Beautiful Messy Work

Written by Mary Paul
From her column Dwelling with God

There are days and seasons where everyone in ministry wonders if they are making a difference. Many of us have spent time on a Monday morning, especially after a rather difficult or deflating Sunday, wistfully contemplating a different line of work, something that seems simpler, like selling lemonade at Disney World, or delivering mail in Southern California. Okay, I know, it’s simplistic and every job has its complications, but that never stopped me from daydreaming in those difficult mornings about another job with defined goals and an undisputed method of measuring success.

Such ministerial daydreaming is often rooted in our deep desire to see something completed. In one parsonage where we lived, there were two massive brick fireplaces that filled the span of the wall in the living room and basement. I have no idea what the world will look like in a thousand years, but I have great confidence that these fireplaces will remain. We learned they were built by a previous pastor who was also a skilled mason. I pictured him working on these fireplaces on his days off, finding satisfaction in the direct evidence of finishing a day’s labor: “Here, behold, what I have done.”

For some of us, daydreams of another profession could be a sign that we need to make changes or take a good nap. It might be time to reach out to a friend with whom we can share honest ruminations, or it could be an indication we need to reinsert a Sabbath rest in our lives. While it’s always healthy to consider such steps, we are also invited to ponder making peace with the messy work of ministry. We are called to be people who love in ways that are tangible and hard. We disciple people who may walk away. We carry the confidential stories of people broken by those within and outside the church walls. People are messy and Jesus called us to be all about the people.

We, too, are called into graveyards to roll away stones.

The work of the community is one of the aspects of the raising of Lazarus that I love the most. Jesus stands outside the tomb where Lazarus is laid and says, rather shockingly to those present, “Take away the stone.”[1] After some discussion we are told “So, they took away the stone.”[2] I don’t know who “they” were exactly but Jesus quickly conscripts them into being co-workers with him in the miracle of bringing new life to Lazarus. These unnamed miracle workers join together and put their bodies into the work of rolling the stone away. While the story moves over this action rather quickly, there was some exertion that went into this call. They would have broken a sweat or perhaps stepped on each other’s toes, for stone rolling is sweaty, messy but holy work. We, too, are called into graveyards to roll away stones, to work amongst tombs of lost hope, shattered dreams, addictions, oppression and pain. This can be actual physical exertion of entering into the proximity of those who are in difficult places. It can be a tenacious praying, letter writing, showing up with words of assurance that you believe in them and their future. It can take lots of forms, but it takes commitment—even when it doesn’t seem that the stone is moving at all.

In the Lazarus account, even when the stone moves there is still more work for the community, as Jesus calls those gathered to “Unbind him, and let him go.”[3] I really try hard to imagine the crowd at this point. Are they rejoicing or horrified? In the Easter story Jesus’ resurrected body is all cleaned up with the burial cloths neatly folded on the side, but Lazarus remains bound in grave cloths and, I imagine, blinking hard at the sun, confused and bewildered. And again, Jesus calls the community into action to be part of the miracle. I can almost hear some of the folks helping him return to life with words of assurance (for Lazarus and maybe even themselves): “It’s all right Lazarus, we’re here to help. Yes, you’ve been in a tomb, but you are alive now. Let’s get you out of these grave clothes, you don’t need them anymore.”

This is beautiful messy work.

Sometimes we have worked hard to roll away the stone, and it seems like no one is walking out of the grave (is it ever fast enough?). And sometimes the grave cloths can leave a mess on our hands, and we wonder if we actually helped in any way. But in times of self-doubt, or wondering if this beautiful and messy work is actually helping anyone, it is good to hear again the promise found in 1 Corinthians: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”[4]

Mary Rearick Paul, D.Min., is vice president of spiritual development at Point Loma Nazarene University.

[1] John 11:39
[2] John 11:40-41
[3] John 11: 43-44
[4] 1 Corinthians 15:58