To ordain a person to the ministry is to swing a two-edged sword. It cuts on one side with joy — with the happiness that befits an occasion like this. The mood calls for music and singing, praying and celebrating.
But that sword cuts on the other side with danger. By this action the Church is saying, “We recognize this person as one called of God. In setting him apart, we acknowledge that he ministers in Christ’s name, armed with the Word.” This is dangerous because the Word cannot be domesticated like a tame kitten. Instead it is more like a lion, full of strength and power.
So what we are doing today is a dangerous thing. How did Paul speak of this? “Hard pressed,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “struck down.” But since when has faith been tame, or safe, or sane?
We are setting apart this one and calling him a minister. But what is a minister? Half a century ago George Buttrick pondered this question and came up with this answer: To many he is a pathetic figure, an anachronism, a stage-joke — an inoffensive little man jostled by the crowd, and wearing the expression of a startled rabbit. With one hand he holds a circular hat on his bewildered head and with the other desperately clutches an umbrella. The crowd pushes him from the sidewalk; the traffic shoots him back into the crowd. Some curse him; a few laugh; most are unaware of his existence (Jesus Came Preaching, p. 4). Are you sure you wouldn’t like to halt this service now?
Yes, some will ignore and many will misunderstand and try to squeeze you into their molds. Some want the minister to be a keeper of the public morals. Never rock the boat. Never challenge the system. Never stretch the thinking beyond its present limits. They say, “Bless the children, marry the young, bury the dead. Be conventional, ordinary, boring! – anything as long as it lets us be.”
Some want the minister to be a chaplain to the popular culture. This is the blesser of whatever comes down the pike, regardless of how absurd it might be. I got a call one day from a couple who wanted me to perform their wedding ceremony on stage in front of 5,000 people during intermission at a rock concert. They never really understood why I refused. So ministers get the reputations as being kill-joys and curmudgeons.
Some want the minister to be an organizational person. Better to have an MBA from Harvard and be able to organize the world, than an M. Div. from a seminary with only the ability to speak the mind of God! Dress for success, look out for number one, and eat for health. Look good, feel good, and make us feel good, too. But how hard it is to remember that ministers are called to an office by God, and not set up in the office by the corporation or even the Church.
Some want the minister to be a spiritual ombudsman, investigating and rectifying all complaints against God. “Hey, ain’t you the preacher at that church down the street?” “Yes, I am.” “Well I wanna’ tell you something. I was out of a job last year, so I watched this preacher on television. He said that if I sent him $10 and prayed for a job I’d get one. I’m still out of work. What do you say to that? Where is your God?”
“What do I say to that? I say that God is not easily bribed for $10.” Really, what can you say? Running interference for God is hardly a position to aspire to. Explaining His incalculable ways to people who want 50-cent answers is tough.
Some people want the minister to be the mascot of the church. A mascot is a totem believed to bring good luck, so if your hair is cut right and you can smile with a full set of pearls, you might be invited to be the mascot of an institution. The only problem is that mascots are kept on a short leash and are easily replaced. And even the brightest minister does not control God, the national economy, and the individual evil in each person.1
So what is ministry? What work are we setting you aside to do? Paul’s words reverberate in our ears: “We have this ministry in jars of clay….” Not chalices of gold, or goblets of silver? We have this ministry in styrofoam cups.
Perhaps we can better understand ministry through a series of oxymorons. An oxymoron is a figure created by putting two things seemingly opposed together.
Ministry is romantic disenchantment. Ministry is a romantic calling. Its history is long and visibility high. Books by the hundreds proclaim its value and magic. Young students by the thousands flock to our seminaries hungry to gorge on such fare.
But it is also disenchantment. Not everything is wonderful. Not everyone is motivated and straight-thinking. Was Carlyle Marney right when he said that no minister has the right to be happy in ministry because there is too much wrong in the Church? Ministry is romantic disenchantment.
Ministry is a boring challenge. Even the brightest, best educated people find themselves challenged and perplexed at the variety of situations they get into. Who can understand, in the fullest sense, another person? Who can fathom the depths of God? Who can master even the curriculum at a theological seminary, with its Greek and Hebrew, history and theology, psychology and sociology, practical studies and supervised experience in ministry? This is a great challenge!
Yet ministry can be boring. Even crises can become routine. God can seem like an object of study rather than the grand Subject who gives meaning to life. There are meetings and funerals, and meetings and weddings, and meetings and bulletins. The Sabbath returns with relentless regularity. You train as a brain surgeon but see only ingrown toenails! Yes, ministry can be a boring challenge.
Ministry is a contemporary anachronism. An anachronism is something chronologically out of place. What minister has not felt as necessary as a “water witch” or as up-to-date as a “sin eater”? Are we just dinosaurs waiting for the last of the climatic changes before we all die off? One of the finest church historians I know said his son told him, “Why should we call you Doctor? You can’t even take an X-ray.”
Out of date? Maybe not. The son of this historian had not yet learned that an X-ray has no power to comfort at an open grave or to point the way to life eternal. An anachronism? Perhaps, but a contemporary anachronism.
Ministry is a joyful tyranny.2 We bemoan the drain of this work, and its frustrations and problems. Every ministry has his box full of war stories, about irrational members and irresponsible deacons, about a tyranny that is oppressive and burdensome. But ministers stick with it. Why? Because there is joy in the midst of tyranny. Light shines in the darkness. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Lee Iacocca gave a speech many years ago about the Statue of Liberty. He said in part, “If Miss Liberty was a symbol of hope, Ellis Island was a symbol of reality. We need both of these symbols because our country is not based on hope alone, but on sweat and pain.” Not only this country, but the Kingdom of God also. Behind every crown there is a cross. Behind every triumph is a temptation. Behind every garden is a desert. Such is the ministry to which you have been called.
