February 12, 2016

The “Ministry”

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


Silence receive us, and the field of peace, hush of the
measureless land,…replenish us, restore us, and unite us
with your vast images of quietness and joy…come swiftly
now; engulf us,…speak to our hearts of stillness, for we
have, save this, no speech.

—Thomas Wolfe

It was a slow Saturday morning at work last month. Not a lot going on. Saturdays are like that sometimes. There’s only one guy in the office, and one guy in the yard. And you’re either sitting there twiddling your thumbs, or you’re slammed with crowds of customers. It’s one way or the other, mostly. Ain’t no in-between.

About mid morning, the door bell jingled. A customer. I got up from my desk and stood at attention behind the counter. Two guys and a woman walked in. A youngish man, in his thirties, maybe. And an older couple, who looked to be the parents. I greeted them. They smiled and greeted me back, all three of them. Friendly people, seemed like. And I asked them. What can I do for you today?

They were looking for a pole building, of course. It seemed a little odd, though, as we got to talking. The older guy told me. He and his wife lived up in one of the small provinces in northeastern Canada. He told me where. Wow, I said. I was born in Canada, but I never got that far east and north. Anyway, the younger guy was their son, just like I’d figured. And Dad and Mom were wanting to move down to this area, to be with their son and his family. They wanted to convert the attached garage on the son’s home into living quarters. And the parents would live there. That meant the son needed a new garage, to move his stuff to. And I thought about it, real fleetingly, right there. I wonder how that’ll work out, having your parents live in your garage. I mean, I loved my Dad and Mom. But I couldn’t ever envision such a thing as that. But it was none of my business. So I leaned over on the counter and engaged. I asked questions. What size garage did they need? Their basic budget? And the three of them just stood there and we talked.

I thought about it a few times. The son was very clean-cut. Maybe a little too clean. Reminded me of the people I hung with down at Bob Jones University years ago. It was a formal setting, all the daily classes were. Everyone always acted all happy and chirpy. And all around, all kinds of happy rote prayers floated up to heaven every day. I can’t remember that I heard much honesty from anyone. This guy reminded me of all that, somehow. He was just a little too cleaned up. All strictly my opinion, of course.

We stood there, talking, taking little bunny trails off to the side now and then, for the next fifteen minutes or so. And then the door bell jingled again. I looked over. A young woman. Modestly dressed in a skirt and jacket. She wore some kind of knitted hat on her head. Dark, long hair. No question, she was strikingly beautiful. She walked right on over and stood with the others. The young guy’s wife. And after greeting me, she joined the conversation. And again, I wondered fleetingly, as I talked to her, talked to them all. How in the world is it gonna work, to have these older people living in what now is your garage? I hope it all does work out. But I can see a lot of potholes, lots of danger points ahead. Not because I know any of you. But I know little bit about human nature.

I’m rambling here, a little bit, too. Still, it all fits, I think. We chatted along for another ten minutes. I gave them some good grasp of what they were looking at, cost-wise. The young couple stood there, right in front of my counter computer. And I noticed the younger woman when she saw it. The poster I have taped to the front. The poster of my book. She looked a little startled, then looked at it more closely. Absorbed it. Then looked at me. Then at the poster. Then at me again.

“Did you write this book?” She asked, a touch of wonder in her voice. Yep, I said. A few years back. It’s done pretty well. And the husband looked, now, too. Read the poster. “Growing Up Amish,” he mused. And he asked, suddenly. “Are you born again? We’re Christians. We go to (Blank) Baptist Church right here in Chester County.”

I nodded and smiled. I’m a believer, yes. I said. And they both beamed at me, all welcoming and kind. Still, there was that bit of reservation in their eyes. I could see what they were thinking. This guy claims to believe. We’ll take his word for it. But we’ll keep our guard up, too, until he proves himself. That’s the feeling I got, that they were feeling. The parents, during this little exchange, stood blissfully off to the side, murmuring dreamily to each other of living in their son’s garage. There were no questions at all about my faith from Dad and Mom. They seemed very content to take me at my word. No judgment exuded from them.

I guess I shouldn’t say I felt judgment from the younger couple, either. But they were just so clean cut, so perfectly coiffed, and, oh, so Christian. The kind you pick out from across the room because they’re standing there, looking all grim and holy, while everyone else is having a drink and playing cards and having a grand old time. It’s not enough, to politely decline the invitation to the party. They have to show up and make sure everyone sees how strongly they disapprove of such sinful behavior. That’s what they reminded me of. People like that.

