Reflections on Ministry and Living a Life Worthy of the Gospel— a Commencement Address

Reflections on Ministry and Living a Life Worthy of the Gospel— a Commencement Address January 4, 2013

(Dr. Leslie Andrews has just retired as the Provost of Asbury Seminary, and gave this fine address at our winter commencement last month).


DECEMBER 7, 2012

President Tennent and members of the Administration, esteemed and cherished faculty colleagues, faithful staff members, welcome guests, and honored graduates—what a day! Congratulations! Years of study, hard work, much prayer, and gnashing of teeth have brought you to this pivotal point in the trajectory of your lives. Faculty, staff, and administrators are here because of you and so, while commencement is often a bittersweet time for us, we send you forth with great joy and blessing to the work to which God has called you.
Thank you, Dr. Tennent, for the honor and privilege of offering this address. I am deeply gratified for the time of serving with you and observing the amazing gifts and vision God has invested in you for such a time as this. And now, like our graduates today, I turn a corner in my personal seasons of life. Commencements are beginnings, but they are preceded by endings. I believe the deep transforming work Christ affected in my life as well as those of our graduates while here at Asbury will forever etch the mile markers that lie ahead in our journeys.
I wondered what I should say on such an auspicious occasion, so I looked to the wisdom of those who had spoken at other graduations I’ve attended over 50 plus years. To my dismay I could remember almost nothing that was said by the many speakers I heard. I do recall Scott Rasmussen, noted pollster in presidential elections. I remember him, though, not for his polling expertise but because he founded ESPN … and I do like sports. I recall another speaker, the father of a classmate, who spoke at my college graduation on the topic of sin. But it occurred to me that there was probably little I could say about sin that you and I don’t already know!

If a commencement address on sin was so memorable, though, what was its corollary? The enemy “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” and we must “resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8, 9). Resisting sin, while necessary, is not life giving, however. A void is created in the absence of sin that must be filled. Paul opens a window onto the answer as to what should fill such space when speaking to the Thessalonians:
You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory [1 Thessalonians 2:10-12].
Live a life worthy of God! What a noble aspiration. Rather than focusing so much on what we must not do, we are called to press toward what we can be. But who are we to think that we could live such a life? How do we live worthily before the One who is eternal, holy, sinless, loving, kind, forgiving, just, merciful, glorious, faithful one, and “full of grace and truth”? Like Moses at the burning bush we are compelled to hide our face as we stand on holy ground in the presence of God. Or maybe we respond like Isaiah who exclaimed “’Woe to me! . . . I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’” Or again perhaps like Saul en route to Damascus we are blinded by the glory of God. But it is this same God for whom we are encouraged to live a worthy life.

Over the 45 years of serving God I’ve learned a few ministry lessons—some lessons better learned than others to be sure—that have helped me to understand in part how to live such a life in the context of ministry. Like Saul, now the apostle Paul, I confess “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” And like the Psalmist I say, “My heart is fixed, oh God, my heart is fixed, to do your will.” Many thing might be said. Thinking about living worthy of God is like looking at the 57 facets of a diamond that each reflect light in a different way. I’ve selected three thoughts about ministry for this time.

1. MINISTRY IS GOD’S GIFT TO US, NOT OUR GIFT TO GOD. A gift is something received; it is neither earned nor deserved. The gift of ministry is God’s invitation to us to join him in bringing New Creation to others, both now and to come, in all its fullness. Ministry is a sacred trust. Regardless of the magnitude of the ministry that we receive, we are but stewards of it. We do not own it. It originated in the mind of God who for his own mysterious purposes chose us to be his redemptive agents in a world ravaged by the effects of sin.

