Friday, April 18, 2014

The Tyranny of Convenience
By timgombis

In a recent class, we discussed how the modern value of convenience works against the cultivation of rich community life in churches. We are rushed and hurried, and the frantic and harried pace of life shapes us in such ways that we see occasions where we can linger with one another as “wasted time.” We’re not accomplishing anything! We can do this more conveniently!

I was struck by the following passage in Michael Moss’s book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, a fascinating look at the processed food industry. It reveals just one way in which convenience as an obvious valueof modern life was reinforced by advertising over the last half-century.

Every year in New York City, the top executives of companies that sold a wide range of goods gathered together under the auspices of the Conference Board, an august association best known today for conducting the “consumer confidence” survey. In 1955, the dinner speaker was Charles Mortimer, and he got right to the point. Food, clothing, and shelter were still important, he told the crowd. But now there was a fourth essential element of life that could be “expressed in a single word—convenience—spelled out with a capital ‘C.’”

“Convenience is the great additive which must be designed, built in, combined, blended, interwoven, injected, inserted, or otherwise added to or incorporated in products or services if they are to satisfy today’s demanding public. It is the new and controlling denominator of consumer acceptance or demand.”

There is convenience of form, he said, citing the Gaines-Burger dog food patties that Clausi had invented to be as soft as hamburger but so durable that they could sit on the pantry shelf until needed. There is convenience of time, like the grocery stores throughout American that were starting to stay open in the evenings to accommodate increasing numbers of women who worked outside the home. And there is convenience of packaging, like beer in bottles that used to have to be hauled back to the store but were now disposable, and aluminum foil pie pans that were showing up on the grocery shelves.
The original 50s TV dinner
Photograph: William Gottlieb/Corbis
“Modern Americans are willing to pay well for this additive to the products they purchase,” Mortimer told the executives. “Not because of any native laziness but because we are willing to use our greater wealth to buy fuller lives and we have, therefore, better things to do with our time than mixing, blending, sorting, trimming, measuring, cooking, serving, and all the other actions that have gone into the routine of living.”

As if on cue, time-saving gadgets and gizmos started arriving in the grocery store that year that helped the modern homemaker trade a little more of her new wealth for some extra time away from the kitchen. Ready-to-bake biscuits appeared in tubes that could be opened by merely tugging a string. Special detergents came out for electric dishwashers that had special compounds to get off the water spots. One entrepreneurial firm even made plastic lids with spouts that snapped on cans of milk or syrup for easier pouring (pp. 60-61).

What I find so sinister about convenience is that it is in the midst of “all the other actions that have gone into the routine of living” that we often find rich fellowship with one another and mutual sharing. And with the systematic elimination of such moments from our lives, we’ve inadvertently lost opportunities to cultivate and strengthen bonds of friendship and community, both in families and in churches.

A Preface to Easter (Diagram)

Luther's dictum "at the same time justified and a sinner" can only be true in dynamic and not a static sense.  If taken statically, as a tensed equilibrium between righteousness and sin, pictured like this,

Righteousness ------------------------- Sin

it can lead to a resignation to the inevitability of sin in our lives and debilitating thoughts like, upon sinning, "Well, I'm only human after all."

But such a perspective makes despite of the work and resurrection of Christ, the presence of the Spirit in and among us, and the call of the church to be "salt" and "light" in the world.  Instead, in the light of these realities, the relation should be pictured thus,

                                                                                                  - Sin
                                            Righteousness - 

where the balance is tilted in favor of righteousness.  Christ has defeated sin.  Righteousness is eternal and is our destiny.  Sin is passing away.  That same imbalance of righteousness and sin ought to be evident in our lives, a growing disparity between the two that generates a distinctive way of life that the world around us will notice (whether in approval or disapproval). 