As a minister, you are a midwife assisting in the spiritual birth of people into the Kingdom of God. This is not glamorous like serving at a hospital on television, but it’s more real.
You are a clown in the sense that while others might see people as cases and problems and diagnoses, you see them as persons. Others bring the stethoscope and the injection. You bring a change in perspective that results in life. Others walk the tightrope like some ethereal angel. You step into the circus arena and embody life and laughter and faith, hope and love, just like a clown.
You are an artist, seeing in others what others miss. Fred Craddock speaks of the perception this way. I have changed the wording slightly:
When a person ministers, he doesn’t sell patent medicine; he writes prescriptions. Others may hurl epithets at the “wealthy” but the minister knows a lonely and guilt-ridden man confused by the Bible’s debate with itself over prosperity: Is prosperity a sign of God’s favor or disfavor? Others may display knowledge of “poverty programs” but the minister knows what a bitter thing it is to be somebody’s Christmas project. He sees a boy resisting his mother’s insistence that he wear the nice sweater that came in the charity basket. He can see the boy wear it until out of Mother’s sight, but not at school out of fear that he may meet the original owner on the playground. There are conditions worse than being cold.
Others may discuss “the problem of geriatrics” but the minister has just come from the local rest home and he still sees worn checkerboards, faded bouquets, large print King James Bibles, stainless steel trays, and dim eyes staring at an empty parking lot reserved for visitors. Others may analyze “the trouble with the youth today” but the pastor sees a fuzzy-lipped boy, awkward, noisy, wishing he were absent, not a man, not a child, preoccupied with ideas that contradict his fourteen years’ severe judgment against the girls.3
The minister is a sculptor, chiseling piece after piece of useless weight off what will be the finished product. Like Michelangelo he can see a block of granite but perceive an angel in it wanting to get out.
The minister is a carpenter, putting together walls and roofs, windows and doors in the lives of people. He knows they need shelter and security, warmth and protection, light and air.
A minister is a star-thrower. Anthropologist Loren Eisley was once walking along a beach and saw people busy gathering the shells that had washed up on the shore during the night. But one man he encountered was an enabler of life rather than a collector of death. This man was selecting the starfish that were still alive and throwing them back into the water. “The stars throw well,” he told Eisley. “One can help them.” Eisley grasped the symbolism in the star-thrower and began to search for the starfish and hurl them back into the sea. He said, “It was like sowing, the sowing of life.”
In all, the minister gives life to people. But this is never easy, and it is always full of danger. An ancient tale from India tells of this danger.
Four royal sons were questioning what specialty they should master. They said to one another, “Let us search the earth and learn a special science.” So they decided, and after they had agreed on a place where they would meet again, the four brothers started off, each in a different direction. Time went by, and the brothers met again at the appointed meeting place, and they asked one another what they had learned.
“I have mastered a science,” said the first brother, “which makes it possible for me, if I have nothing but a piece of bone of some creature, to create straightaway the flesh that goes with it.” “I,” said the second brother, “know how to grow that creature’s skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.” The third said, “I am able to create its limbs if I have the flesh, the skin, and the hair.” “And I,” concluded the fourth, “know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete with limbs.”
Thereupon the four brothers went into the jungle to find a piece of bone so that they could demonstrate their specialties. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s, but they did not know that. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life. Shaking its heavy mane, the ferocious beast arose with its menacing mouth, sharp teeth, and merciless claws and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.4
Let the creator beware!
Part of what saves ministry, though, is that it is not a solo performance based on one-night stands. It is a public operation centered in the church. We are here today because this church says to you, “We believe God has called you to ministry, and we add our benediction to this call.”
The church is both the launching pad and the final landing strip for all genuine ministry. It is Alma Mater. It is seminary, which means “seed bed.” The Church is the anvil which has worn out many hammers. While ministry is not always done in the Church, it is always done through the Church.
In this day of controversy over so-called ministry done via television waves, we might do well to hear again the wise council of Charles E. Jefferson. He gave the Yale Lectures in 1910, and even then sensed the menace of any ministry which forgets the essential nature of the Church. Jefferson drew a sharp distinction between a Church and an audience.
A sharp distinction ought to be made between a church and an audience. It is to be regretted that we have come to rank churches by the size of their membership, and to judge preachers by the number of persons who listen to their sermons. A superficial man is consequently tempted to work, not for a church, but for an audience.
An audience, however, is not worth working for. An audience is a group of unrelated people drawn together by a short-lived attraction, a conglomeration of individuals finding themselves together for a brief time. It is a fortuitous concourse of human atoms scattering as soon as a certain performance has ended. It is a pile of leaves to be blown away by the wind, a handful of sand lacking consistency and cohesion; a number of human filings drawn into position by a pulpit magnet, and which will drop away as soon as the magnet is removed.
An audience is a crowd. A church is a family. An audience is a gathering. A church is a fellowship. An audience is a collection. A church is an organism. An audience is a heap of stones. A church is a temple. Preachers are ordained, not to attract an audience, but to build a church. Course and ambitious worldly men, if richly gifted, can draw audiences, but only a man who is given to the Lord Jesus Christ can build a church.
Such is ministry. Such is your calling and, in a sense, the calling of all of us. You will be hard pressed, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. Why? Because, as Paul puts it in
1. Gene Bartlet, The Authentic Pastor (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1978), pp. 10-11.
2. These images are from my article, “Raids on the Unspeakable,” in Heralds to A New Age (Elgin: Brethren Press, 1985), pp. 204-5.
3. Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority (Enid, Okla.: The Phillips University Press, 1974, revised edition), p. 82.
4. This story is told in Henri Nouwin, The Wounded Healer (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), Image Books, pp. 5-6.