With the deepest gratitude to a man of God who showed the world what being a pastor was meant to look like. Eugene Peterson died on Monday 22nd October, and after running with the horses all his life, he has now stopped for his eternal reward and rest. It is deeply symbolic for me too, that this post should come in between three posts on Pastoral Ministry that I am writing. I had wanted to keep them together in the post-chain of posts, but a dedication to Eugene Peterson is perfectly fitting.
His book, Run with the Horses, is for me, one of the most important books that I try to read once a year. It is a superb commentary on the life of the great prophet Jeremiah, and shows forth the real elements of a life lived in service to God and pastoral ministry to the people. The phrase, run with the horses, is taken from Jeremiah 12, and is God’s challenge and slight warning to him, after he had complained about how tough ministry had become for him. I use this phrase and unpack it when teaching other students in ministry, since I can’t find a better picture than this.
What is your notion of a prophet?
I suspect the Western Protestant Church has made a right hash of this ministry.
Reducing it to mere predictions.
Either doom or glory, or vague hope & polite niceness.
Reducing it to clichéd slogans that mean anything and everything ….and nothing.
Reducing it the “wacky fringe of the church”:
The bigger the beard the greater the prophet!
Reducing it to spontaneous mini-messages of bespoke theological preference!
Reducing it to magic, on a par with ancient and modern gnosticism:
God’s weird little secrets made known to the special weird few!
We need less (zero) ‘Personal Idiosyncratic Eschatology’ (or P.I.E. for short – I made that up all on my own); and more of what Eugene Peterson in his brilliant book Run with the Horses refers to as the true nature of the Prophet:
1. A prophet lets people know who God is and what he is like, what he says and what he is doing.
2. A prophet wakes us up from our sleepy complacency so that we see the great and stunning drama that is our existence, and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not.
3. A prophet angers us by rejecting our euphemisms and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are!
“The people encountered in pastoral ministry today are sinners.
But they don’t look like it, and many of them don’t even act like it.
They rather look and act and feel like the youth they admire so much, struggling for “identity” and searching for “integrity.”
A quick theological eye that is able to pick up the movements of sin hiding behind these seemingly innocent characteristics will keep a pastor on track, doing what he or she was called to do:
sharing a ministry of grace and forgiveness centred in Jesus Christ.”
Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p.128
If we referred to the Church as a collection of broken and battered sticks from everywhere and no where,
that would be a pretty good description of what it means to be part of God’s family.
Ballad to the Fisher King by Eugene Peterson (in Holy Luck, p.74-5):
Pete and Andy and Jack and Jim, sailed in sturdy ships.
They were fishermen who plowed the sea, while curses flowed from their lips.
Heigh ho to the Fisher King, Heigh ho; Heigh ho to the Fisher Christ.
The world for them was stuff to grab, the sea a chest to plunder;
Creation was a vacant lot and not a place for wonder.
Heigh ho to the Fisher King, Heigh ho; Heigh ho to the Fisher Christ.
They caulked their ships with sticky pitch, were quick at mending sail.
They swore and sang old chantey tunes, and drank from a common grail.
Heigh ho to the Fisher King, Heigh ho; Heigh ho to the Fisher Christ.
But the fight though hard was joyful and free; and they sang good songs of blessing.
They helped and healed and loved and prayed, and seldom missed the fishing.
Heigh ho to the Fisher Kin, Heigh ho; Heigh ho to the Fisher Christ.
Now the fish is a sign of the saving Christ, and a sign of the men he’s for;
And a fish is a sign you can scratch on the sand, and a meal to feed the poor.
Heigh ho to the Fisher King, Heigh ho; Heigh ho to the Fisher Christ.
In this well known passage read out all over the world this Palm Sunday,
we catch a glimpse of a good and bad glory, a great biblical scene that is too often distorted by sentimentalism and likewise dismissed as a rather nice picture: the baby in the manger has grown up to be a rather good donkey rider!
But does it mean something else? It does. Thank God….
So, Jesus is riding on a donkey, into a frenzied religious city,
that is about to begin the most passionate religious festival – The Passover.
What could possibly go wrong?
The sun is shining (as usual).
The people are praising (fundamentalists)!
The disciples are happy (though confused).
The religious leaders are indignant (though worried).
The Roman guards are amused at these crazy Jews (as usual)!
What could possibly go wrong?
There are two things (for now), to notice about ‘glory’:
1. This act of Jesus is a fulfilment of prophecy (Zech 9:9)
– a peaceable king riding on a donkey.
– a demonstration of what this King is like.
– this scene is Heaven’s King lighting the fuse that will blow apart how we
understand the very meaning of glory.
