Guan Un, wearer of glasses, drinker of coffee, husband of M.,1 was an apprentice in the ministry training strategy (MTS) in 2008 at the University of New South Wales. In the previous instalment, Guan compared how success is measured in life and in ministry, and pondered taking on another year of MTS. In this final entry, Guan has decided to go on to study at Bible college, and reflects on a year of relationships, transformation, and constant mistakes.
Something Grimmo said, “On MTS, success is failure. And failure is success.” Remember this. It will be important for a while.2
Staff conference: Day 1
Jimbo picks me up and the car is already laden with staff—Ken and Ben, as well as boxes of paper and food. We are armed for spiritual and hospitable warfare, I guess.
We get to the church and it’s all happening; Cynthia is there, the first time we’ve seen her since her honeymoon and the thing on her fourth finger causes cooing of the high-pitched, feminine variety. Carly gets there with baby Nadia and is accompanied with much the same tune. We make a circle of the tables, and backpacks are unloaded of laptops and Bibles and notebooks and caffeinated beverages.
Around the room, we take it in turns to introduce ourselves to the group.3 This is necessary because it’s the end of year staff conference, where we reflect on the year that’s gone, and plan for the year to come. And so among us are staff workers and MTS apprentices old and new; those from the staff team this year, and those coming on team next year.
Charles says, “I’m Charles,” and pauses, “and I’m quite shy”. There is considerable laughter at this: the least true thing that will be said all day.
We move on to talk about the year that’s been—what our ministry has looked like.
The thing about MTS, especially MTS at university, is that it’s ministry in a distilled form. Distilled in terms of time, and of experience. Because of the age and stage, uni students are in flux; they’re teachable and rebellious, all at once. And so in months uni students can go through experiences resulting in the kind of growth that can, sometimes, take years in other contexts and other age groups.
And because it’s distilled, you encounter suffering. You encounter people as they are before, and without, God, and the reality of that can be terrifying. You encounter people who have found the muck of sin, and yet turn back to wash in that muck, again and again. It’s disheartening.
Ministry is only ever service of other people. We dress it up in acronyms and emperor’s new clothes, and yet that is what it remains. That’s what it was when Jesus laid down his life in ministry—the greatest act of ministry in history—for us.
This year I’ve understood more clearly that pleasure is not the thing that’s promised us when we read the Scriptures. Not the thing that’s promised for this world anyway. Not material comfort, nor lifestyle.
We are promised joy. And blessing. We are given the joy of seeing saints grow in their knowledge of Christ. In their love of Christ. We are given every blessing in heaven and on earth—something that still breaks my brain to grasp—because we have Christ.
But the ease of life, an ending to the painful things, that’s not why you do ministry. And it’s not why you do MTS.
After lunch, Kat is anxious to get started, to stick to the timetable, and she is subject to endless teasing4 because of it. Only Kat could still think that timetables are in some way relevant to reality, after a year of MTS.5
We hear about our origins. About the ‘good ole days’6 of MTS. We hear about staff meetings which would just involve Phillip (Jensen) working through the student roll, asking questions about where each student was at, who was ministering to them, what was being done to get them to the next stage. Ministry is only ever about people.
We hear from Terry Blowes, missionary to Argentina, with her husband Peter, for some twenty years.
“The secret of my contentment is easy. God is sovereign, he has control. He is wise. And what he wants is for our very, very best … And of course, you have to learn it over and over again.
“Twenty years of missionary service has taught me that I have a very big God, and a very small me. I went away as a very self-sufficient, self-dependent person. I came back as a very insufficient, God-dependent person.”
Staff conference: Day 2
Day two and everyone’s tired. Kat dreamt about the women’s worker for 2009 and what she looked like. We desperately forage for tea in the kitchen. We cover yawns with Bibles.
It’s a beautifully humble silence as we read 2 Kings 5, looking for the answer to the question asked by the study leader. A silence disturbed only by the slight moan of a light fixture and the raindrop sound of fingers on laptop keys.
Later, we have sessions on ‘the next stage’. For me, this is about going to Bible college next year. “Saying goodbye is really tricky, but it’s something you need to get used to. Your next few years are about letting go.”
Later still, we do farewells for those leaving. I think we say goodbye to our people well. There aren’t many times in life when you can just celebrate a person. Even 21st birthdays and the like usually subside into some form of embarrassment as often as not. And so the beauty of this time of honest, mature celebrations is in the sincere gratitude: this is who you are, and these are the things about you that we’re thankful for, these are the things we’re thankful that you’ve done. Not that it is without our gentle joking and laughter with one another. This too is celebration.
Somewhere it is said
Somewhere I heard that MTS is about disciple making. There’s considerable truth to that, but I think, more pointedly, MTS is about being made a disciple.
Sometimes I like to think of the apostle Peter as the first MTS apprentice. Lord knows he filled the quota in the category of “saying dumb stuff in public” that is requisite to any MTS experience. But he got it. He understood the centre of the universe. He declared those four indelible words: “You are the Christ”. They’re difficult, those words, to shake off once they take hold.
And bear witness to his transformation, at the end of his time with Jesus. His life filled with constant testimony to the resplendent God that he believed in.
I’m not saying that this same thing happens to every person who wants to try out a life of ministry, but isn’t it something breathtaking to aim for?
Staff conference: Day 3
Everyone is tired, but it’s worth it.
Elissa7 asks me how the diary is going.
“Well, I feel like a whinger,” I say.
Elissa looks at me kindly. Her eyes know something that I don’t and she half-shrugs.
“It’s just real. That’s all,” she says. As if that explains it.
Carl arrives. He will be taking over Grimmo’s position for next year. He is exactly who he seems,8 with this broad smile that communicates sincerity of character and word.
