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!


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