Ministry in the Mess

Jennie Barber —  March 6, 2014

JBarberOne by one they come forward. To each one, I repeat the same words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It would be easy to do this mechanically, reaching my thumb into the messy remains of last year’s palm branches, imprinting a cross on forehead after forehead. But this isn’t a drive-thru repentance ritual—“one cross of ashes and a confession on the side.” As I think about the words I say and the sign I make every year at Ash Wednesday, I find myself thinking about dust, ministry and what it all means as we enter this Lenten season.

The annual corporate acknowledgment of our brokenness and our mortality with the tangible sign of ashes isn’t something Presbyterians have been doing for ages. I remember one of my seminary professors expressing his deep theological objection to it. I’m not writing to argue for or against Ash Wednesday services. I’m writing because I believe the reminder of our “dustiness”, our human messiness and brokenness, is a gift for those of us following God’s call in pastoral ministry. We may don shiny robes; we may preach eloquent words; we may intercede with beautiful prayers. But my short time in pastoral ministry has shown me that God works in and through us not just in these circumstances, but in the dust and mire. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Holy moments happen in the dust: I can’t remember any of the words I’ve said or prayed in hospital rooms or moments before a funeral service. I remember standing with families in silence as tears were shed. I remember knowing the best thing I could do was find tissue. I remember holding shaky hands. All these memories are of raw and dusty moments. But they are also memories of holy moments because in them I sensed God’s presence and the comfort of the Holy Spirit in ways I never expected. Human frailty, human grief, human pain—God meets us here.

Kingdom moments happen in the dust: If I had just a few words to describe the many mission trips I’ve been on – one of them would be “dirty”. It’s amazing how much physical dirt and grime accumulates in one week, not to mention the emotional muck caused from lack of sleep and living in close quarters. But it’s there, in the dust and the dirt, that the kingdom breaks into our ordinary world. I’ve seen it as relationships are built across barriers of language, age, and culture. I’ve seen it when a teenager realizes she is part of God’s work to bring justice, peace, and hope to all of creation. I’ve heard it as tired and weary people raise their voices in joyful worship. At the end of a mission trip no one complains about sleeping on floors or bathing with a bucket. It’s because they’ve seen God’s kingdom breaking into their dusty world and they want more of it.

Relationships are built in the dust: The strongest and most meaningful relationships I’ve experienced in ministry didn’t grow out of a perfectly planned worship service or a thought-provoking lesson. They developed on a solitary park bench, in a crowded coffee shop, in the middle of a dock on a quiet lake, and quite often around a table of delicious food. Real and honest connections with others grow in the soil of everyday life. This may all sound obvious, but I’m not sure it always is. We may be willing to dip a toe into the messy parts of someone’s life, but we don’t want to risk too much vulnerability. Healthy boundaries are necessary, but impenetrable walls designed to hide our scars and wrinkles are not. Jesus showed us that God is about the work of breaking down walls and meeting each other in all our dusty and messy glory.

Ministry in the dust can push us to our limits; it can be confusing, tiring, and frustrating. But it’s in the dust that we encounter one another in real ways and discover God at work.

What have you learned from ministry in the dust?

Jennie Barber

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Jennie is currently serving as the Associate Pastor at Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a wife, mother, lover of Asian food, and a pastor seeking to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.