The work of the pastor each weekend moves from the place where God’s Word is proclaimed and prayers are offered to the ordinary places and relationships of people’s lives met immediately after the service. Eugene Peterson describes it this way:
The people having received the benediction, now make a disorderly re-entry into a world of muddled marriages and chaotic cities, midlife boredom and adolescent confusion, ethical ambiguity and emotional distress. The pastor who has just lifted the cup of blessing before the people now shakes hands with the man whose wife has left him for another; the pastor who has just poured the waters of baptism on the head of an infant now sees pain in the eyes of the mother whose teenager is full of angry rebellion. The pastor who has just addressed a merciful Father in prayer now arranges to visit a bitter and cynical executive who has been unexpectedly discharged from his job; the pastor who has just ben confidently handling the scriptures now touches hands that are tense with anxiety and calloused in a harsh servitude. (74-75)
This is how Peterson begins his exploration of the second of the five scrolls of the Megilloth, Ruth, as a key for making sense of human lives through story in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Tracing the narrative arc of the book of Ruth as a story of one who moves from outsider to insider, of cast-off to brought home, Peterson sees it as an example of how we all can make sense of our lives in light of “the epic narration of God’s saving history” (76). This is not simplistic but takes note of the interplay between God’s will and our humanity’s will in the developing story of our lives and the life of the world.
The way the story developed was not fixed. What was certain was that there was a story: God’s will and man’s will both had meaning, the meanings interacted and provided the content for the narration. (81)
Peterson sees the book of Ruth as significant because of the way it makes sense of individuals’ lives in relation to God’s great story. Like short stories collected into a book, human lives—like Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz—find their place as they are woven into the greater story. This encourages pastors to “learn how to be gospel storytellers” (85).
Such work saves pastors from two common errors, says Peterson: “moralism and condescension.” Pastoral moralism focuses on what is wrong with people, bypasses the complexities of life, and offers trite answers. Pastoral condescension flattens people into two-dimensional, depersonalized statistics or illustrations.
The true pastor engages with the uniqueness of each person, including their unique story. The starting point for this is listening. As people tell their stories, the pastor sits with them to listen and discern the work of God in their narrative arc.
The pastor begins this work, then, not so much as a storyteller, but as one who believes that there is a story to be told, the curiosity to be attentive to the life of another, and the determination to listen through the apparently rambling digressions until a plot begins to emerge. (88)
Peterson cites the guidance of the French clinician and inventor of the stethoscope, Laënnec, to his students in this regard, “Listen, listen to your patient! He is giving you the diagnosis.”
This ability to be a gospel storyteller through the attentiveness of listening guides Peterson into two practices of pastoral work that are essential: counseling and visitation. With strong words against the secularization of pastoral counseling through the development of therapeutic approaches, Peterson urges a recovery of pastoral visitation. To do this, he encourages pastors to re-learn visitation from the Apostle Paul:
One thing that Paul did in reclaiming visitation as a tool for storymaking was to make it very clear that the visitation was not “professional”—he had not been hired to do the public and difficult parts of religion for people….they are in it together, they are companions in faith. (94)
The second thing that Paul did to re-establish the visit as an authentic pastoral act was to use the visit to share his own experience in Christ. (95)
The pastor, then, seeks to show up as a fellow pilgrim, make themselves available, and listen together with another to what God is writing into the story of their lives. Or, as Peterson so arrestingly puts it, “The pastor is God’s spy searching out ways of grace” (96).
As we search out God’s ways of grace with others, pastors help others get their bearings within God’s story right from where they are. Turning to the book of Ruth, Peterson reveals how these characters entered into God’s story in ordinary ways. “Naomi got into the story by complaining” (98). “Ruth got into the story by asking for what she wanted” (100). “Boaz got into the story by taking up new responsibilities” (102). We, too, find our way into the story—or realize the way we can awaken to it—through ordinary means in ordinary places.
Such work is part of a grand story. The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that puts this four-chapter short story within the bigger story that God is telling. This is instructive for pastors:
Pastoral work, after collaborating with persons in the making of their stories, leads them back to the vicinity of the Pulpit, and Table, and Font, where they discover their faith lineage with Perez in the background and David (and Christ!) ahead. The Christian faith matures only when it is comprehended in the longer perspectives. (110)
It is through this ordinary working with people in visitation and counseling, through listening and availability, that “pastors help people tell the stories of their lives,” by which “we contribute to a coherent sense of self” (110). So may we pastors become God’s spies, listening and discerning, drawing near with others and becoming attentive to the contours of the story that God is telling in our lives and in the life of the world.