Dishes, Toilets, Chairs and Prayers

Every job has its less pleasant tasks.  At the cafe where I work, these tasks include dishes, sweeping and mopping at the end of the night, cleaning the bathrooms.  Not long after I started, our manager gave me a task that was entirely my responsibility: tighten the bolts on the underside of the toilet boll that stop the seat from wiggling.  Each night, I tighten those bolts, just as I fulfill my other duties. 

Rarely do I complain about the menial tasks which my job at the cafe entails.  Why?  Because I know the real reason I work at the cafe:  the people.  I love working there because of the people I meet and talk with every night:  my coworkers, the regulars, the first-timers who don’t yet know we only take cash.  The good that comes out of these conversations makes it more than worth tightening the toilet seat bolts. 

Remembering the reason I’m there also allows me to do the menial tasks prayerfully.  For example, when I take the chairs off the tables at the end of the night after mopping, I sometimes pray short blessings: “God, may whoever sits here tomorrow experience your love and grace.”  Sometimes it’s even more specific, thinking of a regular customer who usually sits at the same table every day.  This practice has become a simple way for me to do the simple tasks of my job, all the while remembering why I’m there in the first place.  And yes, sometimes I’ve even prayed this way while fixing the bolts on the toilet.

Why then, do I – like so many other church-workers – have trouble finding motivation to prayerfully do the less pleasant administrative tasks of ministry?   I think it’s because we forget the real reason we do them:  to serve Jesus.  Just as dishes and mopping floors at the cafe are not ends in themselves, neither are emails, budgets, meetings, or check-request forms the end of ministry.  The purpose of ministry is to glorify Jesus and build his kingdom.   It’s sometimes hard to see through all the emails or paperwork or event-planning, but even these small but necessary tasks are ultimately about serving Jesus.

Speaking about the administrative tasks of ministry, Craig Barnes once said in our Pastoral Care class in seminary, “Everyone has to do the dishes, but Brother Lawrence taught us we can do the dishes spiritually.”  Brother Lawrence was a monk who wrote about finding intimacy with God throughout all of his daily tasks, including dish-washing, in the book Practicing the Presence of God.  Doing dishes for Brother Lawrence was not about dishes – it was about conversation with God.

I’m sitting at my desk right now, looking over things that will come up on tonight’s agenda for our steering team meeting.  And now, lest I again forget the real reason why we do this work, I’m going to pray over each item on our agenda.  If I can “do the dishes spiritually” at the cafe, then surely we can conduct our administrative work tonight not as a “business meeting”, but as a time of fellowship and worship.

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