lessons to learn it are painful!

I am all about doing. I have long prided myself on keeping busy. I certainly identify with Martha in the biblical story of Mary and Martha found in Luke 10. I’ve read countless books and heard countless talks about the importance of being over doing, only to think to myself that if it weren’t for those of us who do, nothing would ever get done. (Seriously, there’s a certain amount of truth in that, right?!)

The point is not to separate the doing from the being. The point is that the gifts without the fruit lead to pride and self-aggrandizement. Asking for the gifts of the Spirit and not for the fruit of the Spirit is rooted in selfishness, even when it is born out of misunderstanding.

When I ask for the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–I’m asking God to form in me particular qualities of character. That means it’s who I am all the time. When I ask for Spiritual gifts, I’m asking for something I can use, something I can do when and if I choose.

I often teach that ministry is not just what we do, but it is who we are. That’s only true when we pray for the fruit of the Spirit in conjunction with the gifts of the Spirit. When I have the character of Christ, the spiritual gifts become tools which I selflessly use to bless others. The fruit of the Spirit informs me how to use the gifts of the Spirit for God’s glory rather than my own.

No doubt about it, I need more fruit.

summer-fruit-bowl-02So, God, may I please have some raspberries…and strawberries…and peaches? Maybe a banana and some kiwi? And please don’t forget the blueberries. I need them all!

Is God fickle?

You are just toodling along doing your ministry thing and–BAM!–suddenly God is Paths-to-success-shutterstock_88995475-500x290calling you down another path. Really? What’s up with that? Did God suddenly become fickle? Did the unchangeable God change?

Does any of this sound familiar? You invest time discovering your unique design for ministry, identify a serving role that energizes you, engage in equipping through reading or training, and now you are joyfully and faithfully serving in a ministry you love. It all fits together perfectly. But then God throws a monkey wrench into the whole thing through this niggling thought that just won’t go away, “I want you to do something else.” You read scripture and you hear the whisper. You have a conversation with a friend and there’s the whisper again. And then someone actually voices what you really don’t want to hear: “Have you ever considered serving in this ministry? I think you would be perfect for it!”

Did God change his mind? Well, I can’t really answer that for you, but I can share with you my experience with change and where it has led me.

During the summer of 2013, I began to suspect that God was up to something. I had been on a path of conviction about prayer ministry for several months. God had been bringing to mind past training in prayer ministry, as well as my own experiences of both emotional and physical healing. Over coffee with a friend, he mentioned a local healing prayer ministry that he thought I might be interested in. Before I got home from the cafe, my friend had connected me via email with the director of that prayer ministry! Out of curiosity, I met with Jeff and, as he described his prayer ministry, I sensed God nudging me towards healing prayer. My response was a flat “no way.” I had spent 20 years in equipping ministry. I loved helping people discover their God-given design and identify where/how God was calling them to serve. (Still do!) I had a significant investment in this ministry, even coming alongside other church leaders to help them develop healthy equipping practices in their churches. God surely couldn’t be calling me to something else. I wasn’t tired of doing this yet!

That same afternoon, my pastor told me that he believed God was calling me to establish a healing prayer ministry in our church, and offered to release me from any other ministry that would impede me answering that call. I was completely confused. And yet, I knew in my spirit that God was calling me to something new.

In 2014 I began offering prayer ministry during Holy Communion each week. Since that time there has been only one Sunday when no one came for prayer. I am developing a team of prayer ministers and equipping them through books, seminars, and conferences. Last year we began exploring moving our church from a suburban location where we rented space from another church to a downtown location where we would rent space from a faith-based non-profit ministry seeking to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized. We had our first worship service downtown on January 3 of this year. Since then, two more people have expressed interest in serving on the prayer team, and our new host is very excited at the possibility of having a church meet there who will actually pray with people who need any and all sorts of healing! In hindsight, it’s obvious that God has been redirecting me, as well as our church.

But here’s my biggest “ah-ha”: When dealing with people who were hesitant to serve, I would become frustrated. God is showing me that often the underlying reason for that hesitation lies in a need for healing. When one experiences the deep healing power of the love of Christ, the desire to serve the One who heals will soon follow.

one pathDid God change his mind about my ministry? Not really. He has simply opened yet another avenue for equipping ministry. He has provided a way through my former frustration into a wide open space where I can better serve his people as I pray for their healing and then help them find the ministry that God is calling them into.

Is God fickle? I don’t think so. Scripture says he is not. We just need to yield to his plan as he unfolds it, trusting that he knows what he’s doing!

