The way language changes right under your feet is a source of both frustration and pleasure at the same time. The pleasure of it is similar to that of irony: proof that there really is something wrong with the world, and it’s not just me.
So the term “Ministry” in our time has such a proliferation of uses that the word itself has become fairly useless without a lot of context. Don’t you just love it?
Martin Luther often wrote about the Carthusians (a monastic order) and how they like to invent ways to serve God better than regular folk could. Read the Large Catechism on the Ten Commandments, and count how many times Luther challenges the Carthusians to come up with a good work that pleases God as thoroughly as obedience to one of His commandments.
We don’t run into Carthusians every day, at least in the Northwest. But we do run into a lot of people who are trying to please God in ways of their own invention. Christians are no exception. Among Christians, it seems that a lot of people really want to please God. I suppose that’s good. But instead of learning and living by His Commandments, many of them are trying to discover or develop their particular “gifts of ministry” so that they can really serve God in their lives. Did I say that we don’t run into Carthusians every day? Maybe I was wrong.
Oh, and by the way, this is also one of the reasons the ELS battle over the ministry has been so heated and prolonged. The desire of some to really serve God has rendered much of our ministerial vocabulary weak and inexact.
These reflections have been brought to you by a delightful little book on ministry that I read to my kids tonight. We’ve read it before, but it just struck me tonight how much I like it, and why. It’s kind of like the book of Esther. Without a word about God written overtly, the whole thing is about how He provides for us all with the blessings we need. I call it a book on ministry because it’s also about how human beings serve God in their lives, by serving each other. I wouldn’t say it’s about the ministry (of the Word), but it is about God-pleasing ministry in the various vocations to which God calls His people.
The book is called A New Coat for Anna, by Harriet Ziefert. Anna needs a new coat, but it’s after the war, and nobody has any money. Through barter, her mother obtains wool from the farmer and his sheep, then has it spun, then weaved, and finally tailored. The characters serve each other through their own particular, God-given vocations. The book doesn’t say this (or it surely wouldn’t end up in public school libraries), but God is pleased with these exceptionally good works, and counts them as having been done for Himself. Not a Carthusian in sight.
What can we learn from this? For one thing, it’s just as God-pleasing when you serve your neighbor well in your God-given vocation, as when your pastor preaches a good sermon. In some sense, you both have a “divine call” to serve. For some reason, we Lutherans have always had a strong sense of vocation when it comes to our church ministers, but not so much for the rest of the people. No wonder some of the rest want to be called church ministers now. A New Coat for Anna should remind us that it’s unnecessary. Our sense of vocation in the estates of home and society should be just as strong as in the church, just as our sense of vocation for teachers and principals should be just as strong as for pastors.
The difference between churchly vocations, particularly pastors, and other godly vocations lies not in how pleasing they are to God, or in how well they serve our neighbor. The difference is that our pastors are divinely called in a more specific way, so that they and their flocks know exactly where God means for them to preach, and that He blesses them in it. This provides much-needed encouragement, strength, and motivation for the pastors, and it provides certainty to their parishioners that God is really speaking to them through their duly-called pastors.
It’s amazing what you can find in a book for children.