I am rereading the book, ‘The Pastor’ by Eugene Peterson. The book serves as his memoirs and for some reason has spoken so deeply to my soul that I have read it or listened to it more than five times in the past few years. I am currently working through it slowly with our associate pastor and pastoral intern. It produces good discussions about the way that God forms the vocation of pastor in the heart of a man. Not everyone’s journey to the pulpit will look the same, but many aspects of Peterson’s journey speak to my own journey. When I read it, I feel like someone else gets me.
So as we discussed the book yesterday, we came across a chapter that highlights the way that ‘Pastor Pete’ came face-to-face with ambiguity early in life. There is little to no room for reductions to stereotypes. There is not a stereotypical church member. Further, there is an ongoing tension within every pastor that we cannot truly see into the hearts of people. We are here to help people along in their journey, but we do not really know where they are at a given point, nor do we truly know where they started. What we do know is the way to a good end AND the way to a bad end.
Bible College and Seminary didn’t prepare me for this ambiguity in ministry. As a matter of fact, Bible College prepared me for precision and clarity. The very goal of those few years spent in education, was a precise refinement and boiling down of complexity’s to bite -sized doctrines that I could convey to others. Seminary and Bible college prepared me for a life of precision: precision with belief, precision with the gospel, precision in Biblical counsel, and precision in keeping the right priorities.
And then I became a pastor. And no amount of cute case studies within the safe four walls of a classroom, could even come close to the ambiguities processed by me in the past 15 years as a pastor.
Within the chapter of his memoir entitled, “Uncle Sven” Eugene Peterson quotes H.L. Mencken as saying, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” This quote has helped me to slow down in my prescriptions and my judgments. At any given time, I am sitting in ambiguities with messiness. Like a contemporary of King David, it would be really difficult to know what is going on with the King. He was a humble shepherd boy. He was a bold and valiant young man who killed Goliath. He was a noble and dignified man who respected the king enough to spare King Saul’s life rather than rush his own coronation as king. And he was an adulterer who stole one of his best soldier’s wife. He was a murderer who used a foreign army to kill the husband of his mistress to cover up his illicit relationship.
If you were plunged into this scene and asked . . . “Who is David and what is his next step?”, what would you say? He was the sweet song-writer of Israel, he was the valiant slayer of giants, he was the adulterous murderer of a loyal soldier.
Real life and real people bring with them an ambiguity that defies reduction to stereotypes. And so, I am learning to take people as they arrive. I am warring against a cynicism that wants to protect myself from getting burned. I trust people when they say that they love God and His Word. But I also believe that all people need a savior, which they readily evidence to me through sin and brokenness.
How could a a pastor NOT be prepared for ambiguity? Are we all naive fools? I believe that a good pastor believes in the power of the message. And we like to think that the precision of the gospel (which seminaries and Bible Colleges do WELL to clarify) will have the same results in every heart. We like one-size-fits-all solutions. And so we expect dependable results.
I find comfort in the fact, that I have been able to settle into a life of ministry in the midst of many unknowns. I have landed in a place where I know that God knows, and that is all I need to know. There is one who sees through all facades. There is one who can see the distinction between the wolf in sheep’s clothing and the sheep in wolves’ clothing. I know I have met and ministered to both.
The complexities of ministry are still mine to navigate. But I take solace in knowing that I am not the final arbiter. I am here to point like an arrow on signpost. I point to Jesus in my teaching. I point to Jesus with my life. I point to Jesus regardless of my assessment of a situation. And my deepest comfort comes in knowing that I have something to offer in every confusing and murky circumstance: “Run to Jesus.”