The Cross – This Ain’t No Prom

April 18, 2014

A sermon preached on John 19.17-42 at Wine Before Breakfast on April 15, 2014.
I have attended a lot of funerals in my life – at least 25, probably more. I have mourned expected, understandable deaths – grandparents, elderly parishioners. And, I have grieved inexplicable, difficult deaths – the suicide of a close friend, the death by cancer of my roommate in our first year at university, the murder of a man I worked with, the death in an accident of a cousin, a baby. There is really only one common element I have noted throughout the many funerals I have attended in my life. Afterwards, I am starving.
Every time, after the funeral is over, my body cries out to me with ravenous hunger: “Feed me”, “I am alive”, “I am alive”. At its pure, not-at-all-rational core, my vulnerable, human body wants to affirm life in the midst of death: “Feed me”, “I am alive”, “I am alive”.
A few months ago I heard a program on CBC radio describing funerals as the new “proms”. Apparently there is a trend surfacing where people take pictures of themselves and each other – individually and in groups – at funerals and post the photos on Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites. All dressed-up, with special attention taken to make-up and hair, surrounded by family and friends…funeral pictures are rising up all over the Internet.
At its best I see this practice as another form of honouring life in the midst of death, an attempt to literally capture, “click”, life in a photograph while death is lurking in the next room or across the hall or in the corner, in the casket, by the door. At its worst, however, I see this trend as the epitome of a culture desperately trying to deny death, that wants to turn even a funeral into a prom, that wants to bypass death completely for…flirtation and a party and dancing.
It is my difficult yet significant task today to invite you to be truly present at a death, at Jesus’death, to invite you to dwell with his I-can’t-even-find-the-words-to-describe-it suffering, to invite you to witness his last breath. Although, it isn’t really my invitation – it is John’s, it is God’s: Come, sit at the foot of the cross. Face indescribable, overwhelming suffering. Face death. Ask the hard questions – mourn, grieve, keen. Feel the stones under your feet. See the crosses pointing upwards, towards that gray, barren sky. The hour is – finally – here.  I say, John says, God says this morning: Come. Don’t rush on or by. Come. Sit. Sit at the foot of the cross…that is, of course, if you aren’t here already.
I have many fears – too many to name in a short sermon on a Tuesday morning. But my deepest, most paralyzing fear is that my son, Samuel, who turned three last week, will be hurt or harmed in some terrible way – that Samuel will die before me. My whole being trembles, shakes in its depths, when I think of this funeral, the one funeral I absolutely never ever want to attend – No, not Samuel, not Samuel, not Samuel.
As I have reflected on the passage from John before us this morning, I have contemplated and puzzled over and lost my breath at the tremendous suffering this story describes – at the sorrow, the sorrow of God. We are told throughout the New Testament that Jesus is the son of God. So today, in this passage, God is mourning the death of his or her beloved child. God is experiencing my worst, most terrible, heart-wrenching fear, my nightmare. God is watching and witnessing and enduring the death of God’s only son.
Of course, we also learn throughout the New Testament that Jesus is not only God’s son but is also God – embodied, incarnate, God amongst and amidst us. So God is not only suffering on this day the unspeakable, indescribable grief of a parent whose child is dying or has died…but this is God with nails through the hands and feet, this is God who pleads “I am thirsty”(v. 28), who whispers, “It is finished”(v. 30), this is God who is being tortured, who is experiencing excruciating pain, this is God who bleeds…and dies.
God the parent and God the son suffer terribly today.
This is a stark, dark day of suffering for God.
The passage today seems preoccupied at times with claiming that the events it describes are the fulfillment of the scriptures. Four times the author deliberately states something along the lines of, “This was to fulfill what the scripture says…”(v. 24, also vs. 28, 36, 37). To me this means that this murder, this death of God/of God’s only son is not simply an accident or an awful unforeseen circumstance, the more-or-less unexpected consequence of Jesus’three years of activism and deep, healing ministry. No – deep and terrible suffering is intended to be part of this story, of God’s story.
Why is this the hour we have been waiting for?
Why is the suffering of God so essential…to the story of God?
It is tempting to bypass this confusing and heart-wrenching death and go directly to the resurrection – the very point of this death is so that death can be vanquished, Jesus will rise again! But, rising in sunshine and triumph and new life…that is for Easter Monday…or Tuesday in this community. On this day, today, the family and the followers of Jesus don’t know the resurrection is coming. They have to try to make sense of a reality and a story which includes God’s death/God’s son’s death on the cross. And, so do we. After all, today, we too, with them, are seated at the foot of the cross. The challenge before us, the invitation is to sit and grieve, to not deny, to not rush on or by.
