Lashed to the Mast: John Frye

Lashed to the Mast: John Frye October 12, 2012

This column, From the Shepherd’s Nook, is by John Frye. He’s providing for the Jesus Creeders an excellent sketch of Eugene Peterson’s stuff on pastoring.

Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, learns about an enchanting song sung by the sirens of the sea. The song seduces the hearts of the unsuspecting sailors causing them to sail to destruction. The rocky shoals are covered with the wreckage of ships drawn by the tantalizing sirens.  Circe suggested a way to Odysseus so they could avoid disaster. Odysseus would have his seamen cram their ears with beeswax to block the sounds of the sirens’ sweet song. The sailors, then, could keep their ship sailing safely through the dangerous waters. Being lashed to the mast by his men, Odysseus could listen to the enthralling siren voices, but he could not escape and command his sailors to steer both toward the beautiful sounds and certain death. Odysseus could scream at his men to alter course toward the sirens, but the sailors would not hear him.

How does “lashed to the mast” apply to the pastor but also to any of our callings? Good image? What are the temptations to leave 

With this epic scene in mind, Eugene Peterson develops a framework for ordained ministry. Ordained ministry is highly suspect among some today. To begin with, EHP takes sin, personal and cultural sin, very seriously. When sin is reduced to prohibited behaviors rather than to dark powers living within and around us, the very idea of being tempted, betrayed from the inside may be easily and is often played down. The evangelical church today seems to enjoy the sirens’ songs and turns them into praise choruses.

Peterson writes, “It is very difficult to do one thing when most of the people around us are asking us to do something quite different, especially when these people are nice, intelligent, treat us with respect, and pay or salaries.” How can we pastors keep from getting lured into the treacherous waters of religious shop-keeping for consumer spirituality? EHP suggests “An illusion-bashing orientation helps. Take a look at the wreckage around us—wrecked bodies, wrecked marriages, wrecked careers, wrecked plans, wrecked families, wrecked alliances, wrecked friendships, wrecked prosperity. We avert our eyes. We try not to dwell on it. We whistle in the dark.” I am convinced that if we don’t stare long and hard at the evils of this world, we will not be grasped tightly enough by God’s rugged, difference-making grace. There’s no sense in just being nice, in sticking plastic flowers in the barrels of drug-runners’ rifles.

Pastors are called to walk into the ruins of sin’s nuclear winter every day. We are not given rose-colored glasses. We don’t have the luxury of running a sleeping pill commercial after our report of blown-up human bodies in Bangkok. We deal in powerful, dangerous realities—kingdom of God, Armageddon, principalities and powers, and world-transforming declarations. “We believe God is not a spectator, in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history, but a participant.”  (I wish I could type here the next two pages of EHP’s chapter “Lashed to the Mast” in The Contemplative Pastor. They are a summary of what the people of the church expect of their pastor, ordained to his or her calling.) This much must suffice. The people are speaking. “One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow to stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. … Promise right now you want give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows we are lashing you to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to our siren voices. … [I]f we don’t know the foundational realities with which we are dealing—God, kingdom, gospel—we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking words of biblical command and promise and invitation ” (emphasis added).

Of “the servant of Yahweh” it was written, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” Jesus intentionally waded into the vast wasteland of human wreckage. He did so with visceral compassion, limitless love, keen wit and resolute will. Time and again Jesus heard the alluring tune of the sirens’ song, most temptingly in Gethsemane. Thankfully he stayed lashed to the mast of his Father’s purpose, exemplified in the mast called the cross. In the happy Disneyland of the USAmerican evangelical church it is no wonder so many do not comprehend the depth, danger and beauty of pastoral ordination.

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  • MatthewS

    One thing that grabs me is this: “Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking words of biblical command and promise and invitation.”

    Telling the story here and there and with a creative twist is fun, but to faithfully keep telling the story is less sexy, so to speak. More than the need to be original is the need to be faithful and consistent in “telling the basic story.”

    There is a rewarding payoff. When someone “gets it” and suddenly what you’ve been consistently saying applies to their situation — now that’s pastoral gold!

  • Felt this sentence says so much of what the whole article embodies: “Pastors are called to walk into the ruins of sin’s nuclear winter every day.” A really good reminder.

  • Many pastors succumb to the siren song because it speaks so seductively to our desire to please others, to be liked and thought well of. I love Peterson’s imagery and appreciate you bringing it to light again for me.