Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Together In Ministry EVERYday

Here's an essay I wrote for my church's magazine. Unfortunately, there wasn't room for the article this time around. So I'm posting it here.

Together In Ministry EVERYday?

That irritating co-worker. Our demanding family member. The neighbor whose fence is not quite high enough.

Each day, we are called to relate to other fragile humans who, like us, have needs and feelings and fears and dreams. And, like us, sometimes the other humans we relate to are more fragile than others.

How are we living in everyday ministry to our everyday circle of contacts? And if we aren’t living in ministry to them right now, how do we start showing God’s love to them – today, every day – in a way that is genuine, noticeable, and appropriate? That is, how do we show love in a way that is sincerely from our truest self, observable by others, and expressed so that it can be experienced with fullness and abundance?

True Love Loves Even When It Isn’t Deserved
When I was growing up, a counted cross-stitch sampler with that statement hung in my parents’ house. Depending on my behavior at any given time, my folks could be heard editing the cross-stitch, reminding each other that “True love loves especially when it isn’t deserved.”

I have a great mom and dad who taught me what unconditional love is about – and how to show it. The reality of their love has been a rock to me. Because of the way my parents taught me and loved me, I ask myself continually: “How am I showing unconditional love, whether to a relative or a friend or co-worker or neighbor or stranger?”

Too often, our own fears and needs and wants get in our way. I try to be aware of my internal chatter (“Not enough,” “What if,” “Why not,” “I need”) so that it doesn’t keep me from expressing love for others. The genuine part of love – our sincere expression of God’s love through us to another person – starts with our committing ourselves to love God and permitting ourselves to love ourselves. (“Love your neighbor as yourself” doesn’t get us very far if we don’t love ourselves.) That genuine part of ministry comes from taking a stand and claiming our responsibility to be God’s love in action, God’s love on earth.

Called To Say, “I Love You”
Hundreds of individuals and families at St. Luke’s have already started to engage in ministries of service, learning, and advocacy, either on their own or through the “90 Minutes in 90 Days” program. Building on those experiences, we now have the opportunity to start exploring together the “everyday” part of Together In Ministry Everyday. When we commit to ministry, fully engaged in showing God’s love by being God’s love, we automatically start to express God’s love. Our bodies are wonderful gifts from the Creator, but we couldn’t even hope to contain God’s abundant love within us; we become instead the pipe through which God’s love flows, the filter through which God’s love shines.

Being a minister means God’s love shows in you and can be experienced by others. Sometimes what we say is how we help others experience God’s love. Sometimes it’s what we choose not to say. And sometimes our actions speak louder than any sermon.

I believe I am called to stand as a living testimony of God’s present love for all creation. I talk a lot, so one day I decided that I would show God’s love to others by telling them, “God loves you.” The first couple times I expressed God’s love so noticeably, I got some funny looks. But I pressed on and shared with more and more people my pronouncement that God loved them.

Soon, though, I realized that my statement, while factually accurate, could be perceived as distant, nonspecific, and superior. So I altered it. Version 2.0: “God loves you and so do I.” This was especially handy when I was dealing with a difficult somebody – in my heart I was saying, “God loves you and I’m sure trying hard to love you, too.”

Again, this felt distant, and with those difficult people it felt a little dishonest. So I decided to take action – scary, terrifying, awesome action! “I love you,” I began to say. “You what?” asked a friend of 15 years. “Huh?” said my brother. “I love you too, man!” another friend mock-sobbed.

I knew that was the final draft for me: “I love you.” Simple. Easy. Risky, at times. But so worth it. And it works for me. But it might not work for you. You might not be as stupidly optimistic as I am. Or as blissfully ignorant of what others think.

So, what if you were to find your own way of saying, “God loves you” or – gulp! – “I love you”? Maybe it involves spoken words. Maybe it’s written. Or maybe the way to express “I love you” is in the way you clean the kitchen so a roommate doesn’t have to, or the way you shovel snow from your neighbors’ driveway so they don’t have to, or the way you smile at a stranger on the street. Louis Armstrong knew that even a handshake and a how-do-you-do can really say, “I love you.”