Jean Vanier, in his commentary on the gospel of John, himself, sits down at the foot of the cross and asks some powerful questions: “Who can believe that this naked man, condemned to death, is the Word of God made flesh who liberates us from all the chaos inside us and around us?” He continues: “The Gospel of John requires me to ask myself: How prepared am I to bow down before this humble king and welcome the source of love and truth that flows from him?”
For, the call is not just to sit at the cross, not simply to mourn and to honour the immensity, the tremendousness of this suffering… but also to kneel down on the stony earth, to bow our heads, to worship this naked, bleeding, dying Jesus.
Why is the suffering of God so essential…to the story of God?
Why, possibly, would I, would you, want to worship a God who is naked, bleeding, nailed to the cross?
As I have dwelt with the passage over the last few weeks, I have come to see that this excruciating suffering of Jesus is a visible, tangible, unequivocal sign that Jesus is a new kind of king bringing a new kind of kingdom.  By kneeling and worshipping at the foot of the cross, we are committing ourselves to a king and a kingdom of love, to a king who is hardly, barely recognizable in the empire – in a culture of sexual, economic and ecological exploitation and death – because he dies! In this context of overwhelming oppression, the death of one who was spilling over with love…equals life. And those in the empire who hold life in their hands, who have the power to take life and end it or extend it…these people and powers equal death. Jesus is a new kind of king bringing a new kind of kingdom – a king who aligns himself with the powerless, not the powerful…a king who doesn’t cause suffering but suffers himself…who is and brings love not exploitation, who offers life not death, life…in death. We worship a nailed-to-the-cross king because he was killed for spilling over with love. He was killed for tending life in the midst of a culture of death. He was killed for living and embodying and promising a kingdom defined by love.
Of course this side of the kingdom, when we can only glimpse what is to come, when the kingdom of love is under construction but is not yet fully, finally here – it is not only God who suffers but we all bleed. I believe the panoramic pain of God revealed to us in this passage shows us that we are not alone when we suffer – God is with us in our trembling, to the end. In the passage today God is tortured and killed in God’s own body and simultaneously watches the torture and killing of God’s own beloved child. God enters into the fullness of the suffering of human experience.
God knows suffering
God knows our suffering.
Disappointment, pain, anguish are part of life this side of the kingdom, part of the fullness of life dedicated to the promised and coming kingdom of love. So, we worship an authentic, broken-down king who experienced the worst, the darkest depths of human existence. So, until the kingdom comes we suffer, we will suffer, when we suffer, we are not alone.
I have been playing with parent-child themes throughout this sermon:
God is Jesus’parent, Jesus is God’s child.
I am Samuel’s mother, Samuel is my son.
God is our parent, we are the children of God.
These themes are alive in my words and imagination because I am so intrigued and moved by what John describes as Jesus’last act before death – his creating of a covenant of love between Mary, his mother and John, his disciple, his friend:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside  her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”(v. 27)
With the empire of death’s breath rattling his bones, Jesus calls Mary and John to become parent and child to each other, to make a home together. Jesus’last earthly act before his physical death is to bind Mary and John together in a covenant of love. In the midst of the crushing empire and the kingdom glimpsed but yet-to-come, Jesus calls those of us at the foot of the cross to be family to each other. So, we worship a king, a God who embodied love until the end and whose last act, from the evil of the cross, is one of deep love – “Woman, here is your son…Here is your mother.”(v. 27)
So, the passage today calls us to the cross, to sit and mourn and not deny the reality of terrible, real suffering and death. But the call is also to worship, to worship a God whose message of love was so threatening to the powers in charge that they killed him…whose most powerful, empire-denying, death-defying, love-overspilling act was…to die.
In worship, in communion with this God, each week, together, we eat Jesus’body, we drink Jesus’blood…and love spills from the well, from the love of God into us and out. We take Jesus’broken body and poured-out blood into ours. We take his love into us…and, I believe, we then carry this love out to the suffering world.
So, with the current empire of death breathing on my neck and yes, even lurking inside me this morning, I worship a suffering God and king and I say:
“Jesus, feed me, I am alive, I am alive”.
In this Easter season, with death knocking, pulsing, pushing down our door, let us say together:
“Jesus feed us, we are alive, we are alive”.

