Some years ago, our family was struck with the reality that my father was dying from a potent form of melanoma. Cancer was all through his nasal cavities and beyond, and there was not much that could be done besides palliative treatment. My retired parents were living in the lower level of our house at the time; and I remember what it was like as my dad began to come to terms with the inevitability of what was happening to him.
One afternoon I came home from work and went downstairs to say Hello. As usual, Dad was sitting in his favorite chair in the living room, near the glass sliding doors. But that day he was just staring outside. I noticed that the usual books were not there next to him, and, though it was about time for the news, the television was not on.
I sat down next to him and said cheerfully, “So how was your day, Dad?” He bypassed the question as though it had not been asked and said in a kind of desperate whisper, “It’s so dark. Read me something.” This was totally unlike him. I immediately felt a strong surge of inadequacy.
His favorite New English New Testament was on the coffee table and I picked it up. I read just a few words to him; when I’d finished, he said, “Read it again, would you?” And so I read John 1:5 again: “The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it.”
He kept looking out through the glass doors; and after a moment, he brightened up and said thoughtfully, “Thank you. That’s just what I needed!”
Identifying a common need in us
Naturally, that was a memorable moment for me; but as time has moved on, my perspective on what happened that afternoon has broadened. For one thing, especially since I’ve retired from ministry and am now in a more reflective, looking-back mode, I realize that the profound moment of inadequacy I felt when my father asked me to help him as he struggled was to face death. I often had this feeling during my pastoral ministry; and it was largely due to a common ministerial malady: I had gradually and unwittingly begun to concentrate more upon professional ministerial strategies than upon the living spiritual realities of real Christian ministry. Pragmatic professional pastoring had largely eclipsed the reality of ministry in the Spirit, which is so magnificently modeled in the life of Jesus and in the book of Acts.
I have to say it again: my ministry had actually come to lean on questions having to do with when to do something and what the prevailing winds of the latest professional and theological literature prescribed than on bringing the transcendent but life-giving light of Jesus Christ into the situations I faced.
It is definitely not as though I see no prominent place for continuing education, cutting-edge ministry, and strong theological growth. I certainly do. But such things cannot be allowed to take a dominant, let alone domineering, role in our daily lives and ministries. Even a disproportionate concentration on what we believe must not overshadow a personal, living faith. A good friend of mine once said, “Don’t let anyone take your message away.” He was absolutely right. And losing our living reason for being in ministry, our message, is analogous to leaving our first love (see Rev. 2:4), and thus losing much of the light and life-giving passion that the Spirit gives to us in and for our ministry. Such a confusion of our priorities opens the door to mere humdrum functionality in ministry, an ongoing sense of meaninglessness and frustration, and lots of other undesirable tendencies.
This diagnosis of my situation, and indeed our collective situation, is not a disingenuous attempt to identify once again a tired, old spiritual malady or display personal humility. I believe this is a very real and common dysfunction in today’s ministerial and religious circles—one that we are only aware of in such a way as to identify it somewhat but not to actually deal with.
Were they just well-chosen and reassuring words that encouraged and spoke so deeply to my father on that dark day, or did the Light we read about in John 1 actually shine so that it could have its inevitable way with his darkness? The human dynamics were certainly significant; but is there something more in this Light as it penetrates our darkness and cannot be extinguished no matter how sinister things become? Yes, there’s mystery here; but is there something a minister can find through a more intentional or conscious connection with “the light” of John 1:5 so he or she becomes “ ‘the light of the world’ ” (Matt. 5:14, NKJV) in the lives of congregants? I find that the fundamental idea of being in such light, or thus being light ourselves, inspires and draws me toward seeking just such an imbued ministry.
The implications of Paul’s words in Ephesians 6 ring true for us as clergy, speaking with force and profundity of the need for something extraordinary and transcendent in us and our ministry: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:12, 13, ESV). This scripture and what comes after it deserves careful thought and prayer.
The way of the Spirit and light in darkness
I used to think of good and evil or light and darkness as two entirely separate entities. These days, I still see the world as a battlefield with two great forces fighting it out. The irreconcilable hostility between good and evil is there, but the division is not as definite or visible as I used to picture it. Light and darkness are more like two wrestlers closely entwined in mortal conflict, battling in the same ring until the match is over. Their often perplexing interaction gives us fits and makes it particularly difficult for us to see what is really going on within ourselves, others, the church, and the world. And the wrestling and the ring are exactly what the light is designed to illuminate. This quality of light (or Light) helps us to see what we need to see when it is proverbially difficult to do so.
So, in short, we pastors would not argue that we need more light in our ministries. And it turns out that the Light is, in fact, in the midst of our darkened predicaments. It is all about the actual presence of God in the realities of the human scene. It is the here and now of the greatest of all events: the honest-to-goodness arrival of God in human flesh, not just in Bethlehem but here today. John says in the verse just before the one I read my father, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4, NKJV). To be aware of His presence at the heart of situations or people is to discern what is most significant.
John points out something crucial about the two contenders—light and darkness: the Light, shines on irresistibly, if dimly, in the darkness and the darkness does not have the capacity to extinguish the Light. Light and darkness exist in the same place and encounter one another in the most direct ways, but light has an innate property that inevitably, and in all circumstances, overcomes darkness, even if it looks like darkness is winning the fight.
