Withdrawal and Action: The Rhythm of MinistryA sermon preached in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, March 1, 2009.
“And immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.”
No sooner had Jesus been baptized, Mark tells us, than the same Spirit which alighted on him pushed him right out of the Jordan and into the desert. I don’t know, but I suspect that if Jesus were telling us the story today he might say something like, “Deep down I knew that I had to get away, to spend time by myself, before I could even think about that urgent, compelling ministry I was about to begin. You can’t imagine how many things swimming around in my head and heart I had to sort out.”
Ministry is rhythm. As such, it resonates between polarities: action and contemplation, engagement and receptivity, work and rest, words and silence. That rhythm we reflect in the way we structure time. The oldest institution in our religion is the Sabbath, a day of rest and withdrawal standing in contrast to six days of labor. We build into the Church Year the season of Lent, which itself is a kind of Sabbath, bidding introspection and encourage stock-taking. Lent affords a change of pace from energetic celebrations and even a deepening of the hues of ordinary time that sometimes vacillates between blandness and frenzy.
In the last few decades, a fair number of voices have raised the issue of Sabbath time, including our own Tilden Edwards in a book by that title. Judging from the evidence, I would say that few of us have heard the message. Yes, we believe in vacations. We even see the value in things like meditation and retreats. But for the most part, we have not yet begun to think of ministry as something besides doing. We imagine that ministry is about meetings or demonstrations or serving meals or teaching Sunday school or running errands or fighting for justice. And, to be sure, all of those things are important dimensions of ministry. What we often miss, however, is that our model, Jesus, quite clearly demonstrates that an equally important dimension of ministry is the pause for reflection that precedes or follows the doing. He not only does this by going out into the desert at the beginning of his ministry. He continues to withdraw for reflection and prayer all during his ministry.
Certainly not every, but the average parish church in this country is filled with people who are looking to do something that will give meaning to their lives. In the past decade or two, I have noticed that young people, for example, have become highly motivated to engage in mission, relishing anything that is an obvious way to improve life for people in need. All of this is good. But in contrast, things like prayer (including meditation), fasting, study and reflection sit on the back burner, turned down real low. And, frankly, that is true here in St. Stephen’s. We prize doing. We are not so sure about reflecting. Sometimes human need and the pain of the world seem so great that it appears to be a shame not to be involved in doing something about it every waking minute.
Mark does not tell us much about the experience of Jesus. And in any case, the ultimate source of the withdrawal of Jesus had to be Jesus himself. No one else was around to observe or take notes. Both Matthew and Luke take Mark’s story and open it up, telling us the substance of the struggle that Jesus had, giving us graphic accounts of the temptations he faced. Not so Mark. He simply gives us, in his characteristically understated way, a sketch of what it was like when Jesus went on retreat. Jesus stayed in the desert. He was there for forty days. Satan tempted him. He was with the wild beasts. Angels ministered to him.
With that kind of billing, little wonder that the idea of withdrawal—retreat—desert experience lacks compelling attractiveness. It is much more rewarding to set about feeding the hungry or healing the sick. But there is something important about this withdrawal, something not to be missed. For one thing, it puts to flight the notion once and for all that there is much of a distinction between the inner life and the outer life after all. No one who engages in the active life of serving others or striving for peace and justice does that for very long without encountering temptation, beasts, and angels. Sometimes the temptation might be to try to change the world single-handedly and sometimes it is to give up entirely. Beasts can be systems that seem to be impossible to change and sometimes they are the very people that you are trying to help. Sometimes the angels are unexpected allies in the struggle and sometimes they are that mysterious source of energy that keeps us going when we want to stop. What is good about the desert experience is that it gives us the opportunity to face all these things before, during, or after we encounter them in the world of action.
We do not “do” ministry for very long before we realize that we ourselves are all mixed up in the world we are trying to address and even in the people that we are serving. We go to do something that in the abstract seems oh-so-loving and before we know it, we realize that we have all kinds of ego investments in the outcome. Or we rock along enjoying our ministry at Loaves and Fishes or visiting the sick and we realize suddenly that we are confronted with the possibility of stepping outside our comfort zone and our first impulse is to say no, maybe even to hide, to deny, to resign. All of that is quite natural. But it is all the more indicative of our need to reflect on, to pray about, to ponder the particular beasts and angels that get all mixed up inside ourselves and in the ministries that we do.
How would you be different come Easter, say, if this Lent you opened yourself to new possibilities of paying attention to your inner life? Have you ever been to a quiet day, like the one Carolyn Bluemle will lead next Saturday? You might want to try it. How might you understand your ministry better if you spent fifty minutes next Friday night focusing with us on “grounding,” a basic Christian practice that has deep implications for ecological stewardship as well as for spiritual growth?
Nothing is apt to surprise you much more than finding that this rhythm of ministry is also a harmony. Inner life and outer life are not in opposition; they harmonize. Action and contemplation are not in competition; they blend. Work and rest, withdrawal and assertion are not strangers; they complement each other. And, as Jesus’ life shows, the forty days in the desert prepared him for what was to come. Those who minister—which is all of us, all of the time—are likely to find that it is not just practical sense that leads us to do something like take time out for reflection. It really is nothing other than the Holy Spirit of God who drives us to do it.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2009