Expressing Love So It Can Be Experienced
Once we’ve reached a place of genuine love and it’s begun to bubble over outside of us into a way that others will notice, it’s time to shape that love so that it is expressed in a way that others can accept.

You could go around hugging everyone and telling them that you love them, but the outcome might not be what you expected. So the challenge becomes this: how do you take that love and funnel it to those who most need to experience it in a way that they can experience it?

I think the first step is to move that love as close to your everyday person as possible. Living with love simmering right under your surface, ready to express at the drop of a hat, will help you capitalize on the opportunities when they arise. I find practice helps with this – I like to play a game where I try to catch myself feeling particularly loving (or particularly not loving). This mindful approach puts us in touch with God’s love and, like any skill or activity, can be learned and exercised until it becomes second nature.

The next step is to be aware of opportunities to show God’s love, so that once you’re virtually exuding God’s love, you’re ready to let it out when the chance becomes available. Living with love tingling right under our skin allows us to let someone else go first at the grocery check-out and empowers us to say a prayer – rather than something else – for the person who cuts us off in traffic. Going through our day with love nearly bursting forth is a lot like the life of a child – full of wonder and promise, both thrilling and fulfilling.

So, once you’re living with abundant love virtually oozing out of you and you’re becoming aware of opportunities to be God’s love to another person…now what? The trickiest part – now you do it. Now we courageously show our stripes as what Dr. Carolyn Scanlan-Craighead once characterized as Radical Fundamentalist Christians. As servants of God and others, guided by hope and faith, we show God’s love. By saying it. By doing it. By being it. By any and all means necessary. All the time. In our everything tasks, in our everywhere places, in our everyday moments.

Together In Ministry Everyday
The fact is, there’s a lot going on in the world that gets in the way of us humans showing love to each other. But I believe that’s why God put so many of us here right now – so that we can band together as billions of little mirrors reflecting God’s love to each other and outshining the doubt and violence and desperation and hatred that choke us as individuals and as a local, national, and global community.

This year, building on our congregation’s commitment to our outward, community focus embodied by the “90 in 90” program, the T.I.M.E. team will be working with clergy and lay leaders to develop opportunities for us to further integrate the “everyday” part of Together In Ministry Everyday into our own faith lives.

We develop spiritual disciplines to grow closer to God. We pray; we read the Bible. Some of us journal, some meditate, some go on retreat. Our challenge is to develop the spiritual discipline of love for others – and to integrate that into our everyday lives in a way that is genuine, noticeable, and appropriate. We’re being transformed by God, so that we might transform the world – with God’s love through us – into a more compassionate, inclusive, just, and Christlike community. And it starts with love.


Anonymous said...

Wait -- there's room in the last issue for a six-page story about the Regional Emmy, but there's no room for an article about doing actual ministry and actually showing God's love to God's actual people?

I call Shenanigans! on that.

SSS said...

Haha! You've got a bit of a point there...although I know that the work of The Power of One is extremely important, world-transforming business. Let's work on being supportive, Anon.

I trust in God and have faith that when the time is right for this essay to be read by whoever's supposed to read it, it'll happen.


Anonymous said...

Great article. I have the feeling that you repeat that part about loving when they don't deserve it often when you are with out group. :) I will say one thing about college, you make some friends that you'll have for the rest of your life. I hope you'll submit your article again for the next newsletter.


SSS said...

Thanks for the feedback, Nat! We'll see about the re-submit...

Anonymous said...

Between the Emmy focus for November and the rumblings I've heard of a January Communion focused mostly on the Boiler, that's a swing-and-a-miss followed by a swing-and-a-miss.

I'd say write more like this, bag the church magazine, and find somewhere else to get this stuff published.


SSS said...

Steph, thanks for the feedback -- I'm working on more writing. I think we'll see what happens with future Communion articles and take it from there.