The work of a pastor

I am a pastor, though I don’t always know why. 

I did once. I began in this business with deep conviction. To be a pastor was my calling — a vocation that I imagined chose me as much I chose it. To be a pastor was a profound responsibility invested by God upon those chosen for the task. To be honest, the odds were stacked against me. I was young and shy, introverted, tentative and emotional. Still, I was possessed of a knowing, and one not easily dissuaded. It was a knowing that others affirmed and, some would say, has proven itself true over time. 

Now, though, I’m not so sure. I still have a knowing, but a more pragmatic one. I know I am good at what I do. I know what’s required of a pastor and, as far as I am able, I give it my best. I know the texts and rituals of the faith, the rites of passage that I’m responsible to lead. I know congregations and how they work. I know people and I care easily for them. I certainly know the Church — the institution I represent. I know its history and theology, its strengths and its failings, its potential and its wretchedness. What’s more, I know first-hand the experiences of belief and doubt — the essentials of a durable faith. 

But as to why I am a pastor? To be honest, sometimes it feels more like a consequence than a vocation, the result of family background, circumstance and personality. Don’t get me wrong: I maintain a deep sense of calling, but it’s that calling shared by all people of faith not something all my own. Certainly, I have a strong awareness of God in what I do and of its worth, but as to why I have this role and do this work, I’m not always sure.  That said, I’m glad. 

I’m glad to be a pastor. I sense the privilege of what I do every day. Yes, I get tired, discouraged and cheesed off. Sometimes I despair. But in the midst of it all, there is an underlying sense of gladness. As Eugene Peterson says so beautifully, we pastors are called by a particular community to “pay attention” to what’s going on between and around us; to discern what is of God. Essentially, he says, we are witnesses: “A witness is never the centre but only the person who points to or names what is going on at the centre — in this case, the action and revelation of God …” 

While I can no longer claim too boldly the unique imprimatur of God upon my life as though I stand out from the crowd, what I can embrace is this extraordinary privilege I’m given by the people of God at Collins Street  —  the privilege to witness as best as I am able to the purposes and presence of God within and around us. I may not do it alone nor always do it well, but I get to do it no less. And for that I am glad. 

Joy to the World

A brief reflection on Luke 2.8-20

Early last week I went to see my physiotherapist. I hobbled into the waiting room and found a seat. Not far behind me was a woman of similar age whose hobble was much the same as mine. As she lowered herself gingerly into her seat, I winced knowingly. “It’s been a long weekend,” I said. “Oh yes,” she replied, “in more ways than one.” As we chatted, we talked first of our backs and commiserated together. But then we spoke of more important things.

She told me about her son. He had received his VCE results and they were not good. “He’s devastated,” she said, “and I just don’t know what to do.” She described her son’s dream to study engineering and of the limited options now open to him. She spoke of his tears, and of the closed door to his bedroom. “I don’t care what he does,” she said almost pleadingly, “He could be a garbage collector for all I care. I just want him to be happy.”

I so get that. As I father, I understand. I have often wondered, when all is stripped away, what do I most long for in the lives of those I love? What do I want for them more than anything else? That they would be happy? Yes. But the deeper question follows: what does it mean to be happy? And does the word ‘happy’ really cover my deepest desire for them?

In the season of Advent, today is the Sunday of joy. “Joy to the world,” we sing as we light that fourth candle. Immediately following the birth of Jesus, an angel appears to shepherds in a field and declares to them, “I am bringing you good news of great joy!” Before long a choir, a multitude of angels fills the night sky. “Glory to God in the highest,” they sing, “and on earth peace.” Is this just a very theatrical way of saying, “Happy Christmas!” or is it more than that? What is this joy the angel trumpets?

It’s evident that whatever this joy is, it has very little to do with the shepherd’s personal happiness. As hired labourers — those who watch other people’s sheep for money — shepherds who work the night shift are near the bottom of the social ladder. It’s not as though pre the birth of Jesus they are poor and sad and post birth they are prosperous and happy. The fact is, after their visit to the stable to see the child, they return to the very same circumstances. Nothing immediate has changed. It’s the same for Mary and Joseph. The shame, fear and uncertainty that coloured their story leading up the birth do not suddenly evaporate. Indeed, following the birth of Jesus they must flee to Egypt for a fear of a king who wants their child dead. They have no choice but to ride off into the night, alone and scared. So much for happy Christmas.

