-- John 13:3-17
In January 2006, my beloved grandmother died. During the day of her passing in the local hospital (which did not have a chaplain), I watched as my family's pastor came to console and pray with the family. The pastor was as evangelical as evangelical can get, and pretty much the mirror opposite of me in this regard. He is one of those hellfire and brimstone Baptist preachers who yell absolute truth from the pulpit. But on this occasion he was a gentle source of comfort, offering his condolences and a warm smile. He would later do the funeral service, still a source of comfort, offering words of hope. I saw in the pastor's presence something profound. While his theology could not be more different than my own, in the moments of grief and pain I felt comforted by his prayers and his quiet presence. Remarkably, his presence helped with my own grief, despite the fact that our religious reasoning differed so much.
This experience helped me to realize the real purpose of religious ministry. I saw both religious faith and religious ministry at their best, at their most essential level. Religious faith and religious ministry are not merely about ontological salvation, but about salving existential pain in the darkest of moments. The ultimate point of religious faith and religious ministry are not esoteric questions or theological quandaries or Biblical exegesis, though these can be tools of ministry. It is not about solving all our problems or forcing others to accept our meaning in life. The ultimate point of religious faith and religious ministry is this: to bring people together and to be with them amid moments of individual and collective suffering, moments of joyous occasions, and the moments in betweens.
Ministry can happen at the "ground zeros" of life, at the sky-highs of life, and during the doldrums of life. The minister simply listens to the heart, whether that heart is broken, happy, or somewhere in between, and as a servant serves accordingly. When hurt is visceral and real, when people fear that tears of grief will drown them, when hope is hard to find, when at the "ground zeros" of life, the servant minister speaks the religious language of the hurting and grieving and hopeless, even if the language is silent presence. And when the joy of life astounds, and tears of contentment and achievement overwhelm, the servant minister is there as well, mirroring the moment filled with smiles and laughter. And when the road is paved on a flat plain and the daily grind seems the norm, the minister is there to share the journey.
Nothing can be more important than being emotionally and spiritually present, no matter the circumstance. Nothing can be more significant than praying with and listening to those knowing fear or courage, worry or contentment, sadness or joy. The work is to walk alongside, pointing to wisdom as we go and urging compassion with each step.