The man's 51-year autobiography took more than an hour to read, and it disclosed struggles with addictions, difficult personal relationships, and career disappointments. It included accounts of success and failure, discoveries and disappointments. Mixed in were his ongoing efforts to improve a static-ridden connection with Jesus.
This level of candor in our group is the result of almost two years of weekly meetings. That's how long it has taken us to build an appropriate trust level. Only now is there a willingness to peel back the secretive layers of life and invite the responses of friends.
As this man read his story, I shook my head. Not at the nature of his self-revelations but at how little, before this reading, I really knew him and the issues he was dealing with from day to day. I'm his pastor, for crying out loud, and until this moment I've seen only the surface of his life. And I was supposed to preach to him each week? And make a difference?
As his story continued, I actually had something like a vision. I saw myself walking down a long hotel corridor (I travel a lot). I passed endless numbers of closed doors. Behind each door I could hear sounds, the kinds you hear in hotelsloud televisions, people talking, bathtubs filling with water, and other sounds I'll not identify. In the vision each sound was an indication of diverse life and activity. But here is the point. Each closed door separated me from knowing with clarity what was happening on the other side. I could only guess at what needed to be said.
The vision helped me realize that the guy telling his story had opened up the door of his room and invited the group and me in to look around.
Glimpses of their reality
This, I suspect, is one of the greater challenges of the preacher. How to get people to open the doors of their lives. Only then can there be hope of riveting the truths of Scripture to the truths of actual human experience. The truth? I don't think that can happen in a lot of churches.
My life as a preacher began in my mid-twenties. One year I got to speak on many weekends in various churches (not necessarily large ones) in different parts of North America. In those days guest preachers were usually billeted in private homes (the so-called prophet's chamber) rather than in hotels (deemed an excessive expense). This resulted in an educational experience I could never have anticipated.
I have written of this before: how under such arrangements I met lots of people on their "turf," not mine. On these weekends, I became a part of all kinds of family life. I saw how marriage partners treated each other, how parents and children related, how some things were celebrated and other things disputed. Sometimes I heard and saw things that shouldn't have been seen or heard. Every preacher should have this experience.
Often, late in the evening when most of the host family had gone to bed, I would sitcold drink in handwith the husband/father of the household. We would have long talks that went deep and wide. And I learned things.
First, (and please forgive the gender specificity for a moment) I learned that men talk with other men differently when they're not around church.
Second, I learned that men talk differently when they didn't classify me as a pastor (and I wasn't telling).
Third, I learned that men talk differently about themselves when asked questions that seemed not to be related to church life or even faith.