Getting in the Way

New word of the week: potentiometer.

While searching through Wikipedia (God help me if it ever gets blacked out permanently), I came across an article on resistors. I thought that sounded interesting, and perhaps even applicable to me. I am, after all, a curmudgeon in training.

Alas, I didn’t have the technical knowledge to really understand resistors beyond the simple premise that they slow down electrical current. But I did come across the concept of a variable resistor, or potentiometer.

A potentiometer slows down electrical current at different levels, as adjusted by the user. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. If you’ve ever turned the volume dial on a radio or moved the sliders on a sound board, you’ve used a potentiometer.

It strikes me as a good description of my job.

We American pastors are resistors—not in the sense that we stand in the way of progress (although I can’t deny that some of us do). Rather, we are in a vocation charged with slowing down the unchecked pace of contemporary life, of helping people turn down the volume of anxiety and stress long enough to consider deeper things like love and God and community. We are positioned—paid, even—so that at our best we intentionally resist the current.

Sometimes, people approach us with that in mind. One person will seek help coping with a failed marriage. Another will ask to talk about the emptiness of a life marked by acquisition rather than generosity. When someone opens these conversations, it’s our job to slow down enough to listen and respond.

My congregation, however, doesn’t tend to approach me with their problems. They are mostly college students or recent graduates, all trying to prove that they can make it on their own in the adult world. They are often busy to the point of neurosis, and they hate asking for help.

In light of that, I’ve been employing a new strategy lately. I’ve been getting in their way.

It’s not as intrusive as it sounds. I don’t grab students by the arm and lead them to my office for counseling. Rather, I simply put myself in situations where I know I will encounter students who don’t expect to find me there, and I look for opportunities.

One of my favorite places of late has been outside the coffee stop in the student union. Someone I know will walk by, hurrying to or from class, or maybe out on an errand, or simply putting off going to the library to study. When students see me there, they do a double take. I don’t belong in that spot, according to their mental categories. And so they stop for a minute, and we get a chance to talk.

I won’t claim that my getting in the way like this has radically changed someone’s life. As far as I know, the effects are relatively minimal. But I know that my presence occasionally causes people to slow down, if only for a moment, and to talk with someone who cares about them before they head on to their next obligation.

I wonder what the world might look like if more of us acted as potentiometers for one another. I wonder if our collective action could really slow the pace of our world enough that we could truly care and be cared for, and as a result appreciate more fully what a gift this life is.

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