2. Then there is the adulation/hysteria of the crowds
– worldly ambition.
– king-making religious nationalism.
– this is a demonstration of what people are like.
– this is earth’s subjects proving that we don’t understand glory all that well.
So what do we have?
The glory of fulfilment of prophecy being enacted
V’s The glory of a religiously excited crowd
that just one week later would swap their ‘Hosannas’ for ‘Crucify’.
And the great and terrible and biblical and salvation saturated irony is this:
The fullest and final and most glorious expression
of the glory of God
is seen not in the smiling worshipping crowds (as they thought),
but in the willing surrender, the sacrifice,
of this donkey riding Jesus one week,
and as He hangs on a Cross the next.
This is the supreme manifestation of the Glory of God.
The glory we like, the glory we seek,
the praise and worship, the sunshine, the niceness of a donkey ride,
is blown apart by this new meaning of Glory:
GOD ON A CROSS.
So a church can ride all the donkeys it wants.
It can sing all the Hosannas it wants.
It can clap and cheer and celebrate this humble Jesus.
Unless we follow Jesus and pick up our cross.
Unless we follow the Crucified donkey-riding God-Man,
through suffering – to glory,
through trial and persecution – to glory,
through despair and brokenness – to glory,
through worship – to glory,
and everything else in between, whether you eat or drink,
or whatever you do,
do it all to the glory of God.
A glory defined not by our own imaginations and desires,
but shaped and re-defined by God’s Word
and God’s Son,
and lived out in glorious technicolour by God’s people,
In this way, in this redefinition of what we thought we understood,
As Eugene Peterson says,
“Jesus takes the brightest word in our vocabulary (glory), and plunges it into the darkest pit of experience, violence and excruciating death. Everything we ever thought about glory has to be re-learned, re-cast. Dictionary definitions won’t help. We have entered a mystery.”
It is when we look at Jesus, as we see again and again in the Gospels,
How the Man on the Donkey really was God on a chariot,
How the Cross really was His throne,
How in His death, we live,
And how when we live in Christ,
through our suffering and decaying bodies,
we glorify God.
Pastoral expectations, idealisms, fantasy’s and fictions are often held by both pastor and congregation. Pastors have very high hopes (in God) for the church and often live with having these high hopes unrealised, unmet and often dashed upon the rocks of their own inflated ego. Congregations on the other hand, have very high hopes (in the pastor) to make their imagined version of the church a reality.
It was Bonhoeffer who reminds us that God will not permit us to live in a dream world. When the pastor’s plans flounder, he or she will often lash out, and blame this, that or them! When the congregation’s collective plan fails, they may just get a new pastor, as one gets a new car. A new product for a consumer who is tired of the old and hopeful for the new. Sometimes the pastor’s own denominational institution not only allows this to happen but too readily encourages it.
In a previous post, we are reminded of Eugene Peterson’s charge, that a pastor’s role is to say the word “God” accurately. In all the mundane routine of life; in the flickering inconsistency of those saints who make up church congregations, the boredom and lukewarmness that constitutes much of contemporary Church life, the pastor is there, present, to say “God.” Peterson goes on, “We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray.”
He continues, “We are there to focus the overflowing, cascading energies of joy, sorrow, delight, or appreciation, if only for a moment but for as long as we are able, on God. We are there to say “God” personally, to say his name clearly, distinctly, unapologetically, in proclamations and prayers. We are there to say it without hemming and hawing, without throat clearing and without shuffling, without propagandizing, proselytizing, or manipulating. We have no other task. We are not needed to add to what is there. We are required only to say the name: Father, Son, Holy Ghost.
All men and women hunger for God. The hunger is masked and misrepresented in many ways, but it is always there. Everyone is on the verge of crying out “My Lord and my God!” but the cry is drowned out by doubts or defiance, muffled by the dull ache of their routines, masked by their cozy accomodations with mediocrity. Then something happens – a word, an event, a dream – and there is a push toward an awareness of an incredible Grace, a dazzling Desire, a defiant Hope, a courageousness Faithfulness. But awareness, as such, is not enough. Untended, it trickles into religious sentimentalism or romantic blubbering. Or, worse, it hardens into patriotic hubris or pharisaical snobbery. The pastor is there to nudge the awareness past subjectivities and ideologies into the open and say “God.”