Quantum Theology: How Good Friday becomes God Friday

Quantum theology begins on Good Friday.  In fact, it turns Good Friday in God Friday.  Here’s how.

Quantum physics turned the world of Newtonian physics upside down by showing that it was not the whole story of the physical reality of the world.  It was partially true.  But that partial truth had been inflated into the whole truth such that Newtonian physics was the accepted orthodoxy.  That made quantum physics seem like a threat if not a thoroughly incoherent theory.
Quantum theology, which begins with the incarnation of Jesus at Christmas and climaxes at the cross and resurrection, entered a Jewish world full of orthodoxies about how God acts in the world.  Good solid orthodoxies.  Orthodoxies that seemed to have worked for centuries.  Around the edges of the canon are documents that question those orthodoxies (Job, Ecclesiastes) and there are those strange hints of a servant figure in the latter part of Isaiah, but nobody made much of them.  They did not upend these ways of understanding God’s action.

Yet with Jesus’ incarnation just such a quantum challenge to these orthodoxies emerged.  With him the very nature and shape of God’s action in the world morphed into something unthinkably new.  Not only did not most of Israel find it incomprehensible, but even the spiritual powers failed to grasp (to their everlasting hurt).  Key features of this new shape of God’s being God in his world include:

          -God’s presence with us as one of us in Jesus
          -Jesus’ suffering, non-violent servanthood that landed him on the cross
          -Jesus’ embrace of the no-accounts and outlaws of his world
          -Jesus’ rejection of the temple
          -Jesus’ embrace of death as God’s will and way of salvation

So God as made known in Jesus became human, loved in non-exclusive and non-retributive ways, acted against the orthodoxies and institutions that defined God’s ways through the ages, even died for the salvation of the world.  This is the quantum theology of the New Testament that revealed once and for all that the regnant orthodoxies told part of the truth about God in incomplete ways.  Jesus himself embodied the full picture into which those partial and earlier expressions now had to be rethought.  No longer could they serve as the defining picture of God’s nature and action.  Jesus is that now – at least after the resurrection.

The resurrection!  That brings us to most “quantumy” piece of the whole story.  Without it, Good Friday names the occasion of the slaughter of a good and noble, though possible deluded, prophet who desperately and for a while successfully seemed to call Israel back to its best self.  Indeed, his crucifixion as a traitor was perhaps, after all, a fitting epitaph to his life.  But then came the resurrection.  And Good Friday morphs into God Friday!

The resurrection itself was not unexpected by Jews.  But it was supposed to happen to all Israel at the end of history at the Day of the Lord.  That it happened to one Jew, especially this one, in the middle of history broke all the molds and models Israel had for grasping how God works.
Somehow, incomprehensibly, in light of this astonishing occurrence, “the cross,” as Brian Zahnd puts it,

is about the revelation of a merciful God. At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives. Once we understand this, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: We are seeing the lengths to which a God of love will go in forgiving sin.”

And with that, all bets are off!  The world as we knew it, the old “Newtonian” world of religious orthodoxies, is no longer the world that defines us and forms our destiny.  To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “If anyone is in Christ – everything has become quantum!  Everything old has passed away, behold, all things are made new!”

And that’s how Good Friday becomes God Friday – the deepest, profoundest revelation of God’s love for his rebellious creatures imaginable.  The day of death for Jesus becomes a day of life for all, for everything, when God raises him from the dead on Easter morn!