And then the wife smiled a dazzling and knowing smile. A secret smile, like we were in the same club, and knew the sign. She gushed at me. “Oh,” she half squealed. “You come from the Amish, and you’re born again.” And then it came. The million dollar question. The one they would judge me on. “Do you have a ministry to the Amish people, now that you left? Now that you’re born again?” And again, that dazzling, 1000-watt smile. You and I know what unwashed people like the Amish need. That’s what she was telling me. But are you doing that? Are you telling them what it is to live right, like you should be?

I smiled at them both. The older couple still stood off to the side. Still blissfully uninvolved in the conversation, still dreaming about their future. I wondered again, fleetingly, how in the world it would be, to go and live in the garage of your son and his wife. And I looked at them both, that son and his wife, and smiled again. And promptly failed the test they’d put me up to. Not only did I fail, I flunked it spectacularly.

No, ma’am, I told the striking young woman with the dazzling smile. No, I do not have a “ministry” to the Amish people. Actually, I don’t have a ministry to anyone. My Amish friends accept me as I am, and I accept them as they are. If I ever “minister” to them, it’s through my actions. And I don’t know it. I kept smiling at them; they smiled back with frozen smiles. I talked on. I got a hard enough time looking after myself. To me, it’s a miracle that I can take the free gift of grace. I got nothing against people who have ministries of whatever kind. But I just walk. I figure that’s pretty much what I’m called to do. Just keep walking.

They both took it tolerably well, I have to say. The dazzling smile dimmed maybe just a fraction, you had to look hard to notice. The man smiled, too. I had let them down, but they were all generous and uplifting. I made some comment that I keep a few copies of the book around here, in case anyone would ever care to buy one. Neither of them showed the slightest inclination or interest. We wound down, then. I reached across the counter and shook hands with all of them. They thanked me very much for my time. Not a problem, I said. That’s what I’m here for. And they all rambled out. And I wondered again how that was going to go, the parents living in the garage of their son. In my heart, I wished all of them well. The parents, especially. I’m sure there will have to be grace and forbearance from all sides, when and if they ever get moved into that garage.

And I have thought about those people a lot since that Saturday. What exactly does it mean, to have a “ministry” to anyone? Why is it so important to some people, to be seen as ministering? What drives the desire? Selfless ideals? Ego? Is it the natural superiority that comes from knowing you have something that others don’t, that others need? I’m not judging the woman, or her question to me. And I got no problem if she or you or anyone else wants to run around out there “ministering” to whoever it is that needs it.

But somehow, I’ve always recoiled instinctively from the term. Maybe it’s the Amish blood in me. Ministry. It just sounds so, well, so perfect. I know a little bit about human nature. And I know when you’re consciously stooping down to “help” another, you are not at that person’s level. You can’t be, reaching down. You can’t speak eye to eye to someone you’re looking down on and preaching at. And to me, looking people in the eye is as important as any message I might have to tell. More so, even. Who’s gonna listen to someone talking down to them? No one. Well, people might pretend to listen, but they won’t hear.

When you look someone in the eye, you’re saying way more than the words you speak. You’re saying, I’m talking to you right where you are, because that’s where I am, too. I know where you’re coming from, I know where you’ve been. I can tell you there is a better way, I can tell you there is a better place. Standing right here with you, I can tell you that. And, no, I’m not “ministering.” I’m no preacher. I’m no “warrior,” either. Those are all stuck-up terms for stuck-up people, looking down on sinners from above. I’m just a guy, walking along, right here where you are.

One other thing, too, bugs me about consciously having a “ministry.” It seems to me people all wrapped up in “ministry” get to thinking that they’re in pretty good shape, they got the inside track to God. And then they get to thinking that the Lord needs them pretty bad, here, to get all His stuff done. And no one else can do it quite like they can. They get to thinking that they’d be pretty hard to replace, that they’re not expendable. And they get bogged down with all the hidden pride that comes from thinking like that. Not saying it’s always that way. But it often is.

I want to be careful here. And I want to be clear. I’m not talking about the preacher man who is called to proclaim the gospel to people like me and others. I’m not talking about the singer and his song. There are lots of legitimate ministries out there, and I got good friends sacrificing a lot to get out there and spread the word. I cheer such people on, and I respect them. I’m talking here about the regular person, walking along through life, all puffed up with importance. Kind of like that young man in the office that Saturday, and his lovely wife with the dazzling smile. Kind of like that.

And I felt the same way sometimes, when people talked to me after I got out of the hospital late last year. When I told them how low I had slipped, how close I had come to cashing out. How I had looked death in the face, and returned. More than one person listened to my tale, then told me. “Well, the Lord sure has something for you to get done, here in this life. There’s a reason He spared you, there’s a reason you’re still here.” And it was fine, and it was all well meaning, such talk. But my response was always pretty much the same.