We must do only what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger. But it is so easy to get distracted. There is so much going on, so much to see and hear and say. So much emotion. So many tasks. So much, we think, “opportunity.” But our [pastoral] assignment is to the “one thing needful,” the invisible, quiet centre – God” (Under the Unpredictable Plant, p.87)
If pastors within churches can’t, don’t, won’t say the word “God” accurately, who will? Yet if our denominations will fortify pastors in this regard, if churches will grow less consumeristic by becoming more Christ-like, maybe we will see more of the treasure that has been entrusted to us. Jesus did say the wheat and the weeds grow together and Paul wrote to the inconsistent Corinthians that there are bound to be factions, indeed there must be, in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised (1 Cor 11:19).
So not only do we have the absurdity of churchy impostors, religious fakers, nomistic finger-pointers, argumentative factionists and spiritual consumers, we also have, among those who are genuine (to use Paul’s phrase), those who do love the Lord, those who do want to grow – inconsistency on a biblical scale – and pastors must not be afraid to keep on being pastors in the middle of it all. Sometimes and often these categories overlap, in fact, they more than overlap, they mingle and weave. The congregation is inconsistent, it was never promised to be anything but. This is normal. What is not normal is the weirdness of the pastoral role: Preaching and praying. And what is amazing is that all are loved, deeply loved by the “God” we have been called to name!
(The picture was taken by me a couple of years a go. This bundle or congregation of drift wood easily resembles the Church. One of the bits of battered and broken wood is the pastor. God is doing all the gathering, all the while whispering to the pastor, “Keep telling all the other bits of odd and broken wood my Name, don’t stop, keep doing what I’ve called you to do. I will keep gathering.”)
I distinctly remember it was Jesus who said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” (Matthew 16:18).
Even so, we live in a global business age of organisation, efficiency and profit, and there are thousands of books on growth. If you are more organised, more efficient and more profitable, you will grow….but only if you stick to our new-fangled formula!
The Western church has been swallowing this bitter idolatrous pill for decades. We’ve put down our Bibles, and picked up secular ideas and initiatives – why? church numbers are declining, people are leaving the church, pews and seats are becoming empty, coffers are down, bills are up, and then someone said, “Hang on a minute, if we just branded ourselves like Nike, or glamorised ourselves like L’Oreal, or popularised ourselves like celebrities, we too can achieve what they achieve! And should the gates of hell get too close, we’ll just sloganeer them out of town with a TV ad campaign!
What does it mean to be a growing church in this context? In fact, what does it mean to be a growing church and be faithful? Can the Church ever be faithful and successful? Can we do sexy marketing, or shall we just stick with cheesy slogans to do with babies and mangers, bunnies and daffodils? How can we claim to proclaim something better, something the world needs, something unknown and un-buyable? Can the church compete with a world that clamours for everything but Christ and him crucified?
Can we ever be faithful and successful? What does it mean to be a Growing Church?
I’ve had experience in small and largish churches in my twenty three years as a follower of Jesus. At various times I’ve loved the many and at others I’ve loved the few. I suspect we would all love to see our own churches grow. But I bet most of us have some particular and peculiar idea of what we expect when we think about a “growing church.”
And almost all of us have been shaped by growth as defined apart from the Gospel.
During the post-war decades, the church did not refuse the idolatrous impostor of superficial techniques for church growth. The Evangelical mission mistook discipleship for cloning! We made precious converts to Christ in our image, not His!
It was especially the decades of the 60’s-90’s that witnessed the meteoric rise of growth techniques apart from covenantal faithfulness to Christ. Even before the ancient Israelites entered the Promised Land, God reminded them that any “success” they would have would be because of His grace and gift. They had to remain utterly dependent upon God – not the result of their own efforts, expertise, skill or technique. It was God. Later, Jesus would say “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
Jesus understands the depravity and severity of our sinful nature. We distort everything through our distorted desires. Love distorted for lust. Faith distorted for safety. Ministry distorted for egotistical self-promotion. Marital sex distorted for a sickening free-for-all pornography culture. A potty culture for a potty-mouthed people. That’s sin.
And even when the saving grace of God breaks in through the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, we still get pulled and pushed by our old desires, but now we apply that to the Gospel and to church. Unaware of what we are really doing, we get tempted to pursue non-gospel goals using unbiblical motives.
We cry out “Where are you God?” when we suffer because we haven’t understood that Jesus is with us and in us and around us in our suffering. And the One who is near is thought to be far; the One who is present is thought to be absent. So we conclude: “God must be far; God must be absent. This Christian thing doesn’t work too well, so now I too will take myself far from “the church”; I too will absent myself from Christ. I will find other gods.”
We become forgetful of such earth-shattering verses as, “My grace is sufficient for you, my grace is perfected in your weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). There is only one god that failed here, and it is often the one we imagined (we are so Freudian), because our imaginations had not seen the glory of the Living God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus Christ.