Clearly, this joy the angel speaks of is something very different to the personal pursuit of happiness. It is found in something larger than self-interest or personal wellbeing. For the shepherds in the field and for Mary and Joseph on the run from persecution, this proclamation of joy goes far beyond their own stories. If it is theirs to claim personally, then it’s found in being gathered up in a story much larger than their own. The angel declares to the shepherds, “to you is born this day in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah.” In the birth of Jesus is an invitation to the fullness of life for all humankind. It is in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus — the story of a life lived from beginning to end for the good of the world — that the source of real joy is found.

This joy that we celebrate today is no momentary experience of happiness. It has little to do with brightly wrapped gifts under a tree or the contentment that follows Christmas lunch. It is more than that. Through the birth of a child, this joy marks the beginning of a reorientation of our world toward hope. This reorientation is made possible through the birth of Jesus. For in Christ God steps into our world. It is no longer God over us or out there in some heavenly or cosmic realm. No, in the birth of a child, God is with us. God is birthed in us. Through Christ, the way is now open for all humankind to experience the fullness of life.

What do I most want for those I love? Yes, I want them to be happy. To be honest, I would prefer their lives were free of pain, failure and struggle of any sort, but I am wise enough to know that this is foolishness. For they live in the real world, not some fanciful land of daffodils and smiley faces. So in this real world, I want more than anything that they would discover for their own lives a purpose that is larger than their own self-interest, the possibility of a larger story which gives their own stories meaning and direction. I long that they love well and sacrificially, that they live their lives in a way that leaves the world a better, more compassionate and just place. I long that they would know a joy that infuses and inspires their living and impacts the lives of others.

On this 4th Sunday of Advent, I believe that God our father longs for this in all of us. Whatever our story, whatever our personal circumstances, the good news of great joy is a story into which we are invited. It is a story born in us this Christmas time, a story into which we are born. The joy of this season is a way of being in the world that embodies the love, the peace and the hope of God.

I do wish for you the joy of Christmas. More than that, I pray that you will be gathered up in that joy and that you’ll find the courage to live it in all the days to come.


Image: ‘The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds’ by Thomas Cole (1834)


Last Sunday my family and I celebrated Thanksgiving. Though a few days early and on the wrong side of the world, we did our day in style. We feasted on fried chicken, jalapeño grits, cornbread, green bean casserole, and macaroni & cheese. And we finished with sweet pies: pecan and buttermilk.

I like Thanksgiving. Of all the weird and wonderful things American, it’s my favourite. It’s a day set aside to say ‘thank you!’ Though a bit awkward at first, we did the American thing. Each guest was invited to reflect back on the year and name something or someone for which they were grateful. It’s a simple practice, yet potent. With a few words, each person made visible what otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Thankfulness is a thought before it’s a feeling. It’s an attitude we choose. Essayist Margaret Visser calls gratitude our “thinking heart.” We can feel all sorts of things without much thought, she says: anxiety, resentment, fear, anger, or sadness. Feelings like these come from nowhere. Gratitude takes thought. It takes practice. It’s an attitude cultivated by paying attention — beholding and naming what’s under our noses all of the time.

The English philosopher G.K. Chesterton once said, “the greatest poem is an inventory.” When we take time to notice all that is good, beautiful and grace-filled in our lives, gratitude follows. It’s not about what is mine by right or entitlement but what is gift and grace. As Chesterton says, “there is no way in which man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.”

Since our Sunday feast I have been reflecting on what a life of gratitude looks like. In my own thinking I’ve often identified the character traits of gentleness, generosity and contentment as those I most aspire to. It occurs to me that each one flows most naturally from a mind shaped by thankfulness.

I read recently of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman confined to a transit camp in Holland awaiting transportation and death in Auschwitz. She worked tirelessly to comfort her fellow prisoners and to embody hope and light in the midst of such abhorrent darkness. In 1943, Etty wrote to a friend, enclosing a prayer she had just written in her diary:

“You have made me so rich, O God, please let me share your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, O God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on your earth, my eyes raised toward your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in you, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and this is my prayer.”

I cannot imagine Etty’s life, but I am deeply challenged by her thinking heart — a heart shaped by gratitude and sustained by a profound sense of grace.  She was able to live generously with others, even in the most awful circumstances, because her own soul was steeped in thankfulness.

Some thoughts on blogging

It’s been fourteen years.

I began this blog back in 2005. I was on research leave at a university in Texas and started blogging to keep track of my reading. It has stumbled along from there, reinvented a few times over but still going.

