Numbers: ministry by the book

I am a United Methodist pastor, so every January I get to fill out “End of Year” reports; a series of statistical tables reporting numbers of members who have joined the church, numbers of people who have passed away, amount of money received, how the money was spent, etc. This year it happened that on the very day I was filling out these reports, I found myself in the middle of the book of Numbers for my daily Bible reading.
Numbers? Have you read the book? It is a census report, a church administration manual. This is how many Israelites marched out of Egypt. This is how many from one tribe. This is how many from this other tribe. On and on through all twelve tribes. If you make it through that, then you get to read where each tribe gets to camp. This tribe on the east. That tribe on the west. This tribe on the east to the left of the other tribe camping on the east. If you make it through that, then there is a second census.
My guess, many people who make earnest resolutions to read through the Bible have navigated the slow waters of the “begats” in Genesis to eventually stall in what feels like the backwaters of census material in the book of Numbers. I was tempted to skip over it. I had read the material before. Maybe skip ahead to the stirring last sermon of Moses in Deuteronomy or the swash-buckling exploits of Joshua storming the promised land in the book which bears his name.
Then I came to chapter 6, one of my favorite readings in the Bible comes from Numbers chapter 6 “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” This blessing is only one of the many jewels spread throughout the census material of Numbers. There is also the story of how God told the Israelites to use the fringe of their garments as a reminder of the covenant in chapter 15. Later in chapter 22 there is the remarkable story of Balaam’s talking donkey. All of this is spread out, interspersed amidst reports of the numbers of people in each tribe, how to set up the sanctuary, what order the tribes should march in or camp.
Like these nuggets spread out amidst the census reports of Numbers, there are amazing things that happen in ministry on what may often feel like the most mundane days. Here I am filling out numbers on a computer spreadsheet, and suddenly God reminds me of that family who brought their newborn to the waters of baptism and the care of the church nine months ago. I’m trying to figure out how many people actually passed away last year, when I remember the words that “Sam” shared just hours before he died, words of faith and hope in the face of death.
Numbers, that’s what I came to the office to focus on today. It was supposed to be a day of simply crunching numbers. Yet for so many of the numbers, I am recalling a face, an encounter, and find myself whispering the words of comfort, support and promise offered by a long line before me, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
Yeah, ministry is about the Numbers too. It’s in the book after all.

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