Metaphors for Ministry: Hitting ‘The Road’ with Cormac McCarthy

An article I wrote during the past year was published this week at Preaching Today. It draws from one of my favorite novels of all time, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If you know McCarthy’s writing, you may know it is very rough around the edges. While The Road is also rough around the edges there is also a tenderness and grace sprinkled amidst the troubles. Because of this, it has been such a balm for my soul in these past few years. I wrote about that, and here is the first section of “Metaphors for Ministry: Hitting The Road with Cormac McCarthy” (you can read the rest here).

When a friend felt forced to resign from his church, he and I met up to talk, pray, shoulder burdens together, and cry out to God. I arrived a little early, so before I met him for brunch, I did what I always do when I have extra time. I stopped at a used bookstore. In the dollar discards was a dog-eared and stained mass paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road. I picked it up with a few other treasures and headed to the restaurant where we were meeting. We talked about deep pain and fiery hope, works of love and moments of failure. Our conversation roamed the whole range of pastoring within the local church.

After our time of conversation and prayer, as we headed to our cars, I knew it would be a long time until I would see him. I gave him a hug and then handed him the roughed up copy of The Road. I hoped, somehow, this worn out copy of the book might breathe life into his worn out life and broken down ministry.

My friend isn’t the only casualty of ministry in these divided and confusing days. Many pastors I have met are struggling with what it means to be a pastor now, wondering where we should turn for guidance in these times. Scripture and the great pastoral tradition provide the best and first resources, but in times when ministry is unclear, we need other voices to help us gain perspective and see rich metaphors for ministry.

While I am wary of misusing a literary work, I cannot think of any novel more appropriate as a parable for pastors in this present moment than The Road.[1]Against the background of an ashen, decayed world, burned out by an unnamed disaster, a father and son (referred to only as “the man” and “the boy”) walk a road littered with danger and goodness toward a hoped-for, yet unclear, destination.

As pastors today, our situation is similar. Everything we understood as normal is a faint memory in this post-pandemic secular age. Still, we are on a journey through dangerous lands, holding onto hope and goodness amid the perils we face. The Road offers us metaphors for ministry as we seek to shepherd our people with love even in desperate times.

Cormac McCarthy may seem like a strange author to turn to in such times. His spare yet powerful writing is often dark and grotesque. Still, McCarthy’s novels are haunted by some divine presence, even if his views are far from orthodox Christianity. In an interview McCarthy once said, “I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is in order to pray.”[2] Throughout The Road, the father invokes God, sometimes in angst and other times in hope. This tension with the divine offers fertile ground for exploring echoes of pastoral work in the novel.

Calling for Apocalyptic Pastors: a word from Eugene Peterson

saint-john-on-the-island-of-patmos-receives-inspiration-from-god-to-create-the-apocalypse-albrecht-durer-or-duerer

Eugene Peterson, in the midst of writing on four models of pastoral ministry, offers one he says he has always aimed to be like: the apocalyptic pastor. It is a wild phrase but a needful word for us today as pastors in the North American church. May we have ears to hear.

American religion is conspicuous for its messianically pretentious energy, its embarrassingly banal prose, and its impatiently hustling ambition. None of these marks is remotely biblical. None is faintly in evidence in the gospel story. All of them are thoroughly documented diseases of the spirit. Pastors are in great danger of being undetected carriers of the very disease we are charged to diagnose and heal. We need the most powerful of prophylactics — something like the apocalyptic prayer and poetry and patience of St. John.

From The Contemplative Pastor, p. 49, but also available electronically here.

The Weekend Wanderer: 20 November 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


facing disagreement“Helping Believers Navigate the Difference Divide” – Todd Fisher at Churches for the Sake of Others blog: “On election night 2016 my family and I were living in London. When we heard the results the next day, I’m embarrassed to say I felt thankful to not be in the U.S. My response was less from a political opinion and more from a sense that contentious times were ahead. I thought we’d be at a safe distance from such divisions. When our time in England came to an earlier-than-expected conclusion in the summer of 2017, I knew we were headed back to a divided homeland. Of course, little did I know just how divided things would become. Like many, I’ve found myself at a loss in recent years. We are not just fractured as a nation, not merely divided in local churches, we are experiencing strife like never before in families, homes and the most intimate of relationships. And this was before March of 2020. The pandemic and ensuing unrest of the last 19 months has served to accentuate, highlight, make clearer the differences between us. So what to do? How can we as believers navigate the divide of difference? How do we embody a different way and work towards reconciliation? How to lead when the ‘two or more gathered’ seem increasingly far apart? Ultimately, how do we engage the person in front of us in the manner of our Jesus?”


Brest Bible Exposition“A Belarussian Bible exhibition in troubled times” – Johannes Reimer in Evangelical Focus – Europe: “Very few cities of Europe are so connected to the Bible translation as this is the case with Brest, a Belarusian city at the border to Poland. Brest is 1,000 years old and has been under different European rulers throughout her history. In Reformation times the city was ruled by the Lithuanian Grand Duke Mikolai Radzivill the Black (1515-1565), who became Reformed and ordered the second ever Protestant translation of the Bible into a European language – Polish. The Brest Bible was published in 1563 and became a foundation for several Bible translations in different Eastern European languages. Among others, the translation into modern Belarusian by the Baptist pastor and social reformer Lukash Dziekuc-Malei (1888-1955). Dziekuc-Malei lived and worked in Brest prior to World War II. The National Library of Belarus together with the regional Gorki Library in Brest organized a symposium in 2021 honoring his extraordinary contribution to the Bible translation into the modern Belarusian language and published the procedures of the conference.”


