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.

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About a week after Sam was born, I ran into one of my college professors, Glen Spann, who is also a pastor. I had just completed Seminary a few months prior to Sam’s arrival, so Dr. Spann, whom I had kept in touch with, was aware of my having gone through Seminary. After sharing congratulatory words, he said the following: “I’m going to pass along something to you that Dennis Kinlaw said to me when my first child was born. ‘Now your theological education begins!‘” Boy, has that ever rung true as I’ve learned things about God, myself, and human nature in the joyful journey of parenthood I have been blessed to enjoy thus far.

One of those moments happened about a year ago. I mentioned the encounter with my son on facebook when it happened, but the moment was so dear and I’ve gone back to reflect on the beauty of it several times, so wanted to share a little more about it here. One day my son Sam, who was 4 at the time, was playing in the living room floor. I was in the living room with him while Julianne, my daughter was getting a nap. In the midst of playing, Sam stopped what he was doing, stood up, looked at me and stretched out his hands and arms as far as he possibly could and said this: “Daddy, I love you *THIS* much!” In reply, I extended my arms to full length and said, “Sam, I love you *THIS* much!” He kept his arms extended, walked toward me and soon realized that his wingspan was much smaller than mine. He began to frown and get discouraged and said, “Aw, Daddy, I don’t love you as much as you love me.”

After a few moments of chuckling and getting a few tears in my eyes, I said, “Sam, this isn’t a contest. What matters to Daddy is that you love me as much as you can.” Then he came closer and tried to make his arms a little bit longer to match mine as much as possible.

Photo credit: venusstock.com

The challenge for us is that our love needs to keep up as our wingspan grows. Our capacity to love continues to grow as we get older, yet often we want to put a measure to it and keep more to ourselves. If my wingspan was 5 feet at the age of 10 and then 6 feet at the age of 20, then I ought to be continuing to extend my arms in recognizing that being a true disciple of Jesus means that I give all 6 feet of my wingspan in love to God and neighbor. As such, we are called continually to say to God, “I love you *THIS* much.” Growth in grace begets more growth. The more of God’s grace in us, means that we’re called and tasked to keep giving all, not that we give same when our wingspan was shorter.

When Sam came closer and tried to make his arms longer (out of desire to love me more), I realized that he was giving me a picture of what sanctification and discipleship is all about…our love for God and neighbor keeping up with the growing wingspan. Luke said it this way with regard to Jesus’ growth: “He grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.”

Now, let’s see if we can make our arms longer!

As I officially embark upon pastoral ministry in the next couple of weeks, I decided to launch this site as a means to promote and share with you what has been and will continue to be shared with me (see tagline at the top referring to 1 Corinthians 11.23).

I am in awestruck wonder at the grace that God has given through Christ to me in my life. But because God’s grace is a gift, then I am not the proprietor of it. I am beckoned and charged to share that grace generously with those with whom I come in contact throughout my life. That’s what the theme centered upon at the Memphis Annual Conference this year, which concluded yesterday in Jackson, TN: “Extravagant Generosity” (see image below).

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At the conclusion of the conference, Bishop Chamness declared the fixing of appointments for the 2012-13 year, which means that my charge to pastor Liberty & Post Oak United Methodist Churches in Camden, Tennessee for at least the next year (and hopefully longer) is finalized. Immediately before the sending forth, those of us who have been appointed to pastor throughout the Conference covenanted together in declaring our vow to fulfill the call laid upon us. In this covenant we recited the Wesley Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.Amen.

I’ve said this covenant prayer in multiple services before this Annual Conference, but yesterday it took on a profound new meaning and I had a six hour drive home from Jackson to Nicholasville (where I’ll be residing for 12 more days before we move to Camden on June 19) to reflect upon the significance of this covenant and (God knows) where it will lead me. The first line sums it all up and brings our hearts and minds to the realization that we are not the proprietors or rightful owners of anything, including and especially the ministry to which we have been called. I am no longer my own, but thine.

We are, at most and at best, stewards, even of the grace that God gave in rescuing us from sin & death. Whatever we receive from the hand of our loving and almighty God, it is in order to give or pass on, not to hold up for ourselves. If you read the entire context around 1 Corinthians 11.23 (go back to verse 17 and read through verse 34, or read it here), you’ll see that stewardship and sharing is at the heart of the community meal we know as the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. St. Paul was aware of the lack of stewardship in the Corinthian church such that folks were hoarding up, consuming all the bread and drinking all the wine, leaving some without. Paul encouraged them (and the Spirit through Paul’s words encourages us) to follow his own lead by passing on what was passed to him. I am no longer my own, but thine.

It is true that I cannot share what I have not received. But if I do not share what I have received, then I will only bring judgment upon myself and others will starve. God, be merciful unto me where I have failed in this and enable me to give generously the gifts and grace you have entrusted to me! I am no longer my own, but thine.