World of the Intangibles

As a young pastor in New Westminster, B. C. a half century ago, I began writing a weekly guest editorial, “Religiously Speaking,” for the local newspaper, The British Columbian.

One day as I went through the newsroom, a man named Bill called out to me, “Hi, Reverend –- how’s everything in the world of the intangibles?” It became his usual greeting.

Bill was a tough newsman, a recovering alcoholic, who knew his business. He was always friendly, not at all taunting or offensive. He just understood that ministers or reverends deal with an aspect of life that can’t be nailed to a beam or posted to a ledger -– that aspect of life he called the intangibles.

How right he was! One morning as I started on my “intangibles” for the day –- spending time in study, visiting in homes or hospital, listening to people’s stories, offering prayer or counsel — I glanced across the street. There a wide lot had been cleared, a foundation poured, and the men were arriving to frame up the first level of what was going to be an apartment building.

Later that day, as I pulled into our driveway from an afternoon of pastoral calling, I glanced across the street again. There stood the framework for what was to be the first floor of that building. The workmen had gone home, leaving behind the tangible results of their day’s work.

I found myself reflecting on some of the rewarding but “intangible” work I had done that day. Perhaps I had prayed with a parishioner facing surgery, visited a distraught wife whose husband was leaving her, called in a home of a family new to community and church. Bill’s question came to mind — “How’s everything in the world of the intangibles?” What work had I done that day that was as visible as the rising building across the street?

Many persons, such as cabinet makers, manufacturers, homemakers, or even dentists have the reward of seeing the results of their work very quickly.

By contrast, whatever is visible in a pastor’s work is more subtle and sometimes seen only after a long interval of time. Consider Paul’s list of pastoral qualities young Pastor Timothy was to bring to his work: “…set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” — all intangibles (1 Tim. 4:12).

Come to think of it, so much of what all Christians are called upon to do is at first intangible: “Be merciful to those who doubt,” “Abstain from sinful desires,” “Pray for one another,” “Preach the gospel,” “Honor your father and your mother,” “Pray without ceasing.” None of this is “seen” in the conventional sense.

We would all like jobs that produce immediate, tangible results. Who doesn’t like to see the kitchen back in spic-and-span order after a family meal? Or what pastor doesn’t like to reflect on the results of a baptism after the sacrament has been observed? These are tangible. But, in a sweeping sense, Bill was right in his understanding of the pastor’s role: the tangible results pastors work for begin in long stretches of the intangible. Theirs are truly lives of faith.

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