Karl Barth on Easter and Good Friday

The mystery of the Incarnation unfolds into the mystery of Good Fridayand of Easter. And once more it is as it has been so often in this whole mystery of faith, that we must always see two things together, we must always understand one by the other. In the history of the Christian faith it has, indeed, always been the case that the knowledge of Christians has gravitated more to the one side or to the other. We may take it that the Western Church, the Church of the Occident, has a decided inclination towards the theologia crucis—that is, towards bringing out and emphasising the fact that He was surrendered for our transgressions. Whereas the Eastern Church brings more into the foreground the fact that He was raised for our justification, and so inclines towards the theologia gloriae. In this matter there is no sense in wanting to play off one against the other. You know that from the beginning Luther strongly worked out the Western tendency—not theologia gloriae but theologia crucis. What Luther meant by that is right. But we ought not to erect and fix any opposition; for there is no theologia crucis which does not have its complement in the theologia gloriae. Of course, there is no Easter without Good Friday, but equally certainly there is no Good Friday without Easter! Too much tribulation and sullenness are too easily wrought into Christianity. But if the Cross is the Cross of Jesus Christ and not a speculation on the Cross, which fundamentally any heathen might also have, then it cannot for one second be forgotten or overlooked that the Crucified rose again from the dead the third day. We shall in that case celebrate Good Friday quite differently, and perhaps it would be well not to sing on Good Friday the doleful, sad Passion hymns, but to begin to sing Easter hymns. It is not a sad and miserable business that took place on Good Friday; for He rose again. I wanted to say this first, that you are not to take abstractly what we have to say about the death and the Passion of Christ, but already to look beyond it to the place where His glory is revealed.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Contextualizing the Gospel: The Entrance Point Leads to the Whole

images-1Growing up in Canada, (an intentionally bi-lingual country), I would read the cereal boxes every morning in both French and English. I would learn what French words meant in a French built around the vocabulary of breakfast cereal. It was an entry point into a whole entire world of French if I would just follow its discipleship (which regrettably I never really did). I still remember more French from the cereal boxes than I do from the endless all comprehensive French classes I had from third grade on because there the French was decontextualized. There’s a lesson here in the how’s and why’s of contextualizing the gospel. It illustrates that contextualizing the gospel is about finding an entrance point and being confident that any given entrance point into the true gospel will lead to the whole of the gospel if one follows Christ into discipleship. Breakfast cereal could have led me into becoming a brilliant frenchman if only I had been a better disciple.
In the history of Christianity, we have often narrowed the gospel to one formulae/entrance point frozen within in a culture that we have been previously raised in and become comfortable in. We then canonize this one entrance point and leave it there. And really, no further discipleship is required.
For example, the four spiritual laws and justification by faith was the gospel form for the Reformation born out of the Catholic malaise of 14th century Europe. The Reformation/Evangelicalism canonized this form of the gospel. The social gospel, which preaches God in Christ is restoring the social realities in which we live, was the realization of various protestant movements in the midst of the industrialization of the West. Protestant mainline church canonized this one. The defeat of the powers, perhaps demons, in Christ’s victory has been prevalent in certain parts of the world Christianity. Some say the overcoming of addictions is part of this gospel emphasis. Here the emphasis has been on excorcism or deliverance. Physical healing has been the discovery of some charismatic movements. Pentecostalism has sometimes canonized this entrance point (with speaking intongues). The ordering of our lives to the worship and glory of God has been another facet of gospel in some high church movements. Here we proclaim beauty and glory of God over the confusion of our orientations and desires that we have been thrown into via the world’s hedonized media culture. High churches have called us to this entrance point.
Each one of these is a valid expression of the gospel. More importantly however is that each one (and many more) provides a valid entry point to the Kingdom that if followed can lead to the whole of the gospel being fleshed out in the whole of life as God by the Spirit leads to the restoration of all things in,through and around our lives before He comes. Often, however these churches never lead to that ongoing discipleship. They get stuck at the entrance point.
The entry point is not merely a moment of translation because translating risks “translating” my cultural priorities to another culture. Translation often does not see the potential that there may be nothing in this culture that translates my cultural experience of the gospel. Neither is it merely a moment for assimilation because assimilation always assumes that “the gospel” is already there and that assumption may or may not be true. Instead, contextualizing the gospel says the gospel is all-encompassing and there is not one aspect of life that the gospel does not touch and transform. There may be overlap (translation) and there may be places God is already working (pre-veniently or just in common). But we cannot assume either. We must therefore inhabit our places patiently allowing for that point of contact to be revealed to “us” (and I mean by “us” not just me but those we are together with) in living life together with people. In listening, conversation, the Holy Spirit reveals “the question,” “the point of lack,” “the hurt crying out for hope” from which the gospel is proclaimed (and not necessarily by words).  Contextualization is the process of inhabiting long enough so as to be presented with the entry point.
Yoder puts this notion of contextualization in this way in his marvelous compendium Theology of Mission:
Because I know we will get to everything, I don’t need to know ahead of time in what sequence we will deal with that. So I will simply start with my neighbor. What is his or her problem? What agenda do we have in common? What do we want to do together in the world? And we will trust that all items will come out in the proper order. Personal conversion might be the last thing to arise or it might come up third. We will not know ahead of time at what point something that separates us will call the other to accept our faith or will call us to accept their faith. Does it help or hinder to know ahead of time where that will be, so that we are always behind the scenes steering toward that?(p. 307)
On twitter a couple weeks ago I paraphrased Yoder saying
 “If salvation encompasses both personal and corporate as one whole, wherever we pick up the discussion leads eventually to the whole thing.”
 If salvation in Christ encompasses all of human reality (which it does according to Eph 1:17-23) then no matter where we start with the gospel’s offer of hope to someone, that one point will lead to the whole of the gospel’s flourishing in that person’s life, his/her community’s life, indeed that person’s neighborhood life.
The nature of contextualizing the gospel therefore is not simply a matter of translation, or assimilation but finding the entrance point (together by the Spirit) that leads to the whole.
Does this clarify the issues at work in contextualizing the gospel? Does this help you avoid the traps of thinking purely in terms of translation or assimilation?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Holy Week 2014 Monday: The Servant, Servants, Sisters, and Slow Ministry

