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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

God's peculiar people

More intelligent people than yours truly might pick out a little Heidegger for leisure reading, but I go for things like the thrillers penned by John Sandford. I’ve read them all.

One of the pleasures of Sandford is that he is Minnesota-centric, with most of the crimes he deals with taking place in the Twin Cities or “Greater Minnesota.” In one of his books some of the action took place about a block from where I really live.

Of course another of the pleasures is in thinking along with Lucas Davenport or Virgil Flowers as they try to crack the case. I can enter into the cases with them, and nobody ever really shoots at me or tries to bomb my car. So far, anyway.

In every Sandford book there is the pleasure of “minor characters.” There are always a few characters who only come on stage for a paragraph or two every now and then. They are supporting players, not central to the plot. In some cases, the book could get along perfectly well without them. In other cases, they could be anonymous, faceless. But Sandford paints them vividly and makes them into distinct individuals.

In his latest novel, Shock Wave, a Virgil Flowers story, there is O’Hara, the female deputy sheriff in small town Minnesota who spends her spare time volunteering at an art museum in Minneapolis. There is Thor, the teenaged desk clerk at Virgil’s hotel. There is George Peck, the town eccentric. They are very real, distinct, individual and memorable people.

Standing in the place of the intern or the pastor every Sunday, you see a sea of faces. They are young, old and in-between; female and male; some of them neat, some of them messy; some attractive, some less so. When you are back in the office or sitting in a meeting, it is easy to talk about them as a group: “this is what ‘the people’ think;” “this is what ‘the congregation’ wants.”

But it isn’t that easy. They are all, in fact, individuals, with their own unique stories, their own deep fears and great dreams, their own triumphs and tragedies. One of the privileges of the intern and pastor is the privilege of being invited in to those stories, to get to know people not simply as part of a mass, but as distinct individuals.

The more you do that, the harder it becomes to generalize. And that, my friends, is a good thing.

If you let John Sandford loose in your congregation he could come up with volumes of stories. Try it yourself. Cultivate your eye for those stories and appreciate the uniqueness of each one of God’s peculiar people around you.

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