Thursday, February 07, 2008

At the Foot of the Cross

For graduate school, I was asked to write a paper over Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus, and evaluate how I would apply it to my internship. Here is the result:

Ministry is messy. It means entering into the mud and muck of the human soul. It means sacrificing selfish pride and ambition—the need to be relevant—in favor of incarnating the love and compassion and hope of Jesus Christ. In losing ourselves, we find something much greater. In becoming irrelevant, we find our identity.

The pathway to irrelevancy is paved by the senses: a keen awareness of the voice, the feel, the heartbeat, and the countenance of God. Nouwen writes, “The central question [in Christian leadership] is, Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?” (p. 29-30). This is the paradox. Only in tuning my ears to hear His voice can I hear the voices of my neighbors with clarity. Only in gazing at the beauty of Christ can I perceive the beauty of those who are created in His image. Only in touching His Word and tasting His goodness can I touch those around me and savor their uniqueness.

As I have been mulling over these thoughts, I am becoming more convinced that my highest calling in my ministry position is to enter on the journey with people towards the foot of the cross. Some people are running towards Golgotha, others are stumbling their way up the hill, and still others are frozen in place, not knowing how to take their first step. All of these people will undoubtedly cross my path in Assimilation Ministry. Nouwen challenges me to open my eyes to the spiritual needs of others as they stand at the crossroads of their spiritual lives and reminds me of the reason that I am pursuing a career in ministry. He writes, “While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world” (21). As newcomers walk through the doors of our church and I have the opportunity to interact with them, this is what I must keep in mind. These burdens are carried on their shoulders while they make their way along their journey towards the cross. Jesus whispers, “Release your burdens. Shed them at my feet.” I cannot shed their burdens for them any more than I can heal them, but I have the opportunity to point them to the God who welcomes them into His presence in order to offer them redemption, refreshment, renewal, and restoration.

Here is where my greatest joy and my greatest struggle in ministry collide. I deeply resonate with Nouwen because there is nothing more that I desire in my own ministry context than for Christ to be glorified and exalted as I lead humbly and sacrificially, leading people to the foot of the cross, and yet there is nothing greater that serves as a temptation to me in my ministry than to glorify and exalt myself while leading with pride and selfishness, falsely thinking that I have already arrived myself. I find it much easier to invite people into my office and spend time praying for them than to talk about my own struggles. I would much rather serve as the mentor than be the one who is mentored. There is a part of me that feels like I have “graduated” into my ministry role and my “spiritual degree” has prepared me for a career of healing and comforting and reconciling. Unapologetically, Nouwen brings me back to reality. He states, “We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for” (43-44). When I am honest with myself, I recognize that I need those to whom I minister as much, or perhaps even more, than they need me. And I discover that the only way that I can move an inch closer to the foot of the cross is when I realize how far I have left to journey myself.

I am thoroughly convinced that humility of this magnitude begins in relinquishing control and allowing others to serve alongside of me. I remember sitting in my job interview at First Baptist, receiving advice from the Pastor of Missions and Outreach. “The goal of ministry is to equip others for ministry. This often means sacrificing ‘your’ right to do ‘your’ projects in ‘your’ way. There will be times when you will want to act independently in your work because you will feel like you can do it better on your own. But resist that temptation. No matter how much you want to do it yourself, you must let others rise to leadership.” Those words were simultaneously sour and sweet to my taste buds. They were sour because they grated against my perfectionist nature that craves control, and they began chipping away at my pride. They were sweet because they resonated with the type of ministry to which God calls me—a ministry that deflects the glory off of myself and turns the spotlight on Jesus Christ. Nouwen, too, believes that the remedy for the poison of pride and self-service is ministering alongside others. He writes, “…whenever we minister together, it is easier for people to recognize that we do not come in our own name, but in the name of the Lord Jesus who sent us” (41). The fame and glory of Jesus Christ should be my greatest desire.

If I could choose one sentence in Nouwen’s work to capture, place in my pocket, and carry to work each day, it would be this: “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross” (62). John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, put it another way: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). This is my ultimate goal in the ministry to which God has called me.