I found myself going to work every day in a church. I was not just pastor. I was pastor of a church, a congregation. Pastor was not an autonomous vocation. Pastor was not a vocation negotiated privately between me and God. There was a third party–congregation. As it turned out, the congregation and I didn’t have much in common. It turned out that what I had signed up for required spending a term in church boot camp to get a basic orientation in the conditions I would be dealing with as pastor of a church.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the low level of interest that men and women in my congregation had in God and the scriptures, prayer and their souls. Not that they didn’t believe and value these things; they just weren’t very interested. I had assumed that it would be self-evident to a congregation that the vocation of pastor had primarily to do with God. And I had assumed that the primary reason that Christians became part of a congregation had to do with God. They would come to church because they were interested in God and the scriptures, prayer and their souls. And I would be the person expected to give guidance and encouragement to matters of God and scripture, prayer and their souls.
It didn’t happen. I couldn’t have been farther off the mark.
This lack of common cause resulted in what seemed to me was a lot of religious clutter, much of what struck me was an accumulation of trivia. My imagination had been schooled in the company of Moses and David; my congregation kept emotional and mental company with television celebrities and star athletes. I was reading Karl Barth and John Calvin; they were reading Ann Landers and People magazine.
One of the attractions for Jan and me in accepting this assignment to organize a new congregation was the prospect of forming a church of disciplined and committed Christians, focused and energetic. I think I had the image of a congregation of Green Berets for Jesus. No half-Christians, no almost-Christians, but the real thing.
I had imagined that when word got around that a new congregation was being formed, it would attract men and women who were willing to take risks, who were prepared to make sacrifices, who weren’t interested in comfortable pews…After six weeks of what felt like the most demeaning work in which I had ever engaged…forty-six people showed up. None of them were Green Berets.
This was our embryo congregation. In three months there were a hundred of us, charter members, and christened as Christ Our King Presbyterian Church. This would be Jan and my workplace for the next thirty years. And still no Green Berets.
peterson digresses at this point to tell the story of david’s outpost at ziklag.
Ziklag: for me this became the premier biblical site for realizing that when we get serious about the Christian life, we eventually end up in a place and among people decidedly uncongenial to what we expected. At least uncongenial to what I expected. That place and people is often called a church. It is hard to get over the disappointment that God, having made an exception in my case, didn’t seem to call nice, accomplished, courteous, alert people to worship.
I was now well on my way to learning that congregation is a place of stories. The stories of Jesus, to be sure. But also the stories of men and women I had grown up with…and now the stories that I was hearing in my new neighborhood. It is never just my story; it is a community of stories. I learn my story in company with others. Each story affects and is affected by each of the others. Many of these others are distressed, in debt and discontent–or out of tune, angry, rude, or asleep. This complicates things enormously, but there’s no getting around it. We’re a congregation. We’re looking for meaning to our lives. We catch a thread of the plot and begin to follow it, receiving the good news that God is gracious, receiving the sacraments of God’s actions in our actual lives. And then we bump up against someone else’s story that we don’t even recognize as a story and are thrown off balance. Distracted, we stumble.
This is my workplace.
And every once is a while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and illuminates these companies. I see what my sin-dulled eyes had missed: Word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful offering, constant prayer, persevering obedience–Shekinah. And sometimes I don’t–Ziklag.
for those friends of mine who visit this space regularly that are not in vocational ministry, i cannot begin to describe how beautifully and accurately peterson has described my terrible, wonderful existence. i often feel like god played a sick joke on me when he called me to be a pastor, and yet i wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. when jaycene and i started the fellowship i lead, i had dreams of grandeur. i fully expected god to assemble “a church of disciplined and committed Christians, focused and energetic…a congregation of Green Berets for Jesus. No half-Christians, no almost-Christians, but the real thing.” to be completely honest, even after sixteen years i still watch the back door every sunday morning for any sign of the god-sent spiritual militia.
as of this writing, they still have not arrived.
but peterson’s experience and wisdom bring me great hope (and perhaps those of my friends who are church leaders can attest to this) in that, even though things have not transpired as i had hoped or expected, i know god is sovereign and his busy “doing this thing” in my context. this rabble that i am privileged to worship with every weekend is my family–arranged and ordained by god–and we are learning together (even after sixteen years of frustration) what it means to be a congregation.