He leads us in a Bible study on the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter four. The ensuing discussion is insightful, and he has a gifted teacher’s knack of leading you to the answer in a way that makes you think you got there yourself, as well as causing you to look at a familiar passage anew.
We talk about the standard for ministers in the passage. While we usually evaluate a minister by their number of converts, or their ‘giftedness’, or the way they preach, here in the Bible the standard is simple: ‘that they be found trustworthy’.9 And even this is not a trustworthiness that is judged by others, but by the Lord. We bat the implications of this around a bit, and Ken says how ministry is not about technique.
It’s about the character of life, as you live it alongside others.
More than meets the eye
Life is transformative.
We forget this sometimes. We think “that’s just what that person’s like”, with the underlying assumption of “that’s the way that person will stay”.
Here’s something unavoidable: when you live your life, you transform others. When you come day to day alongside someone else, you will both change. The trick is, who are you changing to be like?
It’s not about living that mythical thing, the perfect Christian life. But it is about how you live your life when you’re under pressure. When you’re under stress and pain. I take it that’s part of what Paul means when he says to Timothy, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress”.10
Progress! It’s a beautiful word, precisely because access to it is barred from the perfect. See also Philippians 3: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,”—to which I utter a hearty amen—“but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own”11
“Made me his own”. Again: transformative.
There’s a point halfway through the third day when they start talking about the calendar for the next year and what that will look like, and we that are leaving (‘graduating’) glance at each other with a look that says: “Is this it? Do we really have nothing else to do?”
And of course, it’s not true that we have nothing to do. We start sending last-minute admin emails for farewells, or preparing a handover list with confidential descriptions next to names, but you can feel the welcome grasp of the warmth angling down towards your face. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, even if you’re not out of the tunnel, not just yet.
Subtotals of joy
This year has been pieced together from missed opportunities and a roll full of people that are exhausting, frustrating creations of God.
A year that has been enthralling, nothing-else-I’d-rather-be-doing, and scattered with the joy of faces rapt in thought, and newfound understanding.
Together at staff conference, we celebrate things. Strange things. We celebrate devotion in marriage, victories of spirit, and the overcoming of anxiety. We celebrate the gentle evangelist, and the work that bears little fruit. We celebrate God and his word and his work.
The year’s dedication spills out into spreadsheets of text as you try the impossible task of passing on relationships to the MTSer coming after you. How do you ever say all that you know about these people that you’ve come to love?
Working out who God has made you to be
I’m not sure what I want to say now. This is supposed to be my happy ending, I guess. I can ride into the sunset knowing that I can progress into the rest of my life happier, safer and more secure having worked out the Big Answer to the Big Question, and by reading this you too can find your Big Answer.
That is, I’m afraid, not true.
Well, it is true to a small extent. I’m closer to working it out now than I was before I started this year. I’ve suffered, and so I have grown and matured. I know in greater detail the limitations—the humanness—with which God has made me, and how to work within these skin-shaped boundaries.
But I also know there’s a moment when I will see truly who God has made me to be. How he made me to be someone who stands in his presence, when it was me who once mocked him and hated him. How he made me able to stand there clean of the filth of sin that I was covered in. How he made me able to sing a song that declares how good and how great he is. How he made me able to sing it with a choir millions strong, so that the eye can hardly take it in: all the children of God coming home.
When I stand there then, calling out to old friends, seeing people that I worked with on that year of MTS, seeing the MTSers that I stood beside. When I stand there then able to speak clearly and truly—face to face!—with the God that I love, that is the moment when I will be the one that God has made me to be. When I look up and the Firstborn looks me in the eye, knowing all that I have done, and how he overcame it with all that he has done, and still he says, “Welcome home. Well done, my good and faithful servant. My brother, my sister, my friend, welcome home.”
I pray that moment comes soon.
With the last word, as usual
As my last official act as an MTS apprentice, I go to preach at Unichurch. It’s the summer holidays, the ‘dry season’, when most of the students have gone home to see family, and so there’s about a quarter of those who would usually be around, mostly workers or students working through the summer.
I preach on Malachi 1:1-2:9, and I think it goes well. I feel more confident than last time I preached. People laugh when they’re supposed to. I tell them how God’s omnipotence means that he knows everything, and our failure to believe this means that we sin and think that we can get away with it. I point to Hebrews, to Jesus who is our great high priest, and the sacrifice he made once-for-all-of-time, and once-for-all-of-his-people.
I feel like maybe I’ve actually learnt something this time. I feel like maybe here’s one area that I’ve done an okay job.
A week or so later, I clear out my pigeonhole at the office and find this note of sermon feedback:
G, that’s not what omnipotence means.
Omnipotence—God is all-powerfulness.
Omniscience—God is all-knowing.
- Mary, but who has the time in these crazy last days to type another three characters? ↩
- Or until Jesus returns. ↩
- Which I love, because it’s such a completely Christian activity. Which makes you think… “Not everyone knows each other, so just say your name and a little bit about yourself. I’ll start off. My name’s Jesus… I like preaching the word of God and long seatop walks. Peter?” ↩
- Which it would be fair for Kat to complain about since teasing hasn’t been allocated time on the timetable. ↩
- Or maybe because of a year of MTS. ↩
- “Back in my day, we didn’t have these new-fangled ‘people’ to minister to like you do nowsadays. We had to make our own people! Had to just roll ’em up out of dust ourselves!” ↩
- Elissa is also about to finish MTS. She’s inspiring—full of bravery and a beautiful sort of wisdom. I like, too, how she’s happiest when she is in motion; seeing her play frisbee is something to behold. ↩
- Which is only strange when you realise how rare it is. ↩
- 1 Cor 4:2. ↩
- 1 Tim 4:15. ↩
- Phil 3:12. ↩