Most Sinners Are Very Nice People

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

The word sinner is a theological designation.  It is essential to insist on this.  It is not a moralistic judgment.  It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively “good” or “bad.”  It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God.  Sinner means something is awry between humans and God.  In that state people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor.  Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent.  Those items are not part of the judgment.  The theological fact is that humans are not close to God and are not serving God.

To see a person as sinner, then, is not to see him or her as hypocritical, disgusting, or evil.  Most sinners are very nice people.  To call a man a sinner is not a blast at his manners or his morals.  It is a theological belief that the thing that matters most to him is forgiveness and grace…

An understanding of people as sinners enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger.  Accumulated resentment (a constant threat to pastors) is dissolved when unreal – that is, untheological – presuppositions are abandoned.  If people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are.  We already know they can’t make it.  We already have accepted their depravity.  We didn’t engage to be pastor to relax in their care or entrust ourselves to their saintly ways…

The happy result of a theological understanding of people as sinners is that the pastor is saved from continual surprise that they are in fact sinners….

Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry.  But to see people as sinners – as rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way – that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God’s great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”

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The Language of Intimacy

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

Descriptive language is language about – it names what is there.  It orients us in reality.  It makes it possible for us to find our way in and out of intricate labyrinths.  Our schools specialize in teaching us this language.  Motivational language is language for – it uses words to get things done.  Commands are issued, promises made, requests proffered.  Such words get people to do things they wont do on their own initiative.  The advertising industry is our most skillful practitioner of this language art.

Indispensable as these uses of language are, there is another language more essential to our humanity and far more basic to the life of faith.  It is personal language.  It uses words to express oneself, to converse, to be in relationship…

Language I is the language of intimacy and relationship.  It is the first language we learn.  Initially, it is not articulate speech.  The language that passes between parent and infant is incredibly rich in meaning but less than impressive in content.  The coos and cries of the infant do not parse.  The nonsense syllables of the parent have no dictionary definitions.  But in the exchange of gurgles and out-of-tune hums, trust develops.  Parent whispers transmute infant screams into grunts of hope.  The cornerstone words in the language are names, or pet names: mama, papa.  For all its limited vocabulary and butchered syntax, it seems more than adequate to bring into expression the realities of a complex and profound love.  Language I is primary language, the basic language for expressing and developing the human condition.

Language II is the language of information.  As we grow, we find this marvelous world of things surrounding us, and everything has a name: rock, water, doll, bottle.  Gradually through the acquisition of language, we are oriented in a world of objects.  Beyond the relational intimacy with persons with which we begin, we find our way in an objective environment of trees and fire engines and weather.  Day after day words are added.  Things named are no longer strange but familiar.  We make friends with the world.  We learn to speak in sentences, making connections.  The world is wonderfully various and our language enables us to account for it, recognizing what is there and how it is put together.  Language II is the major language used in schools.

Language III is the language of motivation.  We discover early on that words have the power to make things happen, to bring something out of nothing, to move inert figures into purposive action.  An infant wail brings food and a dry diaper.  A parental command arrests a childish tantrum.  No physical force is involved.  No material causation is visible.  Just a word: stop, go, shut up, speak up, eat everything on your plate.  We are moved by language and use it to move others.  Children acquire a surprising proficiency in this language, moving people much bigger and more intelligent than themselves to strenuous activity (and often against both the inclination and better judgment of these people).  Language III is the predominant language of advertising and politics…

Informational language (II) and motivational language (III) dominate our society…Meanwhile Language I, the language of intimacy, the language that develops relationships of trust and hope and understanding, languishes.  Once we are clear of the cradle, we find less and less occasion to use it.

Less Awesome

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

Prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways.  Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer.  The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives.  They prefer something less awesome and more informal.  Something, in fact, like a pastor.  Reassuring, accessible, easygoing.  People would rather talk to the pastor than to God.  And so it happens that without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines.

I Can’t Be Busy and Pray

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

I am busy because I am vain.  I want to appear important.  Significant.  What better way than to be busy? …

I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions.  When others notice, they acknowledge my significance and my vanity is fed…

I am busy because I am lazy.  I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself.

It was a favorite theme of C.S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard.  By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone…

I know I can’t be busy and pray.  I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray.  I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted, or dispersed.  In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego.  Usually, for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self.

There Aren’t Very Many Happy People in the Bible

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

My job is not to solve people’s problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives.  It’s hard to do, because our whole culture is going the other direction, saying that if you’re smart enough and get the right kind of help, you can solve all your problems.  The truth is, there aren’t very many happy people in the Bible.  But there are people who are experiencing joy, peace, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering in their lives.

A Sense of God

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

Our culture presents us with forms of prayer that are mostly self-expression – pouring ourselves out before God or lifting our gratitude to God as we feel the need and have the occasion.  Such prayer is dominated by a sense of self.  But prayer, mature prayer, is dominated by a sense of God.  Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God.

Show Them How to Live

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

A story about author and rabbi Chaim Potok…

He returned home for vacation, and his mother got him off alone.  “Chaim I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.”  Chaim replied, “No, mama.  I want to be a writer.”

This conversation was repeated every vacation break, every summer, every meeting: “Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.”  Each time Chaim replied, “No, mama.  I want to be a writer.”

The exchanges accumulated.  The pressure intensified.  Finally there was an explosion.  “Chaim, you’re wasting your time.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.”  The explosion detonated a counter-explosion: “Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live!”