Ministry as Traveling in the Belly of a Paradox

Pastoral ministry is full of contradictions: being public with audacity, yet private with confidentiality; being fully human in every way, yet set apart as different, a living symbol of much more than we are; speaking truth, yet holding secrets.

This paradox is my most intriguing challenge: ministry is about me, yet ministry is not about me; self-worth, yet self-transcendence; or, as Paul states it I, but not I, Christ lives within me.” (Galatians 2:20) Perhaps, as Thomas Merton suggests in his vivid metaphor, “ . . . like Jonah himself, I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox” (The Sign of Jonas, p. 11)

For much of my ministry, I have lived within this paradox through course correcting. I would turn the steering wheel toward self-differentiation, my growth, finding my voice. “But that’s too self-centered,” an inner voice would soon whisper. “Too much hubris. God forbid if you become autocratic, narcissistic, dominating, ego-centered.”

So then I would course correct, turning the steering wheel to the opposite side — surrendering self, emptying self, dying to self, losing self, giving self away to God and others. Then, at some point, that inner voice returns, “Wait a minute. What about you, your needs? You must have a strong, healthy self to give. Is losing yourself what God desires?”

Now I’m thinking that this tension of opposites needs not to be contradictory. And “course correcting” may not the best strategy for living within the belly of this paradox.

I offer two metaphors for integrating what appears to be contradictory, opposing pulls. Jesus presents the first metaphor: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” (John 15: 5)

Like branches, Jesus suggests that we experience ourselves as separate, unique among other branches. We can say, “I am a branch. No other branch is like me!” That’s true, but we would quickly add, “But oh, I am so much more. I have creative juices flowing within me bearing fruit. I am a vine. Indeed, without this ‘mutual abiding,’ I would be just a lifeless branch.”

A second metaphor is from my own experience. I am a novice banjo player. I find that practicing is very self-absorbing. It is about me. Even when I join a jam session, I am aware of the differences—other instruments, other players, others more gifted and accomplished. But when the music begins, a transformation occurs. Self-consciousness fades as each person with instrument yields to the music that both unites us and accentuates the unique contribution of each one. I can say, “I played the music.” Or, I can say, “The music played through me, through us.”

Similarly, you and I through practice and practice and practice have learned to play our instrument, that is, the craft of ministry. It is about you, your self-differentiation, your personal maturation, you honing the skills of caring, preaching, worship, and leading. And, like the banjo player with the banjo, you visibly play invisible Music, thereby drawing attention to yourself. It looks that way.

Yet, as my metaphor suggests, the banjo player without the music is useless. What matters is the Music, call it Christ consciousness, God’s compassion, Shalom, Spirit or some other name for the gracious Mystery that has claimed our lives. . We become instruments through which the Music reverberates, and more powerfully so, when we “jam” with others. Transformation occurs as we lose our self-consciousness to the Music.

Yes, we can say, “Ministry is about me, uniquely so. No one else plays the Music like I do.” But we would hasten to say, “But oh, there is so much more than my playing. I participate in something much larger, joyous, wondrous and life giving, namely, the Music. Ministry allows the Music to resound through me.”

Maybe this belly of a paradox—ministry is about me; yet ministry is not about me—- is not an either-or after all. Perhaps there is no need for endless course corrections, going back and forth between both truths.

What if you—and you do from time to time—boldly, unapologetically claim your voice, declare your sense of truth, stand up for your convictions, express your distinct personality? To some, you will be perceived as egotistic, self-centered.

Not necessarily so, I say. Not if this is taking seriously your way of playing the Music to the best of your capacity. Becoming a strong differentiated, potent self does not contradict self-transcendence. Quite to the contrary. The more developed you are as a “player,” the better the Music will sound. The ego is to be offered, not diminished. It is to be both matured and surrendered. Side by side are the movements: disciplined self-development and radical self-giving. Not an either-or; rather a both-and. The branch “mutually abides” with the vine; as in “I, but not I, Christ lives within and through me.”

And if so, the role of practice, learning how to hear and play the Music, seems critical. That will be the subject of the next reflection, posted on March 15.

Do you see yourself “traveling toward your destiny in the belly of this paradox?” I am interested in your response.

3 Responses to Ministry as Traveling in the Belly of a Paradox

  1. Steve Scoggin says:

    The reflection called to my mind the juxtaposition of the apophatic and kataphatic. The former is living out of the posture of silence and not knowing where the latter is full of words and knowing. Or the Pauline notion that power is perfected in weakness. Ministry is not an either/or but is a both/and experience.
    I am reminded when I was really active in sports and would get into that zone when I did not have to think about what I was doing but allowed the experience to live through me. The more I practiced the “right things” the better and stronger my voice in the game became. Practice does not make perfect but practicing the “right things.” It was out of this strength I could “let go” and not try as hard as the game/music flowed through me.


  2. Mahan Siler says:

    Thanks, Steve for reflective back my words with your own. I too find helpful the balance between kataphatic and apophatic expressions of spirituality. We come from such an emphasis on words, still my strongest bent, I have found new life from the apophatic tradition of silence before Mystery.

    In my coming posting, I’m building on your understanding of practices. I appreciate the dialogue.



  3. Stan Dotson says:

    Thanks Mahan. Your essay takes me back to the movie Deliverance, with the haunting scene of the boy playing the banjo. The movie (and book) are terrible in my view, because of the aweful stereotyping, but the dueling banjoes song was a treasure that came out of it. I hear your essay in terms of dueling banjoes–the duel of paradox.


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