The Receptionist and the Messenger
There are times when it feels like to be a pastor is to be the receptionist at a walk-in clinic where the doctor is never in. The sick and the wounded, the weary and confused, the angry and exhausted—in they stumble, speaking of bodies that are breaking down, of loved ones who are dying, of relationships that stagger under the weight of too many cumulative breaks and fissures to possibly think of mending, of doubts born of too much suffering and silence. In they come, assuming that the receptionist has some kind of special access to the doctor, to the healing they want and need.
And what can the receptionist say? What can the receptionist do but hold up his hands with a plaintive look on his face and deep ache in his heart and say, “Well, I’ll leave a message with the doctor… It’s just that his schedule is very unpredictable… and he’s often busy elsewhere… and we don’t really treat that kind of affliction here… and, well yes, I realize that occasionally we do, but it’s just that I can’t really say… What’s that? Yes, I know it really hurts… It must be so awful… I can’t imagine…Really, I can’t… Yes, I will see what I can do… As I said, I’ll put a word in for the doctor… No, I don’t think he’s hiding… No, I don’t think he’s incompetent… Um, why won’t he fix this? Well, you see, it’s hard for me to say, really… I’m just out here in the waiting room like you… I’m just the receptionist… But I will put a word in on your behalf… I know… it doesn’t sound like much… I’m sorry. I don’t know what else I can say.”
Yes, there are times when it feels just like this. Helpless, frustrating, sad, tedious. There are times when the receptionist would like to give the doctor a piece of his mind for all the human wreckage out here in the waiting room. What would you have me do? These are your patients, not mine! I just work here. What am I supposed to say about your unpredictable schedule? How do you want me to explain all the mixed results? I’m getting a little tired of defending you, you know. Would it kill you to make an appearance, now and again? The patients grow restless and I’m running out of things to tell them…
But there are other times, too. Times when the receptionist grows just bold enough to imagine that he is not a receptionist at all, but rather a messenger with good news about a good kingdom. A kingdom that is no less real or beautiful or hopeful for the fact that it is not yet fully realized. A kingdom that grows and advances in spite of the open wound of human existence. A kingdom where breakdown and decay and rupture and silence and pain are not evidence of the doctor’s absence or incompetence but the inevitable fabric of the space between promise and fulfillment that all must navigate, and where our very hunger for a life free from these afflictions is an important clue to what we can, finally, hope for.
It is a kingdom where rumour has it that the doctor has taken off his sterile white lab coat, and placed himself directly in harm’s way, inexplicably exposing himself to all the nasty germs and viruses, all the dirty diseases and malignant tumours that are part and parcel of his patient’s lives. It is a kingdom where the doctor knows that the healing we need is far deeper and far longer lasting than the kind that we imagine brought us to the waiting room, and that this kind of healing is accomplished in different ways than we imagine. It is a kingdom where the doctor is not in the business of temporarily patching up bodies destined only to keep breaking, but of bringing about something entirely new, something the patients can barely imagine, something that has no need of dreary waiting rooms and weary receptionists.
The receptionist manages expectations and offers bumbling apologies for a doctor who doesn’t perform as the broken down patients expect or want. The messenger brings news of a kingdom where the breaking and the breaking down are no more.