Chaos and the ministry of the gospel

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"Some efficient systems do embrace life’s chaos. If you have visited an emergency room you have seen one. They try to balance the disciplined, ordered delivery of medical care with an embrace of the chaos that this ideal invites." Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

One of the many things that  our recent pandemic crisis has revealed is the difficulties our institutions have in facing chaos. To be clear, I am not at all critical of the ways that people have tried to adapt to the realities of COVID-19. I have seen courage, compassion and innovation from many in our churches. These are human responses that we may be grateful for.

These praiseworthy human responses don’t hide some of the problematic institutional elements revealed by the crisis. One of the most visible is our ongoing and very modern commitment to limit the possibility of chaos in our institutions and ministries. Now, you might think, “What’s wrong with that?” At some level, I agree. But as recent events have shown, this is impossible and, in a community committed to love God, each other, humanity and creation, attempts to eliminate chaos can damage our deepest calling.

Anyone who has been a parent has learned that eliminating chaos is impossible. While I am not advocating using parenthood as the only model for ministry, there are aspects of parenthood that are a bit closer to the Jesus way than organizational expectations imported from business and modern secular institutions. In parenthood, you learn that if you are going to love, you must expect chaos—at least once in a while.

While it is useful, perhaps essential, to limit chaos, it is not good to try to build organizational systems that try to eliminate it. The efficiency, normalcy and lack of surprises expected by some models of modern leadership and governance are not conducive to the type of vulnerable love that Jesus demanded of Peter in the last chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus promised Peter chaos. It is the price of love.

A number of years ago, I heard someone praise a bishop as someone who didn’t like surprises. This was, to the one who made the comment, the sign of a great and firm leader. An old, wise bishop said in response, “He must not like being a bishop.” The one who made the comment didn’t appear to get it.

I think many of the institutional models that we have tried in recent decades have praiseworthy aspects. But if we are going to be available to the hurts and needs of humanity, if we are going to open our hearts to the many wounded people of this time, we must have a built-in capacity to tolerate chaos. We must learn how to be humane, as we serve as individuals and groups in this work, and, at the same time, know how to be available to those in need. We must learn to embrace some of the chaos of the poor, if we are to love and serve the poor.

Some efficient systems do embrace life’s chaos. If you have visited an emergency room you have seen one. They try to balance the disciplined, ordered delivery of medical care with an embrace of the chaos that this ideal invites. To refuse chaos would be disastrous, if not evil. Mitigate chaos as much as you can, but know that an absence of chaos is incompatible with public service. It is also not compatible with an organization that claims its fundamental ideal is sacrificial love.

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Mark MacDonald
Archbishop Mark MacDonald is national Indigenous archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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