Thursday, September 5, 2013

What is your ministry?

Psalm 116:5-6 (NIV)

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
   our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
   when I was brought low, he saved me.
I started my professional newspaper career in June 2001. I’d been an amateur since August 1995, but there are rarely, if ever, any obituaries in high school and college newspapers. But in the twelve-plus years of my pro career, I’ve edited probably more than 10,000 death notices, a conservative guess. Much like parenting, I consider this task a blessing and a responsibility.

Day in and day out I get to read about people and their life history, sometimes marveling at the details included, occasionally guessing about those clearly omitted. Every so often we get a note form the funeral home that provides a clue the at-home reader never see. This job can be heartbreaking, but also humorous and uplifting. Again, it is a privilege.

But with all the names and notices that have flashed across my monitor over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the phrase I read today: “Her ministry was visiting the sick and elderly in hospitals and nursing homes.” Sure, there have been dozens of obituaries for ministers, nuns and priests, even the occasional church music director or Sunday school teacher who was especially dedicated. There are listings of the places and organizations to which the decedent volunteered or donated. But never once have I seen this precise wording, “Her ministry was…”

As is so often the case when a word or phrase stands out among the crowd, it made me think of my own life. What is my ministry? I can answer this question easily for my parents. My mother offers her musical talent (and is, in turn, richly blessed by the experience) as well as much time and energy as clerk of our church’s session. My father has probably been on every church committee imaginable at one time, but the service that stands out to me is his work with the homeless shelter and, in recent years, the food pantry. And like the woman in our obituary, he has joined in the task of reaching out to elderly members of the congregation.

I don’t know if they consider these efforts to be ministry specifically or simply answering God’s call to service. I do know their dedication is a point of pride to me and a rather lofty example for me to pursue. Perhaps this writing project could be branded a ministry, but I feel there’s far too much personal involvement, to almost a selfish extent, for it to earn such a distinction. I’ve been involved with church music as long as I can remember, and I’ve had some time to work directly with young people to help build a foundation of faith, but it’s nothing I’d consider a calling card.

Maybe the hang-up is the idea of the word minister as on occupation, as though my layman’s efforts don’t reach that same level. But there is the old Protestant axiom that holds pastor is a job title, yet all of us can be ministers. (Many a church bulletin lists in its staff box “Ministers — the congregation.”) The dictionary supports this stance, identifying ministry as “the spiritual work or serve of any Christian or a group of Christians.”

Were I slated to preach on Sunday, I might well title my sermon “What Is Your Ministry?” and then plan to spend 20 minutes invigorating and encouraging my parishioners to take up the call to do God’s work in all its possible forms. Fortunately for everyone, the pulpit is well staffed. But still, I will turn this question on myself.

What am I doing, with purposeful regularity, to make a difference? How does my life reflect my gratitude for God’s many blessings? If someone asks my children about their dad, will they have any idea how faith matters to me beyond, “He takes us to Sunday school each week”?

The answers don’t have to be big and bold to be important. But I do need to know, between me and my maker, that I’m sincerely trying. The woman in the obituary I edited had a clear goal. That ministry has ended as her time on Earth is over, but hopefully the spirit she embodied will live on in inspiration to those who knew and loved her — and those lucky enough to read about her in the evening paper.

A prayer for September 5:

Lord, you are indeed gracious and righteous. The compassion you have for me is overwhelming. It is my earnest hope to live a life worthy of your love, to show to those I encounter a life fully changed by your grace. It is so easy to be selfish, and the temporary rewards can be rich. But help me think beyond myself, to remember what you have done for me and turn it all back in praise and thankfulness. Use me as you need me God, wherever, whenever and however you see fit. Amen.

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