Are you sometimes a coward? I know I am… But we do our best to camouflage it, right?
We’re not cowards in the epic sense—we’re cowards in our relationships. I mean, the people we serve have a public narrative about their life and a private reality about their life. Because they can’t help themselves, they leave us clues about that private reality—like a criminal who’s trying to get caught. If we’re paying attention, we’ll see the more obvious clues they leave for us. And when we do, we have to decide if we’re going to pursue where those clues lead, or choose to stay safe on the fringes of a person’s story instead.
A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a young adult in our kitchen, just after our home-based group broke up for the night. He’s a Little League baseball umpire in his spare time, so I asked him what that was like, since my perception is that umpires catch a lot of grief from over-invested and stressed-out parents. He looked down at the kitchen counter, briefly, then told me his job was sometimes hard. I could tell there was a deeper story lurking there, but I could also tell he wasn’t sure he should say anything more. So I asked him: “Have you ever been hurt or threatened by a parent at one of your games?” He looked up, his eyes now focused on me, and said: “Yes, many times.” We spent the next 10 minutes diving down the rabbit hole of his pain, and the courage he’s had to stand his ground in the face of the abuse much older people throw his way.
The “natural habitat” of courage is the subtle, nearly unrecognizable choices we make in everyday life. We face countless micro-decisions to either lean into hard things or back away from them. Nowhere is ths lean-in/lean-out choice more vital than the way we pay attention to the stories of people in our life, inviting them to narrate their raw reality, not their Instagram facade… The great English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven.
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
The difference between appreciating the “fire of God” in the stories of the people we engage every day, and spending our days “plucking blackberries” instead, comes down to our courage. I mean, the courage to pay eccentric attention to the nuances of those stories and to the nudges of the Spirit, and then do something. In Vibrant Faith’s new Fourth-Soil Parenting grant project, we’re helping churches find new ways to encourage honest storytelling among their people—it’s a primary conduit into a deeper discipleship (see Dr. Nancy Going’s new blog “What We’re Learning: How Story-Sharing Fuels Thriving”).
Courage in ministry translates to a determination to engage when disengagement would be easier—it might look like this…
- Listening to understand a person’s story rather than listening to build ammo for a defense when an angry or frustrated or disappointed person wants to speak to you.
- When it comes to the choices the people in your congregation are making in life, asking far more curious, rather than evaluative, questions than you typically would do.
- When you pray with or for someone, stopping first to ask the Spirit how to pray before you open your mouth, then waiting until you feel nudged in a particular direction. (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart. And do not lean on your own understanding”—Proverbs 3:5.) This invites the Spirit of Jesus to draw out the person’s story in ways you simply can’t.
- When a congregant is struggling to understand a spiritual truth, or reveals ignorance about it, resist the urge to be their “answer-person”—instead, ask questions that force them to wrestle it out first.
- Stopping long enough to consider how you’re experiencing others, then describing (directly to them) the reflections of God’s glory you see in them.
When we are ruined by and ruined for Jesus, courage is the air we breathe. And that means we pursue people down the dark paths of their lives, inviting them to own what they were afraid to show.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.