This weekend I have been away with my University group and a phrase that resonated with me was how often we begin ministry with an ‘ideal and it becomes an ordeal!’
It reminds me of a conversation about which I am deeply ashamed. It was with Sam my former intern, now a fantastic curate in a deprived area of Bristol and doing amazing work. Sam was 19 and full of vision and fire. I said “Sometimes Sam in this job we have to be more pragmatic and less idealistic!”
He saw what was wrong within the Church community and the huge needs within the parish we served and it clearly broke his heart, he was sad and angry, clearly thinking “it shouldn’t be like this!”
He’s right, the world should not be how it is, but the response isn’t to lower our standards and protect ourselves from the realities of the pain of being called to serve in a fallen world.
That said, knowing that something shouldn’t be this way does not mean that it is not how it is, sadly the world is far from Christ’s intention for his creation, and I guess Sam was learning the lesson that much of the pain of ministry comes from sharing that pain of Christ.
Indeed, I believe we should be angry and indignant, spurred to a theology of prophetic protest that seeks to tear down the sinful strongholds that beset Church and community and see it transformed to become the community that it was intended to be, the community it could –and God willing- will become.
Yet the call is not to diagnose that which is wrong, that is the easy part, the call is our response, the rolling up our sleeves and diving into the mess in a loving, wise, prayerful and discerning way.
As we undertake the downwardly mobile call of obedience and service, we have to live with the tension of the ideal ‘what would this community look like if the Kingdom of God fully came’ and the ordeal of serving in a fallen-world, what has been described as the “already” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God, as we glimpse in part what will be fully realized upon Christ’s return.
We follow in the way of Christ, who came and dwelt amongst us, pitched his tent with us, and entered into the grot, grime and gruesomeness of human deprivation, not standing back at a safe distance and holding his nose, with a disapproving look on his face.
The call of Christ is to engage and embrace the world as it is, but in immersing we seek to change it from within as we become incarnate within it, get into the mess of the society, to work in and amongst the brokenness of it, to see and celebrate changes, as we work in and amongst the complexity of it all, discovering our own faults and failures, as we try as best we can –with the help of God- to be ‘salt and light’.
Somehow the ideal becomes an ordeal when we realize how high the mountain is that we have to climb, how slow the progress, how costly and sacrificial the battles and that those often who we think are allies tragically can be those who end up throwing stones. It is at times crushing. It is unsurprising that many of us burn out, and end up on medication for depression.
In a small way I was right in my conversation with Sam, the ideal will never bear fruit fully this side of eternity, but Sam was more right that this is no reason not try!
Somehow having to hold both the ideal whilst living in the ordeal is a Kingdom tension we have to live with, and the danger is too many of us live our lives in a rose-tinted and deeply romanticized idea of mission (indeed many of our books and big conference events can collude with this unrealistic picture of mission).
Yet for me I discovered something beautiful within the ordeal, the heart-break and acknowledging my own inadequacy and the clumsiness of my solutions, I encountered God and saw his hand at work in beautiful and real ways.
In my experience following Jesus and seeking his Kingdom is rarely triumphalist, and often has little resemblance to my initial ministry fantasies of my youth, but that is not to say that we don’t get to experience something of the joy of the Kingdom along the way, often diamonds in the dust, beauty and brokenness interwoven together and the realization that you have been party to a holy moment where heaven has touched earth.
The Christian journey does feel like a battle, a struggle and a narrow path, the call features more washing of feet than we bargain for.
Despite many foolish people telling us some unhelpful stories, there is rarely a magic silver bullet that brings transformation in quick, easy and painless steps but instead often we are called to be the miracle.
In self emptying and downward mobility we soon come to the end of ourselves, but it is here we discover something of the unlimited resources of God.
So, now if we were having the same conversation I would urge Sam never to lose that idealism and that vision of transformation but promise to do all I can to support him in the ordeal of battlefield for seeking to be a good and faithful solider and servant.