Checking on Our Intangibles

As a young pastor sixty years ago in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, I began writing a weekly guest editorial, “Religiously Speaking,” for the local newspaper, The British Columbian.

Back then, I had to deliver my column as a paper copy. 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?” That became his usual greeting.

Bill was a tough newsman, a recovering alcoholic, a man who knew his business. He was always friendly, not at all scornful or contemptuous. He just understood that “reverends” deal with an aspect of life that often can’t be physically touched or seen with physical eyes — the intangibles.

How right he was! This point was driven home to me by analogy one day. I started on my intangibles which were to include time studying Scripture for my next sermon, visiting in homes or hospital, listening to people’s stories and offering prayer or counsel.

That particular morning I glanced across the street from our home and church. A wide lot had been cleared, a foundation poured, and the men were arriving to frame up the first level of a two-story apartment building.

Later that day, I pulled into our driveway from an afternoon of pastoral calling, and, after getting out of the car, looked across the street. There stood the framework for the first floor of that building. The workmen had gone home, leaving behind tangible results of their day’s work.

This sight set me back temporarily. It was such a sharp contrast to my kind of work. I found myself reflecting on some intangible work I had done that day — not only sermon preparation but also prayer with a parishioner facing surgery, a visit with a distraught wife whose husband was about to desert her and calling on a family new to the community and our church.

Within this review of my day’’s work, Bill’s question came to mind. After all, I had put in the time and had reckoned each stage carefully but had done nothing as visible as the workers across the street. The work of carpenters, electricians and dentists is in a sense concrete; a pastor’s work is much more subtle, sometimes seen in substance only after a long interval of time.

Come to think of it, so much of what all Christians are called on to do is at first spiritual, mental, intangible: Honor your father and your mother; Be merciful to those who doubt; Abstain from sinful desires; Pray for one another; Preach the gospel; Pray without ceasing.

Most of us would like vocations that produce immediate, tangible results. Who doesn’t like to see the kitchen back in perfect order after a family meal? Or the Christian education center filled with children for after-school Bible lessons?

In large part, Bill was right: for those of us called to the pastoral life, so much we are assigned to do has its roots in the intangibles. But this only means we must be aware in our vocation that our activities are real and crucial though at the same time their results cannot be immediately seen. Understanding this deepens our dependence on prayer to do our work for the Lord, and sharpens our awareness of what we attempt for Him, leaving the results to Him.

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Photo credit: Concrete Forms (via

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