So how we view God must not based on our expectations (ha! as if we know!!), but on God’s revelation in the Scriptures. In several surveys conducted before 1993 on preaching within contemporary evangelical churches (documented by David Wells in No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, p.223), less than half were shown to be explicitly biblical and only 19% were grounded in or related in any way to the nature, character and purposes of God. Less that half were biblically deficient! This is a scandal that should outrage us (holy outrage of course – but let’s be outraged in moderation, less than 50% should do it)!!
One of my favourite NT scholars is Professor Anthony Thiselton, he similarly comments on this in his brilliant study of the Apostle Paul when he says, “Much preaching today consists of anecdotes about human life, Paul’s preaching was mainly about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is why we miss some of the sheer excitement of the Gospel.” He’s right! Ever heard the derogatory remark, “He’s so heavenly minded he’s of no earthly use!”? What manure! We need more heavenly minded people! Even our own cultural proverbs stand in opposition to the Gospel (see Colossians 3:1-4).
And all these observations and trends influence how we got where we are and why we are here and in large measure, what to do about it. Fellow Baptist minister Ian Stackhouse of Guildford Baptist Church, in his Gospel-Driven Church (p.108), says that much in church life, especially preaching, is based in ignorance of the Gospel and thus simply consists of communicating vision and motivation – both of which are driven by a concern for success.” Ian’s friend and fellow pastor Dave Hansen told him, “The church is there for Gospel proclamation. Preaching my ideas and visions for the church is cheap leadership and is not preaching – it is thin soup!” Wowzers!
The Gospel is the vision and the idea is the Gospel. When the post-war church in large chunks, not everywhere of course, but when the church bought into the values of secular gimmickry and the thin soup of its mission and purpose, the damage was done.
A growing church, or a fruitful church (both are biblical), is an organic community, like a farmer, not a business man; like a shepherd, not a politician. It is organic not mechanical (think industrial revolution); it is Spirit-led not organisational (think big-business).
Holding on to the Gospel, in gift and grace, is very, very hard. It requires self-awareness of the Old Adam; it requires faith and trust in the New Adam Jesus Christ; It requires the eyes of faith to see what God is doing; and it requires the boldest of people to join in with Him; to get out the boat; to look up; to obey Jesus.
When we secularise the sacred or forsake faithfulness; when we grab but don’t give; when we preach ourselves not Christ, then we have abandoned being the church. This is what Eugene Peterson calls ‘whoring after other gods’ and I’m sure he got that from the many passages on idolatry in the Bible!
As usual, he goes even further, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God, week after week, in towns and villages around the world. The HS gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called the paster (ahem!), and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastors responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades” (Working the Angles, p.2).
Apart from Me you can do nothing. One plants, another waters, God gives growth!
The church that looks for quick results in the seed-planting of well-doing will be disappointed. If we want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, we don’t plant the seeds today! There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and harvest. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and the planting of still more seeds.
“My ways are not your ways, declares the Lord!” The Western Church doesn’t need new ways and good ideas, it needs the Old Ways and God’s revealed idea. The Ways of the Lord. The Way of Jesus. “I am the Way” Jesus said, it is narrow I know, but it is my Way. It is marked with suffering and persecution, I know, but it is my Way. It will lead to the Cross. Your Old Adam must die, but the New Adam will rise in You. Adam will die. Christ will rise. You will live. Knowing this Way, the ways of the Lord in life, death and resurrection, is the business of the Church.
I am much less interested in church as numerical growth, but in spiritual depth. Growth of just one person in Christ. That’s success. That’s fruit. That’s Gospel grace and gift. My experience of mission work in several African countries confirmed what many have said about the African Church that it is a mile wide and an inch deep. Although that’s by-and-large true, I think it very unfair to limit this observation to Africa. Consider the impact of a church that is an inch wide and a mile deep!
Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, Principal of Regent’s Park College in Oxford University reminds us that the Christian community is not the wish fulfillment dream of any individual who envisions a community according to his own ideals. The sooner we are disillusioned by the unhappy and ugly aspects of any community the better. Why? because by sheer grace God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. Why? because living in illusions (a product of our distorted desire), makes us into accusers of others when they seem to fall short of our own imagined aims. The church is not a human ideal that we must realise, but is a gift of God (Fiddes, Under the Rule of Christ, p. 11-12).
A bunch of sinners, gathered in gift and grace under the proclamation of the Gospel, learning together what it means to be “on the Way of Jesus”. Stumbling, but being helped back up. Turning round only to discover Jesus really is the Way, the Truth and the Life. You may want to leave too! But where shall you go? Only Jesus has the words of eternal life – you know that already!
