A Flowing Ministry

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”  Mark 1:35

“The best thinking has been done in solitude. The worst has been done in turmoil.”  (Thomas A. Edison)

I spent this past week on a solo retreat in a beautiful condo located next to the Spokane River in Post Falls, Idaho. The purpose was to reflect, pray, read, listen, learn, and prepare. During the week I met with a spiritual director to give a bit of focus to the days, and to provide a safe place for this extrovert to externally process insights. One day he asked me, “In your life, what keeps ministry flowing?” I asked, “What do you mean by flowing?” He said, “Sure, whatever you think that means.” Typical.

As I sat staring out at the Spokane River flowing by, a few thoughts eventually came to mind. I’m glad he didn’t define his question too tightly after all.

Let me set the scene for you. By the condo, the river spreads out a bit, forking around an island and moving within irregular banks. The far right edge is dammed for hydroelectric production. Ducks flock, swim and dive in the water. Empty boat slips and the park across the river all covered with snow remind me of the various seasons that come and go in a tourist location. And the apparent calmness of the surface water belies the truth that the current moves forever toward the turbulent Spokane Falls downstream and beyond.

What keeps ministry flowing?

The grace and blessings of God are not meant to pile up into a reservoir of my own enjoyment. That which God has freely poured into my life is exactly what he intends to pour through my life for others. All of God’s kindness, acceptance, care, mercy, regard, compassion, and provision that I enjoy without earning a bit of it is both/and: Both for my enjoyment and for the extension of that same Divine graces to those around me. Let me not become a spiritual hoarder.

Likewise, ministry organizations are not intended to be static institutions. A movement of God’s Spirit gave rise to our ministries, sustains our ministries and leads us into God’s intended future. As soon as we adopt a dam-nable (see what I did there?) posture, keeping what God has entrusted to us in rigid forms, structures and programs, we lose something uncontrollable that the presence of Christ alone brings. We resist change out of comfort, familiarity and fear at the very moment God would lead us to make changes in the “how” of ministry in order to stay relevant as stewards of the substance that really matters.

The riverbanks and the dam also stand as interesting contrasts in regards to the powerful flow of ministry. The banks are natural, organic, irregular edges that keep the force of the river from becoming destructive. Likewise, our participation in ministry comes with some natural boundaries that keep our lives healthy and our efforts from damaging those around us. I’ve stopped thinking in terms of the elusive work/life balance. It just isn’t possible to offer equal amounts of time or focus to each dimension of life. But I can strive for each of these areas to be healthy – internally and externally.

The dam serves as a man-made barrier, and while it channels the flow for productive purposes, it reminds me of the attitudes and actions that get in the way of God’s unhindered flow as we serve. Many years ago, I asked a ministry mentor, “What gets in the way – or stops – a movement of God’s Spirit?” His answer, “Credit and control. Whenever we take credit for what God alone does, or we seek to dictate what God can do, we hinder what God intends to do.” In ministry, I believe the twin dams of credit and control are constant, self-determined barriers sunk deep by prideful egos and a need to maintain predictable control over our environments. We should remember Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8)

The surface of the water looks calm, but the undercurrents run swift and purposeful. Likewise, I may know the “surface” intentions of our ministry. Communitas establishes churches who follow Jesus in transforming their worlds. Underneath this objective, God is at work in powerful, yet often unseen ways – redeeming, healing, recreating, re-interpreting, and transforming lives. I hope to be both aware and open to the unseen currents of God, and do nothing to get in the way of what God is effecting that is beyond my sight.

I became aware that the river before my eyes was a limited frame, like a camera lens which only captures a fraction of the 360 degrees of landscape. The water in front of me at this precise moment has been flowing for miles before it came into my view, and will continue to flow for many miles after it passes around the bend. I’ve resisted the urge to look up the topo maps which would show where the river originates and what ocean it eventually flows into. I prefer the mystery of continuation.

Today we participate in a long-flowing narrative – the timeless movement of God. We serve as stewards within a time-bound frame within which we move on the earth, servants in a larger Kingdom story that stretches far beyond our chapter and renders our characters as little more than a jot, contributing today and hopefully long-forgotten in the future so that only Christ may be remembered. Within our frame is only the personal lives of those we touch today, yet on the grandest scale we join the historic and future people of God as we enter the stream. Let us not forget that God was working long before our arrival, and he will assuredly continue to work out his plan long after the river flows on.

Finally, let me comment on the ducks. They paddle on the surface and then dive for food, one duck staying under for exactly 29 seconds with each dive (yes, a solo retreat creates enough margin to stopwatch the diving patterns of the local wildlife). The river feeds the ducks, yes. But they also seem to enjoy the water. They fly, land, chase one another around, and laugh like one of them told the most hilarious joke that only creatures fortunate enough to understand “Duck” can comprehend.

The river of ministry is not one on which we just ride the surface in relative safety as a means to a downstream end. Like those blessed canoe trips in Boy Scouts during my youth, the most enjoyable moments came when we leapt out of the canoe and swam around, enjoying the river on which we paddled. Not a good idea in this particular river in January, obviously, but a simple reminder that this journey with God is much more than an occupational pursuit toward an envisioned future. It is a divine invitation to get out of the ministry “craft”, slip into the water and enjoy the enveloping presence of Christ. He is not a means to our organizational end. He invites us to plunge into a new enjoyment of His presence. And, like the ducks that are hard wired to flock, we are to enjoy Christ in this way as we serve together.

The days of solo retreat are coming to an end. I pray to remember this scene by the river, enjoying the lessons that come when I stop long enough to see something beautiful flowing before my eyes.

What keeps ministry flowing for you?