Here is a revelation about me: I’m frequently wrong.
And I don’t mean every day, run of the mill mistakes either (although that certainly happens too). I mean mistakes on the scale of Greedo thinking it was a good idea to try and get Han Solo in that bar in Star Wars Episode IV. If ministry has taught me anything it is that my beliefs are, on a daily basis, proved wrong.
Where am I going with all of this? Well I was reflecting on Ezekiel 34 yesterday (it’s our Old Testament reading for this Sunday). Ezekiel 34 is addressed to “you shepherds of Israel” and is basically a very long rant from God about how God is going to take care of the sheep because the shepherds have messed up so much.
Now I’d like to think that I have done a little better than those shepherds Ezekiel is talking to, but it did get me thinking about all things about which I have been proved wrong. Specifically there are a whole host of basic beliefs that I had about ministry that happen to be seriously wrong. By “ministry” I don’t just mean my ordained pastoral ministry. Instead I mean the complete and total beliefs I had about just being involved in the church and following God’s call. This list could probably go on forever, but here are five beliefs about ministry that I realized I got completely and totally wrong:
1. Ministry is dignified
When I first started going to seminary I was assigned to work at an inner city church in Columbus. One of the biggest things this church does is a Christmas pageant that involves live animals standing in the sanctuary in a live nativity scene. The year I started working there we were advertising the fact that, in addition to the usual suspects of sheep and goats, we were going to have a real camel too. Everything we published mentioned the live camel.
Well the night of pageant comes and the weather is bad; lots of freezing rain. My supervising pastor walks up to me and says “Dave! It’s freezing rain outside.” I look at him and respond “yes… what about that….?” My supervisor looked at me again and said “evidently camels can’t come outside in freezing rain…” I seriously had no idea where this was going as I said “and what do you want me to do about that?” with complete earnestness my supervisor responded “I have a camel costume in the back of my car. I need to you go put it on.” From that moment on I gave up on the idea that there was any dignity in ministry.
I’m not quite sure where I got this notion, but when I started really getting involved in the church I had this idea that ministry was a dignified thing. Maybe it was the liturgy, maybe it was the vestments, maybe it just my own insanity and pride, but I had this idea that really doing ministry and living out God’s call was a clean and proper thing.
But leading a bunch of sheep and goats (who are pooping everywhere along the way mind you) up the aisle of a church in the front half a camel costume really blows that idea out of the water. God’s call is a dirty thing, a down to earth thing, and sometimes an absolutely absurd thing. After all, this is the God who wandered around with the Israelites in nothing more than a glorified tent for 40 years. I am constantly reminded that God doesn’t work through what I think it valuable. Instead God works through the nitty gritty and dirty places.
2. My personal preferences really matter
Here is another insight into your humble author: My personal worship preferences are to the right of the Orthodox church. I love church services that are so high church you could say they are in low earth orbit. That being said, I love inner city ministry and I have found some of the least liturgical settings to be the place where the Spirit is so clearly moving.
Here is something that I constantly harp on: the difference between my personal preferences and dogma. The dogmas of our faith are the non-negotiable things. Justification by faith is dogma, Jesus Christ being both fully human and fully God is dogma, the preaching of the word and the sacraments are dogmas, but contemporary or traditional worship is not an issue of dogma. What hymn book we use is not an issue of dogma. Whether the liturgy is perfectly done is not dogma. Certainly there are things that I like (both high church liturgy and African-American Gospel) and things that I don’t like (pretty much anything having to do with a praise band), but the key is they are just that- things I don’t like, and not prohibitions handed down from God on high.
3. Being right means I don’t have to apologize.
This is something Seminary never taught me (that could be a long list on its own). Often times I’m pretty sure I’m right on a certain issue. I usually have pretty good reasons why I do things the way I do. I know my bible really well, I know my theology really well, and I have some experience when it comes to this whole inner-city ministry thing.
But none of that changes the fact that in a conflict people still get hurt. No matter how “right” I am when it comes to theology, the bible, or ministry practice, when a person and I disagree over something someone still gets hurt. A huge thing in ministry seems to be learning how to say “I’m sorry” without giving up on what God is honestly calling me to do.
4. Every issue is worthy the fight
In college a friend of mine said this to me: “David, pick your hill to die on.”
That ended up being some of the best advice I have ever received. I used to think that every tiny issue was a hill worth dying on. I think I am working on fighting that impulse. Certainly some issues are worth the fight. Grace is worth the fight, God’s love is worth the fight, and I’m called to Word and Sacrament so that is certainly worth the fight. However, there are just a whole host of things that are simply not worth it. A lot of people have strong opinions about many things and that is OK because I am simply not willing to die on those hills.
Well there it is folks. I’m wrong on a pretty consistent basis, how about you? Ezekiel 34 gives me some hope because no matter how wrong I am God still promises to be the shepherd.