Bible Gateway interviewed Shannan Martin (@shannanwrites) about her book, The Ministry of Ordinary Places: Waking Up to God’s Goodness Around You (Thomas Nelson, 2018).
How does the title of your book speak to its theme?
Shannan Martin: When my family moved to an unfamiliar, unspectacular neighborhood, I desperately wanted to believe we were here for a reason. I longed for meaning, but in a world that grows more complicated and fractured by the day, I wasn’t sure where to start. Christian culture has done a great job of instilling in believers the idea that we should always be doing something for the kingdom of God. But with our ideas of “ministry” reserved for pastors, church-planters, and overseas missionaries, where does that leave the rest of us?
Throughout the Bible we’re reminded to love the people near us, investing deeply in those around us as Jesus did. “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other” (John 13:34). It turns out, our greatest calling to love God is bound with our willingness to love each other. “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). This is how God’s light pierces our hearts, our homes, and our streets.
Taking this view, our “ministry” is discovered in the crumbs of everyday living. Here, there’s no clocking in or out. We won’t find tidy, three-point sermons that can be folded up and forgotten after Sunday. We cannot go home at the end of an exhausting day, because we’re already there. This is a powerful, devastating truth, because this ministry hidden in plain sight within our ordinary corners will demand our attention and ask us to commit through the hardest of days. Yet as we lean in toward the people closest to us, God’s goodness will flow like the tide. Here it is. It never stops showing up for us.
Why is it important to properly identify who “neighbors” are?
Shannan Martin: When I went looking, I was surprised by how much the Bible has to say about neighbors. The concept of living in community, bearing the burdens of others and accepting help when we’re the one about to buckle, is hardwired into who we are. God made us needy by design and constantly invites us in to surrender.
As humans, we instinctively reach for parameters. We want to do God’s will, but we certainly don’t want to overdo it. So, we search for loopholes. If we can identify who our neighbor is, then we’ll also know who our neighbor isn’t. Narrowing things down a bit, we’ll be better able to prioritize our neighborly resources, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Of course, Jesus saw this coming. In the Gospel of Luke we find a man obsessed with keeping the letter of the law. He, like so many of us, felt safest with a checklist or an instruction manual close at hand. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” left too much wiggle room. Boiling it all down, he wanted to clearly identify who wasn’t his problem. In the end, Jesus made it clear. A neighbor is one who draws near in mercy. Our neighbor is the last person we would choose.
“Neighbor” implies an element of surprise, a strong dose of humility, and an easy impulse toward inconvenience. Our neighbor is anyone who intersects our life, anyone who is near, regardless of our personal feelings. The net is cast wide, which means the opportunities for this most important “ministry” never end.
Explain what you mean when you write, “The health and well-being of our communities depend on our willingness to taste sadness with joy and pain along with redemption.”
Shannan Martin: Human life is wracked with drama and suffering, yet we’re conditioned to cut a wide path around discomfort. We’d usually rather avoid the trouble. As we begin to understand that our purpose is to really be with the people around us, to entangle our everyday lives with theirs, it’s clear that it will cost us. Our exposure to mess and complication skyrockets, but so does our exposure to humor and hope. Living as long-haul neighbors in authentic community means committing to the quirks and struggles of others just as we commit to sharing our own. If we want to experience the abundant life, we have to burn our desire for ease and comfort to the ground, reconditioning ourselves to walk toward pain, rather than around it. Relationships grow roots through celebration and suffering. There is simply no other way.
How has the Bible influenced your journey to write this book?
Shannan Martin: My journey deeper into the Bible and specifically into the life of Jesus, illuminated my God-given identity as a neighbor. As someone who was born and raised inside Christian culture, I was stunned by how clear it was and confused that I had missed it for so long. Reorienting my life in a way that more closely reflected the daily life of Jesus was the beginning of a total shift in my paradigms and priorities. Loving and being loved by people suffering at the margins of society, the drug-addicted, the incarcerated, the materially poor and under-resourced, the immigrant, the overlooked, the flat-out hated, changed my life. My community graciously, vibrantly shows me the kindness and power of Christ every day. I wanted to share this bright discovery, this shimmering gift, through my writing. We don’t have to overcomplicate our purpose. Our life on earth is far too long to spend it fussing over the wrong things when Jesus is right here, offering a far better way.
What do you mean, “love like a neighbor” and “work like a neighbor”?
Shannan Martin: As the cultural atmosphere grows grimmer, in addition to inspecting the Gospels with fresh eyes, I found myself drawn to the Old Testament prophets. The Gospels provide us a robust (though not easy) plan for living as neighbors – give generously (Luke 3:11), eat with the reviled (Matthew 9:11), spend time with the suffering (Matthew 26:6). This, Jesus shows us, is what it means to really love the people around us.
The prophets tie in well with this new vision for community, urging us toward a counter-cultural hunger for justice and equipping us to fight oppression wherever it exists. Jeremiah 29 essentially serves as a roadmap for navigating the confusion and outsider-status we’re promised as Christians. “And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Love cannot be separated from the work justice often requires. As we pay close attention to our corners of the world, trouble will emerge from the landscape and we’ll have to choose whether to watch from a safe distance or to risk getting our own hands dirty, tirelessly standing with the oppressed, fighting worthy battles, and getting good and sweaty for the sake of the Kingdom. If our neighbors aren’t safe and free, then we aren’t either.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Shannan Martin: Psalm 27:13 is such a hopeful, beautiful verse. “Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.” This is our promise that wherever we are, God is already vibrantly alive and at work. As we pay attention to our place, show up for our neighbors, and commit for the long haul, regardless of the brokenness and complexity we’re sure to encounter, God’s goodness will illuminate our daily lives.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Shannan Martin: While I was writing The Ministry of Ordinary Places and my previous book, Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted, I thought often about my gratitude for Bible Gateway. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been if I hadn’t had access to this important resource. The ease with which I was able to search for a particular passage and cross-reference various translations was a delight. It was a daily part of my work, one that connected me to the very heart of the matter and, honestly, helped my relationship with God to flourish along the way.
The Ministry of Ordinary Places is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Shannan Martin, author of The Ministry of Ordinary Places and my previous book, Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted, is a speaker and writer who found her voice in the country and her story in the city. She and her jail-chaplain husband, Cory, have four funny kids who came to them across oceans and rivers. They live as grateful neighbors in Goshen, Indiana.
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