Blogging is a particular form of writing.  Though I still do it primarily for myself, it’s not journaling. It’s more public than that. By its form, a blog looks for an audience and seeks approval. At its most ordinary, it can be just another ‘Look at me!’  When I first began blogging, I did so self-consciously and almost hoped no one would notice.  Though the self-consciousness is gone, the virtual stutter lingers. Perhaps that’s why I am more prone to quote the words of others than form my own.

Recently I re-read an essay by the great English novelist George Orwell, one that I last read thirty years ago. Titled Why I Write, the essay begins with Orwell’s unnerving admission:

“I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.  I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” 

To some degree, I begin in the same place. My personal “facility with words” is paltry by comparison. Regardless, writing is a way to speak — carefully, deliberately, sensitively — without being interrupted by more brash or charismatic voices.  It’s a way to be heard.  Perhaps I would replace Orwell’s “failures in everyday life” with inadequacies.  I have my share of those.  Writing has always been a way to communicate when my ability in other mediums comes up short.

Orwell goes on to outline what he calls the four great motives for writing:

  1. Sheer egoism: the desire to appear clever, to be talked about and remembered. “It is a humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm: the pleasure one takes “in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” 
  3. Historical impulse: the desire to find, gather, report and store up for posterity.
  4. Political purpose: the desire to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Honesty means acknowledging that the act of writing envelopes all of the above, each one rising to the surface at different times.  I keep at it, hoping that over time the more virtuous of these motives bubble to the surface.

I hope so.



Most Sundays I stand in a pulpit. It’s an imposing old thing, central to the internal architecture of its 19th century home. Though I can’t say I relish the sermon, it is a valued part of my tradition. In fact, for Baptists like me, preaching is central to the worship event. Really, I have no choice but to give it my best.

That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum.

At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself.

At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.

Frankly, I’m in danger of the second more than the first. Professional distance has never been my thing. At my best, I like to imagine it as a choice for vulnerability. I have always believed that if the preacher is not prepared to be fully present in his preaching, then he has no right to stand in a pulpit. Where there is no honesty, the possibility of truth that transforms is minimal. What’s more, my experience tells me that when a preacher leaves her own experience out of the sermon, it is almost guaranteed that her listeners will do the same. Still, the hazards of this approach are real.

First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully!

Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be a riveting source of weekly inspiration. Think more broadly!

Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!

One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals.

Like so many others in my profession, I face personal experiences of struggle: those of loss, grief and failure. In those moments, honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, naming those feelings publically is more than I can do. What I have learned to lean upon at those times is the gentle and gracious invitation of God: ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’

Moltmann on risk and possibility

“Many people can do more than they think they can. Why? We are all afraid of opposition and defeat, but people who withdraw into their own shells out of fear of setbacks never get to know their own potentialities. And if we never get to know our potentialities, we never learn the limitations of our own powers either. It is only when we get out of ourselves that we arrive at ourselves. It is only when we get beyond our limitations that we discover what they are, and accept them. People who do not want what seems to them impossible never fully exploit their possibilities.”

Jürgen Moltmann


“I have lots of edges called Perhaps”

Mary Oliver, Blue Horses, Crosier (2014)

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it’s not really
hard. The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have lots of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into, not
entirely anyway, other people’s

I’ll just leave this.
I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.


I brought a stack of books into my office today. They are in a pile on the floor: eighteen books for $18. They’re an odd lot, scavenged from a local library sale. Their simple presence makes me happy, like new acquaintences ready for conversation.

I do read a bit. I’m not a fast reader, but persistent. I find the notion of an unfinished book troubling. In reading I glimpse things I’ve not seen before, discover things I already knew but never named. Particular books can bring peace or restlessness. I can be encouraged or agitated, awed or sometimes bored. Some books become close friends, others I’ll likely not speak to again. Either way, tossing them out is almost impossible. I suppose I’ll need to one day, but not now.

The writer Anne Lamott understands. “For some of us,” she says, “books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us to understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

I know. Books don’t do it for everyone. There are many paths to knowing. There’s art and food, music and gardens, friendships and travel and tinkering in backyard sheds. But for me, language — carefully formed — has always been key. Written words, especially those that are lyrical in form, provide an invitation to knowing that I rarely find elsewhere. Reading calls me to pay attention in particular ways, to notice things, to sit with things and feel them. Books help me live well.

So, I reckon that’s $18 well spent.


