From the Shepherd’s Nook: John Frye

From the Shepherd’s Nook: John Frye September 28, 2012

“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.

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  • Scott Gay

    You can’t be a teacher in public school for 35 years and help but be parched. Very nice post pastor. I really like that she is a subversive spy.

  • Diane

    Hi John,

    I very much appreciated Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor when I read it. Peterson has both a gentle touch and yet is able to penetrate the culture to understand what is radical in Christianity. Thanks for posting on this. Peterson reminds me of our friend Ted G … 🙂

  • Rodney Reeves

    Beautifully put. The hardest part is not giving into the cultural script (sometimes spies join the other side!), a temptation that especially shows up at “Church Growth” conferences. When I was a pastor, after a while, I determined I couldn’t go anymore. I had to find co-laborers who had the same kingdom vision. I wish Eugene had written this twenty years ago.

  • Rodney Reeves

    Sorry. Last line should read: “I wish I would have known Eugene had written this twenty years ago.”

  • Great reading of Peterson!!! Love it!

  • My favorite line: “The tools available for the subversive pastor are two: prayer and parable.” We don’t pay close enough attention to our words, whether spoken to God on behalf of the people or to the people on behalf of God. EHP is one of my heroes and so too, the author of this weekly blog.

    Nicely done.

  • RJS


    Interesting you mention Church Growth conferences. It goes along with John’s comment at the top of the post – who is living in the real world. The example there is a businessman interested in money and profit with church a nice diversion.

    Some of the ethos of the Church growth conference mentality bothers me. This is because I see the worst of the egoism and image problems that run rampant in the academy – where status, “accomplishment” and ambition rule -digging its fingers into the church. This attitude is just wrong. We are called to something profoundly different and real. What is the real world?

    Great post John.

  • Yes, great post, John. Thanks so much. I have that book, and I ought to read it, if I didn’t years back. 🙁

    The only thing that counts is following Christ, just like he told Peter. The rest doesn’t matter. Well, hopefully I’ll really believe and grow in living that out.

  • John, thank you for this post. I have a couple of Peterson’s books on my stack, already, but your last paragraph will change my ordering! You wrote beautifully and compellingly — and oh, we need love, strength, beauty & faithful fellow-pilgrims when we face the enemy daily, in so many encounters and people, including ourselves.

  • MatthewS

    This discussion about the way of Jesus is helpful to me in thinking about a problem our church needs to address. Several people have a lot of energy to attack this problem and I have avoided it for too long. *The way* in which we instinctively approach a problem is sometimes more about “get it done” (or conversely, avoiding it) than about doing it in *the way* of Jesus.