The Map of the Soul

This is John Frye’s weekly column, From the Shepherd’s Nook.

Preaching: The Map of the Soul

 In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene H. Peterson tells Herman Melville’s story of Dr. Cuticle. On a large sailing ship at sea, Dr. Cuticle is the ship’s only surgeon. Disappointed that the most medical attention the sailors need is care for their blisters, Dr. Cuticle is excited when a sailor is brought to him with severe abdominal pain. Diagnosing a problem appendix, Dr. Cuticle assembles and cleans his surgical utensils before a gallery of watching sailors. With a flare of energetic skill Dr. Cuticle begins the surgery, removes the appendix and sews up the patient. The sailors are not awed; they are appalled. The patient died during surgery. Dr. Cuticle, so engrossed in the surgery, didn’t notice, and the sailors, in their subservience, didn’t mention it. Peterson goes on to make his pastoral point: Pastors routinely go about their weekly and technical handling of Scripture unaware that, for all their skill, there is no pulse, no life in the subject. Granted that Eugene is discussing a lifeless kind of exegesis, I suggest that we can apply the story to pastoral ministry in general.

We emphasized in the last post that while preaching is a significant aspect of pastoral work, it cannot be the defining center.  Let’s say that the average length of a sermon is 30 minutes, realizing that some pastors preach longer and some shorter. Given ample time for study, reflection and sermon preparation, what does the pastor then do with his or her time? How we answer this question reveals much about our “philosophy of pastoral ministry.” As long as the sermon is the apex of pastoral ministry and the pastor is the biblical, exegetical, and hermeneutical expert before which hungry people sit waiting “to be fed,” then an antiseptic distance can be maintained between pastor and people. Many pastors are cocooned in this “vision” of ministry.  But if the pastor is becoming a shepherd (pastor) like Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10), then leading is a part of feeding. Jesus said, “I lead them out. They follow me.” The pastor is a guide as well as a preacher/teacher. Pastoral leading is an expression of spiritual direction. We’re all going somewhere…together.

A rookie pastor has to learn, usually the hard way, that repeating precision-shaped theological constructs, as if the rookie imagines the biblical and theological faculties of his or her seminary attend the church, is to play the role of Dr. Cuticle. “In my opinion,  the ordo salutis best suited for our dichotomist beings is the infralapsarian view that the sovereign grace of the Wholly Other bestows all for His glory.” No. Our churches are filled with young mothers dying for a few more hours of sleep, harried business owners worried about making this month’s payroll, teen girls cutting themselves, couples living in the frosty alienation of unforgiveness, and old people who,  for all their faith, are scared of dying. “Feed us” often means “show us how to find hope.” We, pastors, do that as guides who are in the journey with all the people who trust us. Think John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Think geography and topography, not just theology. “Christian,” the pilgrim, was on his fateful way from the “Wicked City” to the “Celestial City.” How often did Jesus present the kingdom of God in geographical, topographical, botanical, and natural terms? Why are early believers called followers of “the Way”? For more about our “soul map,” see Jesus the Pastor: Leading Others in the Character and Power of Christ (117-118).  We must come out from behind the “sacred desk” (pulpit or lectern) and spend time with people leisurely talking over hot coffee, a cold beer or good wine about their experience in the journey. “Tell me your story” and “Here’s where I am in the journey myself.” Sweat on the face-, dust on the feet-, eyes on the horizon-proximity with people who trust us to know something about reading “the map of the soul.”  We must never forget that most, if not all, of Paul’s letters were written while on and for the journey. We want the people to get to the Celestial City; they may just want a ride to the drugstore.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Chris

    Thanks for posting this today Scot. I always appreciate thoughts like this. I am asked often why I didn’t go to seminary right out of college before becoming a pastor vocationally. While I believe formal education is very important, I think we do a disservice to our congregations and the world when we believe that this alone is the “end all, be all” of what it takes to be a pastor. It would do us, meaning those in ministry, some good to spend time in the field or serve in a church as we are studying.
    While I have yet to complete my seminary training, I do have a decade of experience serving in the church full time and not really in a preaching role. In fact, while I enjoy a great sermon, it’s always been my experience that most forget by lunch on Wednesday what was even discussed (if they even make it that far).
    As a bi-vocational pastor it really helps to be out in the world, which helps me leverage conversations of love and grace in real and authentic ways with not only those in my congregation, but those in the community as well.
    Again, thank you.

  • MatthewS

    Good stuff, John

  • AlanCK

    Thank you, John. The Shepherd’s Nook is one of the highlights of my reading week.


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