Men in the Kitchen: Food, Gender, Church & Culture

It’s been four years now since my mother died. Mum was an extraordinary woman, a force of nature — gregarious, chaotic, funny, eternally optimistic and with an endless capacity to love. She loved God, she loved her husband, her boys, their wives and her sixteen grandchildren. She loved her church and her neighbours and still she had reserves for anyone else who came along. In her passing, mum left behind a hole in my life and many others that remains. She also left behind a recipe book.

It’s an old school exercise book, the tattered cover post-box red and bound along its edge with a strip of woven tape. Mrs Holt’s Recipes it says on the front. In the painful process of sorting through mum’s life following her funeral, my father took the book down from above the refrigerator. “I don’t know who else would want it,” he said as he handed it to me.

The truth is, my mother had nothing to do with the compilation of this book. I did it. As a boy of nine or ten, despairing at the cardboard box stuffed with recipes at the bottom of mum’s pantry, it was me that got her organised. With a set of coloured pens and my best artistic flourish, I created chapters: casseroles; main dishes; large cakes; small cakes, slices, biscuits and confectionary; soups; and desserts. Each page was carefully numbered. Some recipes I handwrote, adding editorial comment here and there: “this one is good.” Most I stuck to the pages with sticky tape. Everything found its place and the cardboard box was thrown out.

Of course, my mother’s style was never an ordered one. The book today bulges with recipes randomly stuffed. There are casseroles in the biscuits section and sweet and sour pork in desserts. The recipes for curried sausages and cod casserole — the ones I thought I’d gotten rid of — had reappeared. Each time I hold the book, cuttings and scraps, even whole pages, fall to the ground. The book is everything mum was: overflowing, erratic, generous, and all-encompassing. In memory of her, I have nothing else as fragile and nothing as robust. It’s like holding a sacred text.

Recipe books like my mum’s are ubiquitous. You probably have or remember one yourself. Perhaps it’s a well-ordered book or just a collection of cards shuffled together. These collections tell us many things. Like a family photo album, a recipe collection provides unique snapshots of the way life was at another time. They hold memories, ones we can still taste and smell. What’s more, if we are prepared to read them just a little more closely, they can tell us far more than the ingredients for boiled fruit cake. They speak of our identity. The provide windows into issues of gender, taste, class and culture. They remind us, too, that sex in the kitchen is not what it used to be.

For men of my father’s generation, the kitchen stove was a woman’s place and home cooking an almost entirely feminine task. Men did other things. They may have been out taming the wilderness with the lawn mower or presiding over ‘the high altar’ of the backyard barbecue. Typically they were not found in the kitchen, except perhaps to do the dishes. Today things have changed. I am one of six sons. At least three of us are seasoned home cooks. No longer limited to carving the Sunday roast or washing up, men have moved from sink to stove in considerable numbers. Indeed, things have changed, but perhaps not as much as we imagine.

The most current research still points to women carrying the lion’s share of daily, domestic responsibilities. According to the ABS, Australian men, on average, spend twenty-eight minutes per day on household chores while women spend one hour and eight minutes. Life in the kitchen is no different. In 84% of Australian households, women remain the primary cooks.

It is certainly true that men are cooking at home more than they have. Generally, though, the nature of the cooking they do is different. The truth is, men are more motivated by cooking as performance than as an act of service. Research tells us that men in the kitchen typically place a higher value on the mastery of technical skill than on the nurturing of those they cook for. I have a friend who is currently fascinated with the gadgets of backyard smoking and slow grilling. His mastery of these gadgets has led him into all manner of online groups where men share their skills with religious fervour. It is a particular male obsession. What’s more, as the social researcher Rebecca Huntley observes, the male household cook is much more motivated by an audience and playing to them. Consequently, while the male cook may be lauded as “the kitchen hero” on weekends, it is still predominantly their female partners who keep the family fed and watered during the week: “the deeply gendered distinction between cooking as a vocation—as technical skill—and cooking as a domestic chore—as caring work—holds fast.” So, while sex in the kitchen may be different to what it once was, it is, according to Huntley, “still in the missionary position.”

The extraordinary success of television cooking shows provides an interesting commentary on our contemporary understandings of food. The celebrated Australian chef Gay Bilson, now retired to a farm in South Australia, has become one of our nation’s most intelligent food writers. For Bilson, the trajectory of shows like MasterChef is entirely “aspirational.” That is, they have little to do with the daily domestic life of our kitchens and more to do with the glamorous world of artfully stacked restaurant food we’re all meant to aspire to. While we salivate over stylized images of food ‘plated’ for the discerning consumer, we return to the dinner table with a diminished sense of what’s actually before us, its connection to the earth and the care that’s made it possible. The distance between what is aspired to and what our ordinary lives most need is wide. Most notably, Bilson argues, the value of the domestic cook is marginalized.