The four Gospels can be seen as discrete and even separate from the realities of the book of Acts. But when one looks at the New Testament, it is a magnificent whole, both theologically and experientially. The Gospels describe the birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And Acts describes the profoundly powerful gift and effective work of the Holy Spirit in the lives and ministry of the fi rst-century church. We see clearly that an inseparable wholeness exists between the work of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. When we look at the particular way in which Paul writes about these realities, it becomes clear that he sees and glories in their profound unity.But we must once again deal with another reality that is intimately connected to what has been said so far: the promise and the presence of the Spirit in both the here and now of ministry. I have been moved by a simple shift in my perspective.
Jesus’ beautiful and very significant promise of the Spirit in John 14–17 is a perfect and indissoluble fi t with Acts 1 and 2. And so it is our calling to pray and relentlessly search and cry out to God for a Pentecost in our ministry every day.
What ministry in the light of the Spirit means
But what does all this have to do with ministry and the daily involvement of the minister in the cosmic fi ght? What does the presence of such Spirit and such Light in such darkness mean to ministers, especially as they relate to people?
At its heart, it means that though there is pain, anguish, death, fear, sorrow, corruption, confusion, and sin, there is also an inextinguishable love, underlying healing power, peace, courage, joy, and beauty even in the most miserable and worn out of us. Even in the context of hell, heaven is not only at hand but is ascendant, whether or not it seems to be. This means that “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early” (Ps. 46:5, KJV). It means what the Lord proclaims with beauty and reality when He says, “I am the Light of the world.” In the end, there is no substitute for this highest pinnacle of verity.
It also means—and here we approach the practical epicenter of this reflection—that there is much more than meets the eye when we look at our world and into the eyes of our fellow human beings. When we look at one another in any situation, however idyllic or horrible, there is much more than there seems to be, even in the eyes of a carefully trained and experienced pastor. It means that in each person there is much more than our quick assessments insist on presenting to us.
It is clear from the overall emphasis of the New Testament on the Light and the work of the Spirit, that this Light and Spirit are not only here to illuminate us theologically or doctrinally, but They are here to enable us to see more clearly the aspects of reality that will make us better people, better ministers, better servants, and better in all of our relationships. The Light is not only here to illuminate the face of God, though that is the ultimate virtue of Jesus Christ (John 14:9), but the Light has come into the world to illuminate my understanding of and my identification with my fellow human beings. On this—love for God and humanity, which is really a monolithic whole—hangs the entire law and the prophets (see Matt. 22:40). In the end, it’s the Light of wise love and abundant grace that makes the difference. To go back to John 1:14, this is a Light that’s “full of [both] grace and truth” (NKJV).
Thus, the people we pastor are not merely patients in a hospital room, that church treasurer who gives us fits at church board meetings, the legalist who stares icily at us from the pew as we struggle to share the balm of the gospel, the “liberal” who feels we are too uptight, the local religious competition down the street fighting to keep the seats empty at our evangelistic meetings, the obsessed reformer whose fires we are constantly having to fight, or the person who seems to suck the life out of us and whose telephone calls we dread. All of our perceptions of “our” people are not whole pictures, and the light of the Spirit has a wonderful way of illuminating the pathways to the hearts of all.
I have been moved by much of the work of Philip Newell who describes a scene in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI in which the French Countess Auvergne traps the English Lord Talbot in her house, and she triumphantly claims that she has him. To this, Talbot replies,
No. . . .
You are deceived. My sub-stance is not here;
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity.
I tell you, madam, were the whole frame here,
It is of such a spacious . . . pitch
Your roof were not sufficient to contain’t.*
“What [we] see is but the smallest part and least proportion of humanity.” This is a truism and the limitation that we ministers tend to live within every day of our lives.
Newell goes on to say that we tend to see ourselves and one another in terms of what can be seen, heard, defined, or measured. We are very apt to measure with the honed tools that are most familiar to us, the cultural contexts in which we have grown up, and in the terms of reference we have come to employ by default. We know the often unconscious categories we so quickly and easily use in our interactions with people. These limiting conventions have a way of eclipsing not only our true selves but especially the true self of the person we encounter in situations; particularly if that person is not being very nice to us or if we are in conflict with him or her.
Susan Boyle was a very ordinary-looking Scottish woman who became a sensation after she stepped onto the stage of the TV show Britain’s Got Talent. As she walked onto the stage, everyone in the audience began to look incredulously at one another and whisper. The puzzled, dubious looks on their faces seemed to say it all: Who in the world is this coming onto the stage? Someone has got to be pulling our leg. Even the three talent judges looked uneasy and disdainful. All objectivity seemed to have fled.
But then she began to sing the magnificent theme from Les Misérables. And from the moment she began her song, Susan Boyle was transformed in the eyes of everyone. They forgot her dowdiness. They gasped, stood up, and cheered, and even the judges were momentarily speechless. There is always more to literally everything and everyone.
We have the distinct privilege to actually practice our daily ministry in the Spirit of light. I believe there’s a strong divine call, well known as it may seem to be, to do our daily ministry in the Holy Spirit and the light of Jesus Christ. Doing ministry in His light and the strength of the Spirit has a way of bringing ministry to life and giving it meaning for which we all so deeply long.
* William Shakespeare, 1 Henry VI, act 2, scene 3, lines 49–55, quoted in Philip J. Newell, Shakespeare and the Human Mystery (New York/Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2003), 1, 2.