The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying: Ecclesiastes [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 5]

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

With such strong words as an opening salvo, how could Ecclesiastes equip pastors for ministry? According to Eugene Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Ecclesiastes, the fourth of the Meggiloth scrolls, teaches pastors to say “no” to what people often think they want when they approach the pastor for help.

At this point pastoral work encounters a complex difficulty, for the vocation of pastor does not permit trafficking in either miracles or answers. Pastors are in the awkward position of refusing to give what a great many people assume it is our assigned job to give. (152)

Qoholeth, the teacher, of Ecclesiastes names the vacuity—the vanity and meaninglessness—of much religious talk and activity, aiming for repentance and purging for all involved.

The pastor reads Ecclesiastes to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, from ideas that are idolatrous and feelings that cloy. (155)

As an unnamed teacher, Qoholeth stands alongside pastors “with concerns that a religious leader in the community has for the health of the people who assemble” (157). The clear, pure faith of early Israel has been tainted in Qoholeth’s time, leaving a polluted stream of stagnant religion. Qoholeth, and the pastor, calls people back to face the reality of God’s greatness and human encounter with the divine.

But this is no abstract religious fancy. Rather, it is an earthy holiness rooted in God’s yes to humanity and inviting humanity to respond with their own yes and amen.

Pastoral work consists in repeating the gospel yes in every conceivable life-situation and encouraging the yes answer of faith. (159)

The pastor helps their congregation answer “amen!” to God with a faith that is not false or full of pretense, that is more than propaganda and richer than cheer-leading. The Feast of Tabernacles, which Ecclesiastes is connected to, was one of the greatest festivals of thanksgiving, combining “the seasonal festivities of a harvest festival (bounty) with the historical memories of miraculous preservation in the wilderness (blessing)” (162). Tabernacles was a celebration of God’s yes to His people.  How strange, it would seem, that Ecclesiastes, which sounds more like a “no,” is the text of choice. Peterson suggests:

The most negative of the scrolls was required reading at the most positive of the festivals…[because] if at any point there is a separation between the God of blessing and the blessings of God…grave dangers threaten the life of the people of God. (162)

For the pastor this is instructive. We all know from experience how easy it is to lose perspective, to let go of wisdom with apparently-wise foolishness, to blur the differentiation between what is true and what only seems true but is false.

For the pastor has the responsibility to nurture the affirmative without encouraging the gullible; to keep alert and prepared to say yes to every yes of God in every part of existence without at the same time being a patsy for every confidence game in town; to train people in robust acceptance of what God brings to us and not to passively submit to the trashy merchandising of religious salespeople. (164)

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes, as well as the entire wisdom tradition, aims to ground God’s people in God’s truth for living. But this only functions in relationship to God, not in isolation. Ecclesiastes’ strong wisdom-words cut against the human tendency toward spiritualized inspirations and bumper-sticky theologies. It does the same for pastors, even as we’re tempted to cater to people’s demands for miracles and answers. The “nay-saying” of Ecclesiastes helps pastors, as well as their congregations, learn to say yes to living relationship with God and walking in His ways.

It is preaching the Scripture and prayer-infused worship that keeps us with God and in God’s wisdom. It is living as God’s community together with the Lord as our Shepherd that keeps us grounded instead of flying off in spiritual fancies and clouded individual self-actualization.

Everything we know about God comes out of the preaching and praying communities of Israel and church. Truths about God are not found, like arrowheads in old fields, by people off by themselves hunting souvenirs. (173)

Contrasting the cult of Baal with Yahwism, Peterson depicts the importance of covenant and the proclamation of the Word within the worship of God’s people. While drawn to the flashy and the miraculous, Ecclesiastes, echoing some of the prophets, calls us back to the heart of the matter. Yes, we have personal experiences and, yes, we may have feelings while we pray, but the heart of worship is not about us but about the God who has spoken His “yes” to us first. Our worship is all response and service to God.

People bring so many mistaken expectations to the gospel, so much silly sentiment, and so many petulant demands, that they hardly hear its real message or confront its actual message….[The pastor’s] work is simply to clear away what is mistaken for religion so that we are free to hear the word of God. (188-189)

Or, in the word of Qoholeth:

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

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