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Preaching to the Faceless

17 January 2008

image This year I am using the Bible reading program by Robert Murray M’Cheyne for my morning time with the Lord. (You read through the Bible one time and the NT and Psalms twice). But this morning one of the places I was in was Nehemiah 7. And I was in what is usually considered an incredibly boring section: a listing of exiles who returned to Jerusalem from captivity. Heads of families with the accounting of the number of family members who returned to Jerusalem with them.

“The men of Kiriath-jearim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. The men of Ramah and Geba, 621…” Lives lived. People loving their children, husbands and wives spending years together, tears wept, laughter, hopes and dreams lived out, people devastated by tragedy. What did the lives of these five men hold? (Presuming that they are all men’s names). We don’t know. They are just five names in a long list of family heads who came back to Jerusalem from captivity. Names that are easy for me to just skim and marvel at how hard they are to pronounce. But each one is a life that had significance and worth. Additionally, following most of the names is a number..a number that represents additional human lives lived. Lord help me never see the people around me in the way I am tempted to see these people A name only…an oddity…a cipher. Let me see them today with your eyes of understanding and love.

There are certain people in my church whom I know well. When I prepare my sermon, I often think of them and how this sermon will speak to them. Sometimes it is because we get along so well and I am blessed by their walk and faith. Other time it is because they are constantly complaining or their lives/families seem always to be in crisis. But what about the rest? What do I know about the nameless ones. The ones who are there and I am friendly with, but about whom I know little more than a name or an occupation? Does my sermon prep and prayer time reflect them? How can it if I really don’t know much about them? And yet with so many people and so little time, how realistic is it that I can get to know the intimate details of hundreds and hundreds (for some preacher thousands and thousands) of people?

Then later today, I came across (was led to?) this quote from an article in last April’s Forbes magazine. God seemed to be speaking the same message through it that he had spoken to me this morning:

Ortberg spoke of how her mentor, Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller, engaged his workers, ‘Max had a rule for his leadership team. Every Wednesday they were to bring a brown bag lunch and go down to the factory floor, where the furniture was being made, to eat. They were to sit and listen for an hour to get to know the names of the workers on the floor and to learn about the obstacles workers were facing as they did their jobs, as well as hear about the ideas they had for future designs.’

Ortberg herself was at one time an emergency room nurse. One night she witnessed an astonishing leadership act: It was about 10:30 p.m. The room was a mess. I was finishing up some work on the chart before going home. The doctor with whom I loved working was debriefing a new doctor, who had done a very respectable, competent job, telling him what he’d done well and what he could have done differently.

Then he put his hand on the young doctor’s shoulder and said, ‘When you finished, did you notice the young man from housekeeping who came in to clean the room?’ There was a completely blank look on the young doctor’s face.

The older doctor said, ‘His name is Carlos. He’s been here for three years. He does a fabulous job. When he comes in he gets the room turned around so fast that you and I can get our next patients in quickly. His wife’s name is Maria. They have four children.’ Then he named each of the four children and gave each child’s age.

The older doctor went on to say, ‘He lives in a rented house about three blocks from here, in Santa Ana. They’ve been up from Mexico for about five years. His name is Carlos,’ he repeated. Then he said, ‘Next week I would like for you to tell me something about Carlos that I don’t already know. Okay? Now let’s go check on the rest of the patients.’

Ortberg recalls: ‘I remember standing there writing my nursing notes — stunned — and thinking, I have just witnessed breathtaking leadership.’ (Rich Karlgaard, “Godly Work” in Forbes, April 23, 2007)

Lord, as Sunday is coming, help me to know our flock so that I can best communicate what you are saying to them and not get in the way.

Amen.

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