Old Testament Lection for Monday of Holy Week:  Isaiah 42:1-9

1 But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
    my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t cry out or shout aloud

    or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;

    he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
    but he will surely bring justice.
He won’t be extinguished or broken

    until he has established justice in the land.
The coastlands await his teaching.
God the Lord says—
    the one who created the heavens,
    the one who stretched them out,
    the one who spread out the earth and its offspring,
    the one who gave breath to its people
    and life to those who walk on it—
I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.

    I will grasp your hand and guard you,
    and give you as a covenant to the people,
    as a light to the nations,
    to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison,

    and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.
I am the Lord;

    that is my name;
    I don’t hand out my glory to others
        or my praise to idols.
The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,

    but I’m declaring new things.
    Before they even appear,
    I tell you about them.

We live in a “Giddy-up” world.  Faster is the new normal and fastest seems the only way to keep our heads above water.  I don’t have to tell you that.  We all know it in the fibers of our exhausted bodies and weary souls.  Efficiency equals effectiveness. Yesterday is the due date for everything.  Ministry, or simply the so-called “Christian life” is Christianity’s breathless version of this ramped-up pace of living.  Our lives are lived a “mile wide and an inch deep.”  We keep hustling forward but towards what and why grows hazier and hazier the faster we run.

Some years ago, though, a new movement arose protesting our “fast” lives.  Starting, I suppose, with eating, more and more people sought to recover the joy and meaning of life in moving “slower.”  Slow-movements began to break out in many areas of life seeking to rediscover a pace better suited to actually “living” rather than simply moving through life.  Small and growing, yet still very much a minority report to the “blitzkrieg,” take no prisoners grind we all experience, this “slow” movement in finding expression in the one place it ought to have been the norm all the while – the church! 

Year go, now, Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama shared his wonderful reflections on the “Three Mile an Hour God” and called for a more human pace of life and ministry.  He was before his time, however, and his call went largely unheeded. Now though, we have a “Slow Church” movement taking root in various sectors of American Christianity.  And this is one of the most heartening developments in this barren landscape.  My reflections here seek to give some sense of what ministry in a Slow Church might look like.

In Isaiah 42 we learn that God has given our hyper-paced world a living, breathing model of “slow” ministry.  And it is a “servant.”  He has another name, of course, but it is well for us simply to identify him as servant here.  Perhaps “the” servant.  This is the one through (and ultimately as) whom God accomplishes his work of cosmic redemption.  No small task that – and yet, well, let’s listen again to how this servant does this “big, hairy, audacious” work of the One who sent him.

He won’t cry out or shout aloud
       or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;

    he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
    but he will surely bring justice.
He won’t be extinguished or broken

    until he has established justice in the land.