Nah, I said. That’s not necessarily true. I could walk out of here and get run over by a truck. Or I could get into a serious accident on the way home today, and get killed. The chances of any such thing happening to me are exactly the same as they were before I ever went to the hospital. The statistical chances, I mean. I’m not saying the Lord won’t protect me. He might. And maybe He does have some more work for me to get done. The thing is, that work will get done, whether I get to it or not.

That’s what I said. And that’s what I believe today. And no, I’m not being fatalistic. Far from it. Because I can say right here that things have been different since I got home from the hospital. A lot different. You don’t look death in the face and stay the same as you were before. I don’t think it’s possible. It’ll affect you deeply, one way or another. After I got back home, and got settled in a while, I looked back over my life. And I looked at the stretch of road before me. And gradually I realized. There’s so much to do that I haven’t done, so much life that I haven’t lived. And at this moment, I feel more alive than I have felt in many, many years. It’s a strange and startling place to be.

I have lived intensely in the past, intensely enough for several lifetimes, probably. And I look back over it all sometimes, and reflect. On how it was, and how it went. So many miles, so many years. So many hard roads, so much left behind. I know what the darkness of the valley is. And I know the view from the mountain’s peak. I have seen and felt so many things.

I know what it is to feel old and tired. I know what it is to trudge along, exhausted and famished and beyond weary of the road. To look at the future and feel flat and joyless. I know these things, I have seen and lived and felt them all. And the last time I knew what it was to be filled with real joy, well, that time was so long ago. The past can never be changed from what it was. The future can be changed from what it might have been, though. And I have wondered if such a time of real joy will ever come again.

And now I know. It will, because it has.

I can say this, from right here. I look forward to what the future holds. I mean, I welcome whatever comes with anticipation and joy. Whatever it is, across the board. Good or bad. It’s a strange new place filled with strange new things. And I’m grappling along like a blind man through unfamiliar terrain. Feeling my way through what it is to walk with joy through whatever comes. Figuring out what it means to truly be alive.

And I try to grasp what I’ve heard Tim Keller preach many times at our Tuesday night Bible Studies. Whatever the Lord allows in your life is the best thing that could happen to you. In the long run, for His kingdom. Whatever happens to you is the best thing. It’s almost impossible to wrap your head around such a truth as that. It’s flat-out counter-intuitive. And yet, here I am. And here I stand, believing. Lord, help my unbelief.

And right now, the near future holds a grave and dangerous thing. I mentioned it a few times since I’ve been out of the hospital. The A-Fib doctors want to do an ablation. That’s going up a vein in my leg, and snipping the wild muscles in my heart, so it will beat right. It’s a totally routine procedure. So common that it’s almost an outpatient thing. I’m scheduled for the last full week of this month. Go in one day, do the operation, then get out the next.

Everyone talks all calm, the doctors and their staff. And they have reason to, I’m sure. Still, the thing I realize is, it’s serious any time any foreign object touches your heart. It’s serious, any time you get “put to sleep.” Some people never wake up. Sure, it’s routine, and sure, the doctor has done hundreds and hundreds of similar procedures. Statistically, it should go fine, and I should be fine. But still. There are no guarantees. There can’t be. And as the day gets close, it’s slowly seeping through me, it’s sinking in for the first time in a long time. I intensely, intensely want to live.

I want what the future holds. Whatever may come, I want to live it and see it. Feel it. Taste and absorb it. I want to walk through all the joy that life has, I want to trudge through the dark and dangerous places, too. And I want to proclaim to every person I meet, be that in the wilderness or on the streets. The Lord is who He claims to be. I faced death right up close, and walked away. And let me tell you the strange and impossible thing that happened. I surrendered life, gave up all I am or ever was or ever will be. And now I truly live.

And yeah, I know what fear is. There are a few things that have loomed fearful in the distance for years. I fear growing old alone. I fear a debilitating illness, fear growing old and sick and gray and feeble, fear becoming a burden to my extended family. Fears such as that lurk ever dark and silent like so many ghosts in the night. So, yeah, I know what fear is.

But I do not fear what it is to die. And I have never, ever felt so free.

And so here’s how things are, going into the operation the week after next. (I won’t be posting that Friday, by the way.) I feel intensely alive, and I intensely want to live. But the bottom line is, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the end. It really doesn’t. Because if this life is taken, something far better waits on the other side. This I know. This I believe by faith. Quietly and calmly, I believe it.

And so I leave it all at that. If the stats work out, I’ll plan to post again in early March. When that time comes, and as I’m walking forward into each new day, well, I’m planning on doing a whole lot of things I’ve never done before. And there will be a whole lot of living coming down such as I’ve never lived before.

Only the Lord knows the future. What is to be will be. I just keep walking.