This marginalization has a long history. In his wonderful book The Pudding That Took a Thousand Cooks, Australian writer Michael Symons observes that for much of history, household cooks “have been in the background — both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. These cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.” Indeed, if the old adage is true, we are what we eat, then household cooks have not just made our meals, they have made us. For most household cooking — the cooking that marks our days and feeds our bodies — is not about art or performance. It’s about service and the daily sacrifices of earth and home. It’s about nutrition and wellbeing. It’s about the rituals and routines that hold us together as households and families.

It was this that my mother instinctively understood. When it came to cooking, mum did not care for detail. For the most part, her recipes are simple and to the point. Like the one she called “Chicken Casserole a la Jean.” Jean was mum’s older sister. As it happens I remember mum writing it down at Aunty Jean’s table. The truth is, neither mum nor Jean liked cooking. Life was too full to be distracted by detail, especially in the kitchen. The recipe is brief.

I chicken pulled to pieces
Fry onions and peppers and mushrooms
Add 1 tin of celery OR asparagus OR chicken soup
Add to chicken and into oven

I have never made Chicken a la Jean, and I probably never will. But there is something in the spirit of this recipe that hovers over me today. I am a serious cook, more serious and skilled than my mother was, but I am always conscious of her presence when I cook. “That’ll do!” she would always say. When I am prone to make food more important than people, and to give the processes of preparation more time than I give to those who will eat it, I hear her say, “That’ll do!” Mum cooked entirely driven by love, her love for those for whom she cooked. It was a service pure and simple.

Culinary historian Henry Notaker (A History of Cookbooks) writes on the role of women in professional kitchens. Though women are in the majority of professional cooks through history, Notaker demonstrates the degree to which they too have been marginalized, demeaned and paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Sound familiar? In 19th century France, women cooks were paid just a third of what was paid to men. Though these men commonly took the plumb roles in palaces and mansions, it was women who filled the majority of roles in household kitchens. They often combined cooking with other household duties, whereas men only cooked.

As women began enrolling in professional cookery courses in France in the late 1800s, one male gatekeeper was indignant and accused women of usurping a profession that did not belong to them. He was aware that women were immersed in cooking from birth and had no objection to women who cooked at home, but he claimed that they had no right to enter what he called “our work,” which, by the way, he considered too fatiguing for the female constitution and also too extensive for their flimsy knowledge.

Thankfully, there has been a long and honourable line of women in history who have persisted, the ones who have been able to see through the hubris and hypocrisy of men claiming their birth right in the professional kitchen. These women have found the courage to call out these male cooks as egotists with little real concern for the health and well-being of those they fed. The author of the first cookbook written by an Italian woman and published in 1900, said this: “For male cooks it is enough to pose as artist, these cooks are seeking a name for themselves and they want glory and laurels, even at the risk of spoiling other people’s digestion.” She accused men of pandering to the epicures and gluttons rich enough to pay, while female cooks were concerned that food is healthy, nourishing and an expression of care.

It is now 40 years since Victorian Baptists first ordained women to pastoral ministry. It was a bun fight at the time and our behaviour during that period is nothing for us to be proud of. You would imagine that four decades later we could confidently say that sex in the church looks fundamentally different. Indeed, there are instances where that is the case. Certainly we have made significant strides and women are now able to play roles in our movement they’ve never played before. But in other ways, little has changed. Still a majority of our churches will not consider a woman as pastor and certainly not as a senior pastor in a team ministry context. There is something at the heart of this continuing resistance that rests on a basic question regarding the nature of pastoral ministry. At its essence, is ministry a performance or an act of service?

As the youngest son growing up in suburban Dandenong, I got to sit next to mum in church. We Baptists only celebrated communion on the first Sunday morning of each month. Each time we did, it was men, exclusively men, who sat behind that table. It was a man, always a man, who stood to his feet and, as he held the elements aloft, uttered the words of Jesus: “this is my body given for you … this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” What I remember, however, is that prior to the service, I would accompany mum in the church kitchen as she cut up slices of Tip Top white bread into the tiniest pieces; as she poured the grape juice ever so carefully into those little Baptist shot glasses lined up in wooden trays. There was one roster for the men who would flank the pastor behind the communion table, and another roster for the women who made everything ready. The men performed; the women served. It seems that regardless of our brand or the clerical uniforms we wear, our churches confront the same persistent issues.

