You may have seen an article or two about a pastor who decided that leaving a sanctimonious note along with a failed attempt to erase an already added gratuity was somehow a good idea or taking a stand or something. Plenty of posts have been written and I suppose I could add more here to voice how ludicrous it was to write such a thing, but I’ll leave that be. I think this post pretty well sums up my view on the matter. Apparently, the pastor in question has responded with an apology for the snide comment and that she didn’t intend to erase the gratuity, so there’s that. I hope she apologized directly to the server too. And let us be people of forgiveness, too, for even pastors make errors in judgment and sin from time to time, too. (Shock, I know!)

But as I witnessed news of another embarrassing moment for Christians in the marketplace (often in the restaurant/service industry), I was taken back to my own time of waiting on tables during seminary. And I also considered the livelihood of a dear lady in Camden who passed away this week. She was the sister of a friend of mine at Post Oak. Her name was Joyce and she was a server at a restaurant in Paris (TN). Joyce was loved dearly by those with whom she worked and according to many testimonials by those whom she served.

Reflecting upon these things has me wishing that we disciples of Jesus can somehow overcome or turn around our notoriety for the way we treat those in the hospitality industry who wait on people. It is often a thankless job and unfortunately church-going folk are the biggest contributors to the thanklessness of it. One would think we should know better but perhaps we have forgotten about a crisis that existed early in the life of the church recorded in Acts 6:1-6, which in part tells us of the blessed nature and of those who are called to serving food.

Before Carrie and I got married, her dad asked me one thing: to get a job even though I was going to seminary. Hence, partly out of fear (:)) and partly out of curiosity for how it would be to work at a restaurant, I applied for a job as a server and got it. Little did I know at the time that my tenure as a server would be as integral to my theological education as the seminary classroom. ‘Seminary’ is the English word taken from the Latin seminarium, which means “seed bed.” A seed bed is a place where seeds go to die so that they may bear fruit. Hence, one’s theological education should be in some way, a process of learning how to die. (Morbid, I know!)

In a sense, my experience waiting on tables was just that for me; a part of my process in learning how to die. It was so not only because of the conversations that took place over rolling silverware and in those dead moments where there were more servers than guests in the restaurant, but also in learning how to put others before myself, how to serve, how to give, how to fight, how to multitask, how to ask for help when I’m “in the weeds,” and how to listen. Lessons I’m still learning and haven’t perfected, but lessons that train about as well as any about the art of pastoral living. By the end of my time there, I was beginning to think of my 4-table section like a 4-church charge (for non-United Methodists out there, a “x#”-church charge is when more than one congregation have the same pastor at the same time).

But beyond the tasks associated with the waiting on tables, it was the relationships I formed with my coworkers and my oft-returning patrons that I saw as formative for me. Working in that environment helped me see as E. Stanley Jones described it that we Christians sometime have the tendency to unfortunately “separate the material and the spiritual.” In the process of serving while in seminary, I died to my own tendency to view this as a “less important job.” I died to my own tendency to be heard and instead to listen to the stories of pain, fear, expectations, and hopes of my fellow servers. I died to my own tendency to just do the tasks asked of me and instead help another server in the weeds or to share a few more moments with customers who needed an ear to hear or a shoulder to cry on as much or more than a hand to bring them food or a refill on their drink.

I’m not sure if he was right or not, but E. Stanley Jones viewed that the disciples in Acts 6 made an error in relegating the distribution of food to be done by seven “others” so that they may devote their whole time to God’s word. A casual reading of the passage may not indicate there was a problem with their choice, for God worked through, though we might say in spite of, their decision by adding to their number. Jones said, “They separated what God had joined. In the Incarnation the material and spiritual were one – the Word became flesh. Here the Word became word. The material and the spiritual were separated.” That is, they “turned life into two compartments – the sacred and the secular” (see pages 80-81 of his devotional ‘Mastery’) and the compartmentalization exists to this day, each time we think of feeding hungry people and the mission of making disciples as two separate entities.

But what I learned in the seminary of the classroom and the restaurant is that the two go hand-in-hand, or at least they should. Isn’t it intriguing that one of the seven (Stephen) set apart for distributing food ends up delivering one of the most powerful sermons ever delivered (see the very next chapter for proof)? Maybe the author of Acts was subtly wanting us to catch the irony of Stephen’s doing both food service & the ministry of the word. Stephen’s acts, as they point back to the Christ who both taught AND fed people, who both preached good news AND healed people, who both offered forgiveness AND raised people from the dead, should serve as an important message for us Christians, especially pastors, that even though it is wise to delegate responsibilities, that does not mean you should not participate or follow others’ lead in those activities. That’s why it’s good, for example, when a pastor goes and serves food to hungry people, even being willing to follow the orders of those who are charged to lead in the distribution. That’s why it’s important for me to offer to get a loaf of bread or a tank of gas to someone who is sick or grieving, as well as praying for/with them and offering words or silence of comfort. In this process maybe we can grasp with ES Jones that “all legitimate life has to become sacred again. And all legitimate occupations a manifestation of the Kingdom.”

That’s what waiting tables in seminary taught me.