He’s not all over social media promoting his cause.  He doesn’t seek a public platform or recognition.  This servant has time for people and relationships.  Especially the messy caring and healing relationships with the “bruised” and the “faint” who often, in their needy ways require more time and energy that efficiency and effectiveness would allot to them.  Yet in this slow and painstaking way, the servant par excellence finds himself sustained and strengthened to “establish justice in the land” (and later in Isaiah we find the servant’s reach extends to all the out-lying coastlands).

In his wonderful novel The Last Western Thomas Klise gives us a memorable picture of what, to his mind, genuine Christian ministry looks like.  And it is clearly a slow ministry.

The story is aboout an Irish-Indian-Negro-Chinese boy named Willie.  He grows up in abject poverty, has unconquerable learning disabilities, but who displays a baseball skills that is next to none.  He has a freak pitch that strikes out nearly every batter he faces.  He is discovered in his Houston slum and makes it to the Major Leagues.  Willie strikes out an astonishing twenty-seven consecutive players, that’s every batter he faced, in his first game.  He’s a national celebrity. But Willie quickly learns that he is but a commodity in hands of baseball executives.  They exploit him in every way they can.  Willie leaves baseball when his home area in Houston explodes in riots.  Back home Willie finds his family and friends are dead, his home destroyed. He runs away to avoid the horror.  He runs and runs. He collapse outside the city and awakes to find himself in the care of the strangest group imaginable.  They are called “Silent Servants of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed Up” and they bring Willie back to health, in more ways than one. Here’s how Klise describes this community.

These Servants always choose to serve the poor, the lonely, the despised, the outcast, the miserable and the misfit.  Their mission is to demonstrate to the unloved and unlovable that they are not abandoned, not left alone, not, finally, expendable. These Servants throw themselves into situations of strife, misfortune, and crisis.  Where things are falling apart is where they find their home.  This Society of Silent Servants of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed doesn’t worry about failing.  For they have discovered that it is in failure, in trouble, in the general breaking up of classes, stations, usual conditions, normal routines that human hearts are open to the light of God's mercy.

Sounds a bit like the servant of Isaiah 42, doesn’t it?  Sounds like his practice of slow ministry, huh?

Jane Christmas considers becoming a nun in her fifties, and her reflection on her experience with some nuns in And Then There Were Nuns are worth pondering.  She articulates their practice of prayer in memorable fashion:

“The true work of a contemplative nun is praying. I had never appreciated the power and intensity of prayer until I prayed with nuns.

“On the surface, praying seems easy. Knit your eyebrows in concentrations, mutter a few words, and then get on with your day. It’s not like that in a convent. Think of the hardest job you could do—mining comes to my mind—and then imagine doing that in silence and in a dress.

“Every day the sisters descended into the Pit of the Soul, picked at the seam of despair, sadness, tragedy, death, sickness, grief, destruction, and poverty, loaded it all onto a cart marked ‘For God,’ and hauled it up from the depths of concern to the surface of mercy, where they cleaned it and polished it. It was heavy, laborious work.”

Slow ministry – it can look like this too!

Slow ministry, you see, is finally all about joy.  The joy that enabled the servant embrace and endure the horror and humiliation of the cross (Heb.12:2).  The joy Klise portrays in the commitment of The Silent Servants of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed Up.  The joy that leads the nuns to the arduous practice of prayer.

And such joy, paradoxically, comes from suffering.  For, as Richard Rohr says, “Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego. It has to be led to the edge of its own resources, so it learns to call upon the Deeper Resource of who it truly is, which is the God Self, the True Self, the Christ Self . . . It is who we are in God and who God is in us. At this place you are indestructible!

And at that place, at that place, we learn joy “. . . because in this world joy in God’s story is ultimately stronger than all inertia and greed, so that this joy continually seizes people and gathers them into the people of God.”  Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1999), 48.

Joy is at the heart of slow ministry.  Joy makes us into servants who can reject the busyness of our 24/7 365 wired world.  Joy persuades us we have time to care for the daily and lavish time on those we meet and care for.  Joy makes the quotidian holy.  And holiness, God’s holiness, is the most attractive and transforming reality in the whole universe!