Two Things I Cannot Live Without

By Mark Dingler ’23 M.Div.

I’m only a few weeks into my first call to ministry. The business cards haven’t been ordered, my name isn’t yet on my office door, and my bulletin board has only a few small notes on it—not yet engulfed by the sweet and exuberant cards and messages that my youth group and church have already written me.

Our youth group this year is focusing on Romans 15:4-7, which declares that we have been welcomed and accepted by Christ, and we are therefore called to welcome and accept our neighbor.

It’s all new and exciting to figure out. It’s what I’ve dreamed of for a long time—working with youth and kids, empowering them to work toward the Kin-dom of God on our earth, helping them find their voice to be agents of change.  

Be the Neighbor

Our youth group this year is focusing on Romans 15:4-7, which declares that we have been welcomed and accepted by Christ, and we are therefore called to welcome and accept our neighbor. We read it aloud together at the start of every Wednesday night gathering.

Then we read our mantra: “Today, I’ll laugh, I’ll smile at simple beauty, I’ll help mend the world around me with joy and grace, I’ll rest contently in God’s good and faithful love.” 

This unattributed quote is one I learned in 2019 while working with a nonprofit, Be The Neighbor, a justice-based service-learning trip ministry that equips youth and adults to live lives of love and action by teaching them practical skills to continue the work after returning home. During this internship, I saw what ministry looks like day to day and what it entails. Ministry isn’t just Sunday morning worship—there is so much more. I saw how we can cheer people on, how we can lead with love, and how we can foster joy. 

In short, these are the two things I now hold dearest in my life and in my ministry: love and joy.

Sartorial Smile

That is what I’m clinging to—on the good days and the bad—as I start in this beautiful, odd, life-changing, sometimes messy calling. The best article of clothing I wear on Sunday mornings isn’t a stole or a robe—it’s my (sometimes over-caffeinated) smile. My smile that I try to use to disarm people, to welcome them in, to let them know that they matter, that they are loved, and to bring a moment of joy. 

It’s not a fake smile. It’s a smile that I have because I know God’s love and joy.

This past summer, my conviction was reinforced at the General Assembly of my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). During opening worship, Chaplain (MAJ) Owen Chandler preached, telling us stories of his time as an army chaplain, reminding us to “love first, love always. And we’ll figure out the rest of the stuff later.”

If we can do that right, if we can remember the unending, unmistakable, ever-growing love that God has for us, and even attempt to share that love with the world, the world will be a better place. Maybe then, we can be vulnerable enough with one another to make important connections and share ourselves more fully with the world.

In the Moment

Because of God’s love, I am able to serve a church in Arkansas as an openly queer person, where I have been accepted and affirmed in all of my glory—with my long, painted nails, my long, curly hair, and my passion for Broadway shows.

And I’m able to serve this church fully only because I am fully myself, bringing to the congregation the things that bring me joy. I’ve already mentioned some central ones—the love of God, a desire to share the Kin-dom—but these also include everyday things, such as the beloved items in my office, which is now full of stuffed pandas that remind me of my late friend; paraphernalia from both of my alma maters; and the pictures of my closest friends whom I rely on every day.

Every day, I need to remind myself of the forces of love and joy, because I know I am also an over-thinker who has a hard time living in the moment. This summer, one of my college friends and I were talking and we found ourselves saying in defiance of the furious pace of contemporary life, “It’s not that serious.” This has become my philosophy the last couple of months. This isn’t to deny all the urgent issues that are worthy of brain space. It’s about knowing when to shut up my brain and just live. It’s knowing that when things are out of my control, that I just need to trust that God will carry me through, even when the outcomes might not always end up the way I think they will.

Only then am I able to lean into joy and feel God’s love. 

Tag, Hoops, Incarnation

And that joy and that love aren’t so hard to see. This summer I led the Fort Worth site of Be The Neighbor, hosting youth groups from across the country for the seven weeks of local mission trips that came with it. Each group that came to Fort Worth for a week worked with children from the area—either refugees or unhoused families. As we all played with bubbles and chalk, or games of basketball and tag, the kids and youth brought me so much joy. Every time I brought a new youth group in to join in these games, the young kids ended up being the leaders—we simply followed them, their joy and their love. 

For a long time I thought leaning into joy or relying on love was naïve—that it misses all the hate and pain in the world. But I’ve realized that this leaning isn’t naïve, it’s radically bold. The kids we played with this past summer showed us the power of love and joy, despite whatever trials they faced. They showed me God in their courageous persistence and their extravagant welcome. They showed me that hate and death do not get the final say. Love and life will always win.

This is the message I try to share with my youth group each week, hoping that they will in turn share with their friends this uplifting message of the Bible, to radiate positivity, and to care for one another. This is so important in this dangerously divided world: our endeavors to seek real connection, where fear yields to healing and transformation. 

So, as I start my first call to ministry, as I get the business cards ordered, my name on my door, and the bulletin board overflows with notes and reminders, I will rely on these two things: joy and love. If only the world had a little bit more of them, then it would then look more like the Kin-dom of God, where more chairs are pulled up to an expanding banquet table, not removed or separated or banished; where violence is no longer exalted as a solution; where we are able to live in peace, not in spite of our differences, but in radically accepting one another.

The Rev. Mark Dingler ’23 M.Div., who also received an Andover Newton Seminary at YDS diploma, is a graduate of Texas Christian University. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) last summer and now serves as associate minister of youth and justice at a Bentonville, Ark., congregation.