 

Reflections From a Funeral

Funerals are important events. I’ve been to plenty of them over my lifetime, several during my childhood. Most of those were fun–I got to hang out with cousins I didn’t often see, telling stories from past adventures, stifling our giggles so as not to draw unwelcome attention from our parents. But as I grew up, funerals became occasions for grieving the loss of someone dear, or coming alongside a friend in their grief. Not fun, and therefore something to avoid whenever possible.

Frau auf Beerdigung mit Sarg

Now that I serve as a pastor in my church, I don’t get to avoid funerals anymore. In fact, yesterday I helped lead one. It was the first time I had served in that role, and I found it to be very meaningful.

I was blessed to visit with Diana in the days leading up to her transition. Admittedly, I have only known her for a half-dozen of her 82 years, but in that short time I came to respect and love her. Diana was probably the most grace-filled woman I have ever known. Her son confirmed this in his remarks at her funeral, reflecting that Diana accepted whatever life brought her way with quiet grace. This was certainly true in her last days. My final visit with her, just 48 hours before she passed, she greeted me with her sweet smile and gathered strength to thank me for coming, grace-filled to the end. Indeed, I was told that her transition from this life to the next was one of grace-filled peace.

On the way back from the graveside service yesterday, the funeral director commented that people often question the need for funerals these days. I can understand that–it’s expensive, it requires thoughtful planning, and it takes time away from things we would rather be doing. Moreover, it forces us to face our own mortality. And that is exactly why funerals are important.

As I ponder Diana’s life and death, I remember that my life grows shorter each day, too. I am now much closer to my own transition to eternity than when I first began! And I find questions arising out of that truth…

What am I doing with my life that honors God for his gracious giving of it? Am I living true to my calling? Where am I missing the mark? Am I taking full advantage of this life as training ground for the next?

As I ponder these questions, I know this: I want to be more like Diana, full of grace. Too much I rant and rave and shake my fist at God, to no avail. I want to be like soft clay in the hands of the Potter, that he might cultivate a quiet grace in me that blesses others and allows me to hear God in the stillness (think Elijah, 1 Kings 19:1-16). I want to accept what comes my way with unwavering faith in the God from whom all grace flows.

Everything teaches…even funerals. So I won’t avoid them anymore. Rather, I will seize the opportunity to face and reflect on my own mortality. I will welcome the hard questions and yield to God as he equips me for the good work he has called me to do, both here in this life and in the life to come. Amen and amen!

 

 

Watch Your Step!

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.   -Acts 6:1-6 [ESV]

This passage is often cited in reference to the establishment of deacons in the church. It has long been a favorite passage of mine–appropriately so, since I am ordained a vocational deacon. But I remember years ago reading this passage and how it left a bitter taste in my mouth! Before I gained an understanding of spiritual gifts and calling, I thought the twelve were exhibiting no small amount of arrogance by insisting that it wasn’t right that they give up preaching the word of God to “wait tables.” I wanted to shout, “Watch your step there, fellas! If Jesus washed your feet, who are you to think that you are too good to wait tables?”

The more we progress in our ministry, the easier it is to step into the trap of believing that we (clergy) are above doing the seemingly menial tasks of ministry, particularly if the priesthood of all believers is not one of our fundamental values. Gifting and calling applies to every believer, not just the clergy–and all ministry has value. There are times when we need to be willing to serve by doing whatever needs doing, whether it’s below our “pay grade” or not! There is no room in the church for a spirit of entitlement–not from clergy, staff, or ministry leaders.

(Before I go any further, I want to be clear that arrogance was not what motivated the apostles–obedience was! They were being obedient to the calling that Jesus had placed on each of their lives to preach the word of God.)

As equipping leaders, we can set the example by occasionally helping out with tasks that are outside of our gifting and calling. My senior pastor and I decided to give our facility team a “summer vacation.” All summer we’ve been coming earlier on Sundays to set up and staying later to put away. I confess that I’ve grumbled a few times, but it’s given me a deeper appreciation for the ministry of this particular team! I also encourage our ministry team leaders to schedule themselves in their team’s rotation, serving alongside the team members they lead.

I once heard a bishop remark that his consecration as bishop was not a move up the ladder of success, but rather a move step_downdownward into deeper humility. What an exhortation! If it is true that an organization can rise no higher than its leadership, then let’s be leaders who side-step the spirit of entitlement and instead journey downward into deeper humility, that every member of our church will be truly humble, serving others according to their gifting and calling so that we all rise to the example set by Christ!