I picked up Eugene Peterson's, The Contemplative Pastor the other day and ran across his chapter on "The Subversive Pastor." He says, "I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God. I am being subversive." He says that he does not often engage in a frontal assault on the kingdom of self, but he works around the edges, so to speak. I am often a frontal assault kind of guy and it tends to be less effective than I hope for, just arousing people's defenses. Petereson's words here are encouraging and wise:
As a pastor, I don't like being viewed as nice but insignificant. I bristle when a high-energy executive leaves the place of worship with the comment, "This was wonderful, Pastor, but now we have to get back to the real world, don't we?" I had thougt we were in the most-real world, the world revealed as God's, a world believed to be invaded by God's grace and turning on the pivot of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. The executive's comment brings me up short: he isn't taking this seriously. Worshiping God is marginal to making money. Prayer is marginal to the bottom line. Christian salvation is a brand preference.
I bristle and want to assert my importance. I want to force the recognition of the key position I hold in the economy of God and in his economy if only he knew it.
Then I remember that I am a subversive. My long-term effectiveness depends on my not being recognized for who I really am. If he realized that I actually believe the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he would be at all pleased. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me.
Yes, I believe that. I believe that the kingdoms of this world, American and Venezuelan and Chinese, will become the kingdom of our God and Christ, and I believe this new kingdom is already among us. That is why I'm a pastor, to introduce people to the real world and train them to live in it. I learned early that the methods of my work must correspond to the realities of the kingdom. The methods that make the kingdom of America strong - economic, military, technological, informational - are not suited to making the kingdom of God strong. I have had to learn a new methodology: truth-telling and love-making, prayer and parable. These are not methods very well adapted to raising the standard of living in suburbia or massaging the ego into a fashionable shape.
But America and suburbia and the ego compose my parish. Most of the individuals in this amalgam suppose that the goals they have for themselves and the goals God has for them are the same. It is the oldest religious mistake: refusing to countenance any real difference between God and us, iimagining God to be a vague extrapolation of our own desires, and then hiring a priest to manage the affairs between self and the extrapolation. And I, one of the priests they hired, am having none of it.
But if I'm not willing to help them become what they want to be, what am I doing taking their pay? I am being subversive. I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God. I am helping them to become what God wants them to be, using the methods of subversion.
Peterson says that we need to make sure the we do not "submit to the cultural verdict and slip into the role of chaplain to the culture." Indeed. Instead, he says that we must become subversives in the culture. He goes on to say,
The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory. Post-Eden Adams and Eves are willing to pay their respects to God, but they don't want him invading their turf. Most sin, far from being a mere lapse of morals or a weak will, is an energetically and expensively erected defense against God. Direct assault in an openly declared war on the god-self is extraordinarily ineffective. Hitting sin head-on is like hitting a nail with a hammer; it only drives it in deeper. There are occasional exceptions, strategically dictated confrontations, but indirection is the biblically preferred method.
Peterson goes on to use Jesus as an example of a subversive. He says that his favorite form of speech, the parable was subversive. They are secular stories in a sense about everyday life. Almost all of them weren't even about God. They were about ordinary things. Peterson says, "As people heard Jesus tell these stories, they saw at once that they weren't about God, so there was nothing in them threatening their own sovereignty. They relaxed their defenses. They walked away perpelexed, wondering what they meant, the stories lodged in their imagination. And then, like a time bomb, they would explode in their unprotected hearts. An abyss opened up at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded."
There is hardly a detail in the gospel story that was not at the time (and still) overlooked because unlikely, dismissed because commonplace, and rejected because illegal. 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, Galilean secularity, Sabbath healings, Gethsemane prayers, criminal death, baptismal water, eucharistic bread and wine. Subversion.
Peterson calls us to prayer and parable as the tools of the subversive pastor. He says that we major in the truth of Jesus, but unfortunately, we often minor in the way of Jesus. Jesus' way was the way of the subversive. People didn't get him. They misunderstood what he was about. They rejected him because he did not fit their preconceived notions. He told parables and told people to not tell who he was. In the same way as Jesus, the pastor is to engage in shadow work - "the work nobody gets paid for and few notice but that makes a world of salvation: meaning and value and purpose, a world of love and hope and faith - in short, the kingdom of God."
A mustard seed. A child. Salt. Yeast. A servant washing feet. Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile. Forgiving seventy times seven. The poor, the lame, the blind, the down-trodden. The meek and the mourners. The crucifixion of the Son of God. The in-breaking of the Kingdom of God comes with these signs. How different God is than us. How upside-down His Kingdom is from ours! His ways are not our ways.
So, I'm thinking today about what it means to pastor subversively, in the way of Jesus. Sure, there are times when I must be forthright regarding truth and reality. I do that pretty well and often. What I struggle with is mustard seed living and pastoring. I think that I'll pray about this and see what God has in mind.