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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Imagination and Ministry


In ministry, the temptation to focus exclusively on tasks to be accomplished, lessons and sermons to be written, evangelism programs to be planned, meals for the poor to be prepared, is high. For me, it is easy to get caught up in planning my Emmanuel devotional, making sure the meal is finished, and setting-up/tearing-down the room in which we serve. However, Eugene Peterson suggests that focusing on the tasks to be accomplished misses the heart of ministry: "Prayer, the intensity of spirit in attention before God, lies at the heart of both writing and pastoring. In writing, I work with words; in pastoring, I work with people. But not mere words or mere people, but words and people as carriers of spirit/Spirit. The moment words are used prayerlessly and people are treated prayerlessly, something essential begins to leak out of life." [1] The “something” he mentions is the ability to recognize people for what they are and to come alongside them as such. "Dostoevsky and Genesis do not respect the masks of men but judge their secrets; they see beyond what men and women present themselves to be and perceive what they are from what they are not; they see, in Paul’s terms, their righteousness reckoned as the divine “nevertheless” and not as a divine “therefore,” as forgiveness and not as imprimatur upon what they think they are." [2]

Peterson found the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky to be excellent teachers to his imagination about who humans are before God and how, as a minister, he can see people for what they are. "Dostoevsky taught me that not be arguing, but by creating-creating characters who demonstrated the dehumanized desiccation of an unguided life and, in contrast and comparison, the terrible beauties of a pursuit after God…Now when I came across dull people, I began to insert them into one of the novels to see what Dostoevsky would make of them. Before long the deeper dimensions came into view: the eternal hungers and thirsts-and, in the background, God. I started finding Mozartian creativity in adolescents and Sophoclean tragedies in the middle-aged. The banality was a cover. If I looked hard and long enough there was drama enough in this vanishing cornfield to carry me for a lifetime." [3]

As someone who has been an avid reader from childhood, the idea of developing this kind of “presence” alongside those I ministered to from an imagination captured by good literature is an exciting starting point. So the first question to ask myself in developing a sense of presence at Emmanuel is, “What stories form my imagination to view people at Emmanuel differently?” Two books come to mind.

The first is Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misérables, which currently rests on my nightstand. As many nights as I can (usually averaging 3-4 nights a week), I carve out a half hour before going to sleep to slowly work through this behemoth of a novel. [4] In the novel, Hugo interweaves the stories of memorable characters across early 19th century France, culminating in the roles during the revolution of 1832. The focus of the novel is on Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who endeavors to live a life of virtue as a result of his encounter with the merciful and compassionate Bishop Myriel. His greatest work is the adoption of Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a prostitute. Valjean is juxtaposed with Thénardier, Cosette’s guardian before Valjean stepped in. Thénardier is a scrupulous businessman who has made his living by a variety of fraudulent schemes. Hugo presents us with two characters, both of whom begin their lives in poverty and are forced to make dire choices because of their circumstances. Yet one is able to choose a life of virtue while the other continues to choose a life of crime. On top of these two characters is Inspector Javert, a police officer who has sworn to recapture Jean Valjean and is unable to tell the difference between the character of the ex-convict and the fraudulent businessman.

The stories of these characters forces me to ask a simple question when I step into Emmanuel: “Am I Javert? Can I see the virtue of Jean Valjean, or do they all look like Thénardiers?” When I first started at Emmanuel, my subconscious continued to ask: “How many here are drug addicts? Who here is a fraud just looking for a free meal with no real needs? What kind of mental illness do they have? Will any of them attempt to steal while they are in our space?” Of course, there are those in our midst who struggle with drug addiction and mental illness, and theft has occurred at Emmanuel. Yet the dilemma I faced was the assumption that all our guests were defined by their worst day. I had not yet learned to see the virtue in our guests as they encountered the mercy and compassion of Christ. The challenge for me at Emmanuel is to look for virtue where I do not expect to see it and learn to show the mercy and compassion of Christ, even to those who seem undeserving. How can I be Bishop Myriel rather than Inspector Javert? I do have a long way to go, but already, I find myself excited to see particular people at Emmanuel. My blindness is slowly healing so I can see what God has placed in our guests.

The second story is of a real life Bishop Myriel, Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle, who ministers to the gang communities of Los Angeles. Boyle tells his own story of loving the gang community and creating workplaces for them to work their way out of the gang lifestyle in his book Tattoos on the Heart. He not only shows the mercy and compassion of Bishop Myriel, but also creates space for gang members to chose virtue. His ministry might best be summarized by this quote: "Often we strike the high moral distance that separates “us” from “them,” and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us. Serving others is good. It’s a start. But it’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom. Kinship-not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that." [5]

The second question I must ask each week at Emmanuel is how, once I have seen virtue and chosen to love even those in whom I cannot recognize it, is “How can I be one with this person?” I must confess, I have yet to actually ask this question at Emmanuel. I do not even know how to begin answering it, but is is the essential question to deepen my ministry with Emmanuel.

To develop a sense of presence at Emmanuel, I must learn to ask two questions: Where is the virtue in this person and, how can I be one with this person, whether or not I have found virtue here? These two questions challenge me to discern the stories of those I minister to and to look for the points where my story touches theirs. There, we find the Holy Spirit working in us both.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, “Fyodor Dostoevsky: God and Passion” in Reality and the Vision, ed. Phillip Yancey, p. 20

[2] Ibid. p. 25

[3] Ibid. p. 21, 24

[4] According to Wikipedia, it ranks in the top 25 longest novels ever written.

[5] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, p. 188.


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