In today’s restaurant kitchens, more than 75% of head or executive chef positions are maintained by men. Indeed, it is a stubborn figure that does not move. As a rule, it is men who perform at the pass while it’s women — those who make up more than 60% of kitchen staff — who serve in the background. It seems that today’s professional kitchen and today’s church have much in common.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus met with his disciples to anticipate his death and the challenges that lay beyond it. To demonstrate the essence of the ministry for which he was preparing them, Jesus took off his outer robe, knelt before them and washed their feet. There was no audience to play to, no positons to protect, no power to maintain or authority to exercise. There were only dirty feet, and it was Jesus who washed them. “You do likewise,” he said to them.

In 2017, my wife and I enjoyed some of the most delightful weeks in Tuscany, Italy. As part of our travels, we spent a day in the fortress town of Montepulciano. While we were there, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of San Biagio, a magnificent 16th century edifice built on an open field below the town. As it happens, I was the only visitor inside. For as long as I was there, it was just me, a magnificent space, and a priest.

The priest was an industrious young man, dressed in uniform black. Though he smiled warmly at me, we did not speak. He was busy. With his clerical collar unbuttoned, he was carting stacks of plastic chairs from the central sanctuary to an outer door. Seated in a pew, I watched him for about half an hour. Back and forth he went, stack after stack from one place to the other. At one point I offered to help, but he brushed me away with some words in Italian I couldn’t understand.

As I sat in this sublime place of worship watching my brother work, I reflected on just how domestic is most of what we do in this business. No matter what our tradition, no matter how grand or plain our context, how large or small our congregations or how notable our titles, so much of what we do is carting chairs. Oh, there are moments, those grand unforgettable moments: those occasional sermons in which our spirits sore; those pastoral encounters in which we sense God’s transforming presence; those remarkable moments in a church’s life when you know the delight of God in the most extraordinary way. But then, you go back to carting chairs. After 30+ of pastoral ministry, I have come to understand that it’s this that lies at the heart of what we do.

At the end of the day, you know, for all the TV hype, the cooking shows and celebrity chefs, those who cook for a living offer a service of the most basic kind. They feed us. When all the glamour is stripped away, they are, in fact, part of the modern, professional servant class. A contributor in the pages of the journal Quadrant reflected recently on the contrast between her life as a writer and her work as a functions manager on weekends. In this reflection she describes “the gross materiality” she confronted every evening in those she served: “Mess, vomit, rotten food, garbage, sour smells, burnt offerings, and drunken bodies regularly confronted me at the end of the night. Quite literally, I had to put my hands in the muck that other people had left behind. My job was to sort refuse, dispose of it, then create a picture anew, as if it had never taken place.”

It’s a pretty ordinary business really.

As fond as I am of my mother’s recipe book, I know that I cannot romanticize it too much. Mum never liked cooking. For her it was a means to other things. It was an act of foot washing. Seven nights each week, for twenty-plus years of my life, my mother took of her outer robes, put on her apron, knelt down and washed my feet. There was no heavenly light streaming through the window as she did so. There was no audience, just a table full of tired and hungry people who were just as likely to turn up their noses at what was on their plates as they were to give thanks. Cooking was service, a humble and routine act of service. But in that service there is something of the essence of ministry and the spirituality that shapes it.

As we in the church continue to wrestle with the nature of ministry, with what it means to be communities of faith in which all contributions are received with gratitude, we have much to learn from our kitchens and much to learn from the God who inhabits those kitchens as much as God inhabits our churches.

I conclude tonight with a prayer, a responsive prayer inspired by the words of Baptist pastor and writer Kenneth Sehested (In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public, 2009). Perhaps you can join me in reading those words printed in italics.

breast-feeding God,
hungry and thirsty we return to your lap
and to your table again.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

Fill us again with bread that satisfies,
with milk that nourishes.
Drench our parched throats
with the cool taste of your goodness.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

We come to your lap
and to your table
to rediscover your romance with the world.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

As you nourish us with the bread of life
and the milk of your Word,
let your Spirit hang an apron around our necks,
fashioned and patterned
like that worn by Jesus.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.
Nourish our hearts and strengthen our bodies
so that we can feed others.

Instruct us,
here in the halls
of your kitchen-kingdom,
with the recipes of mercy and forgiveness,
of compassion and redemption.

Leaven our lives
‘til they rise in praise:
offered, blessed and broken
for the healing of this earth.