26 March 2008

Shopkeepers with shopkeepers' concerns

On Holy Saturday I was trying to find a section in one of the books by Eugene Peterson on keeping the Sabbath Day, that is, the day of Christ's rest in the tomb, as a day of rest. I couldn't remember which book had it, nor did I find it in the end. But that little search sparked in me a desire to reread these Peterson books - it's been about 14 years since I first read them. They're a great summons for pastors to return to the centuries old vocation of pastoral work as spiritual care, soul care.

So, with this in mind, I couldn't resist tracking down Peterson's opening discussion to Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. In his opening paragraphs, Peterson goes straight to the heart of what is so mistaken and disheartening in much of American Christianity, indeed, in much of American pastoral work. Here's Peterson's opening salvo that deals with "shopkeepers" with "shopkeepers' concerns":
American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, the calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.

A few of us are angry about it. We are angry because we have been deserted. Most of my colleagues who defined ministry for me, examined, ordained, and then installed me as a pastor in a congregation, a short while later walked off and left me, having, they said, more urgent things to do. The people I thought I would be working with disappeared when the work started. Being a pastor is difficult work; we want the companionship and counsel of allies. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. “A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,” says Martin Thornton, “but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.” [Martin Thornton, Spiritual Direction (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1984), p. 27]

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 all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades. (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, p. 1-2)

7 comments:

Christopher D. Hall said...

Excellent quote! Thanks for this.

Randy Asburry said...

You're quite welcome. Peterson has a great way of writing and many more excellent snippets. So, stay tuned as I reread these great books....

Rev. Jeffrey Ries said...

Thanks for reminding me of that excellent resource. It is a book I need to dust off and read again soon. In my current context, the last paragraph you quote is particularly appropriate, and one I intend to share with my flock.

Pax.

Randy Asburry said...

Ah, yes, that last paragraph! May God bless you in being an "unsuccessful church," that is, a community of sinners who must rely on God's mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Anonymous said...

Dear Brother:

I'll bet the words you're looking for are in the middle of the 3rd Chapter of "Under the Unpredictable Plant." There he (Peterson) contrasts his Holy Saturday working in his father's store in Montana with the plight of Prettyfeather.

Among the Peterson gems in that chapter:

"A recovery of askesis begins in a recovery of the imagination: what image do we have for askesis? Jonah and Jesus provide it for us. Jonah in the fish's belly; Jesus in Joseph's tomb. Holy Saturday: confinement turns into concentration, illusion transmutes into hope, death changes to resurrection."

Thanks for your great blog and a timely reminder of Peterson's wisdom.

Karl Hollibaugh

Anonymous said...

Dear Brother:

I'll bet the words you're looking for are in the middle of the 3rd Chapter of "Under the Unpredictable Plant." There he (Peterson) contrasts his Holy Saturday working in his father's store in Montana with the plight of Prettyfeather.

Among the Peterson gems in that chapter:

"A recovery of askesis begins in a recovery of the imagination: what image do we have for askesis? Jonah and Jesus provide it for us. Jonah in the fish's belly; Jesus in Joseph's tomb. Holy Saturday: confinement turns into concentration, illusion transmutes into hope, death changes to resurrection."

Thanks for your great blog and a timely reminder of Peterson's wisdom.

Karl Hollibaugh

Randy Asburry said...

Thanks, Karl! That's it!