Today was one of those ‘kitchen sink’ days--there was a little of everything in it. I’m not preaching this week, so I’m taking care of the sorts of things that pile up when my focus is on preparing a sermon and service. I wrote an email to be sent out to ACL members about an upcoming Bible study, studied the church’s finances for a while, recruited some folks to assist in worship in the coming weeks, and spent some time with the staff in the office—catching up and checking to see how they’re doing. I was making some headway on the small mountain of papers on my desk, feeling very productive and able. And then the phone rang, and the church secretary said that a guy was at the door who wanted to pray with the minister.
Now my first thought was to say ‘sure, call the minister up and see if that works for him.’
Of course, that wouldn’t do at all. He wanted to speak with me, much to my surprise, so we went into the sanctuary and he shared some things with me that were happening in his life. We prayed for a while and chatted, and then he left. The whole thing took about 15 minutes from start to finish, and then I was back at my desk staring at my inbox.
Almost immediately another guy dropped in, this one from our congregation. He’d just passed an exam and wanted to stop by to say thanks for our support and encouragement in his life. It didn’t matter, thankfully, that I had no idea he was taking a test today. He just wanted to come in, sit down and share his relief that this latest step on the path to moving up in his profession was completed.
Now very little of this has to do with me as a person. Folks don’t walk down Tottenham Court Road and think to themselves: ‘I’d really like to talk to John—he’s from California and he went to seminary and that might be interesting.’ The fact is, my name is out on the sign facing the street. I could be a strange guy in a large bunny suit and people would still stop in and ask for a chat (even if they might not stay as long). When folks stop here and ask to talk with the minister, they’re looking for someone in a role—an office—someone who they trust to share with, celebrate with, cry with and pray with. The fact that I rarely feel competent to handle all of these concerns is secondary. In this position—and in a very mysterious way—I represent God to his people. I know that sounds puffed up—I certainly don’t mean it like that—but the fact remains that people want someone they can count on to listen and touch and absolve. The Reformation might have said that each one of us is our own priest, but most people aren’t buying it. Most will want someone else—it rarely matters who, as long as they hold the office—to be their comforter, their prayer warrior, their priest.
I take this part of my job so seriously, because I know how stunted I am at living up to it. Oddly enough, when someone comes to me and wants me to represent them to the Almighty—and the Almighty back to them—that’s when I sense God’s presence most in my own life and ministry. Why? Because I know in that moment that it can’t possibly have anything at all to do with me. I may be a grouch, or stewing over a conflict at home, or feeling homesick, or wallowing in any one of the chronic sins that plague my life. In that moment none of those things matter. Someone is in my office with a need and wants prayer from a minister. I do it without hesitation.
No one really prepares you for this in seminary. Sure we studied counseling and pastoral care and we prayed together a lot. But no one, especially in a Protestant evangelical institution, prepares you for being a priest when the situation calls for it. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe if they tried to tell someone like me that I would speak and touch and even forgive on God’s behalf, it might have gone to my head. Or, more likely, I might have run screaming from the room. It’s the surprise of it—the interruption of it—that remains special to me. Most of my day is spent talking with people in the church, designing the order of the service, choosing music, writing sermons and articles and plans, etc. When someone drops in unannounced with a need, it catches me off my guard and prevents me—and this is the odd part—from putting on my pastor face. Ironically, those days when I have less time to prepare are the days when I’m most likely to act faithfully as a priest, because I have to rely on God’s wisdom and power and comfort. Go figure.
And so while I didn’t get as much of the paper off my desk today as I had planned, I feel more like a minister today than I usually do. This part never gets old.