I was just reading and praying and thinking this morning. In Proverbs 14:4, it says: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”
And I’m reminded that ministry is about cleaning up messes. If there are no oxen, the stall is clean, shiny, spotless. Ideal. We look for things to be tidy and orderly. That’s what we want. Especially in human relations. But I’m always reminded that ministry is about messes – dirty, smelly, poopy stalls. The sign of occupation is the mess we find there.
If our goal in ministry is neat, clean, orderly lives, forget it. Ministry is about living in the mess and understanding that the oxen – the people we have around us – are both the producers of the dirty stall as well as the harvest.
I think about this as I work with people. And that’s what I do – and have done all my life – I work with people. Mostly, people with grand ideas but no experience, or money or connections. People with tons of baggage from bad families, from bad relationships, from substance abuse, from people abuse. People who bring loads of poop from other lives, other relationships, other ways of living. These are the folks who mess up the stall.
But these are the people who also will bring in the harvest.
I get tired of using the shovel to work with people to clean the stalls. I grow weak and weary. I’m looking for people who have it all together – cool people with perfect lives! Who don’t need a lot of fix-up. As my friend Larry Nunnally says, “I’m looking for a better class of sinner.” I’m looking for people who are ok when you find them.
But experience tells me that:
- There are no really good people… Oh, we like to think so. We like to think that there are Good Guys and Bad Guys like in a black-and-white movie, obvious to everyone. And of course we are part of the good-guy-white-hat-bunch. But I’m convinced there are no good guys. There are only bad guys and Jesus. And it’s Jesus that makes the difference. We are all capable of anger, hatred, prejudice, covetousness, lust and deception. Only with Jesus supernaturally a part of our every breath and heartbeat is there a chance at goodness.
- Potential for greatness is in us all, but marred by the propensity to sin and fall short. The only way that potential is ever actualized is in discipleship/mentoring situations that are found in community. We will become our “worst self” if left alone having no input form others. And the poop in our stalls will become “normal” in our thinking and our perception. We’ll grow accustomed to the smell and the grime. We’ll accept it as a healthy lifestyle and environment. And we’ll never be useful in the harvest – our greatest destiny. We are made for community. Others, who love us and give us grace, draw out the greatness that we have.
- There are no really good functional families… Again we like to think there are. We like to think there are perfect ones. And I wish there were. We’ve listened to Dr. Dobson and have purchased the books and have bought into the idea that somehow if we “do it right” we can have perfect kids and great families. And somehow we negate the fact that we still – even with our best intentions – mess up. We still fail to be perfect fathers and mothers. We still fail to build self-esteem all the time. We still lose our temper and get frustrated. And don’t get me wrong some families are better than others and those that work intentionally to make them better probably are better.
But sometimes we forget that God has no grandchildren and that everyone has their own faith journey, their own trek to wholeness and usefulness.
I was chatting with a young lady recently about a failed relationship with a young man and she talked about her family: divorced parents – adulterous father, manic-depressive mother, jailed brother, schizophrenic sister and herself – serving God and growing in her relationship with Jesus. The boyfriend had come from the “perfect Christian home”: father and mother married forever, sweet blond church-going sister, himself tall, dark and handsome. The guy had said to her that she was selfish and when she got her “issues dealt with” maybe they could have a relationship. She felt belittled, betrayed and hurt. Her “issues” – her baggage – might take a lifetime to deal with. Poop in her stall. And this guy seemed to be saying she wasn’t good enough for him and his family.
What we need is love and grace to help deal with issues. Although the guy sounds like he has the right pedigree – all the right papers – he might not have the right heart. Maybe there’s a problem with pride. And maybe a little judgment. I know the girl; I know her heart. She’s shoveling poop she inherited but planning for harvest. There’s nothing inferior about her.
I’m convinced that all families are dysfunctional to varying degrees. The reason they’re dysfunctional is because they are inhabited by dysfunctional, imperfect, in-need-of-grace people who poop in the stall, but have the potential for harvest.
I get concerned about myself. I know that most of my life and ministry is about dirty stalls and feed troughs. Mine and everybody else’s. And the goal is a not a clean stall. The goal is people, who like strong oxen, are able to carry their load – and someone else’s, as well – who are able to work in their corner of the field and produce a harvest.