I was at the grocery store the other day. My grocery store. The one where, in theory, I go once a week with menu planned and shopping list in hand. The one where, in actuality, I go once a day to pick up milk or bread or frozen pizzas.
As I was walking down the juice aisle with definite purpose, my cart expertly stacked, I noticed a bewildered looking middle-aged man. His cart had only a few items in it, thrown in haphazardly. He looked at the paper in his hand and then at the shelves to his left. Then at the paper, then at the shelves to his right.
Just as he was getting ready to look at his paper again, he saw me. His look of confusion turned into a smile of utter relief. “You can help me,” he said. “Where can I find the almonds?”
“Sliced almonds are four rows down in the baking aisle,” I said. “If you want whole almonds, they are one more aisle down with the snacks.”
And so off he went to get the almonds, a new confidence in his step.
As he walked away, I started wondering where I had seen that look before. That “thank goodness you are here” look. That “finally someone who can help me” look. I’d seen it before. But not in the grocery store.
I had seen it at church. And in people’s homes. And at wedding rehearsals. And funerals.
It’s the look people often give pastors when we meet them in the midst of chaos and crisis.
They are wandering frantically through a break-up or a wedding; a new baby or the death of a parent; an epiphany of faith or a period of doubt. And in the midst of their wandering, there we are: The Pastor.
“You can help me,” they say. “Where do I go from here? What do I do now? Will it ever stop hurting? Where can I find God?”
I wish I were as confident in the messiness of life and faith as I was that afternoon in the carefully laid out aisles of the grocery store. I wish I could meet every relieved look with a calm and knowing smile. I wish I could answer every frantic question with a confident and accurate response: “four rows down on your left.”
But of course, God is not to be found four rows down on the left. At least not last time I looked. I can’t positively reassure the groom-to-be that he will live happily ever after with his new bride. I can’t tell the newly divorced woman or the grieving widower when—or if—it will stop hurting.
Whenever I see that “you can help me” look, I feel both honored and terrified.
Honored because God has placed me in a position where my mere presence can bring a certain sense of calm to people in crisis. Honored because, by the grace of God, I can help people. Honored because the Holy Spirit enables me to help them through prayer; through wise counsel; through acts of love. Honored to watch the Spirit at work, spurring into action the vast resources of the church to comfort and assist and bake pies for those in deep need.
Terrified because the help I can offer will not be quick or easy or confident—possibly not even helpful. Terrified because the answer I must give—so much more often than I would like—is “I don’t know.” Terrified because it is quite possible that instead of pulling the other person out of the confusion and chaos, I will simply slip into it with them.
“You can help me.” Pastors hear that in people’s voices; we see it in their eyes.
It is good, I think, that we are not too confident. That we do not direct people too quickly to aisle seven. Because it is in our uncertainty, it is when we slip into the chaos with others, that the grace of God abounds.
“You can help me.”
“Well, I can at least walk with you toward the One who can.”
Thanks be to God.