When we think ministry belongs to us rather than that which God entrusts to us, we become vulnerable to different temptations. We run the risk of falling into a kind of functionalism. We might, for instance, begin to measure success by all that we accomplish for God rather than seeing ministry as something God does through us. We can over time subtly begin to think we deserve the rights and privileges that go with the offices to which we’ve been appointed. We can begin to see people as instruments to be manipulated to achieve the purposes of our ministry rather than persons beloved of God who are to be treated with utmost dignity.
My first 12 years of ministry were spent in my home church. One of the earliest “challenges” to “my ministry” came following a committee meeting. I suppose that in its self should not be surprising! Mrs. Temple and I left the committee room together. Now, Mrs. Temple was one of the pillars of the church. She was a rather formidable individual who had served 40 years as public school principal. For all the years I attended Sunday school as a child, she was superintendent of the children’s department. It was Mrs. Temple who, as we walked out of that committee meeting, critiqued my leadership by saying, “Leslie, that’s not the way we do things here.” I felt myself withdraw inside and ask, “Then how do we do it?” I was drawn into a face off I did not want but was unsure how to manage.

One of the lessons I learned during that early season of ministry was that I needed to find out how God wanted me to do his ministry. I learned, for example, that ministry was something the people of God do together, not alone or in isolation. A few years later, I took a call one morning. At the other end of the line, a voice spoke, “Good morning, Leslie, this is Frances!” I knew in an instant that Mrs. Temple and I had turned a corner in doing ministry together and from then on we would be Frances and Leslie to one another. Forty-five years later, I’m amused at how important that incident seemed in view of future challenges. But it became an icon for me for all of ministry.
It seems such a simple lesson, doesn’t it? But my pride was at stake. How I led a committee meeting was my responsibility, or so I thought. After all, I had my ministerial credentials. I’ve had to relearn the lesson many times over 45 years. What does it mean to life a life worthy of God in such instances? It means among other things that ministry is neither yours nor mine but ours. It means relinquishing a sense of ownership of “ministry” and embracing it as God’s gift to me and to us. It relieves me of the burden of having to succeed for God because God was the one empowering me through his Spirit to do his work. Live a life worthy of God!

2. DREAM BIG DREAMS FOR GOD, AND THEN HOLD YOUR DREAMS LIGHTLY. Our God is a BIG God. He dreamed the truly big one when he came up with the idea of us. Who else could have seen a pristine garden emerging out of chaos and then imagined such incomprehensible and wonderfully made creatures as a man and a woman. And more than all this he dreamed of a loving relationship with these human beings, a dream that was dashed by human willfulness.
We live lives worthy of God when we too dream. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Dreams or imagination and faith are handmaidens to the purposes of God. The person who dreams does not limit God to what has been or what can readily be conceived by the human mind.
Sometimes, though, we are tempted by dreams that may or may not be compatible with God’s great dream. There’s the “American dream,” although these days it’s hard to know what it is. Kenneth Lay, CEO and chairman of Enron Corporation, said, “I’ve not only pursued the American dream, I’ve achieved it. I suppose we could say the last few years, I’ve also achieved the American nightmare.” Lay died during legal proceedings related to his part in that corporate scandal.

There’s Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” of freedom for all peoples to dwell together in peace and equality. There’s the dream H. C. Morrison had for Asbury Seminary, a place where holiness of heart and mind would be instilled in the lives of all students who crossed Asbury’s portals with aspirations to serve the One who is “lifted up and highly exalted,” the One who dreamed another plan to rescue and redeem his wandering children. Pastors may dream of building great churches known for their vast evangelistic outreach, many social services, large membership, and immaculate campuses. Certainly God can bless such dreams to his honor. The two churches I served had some of these dreams. Some came to fruition and others were left by the wayside or transformed into something different. But it’s vital that our human dreams be congruent with God’s BIG dream for humankind.
This past Thanksgiving morning a 93-year-old member of my extended family died after a relatively swift decline. I attended her funeral on Saturday in a place utterly foreign to my experience. She was born, raised, and lived her entire life in a mountain town in Tennessee. The town covers five square miles and boasts a population of approximately 700. “Main Street” has a very small post office, drug store, and auto parts supply store. Her husband earned a living on his knees mining coal from the bowels of the mountain on which he lived. The distance between Hazel’s home, the funeral home, and the cemetery where her remains now lie is about two miles. She attended the United Methodist Church and its pastor conducted her funeral service. The people are a simple, tight knit community where everyone knows everybody and care just the same.

