“But isn’t [being subversive] dishonest? Not exactly, for I’m not misrepresenting myself. I’m simply taking my words and acts at a level of seriousness that would throw [the congregation] into a state of catatonic disbelief if they ever knew.”
How can the pastor be subversive and sustain his vocation?
Eugene Peterson wrestles with who is living in the real world. Is it the business man who thinks church is a nice diversion from the real world of money-making, bottom lines and profit margins or the faithful pastor who announces, “The kingdom of God is at hand”? In my view, when business or any other cultural metaphors replace the old, but ever new kingdom-of-God realities for describing the vocation of ministry, any pastor will lose his or her footing and begin sinking in the quicksand of artificial relevancy. Wanting to be seen or known as important is a giant step away from Christlikeness. “It’s hard to maintain a self-concept as a revolutionary when everyone treats us with the same affability they give the grocer.” Without a deep, enduring commitment to the realities of both the truth and the way(s) of the kingdom of God, a pastor will settle for becoming “a chaplain to the culture,” rather than a discerning challenger of it.
I like EHP’s description of the pastor as subversive because it points to the way of God in Jesus Christ. “Jesus was the master at subversion. … Jesus’ favorite speech form, the parable, was subversive. … But under the surface of conventionality and behind the scenes of probability, each was effectively inaugurating the kingdom: illegitimate (as was supposed) conception, barnyard birth, Nazareth silence, Galilee secularity, Sabbath healings, Gethsemane prayers, criminal death, baptismal water, eucharistic bread and wine. Subversion.” These quotes are from The Contemplative Pastor, a book we’re using to grasp EHP’s taxonomy of pastor.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” EHP writes, “Hitting sin head-on is like hitting a nail with a hammer; it only drives it in deeper.” The kingdom of self is a highly fortified kingdom and direct assault on it almost always fails. A lot of Bible expositional hammering has been going on in the USAmerican evangelical church and, yet, George Barna and company report that the sin index of the church is just like that of the culture around it. So much for the supposed magic in “Preach the Word.” The “still small voice” of God’s Spirit has been replaced by the loud, Bible-verse spouting voice of the preacher. Have you ever noticed how many church announcements feel like TV commercials for God? We don’t like the kingdom of God being like a teensy, weensy mustard seed or hidden yeast; we want it to be like an ear-splitting, action-packed movie trailer for God’s blockbuster hit in Jesus.
EHP notes that there are three things implicit in subversion: One, the status quo is wrong and must be overthrown. (You can get fired for this one). Two, there is another in-breaking world; a God-oriented and Jesus-saturated world. Three, the usual means by which one kingdom is thrown out and another put in its place—military coup or democratic election—are not available. The tools available for the subversive pastor are two: prayer and parable. “Words are the real work of the world—prayer words with God, parable words with men and women. The behind the scenes work of creativity by word and sacrament, by parable and prayer, subverts the seduced world.”
A man or woman who wants the job of pastor will sooner or later become disillusioned. Getting to traffic in holy things: holy Bible and Eikons of God; getting to study and communicate the Word of God; getting the accolades of well-meaning people—all these things will turn to sand in the mouth. There has to be a heart-gripping mission. A pastor is patient, seeking to observe grace-evidence in the parched lives of human beings. She is a subversive spy in very dangerous territory wisely, faithfully, subversively alerting people who are so susceptible to the blinding schemes of a fierce enemy and the foolish values of a godless culture. The spy knows a hard, yet breath-taking way out of this mess we’re all in.