Guest blog: Backroom Theology by Jonathan Simmons
I remember the first time I made a living wage from vocational ministry. It was actually an internship in Knoxville, TN. Ironically, most internships do not normally pay for all the blood, sweat and tears required for the role but this one did. Regardless, it was all I had time for and I wasn’t earning money any other way. I think because I loved it so much, it was really just the beginning of a path that would lead me to other ministries and inevitably a higher income. Now this doesn’t mean that I was getting rich. I went on to live with church members, in their basements, spare rooms and rental properties. What this did, however, was provide the space and time necessary to truly reflect on why I’m doing what I’m doing and how to do it better. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. Eventually, my wife and I were able to purchase our own home with all the pride and accoutrement to accompany it. Now I had the space and place to retreat into my own creativity and theological reflection. With an office to accompany this productivity, I might as well have been in the NY Financial District staring down the charging bull and ready to take on the world. I was a professional.
Unfortunately, instead of climbing the ladder into more ministerial prestige and honor, I pretty much flung myself off the ladder and landed with a loud thud in the dirt below. Because of many poor choices, my grip had slipped and the world I knew came crashing down around me. Crumpled and wounded, without a job and not even yet prodigal because there wasn’t any money to spend, I was desperate to reestablish my worth as a man and husband. In just a few months, we were back in the spare bedroom of a family member. No office, no private space for creativity or reflection and most importantly, no paycheck. What’s a seriously wounded person, in need of healing but still thriving for expression to do? I think it’s in times like these that we are able to finally realize God’s presence, both manifest and surreal. At least, that’s what happened to me. I imagine the Father to be like that in Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son”. The painting reveals the father’s face but not the son’s, who has buried his shamefully. Yet, a close look at the face of the father reveals a slight mischief in his crooked smile, a knowing of what has been and what is to come.
For me, what was to come was the backroom of a major retail giant. I gained employment and even attained a fancy title, ‘Backroom Logistics’. In reality, it was the loading dock and storeroom for everything from towels to cereal to yoga mats. My office now had 30 foot ceilings, industrial fans and little laser guns to scan barcodes. To top it all off, if was open all night long. You might call that 3rd shift…I called it office hours. Neat right? I mean the prestige of it all was off the charts. It was in this dimly lit space that God decided to make regular appointments with me. While climbing up ladders, scanning a box, bringing that box down and repeating the process, a rhythm developed that not enabled me to do this quickly but gladly. I remember one time being in the narrow space of the storeroom aisles, reflecting on all the places I had been and all the things I had done. The enemy named ‘Pity’ had been creeping slowly and steadily into my thoughts. I was feeling claustrophobic by all this cardboard. This was my office. Suddenly and without warning, the voice of the Father spoke over my pity, his arms wrapped around me and as deep calls to deep I heard these words, “I still love you and I’ve still called you.”
Tears welled up and I had to stop moving. Shame was overcome with grace and affirmation, not at the hands of flesh but by that of God’s Spirit. I was reminded after years of professionalism and prestige that God was far more interested in the shape of my heart than the shape of my office. My audience was no longer dressed fancy and didn’t show up to hear my eloquent speaking. In fact, we all wore the same uniform of red and khaki. Yet, I sensed purpose on the horizon. Over time, slowly and steadily, I regained worth as a man and husband, not so much from what I did but from who I belonged to. This backroom with it’s dust, machinery and cursing co-workers became my sanctuary. The corporate ladder I had been climbing was replaced by a literal ladder. It was my new pulpit. I had been called to bear witness of Christ to those who wouldn’t dare darken the doors of a church building. So after all this, can I ask you a simple question? Where are you today? In that space you call ‘intimate’ where only you and God co-habitate, what is the Father speaking? Wherever your “backroom” is, I encourage you to listen and be amazed at the rhythm of grace flowing from our loving Creator. Your worth as a person doesn’t come from what you do, it comes from who you call Father and your Father in turn call’s you “Loved.”
Jonathan Simmons is the Children’s Ministries Pastor at Renovatus: A Church for People Under Renovation