Being fed up with people, only to realise that these people are saved, sanctified and deeply loved by a God of miracles – big enough miracles to even save sinners like you and me. Now that’s Gospel power!
A growing church exists in grace and gift, is shaped by the Gospel to grow everyone in Christ-likeness, as we gather week by week. In season and out of season. In sickness and in health, ’til death us do eternally join! Church is the enactment of our marriage vows to God. We are His bride.
No gimmicks. No secularism. No formula. No techniques. No cheap Gospel.
Just sinners, watered by the preaching of the Gospel, planted in good soil by God’s Word, and grown slowly and securely by God Himself.
Faithfulness in the water, where the flood becomes the baptism of our salvation.
Faithfulness in growth by the Word, whereby we live in joy with the great mystery: Christ in you, the hope of glory.
More Eugene Peterson wisdom from Under the Unpredictable Plant:
“What I object to most is the appalling and systematic trivializing of the pastoral office. It is part of a larger trivialization, that of the culture itself, a trivialization so vast and epidemic that there are days when its ruin seems assured. There are other days, though, when we catch a glimpse of glory – a man here, a woman there determined to live nobly: singing a song, telling a story, working honestly, loving chastely. Pockets of resistance form when these men and women recognize each other and take heart from one another (p.37)….
…’What do you want to do?’ [the deacons asked me]. I had an answer for that, but I didn’t know how to do it. My answer was that I wanted to deal with God and people. I told them, ‘I want to study God’s word long and carefully so that when I stand before you and preach and teach I will be accurate. I want to pray, slowly and lovingly, so that my relation with God will be inward and honest. And I want to be with you, often and leisurely, so that we can recognize each other as close companions on the way of the cross and be available for counsel and encouragement to each other’ (p.39)….
….Pastoring is not managing a religious business but [is] a spiritual quest (p.55)…
The picture was taken by me on my phone when on holiday in Devon in 2009.
Once again I have been saved by the wisdom of Eugene Peterson. His book, Under the Unpredictable Plant arrived in the post today (thanks to Amazon and Royal Mail and Terry the postman), and just about became the Word of the Lord to me, and how I needed it as I began to spiral down into a terrible post-ordained apocalyptic storm of self-pity!
“Propagandists are abroad in the land lying to us about what congregations are and can be. They are lying for money. They want to make us discontent with what we are doing so we will buy a solution from them that they promise will restore our virility to our impotent congregations. The profit-taking among those who market these spiritual monkey glands indicates that pastoral gullibility in these matters is endless. Pastors, faced with the failure of the purchased procedures, typically blame the congregation and leave it for another. The devil, who is behind all this smiling and lacquered mischief, so easily makes us discontent with what we are doing that we throw up our hands in the middle of it, disgusted, and go on to another parish that will appreciate our gifts and ministry and our devotion to the Lord. Every time a pastor abandons one congregation for another out of boredom or anger or restlessness, the pastoral vocation of all of us is vitiated.” p.18
The very next sub-heading title, following the words above were like a train hitting me in the spiritual slobiness I mistook for self-justification. The words were:
Stay Where You Are
If ever I needed to hear those words it was right now. God to the rescue through the pen and anointed ink of Eugene Peterson. To all my fellow pastor brothers and sisters: Stick with it. You have a high calling indeed. Do not conform to the pattern of this world and sell your soul to religiously cheap versions of capitalism and consumerism. We are ministers of the Gospel, called and sent to proclaim Jesus Christ and all His goodness.
And the reason He must be proclaimed is because we live in a world of sin where the people we serve are luke-warm at best. Let Jesus spit them out of His mouth – pastors do not spit out the very people God has entrusted to us. Jesus does that, that’s what Scripture says; let us not be found spitting out the people of God from our mouth; our mouth is set apart to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel. He is the Saviour, not us. We serve. We love and serve. We love and serve and preach. We love and serve and preach and love.
Peterson goes on, magnificently (p.172) to say what pastors do. He says it is simple, and on one level I agree, on the only other level available it is the most complex, most profound ‘doing’ any human being can be involved in, he writes that a pastor’s vocation is to “…say the word God accurately….”
That to me, speaks more of my vocation or role as a pastor that anything else. Speak ‘God’ accurately. WOW. I am tempted, like Job, to clasp my hands over my mouth and speak no more, but God in His glorious Triunity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has called and commanded me to speak of Him and His mystery and majesty. To speak of Him accurately. That’s what He has called me to do, and he will do it because He is faithful.