In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, Ezekiel gives counsel on shepherding or as we now call it ministering. This is an area where I have much learning, growing and practicing to do – so much! I was terrible at doing visiting teaching. I gained an intellectual testimony of visiting teaching but never gained an experiential one (because I rarely did it). I want to change. I want to be a better minister than I was a visiting teacher. I find if I can wrap my mind around a concept and feel it’s significance in my soul, it’s more likely to make its way to my hands and feet (the doing).
In my quest to understand ministering, I’ve come across insights and profound wisdom that have become my lighthouse as I try to gain an experiential testimony of being a minister. I barely have a handle on these and am practicing them very imperfectly, and I’d like to share them with you…
We Are Not The Shepherd
“…should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezekiel 34:2). Ezekiel teaches that the Lord is The Shepherd and there will be times when the Lord will ask us to be shepherds. These are two very different things – Christ is The Shepherd; as his hands and feet, we are shepherds.
My mom had an experience in Relief Society, many years ago, that illuminates this difference. The lesson was on Christ being the Good Shepherd and leaving the flock to save the one. My mom had four teenagers at the time and one of us was really struggling. My mother was likening herself to the Savior and how she has to “leaving” three of her children to rescue the one struggling. A sister in her ward said, “Sister Ostler, the problem with your analogy is you’re not the Shepherd. Christ is. You’re one of the sheep.” It was a profound moment for my mom. She realized that she had gotten it twisted (her words). The Lord was the only one who could save her struggling child. Her part was to learn how to be the best mother she could to all of her children.
The Lord is The Shepherd. “…ye my flock, the flock of my pasture, are men, and I am your God, saith the Lord God” (Ezekiel 34:31). The Savior is the one who “…will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day” (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
Elder Holland expressed this same sentiment in “The Laborers in the Vineyard” when he said, “…however late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.”
The Lord will find us and those who are lost. Saving people is the work of the Godhead. Ministering is our work, the deputized sheep (shepherds). Ministering is hard. It is a higher law. The children of Israel also struggled with ministering to each other. They became selfish and hardhearted. They are rebuked by Ezekiel. He reminds them that as covenant people, they (and we) are to ease each other’s burdens. This is our work. Or as Marley’s Ghost says to Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”
Boundaried Ministery is Loving Ministery
Brene Brown defines boundaries as what’s okay and what’s not okay. She claims that once she started living with boundaries, she became a lot less sweet and a lot more loving. There is nothing loving about overextending ourselves and resentfully ministering because we don’t want to hurt feelings or struggle to say no. Ministering is a life’s work. I can’t do all of it myself. You can’t do all of it yourself. No one can. We have to practice self-care if we are going to be able to sustainably show up for each other. This means saying yes when you can. It means saying no when you can’t. Part of the work will be learning how to discern between the two.
Also, we must learn to respect each other’s boundaries. This means learning to not take offense when a sister has drawn a boundary with us or when she tells us no.
Go Just Beyond Yourself
Ministering will ask us to grow and stretch in uncomfortable and inconvenient ways. Having to show up for someone else in ways that forces us to grow isn’t a boundary violation; it’s the plan of salvation.
I learned this lesson from the poet David Whyte. He shares of a time when he was telling a friend that his father was in trouble and that he was likely going to have to give him some money. The friend asks how much he is thinking of giving. Whyte responds. The friends says, “go beyond yourself.” Whyte gives a higher number. The friend repeats, “go beyond yourself.” This continues until Whyte ends up giving his father four times the amount he was originally going to give. This exchange led to Whyte writing the poem “Just Beyond Yourself.” The poem begins,
Half a step
and the rest
Ministering will require us to go just beyond ourselves. This will be deeply uncomfortable and at times even painful, but it is also in that place where we develop our divine attributes. It is in that place where what we lost is sanctified. It is in that place where we walk in step with Christ.
Practice Exquisite Mutuality
This! THIS! This has changed everything for me. I learned about exquisite mutuality while reading Barking to the Choir by Father Gregory Boyle, or Father G as he’s most commonly known. Father G is the founder of Homeboy Industries. He is essentially the Mother Teresa of the gang world in Los Angeles. He once believed the best exit strategy for gang members was a job; so, he created Homeboy Industries. He now realizes that though a job and life skills are an integral part of a homie’s rehabilitation, what is the most important is a community. It is in a community that we experience a sense of belonging, connection and purpose, which is healing and life-affirming.
Exquisite mutuality is when we show up for each other with the intention and purpose of connecting and building a stronger kinship. This is not how I’d been approaching service. I was treating service as something I did to help someone. There was usually a pleasant moment of the recipient expressing gratitude, and I’d leave feeling good about myself. They went their way, and I went mine. I didn’t seek nor attempt to establish kinship. Turns out, I was doing service all wrong.
Father G. writes, “Even in service, there is a distance: ‘Service provider…service recipient.’ Service is where we begin, yet it remains the hallway that leads to the ballroom. The ballroom is the place of exquisite mutuality. At Homeboy Industries, I’m not the ‘Great Healer’ and the homeboy over there is in need of my precious healing. Truth be told, we are all in need of healing; we are all a cry for help. The affection of God unfolds when there is no daylight separating us…the measure of our compassion…lies less in our service of those on the margins, and more our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. It speaks of a kinship so mutually rich that even the dividing line of service provider/service recipient is erased. We are sent to the margins NOT to make a difference but so that the folks on the margins will make us different.”
We don’t minister to make a difference. We minister so that we can be made different. This is what rearranged the furniture in my brain. I needed to realign my thinking. I needed to stop seeing the person I was helping as other than me. I needed to see them as my kin. I also needed to meet this person where they were at with humility, curiosity and compassion. I missed out on what they had to teach me because I was to busy playing the good person. “…our separation is an illusion. God invites us to always live on the edge of eternity, at the corner of kinship and mutuality. We only seek to create a connect of hearts, to show others that they are seen, acknowledged, and embraced in the mutuality of valued” (Boyle).
As I try to live the higher law of ministering, I remind myself that I’m simply a deputized sheep who needs to go beyond myself, while maintaining boundaries, so that I can show up at the corner of kinship and mutuality and be the feet and hands of the Lord.