As I drove the long miles home that afternoon, I thought much about that pastor and his church. I knew he would never preach in a stain glass cathedral, and probably not in a county seat church. I wondered what he dreamed about. What did he imagine his church might become? What could it become? And then I asked a different question, “What does it mean for this pastor and his people to live lives worthy of God?” Did he pray and yearn for them to live “holy, righteous and blameless” lives? Did that pastor see his people listening as “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). Perhaps the dream after all is the same whether one lives on a Tennessee mountaintop, or in the ghettos of New Orleans, or among the suburbs of Houston, or in a remote village in the Amazon basin. Live lives worthy of God by ensuring your dreams match his dreams for you and those you lead.

3. LIVE LIVES WORTHY OF GOD BY LOVING THOSE YOU SERVE FOR WHO THEY ARE, THEN CALLING THEM TO BE WHAT GOD WANTS THEM TO BE. I sat in a seminary classroom and listened to my theology professor as he spoke about the nature of Christ. He sat on a desk, one leg crossed over another at the knees, smoking a wonderfully smelling pipe. There were at least two things wrong with this scene. First, he was a neo-orthodox theologian and I knew just enough to think something was wrong with that. Then he was smoking. In the church from which I came that was a “no-no.” Smoking along with drinking and snuffing and dancing were “stuff” inconsistent with being a good Christian. But an amazing thing happened during that class. The more the professor spoke the more I came to realize that he really loved Jesus!

By the end of that class I came to a decision that has marked my entire ministry. While many things are notable and worthy to know and do, I would fight only for those things for which I would also willingly die. Now this is not an excuse not to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that dwells within or to explain a fine theological point and its importance to our lives. But not even every idea is of equal importance or consequence. One of the things I chose to embrace, however, was the importance of loving and respecting all people, regardless of their status in life. I understand better at this stage of life what John Wesley said, “The longer I live, the larger allowances I make for human infirmities.”
My home church was fairly sophisticated, and I am blessed immensely by memories of the godly people who populated that congregation. We used to have “people groups” pass through the church during varying points in the church’s life. There were pilots and flight attendants and large numbers of the Georgia Tech football team at different times. And during the height of the hippie movement, many “hippies” embraced Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through the ministries of the church. One of those persons was “Ricky.” Ricky was a real down and outer, drug addict, toothless, long and unkempt hair, and tattered blue jeans. But God in his grace and mercy chased Ricky down and captured his heart. Ricky didn’t know church language or culture, but that didn’t matter. He attended Sunday school and worship services faithfully. When the time rolled around for a baptismal service, Ricky lined up with a cohort of other hippies to follow Christ in baptism.

The church staff discussed our upcoming “hippie baptism service” and wondered how the “refined people” of the congregation would respond when they witnessed less-than-finely-dressed-hippies being baptized. The pastor responded so wisely, “The Spirit of Christ dwells in these folks and has already begun the work of inner transformation. In his time he will lead them to make the external changes he wants. And in the meantime we will trust the people of our congregation to love them as they now are.” And so it was. The congregation had a genuine hallelujah service when our hippies were baptized. I’ll never forget the day when I passed Ricky in the hallway and stopped, quite taken back by the external transformation that had taken place. He had a beautiful set of teeth. His hair was neatly trimmed, and he was wearing a three-piece suit and shoes. He even smelled good!

Conclusion. Following after God and striving to live a life worthy of him has no simple formulas. But these three things have helped me in navigating life’s journey, particularly within the context of the ministries God has entrusted to me:

You see, if we do these three things, we have done what Jesus himself did. Paul urged us to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” And then he offered Jesus Christ as our example who “Humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” it is the Cross that stands at the center of ministry, that requires death to our way of leading and serving, and openness to God’s life giving ways of being. And then do we truly live a life worthy of the One we serve.

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