church loneliness“The Riddle of Church Loneliness” – Susan Mettes in Christianity Today: “I can’t remember at what point I realized that I would probably go two years without a hug. Nobody knew how much worse the pandemic would get, but I knew I would be stuck in place for the duration. My friends felt a world away. Phone calls with my family had become strained. I couldn’t tell how they were really doing or articulate how I was handling the stress. (Not all that well: I had stopped showering altogether, and I was watching the Lord of the Rings movies repeatedly.) I believe winter was approaching when the realization about huglessness hit me. Holidays loomed in the near future, and I wondered if I could deal with a Thanksgiving by myself, with horse meat instead of turkey. I was in Central Asia. It was 2004, in the thick of the bird flu pandemic. That period, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, was one of my deepest experiences of loneliness. I was in a community where only one person I knew spoke English well. I could talk on a pay phone with people in the United States—through a very bad connection where I could always hear a third person breathing on the line—once every two weeks. I got sick a lot. I didn’t bathe much since the Turkish bathhouse was open to women just one day a week, during a time when I was scheduled to teach. People I didn’t know would come to my house to ask me to help them cheat on their English tests. I started talking to myself.”


dostoyevskyembed“Dostoyevsky Stricken: A God-possessed man reacts to suffering” – This several-decades-old article from Malcolm Muggeridge is found at Plough: “Like so many of my generation, I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, when I was very young. I read it like a thriller, with mounting excitement. Later, when I came to read Dostoyevsky’s other works, especially his great masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, I realized that he was not just a writer with a superlative gift for storytelling, but that he had a special insight into what life is about, into man’s relationship with his Creator, making him a prophetic voice looking into and illumining the future. I came to see that the essential theme of all his writing is good and evil, the two points round which the drama of our mortal existence is enacted.”


Barna Pastors Poll 2021“38% of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year” – From a recent study by the Barna Group: “Recent data collected from Barna’s pastor poll indicate that U.S. pastors are currently in crisis and at risk of burnout. Notably, in 2021 alone, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pastors who are thinking about quitting ministry entirely. With pastors’ well-being on the line, and many on the brink of burnout, 38 percent indicate they have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year. This percentage is up 9 full points (from 29%) since Barna asked church leaders this same question at the beginning of 2021. A deeper analysis of these data show that some groups are faring worse than others. One of the more alarming findings is that 46 percent of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, compared to 34 percent of pastors 45 and older. Keeping the right younger leaders encouraged and in their ministry roles will be crucial to the next decade of congregational vitality in the U.S.”


library“Intermission: From The Library” – Paul Kingsnorth at The Abbey of Misrule: “If you are anything like me, you can sense on the breeze that things are accelerating out there. ‘Events, my dear boy, events’, as the last old-school British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, once put it, are moving in such a way as to force many hands. I’ve been saying for a year or two now that we are living in apocalyptic times, and I mean that literally. The Greek word Apokalypsis means unveiling – or, of course, revelation. In Apocalyptic times, things are revealed which were previously hidden. The world is shown to be a different shape to the one you thought you were living in. This is rarely comfortable. If you pay attention, it may change your life. We each have to decide what to do with what is revealed to us.”


Music: Shawn E. Okpebholo, Two Black Churches – “Movement 1: Ballad of Birmingham,” Performed by Will Liverman (baritone) and Paul Sanchez (piano).

The Weekend Wanderer: 30 October 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


Lord's Prayer Luke“Christ’s Prayers Can Transform Ours” – Catherine J. Wright: “Alongside Jesus’ astonishing miracles and teachings, the Gospels depict something just as compelling: Jesus—who is himself fully God—prayed. In fact, he prayed a lot. Luke, the go-to
Gospel for a theology of prayer, includes more descriptions of Jesus’ own prayer habits than any other Gospel. When we look closely at how Jesus’ prayer life is depicted Luke, we discover how essential prayer is for the life of faith and our participation in God’s kingdom….Luke draws a vital connection between Jesus’ faithfulness in prayer and the inauguration of and empowerment for his earthly ministry. If we want to be used by God for God’s kingdom work, the preliminary step for us also is to be faithful in prayer.”


church breaking apart“The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart” – Peter Wehner in The Atlantic: “The election of the elders of an evangelical church is usually an uncontroversial, even unifying event. But this summer, at an influential megachurch in Northern Virginia, something went badly wrong. A trio of elders didn’t receive 75 percent of the vote, the threshold necessary to be installed. ‘A small group of people, inside and outside this church, coordinated a divisive effort to use disinformation in order to persuade others to vote these men down as part of a broader effort to take control of this church,’ David Platt, a 43-year-old minister at McLean Bible Church and a best-selling author, charged in a July 4 sermon….What happened at McLean Bible Church is happening all over the evangelical world. Influential figures such as the theologian Russell Moore and the Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention; both were targeted by right-wing elements within the SBC. The Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, published an op-ed by one of its contributors criticizing religious conservatives like Platt, Russell Moore, Beth Moore, and Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as “progressive Christian figures” who “commonly champion leftist ideology.” In a matter of months, four pastors resigned from Bethlehem Baptist Church, a flagship church in Minneapolis. One of those pastors, Bryan Pickering, cited mistreatment by elders, domineering leadership, bullying, and ‘spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.’ Political conflicts are hardly the whole reason for the turmoil, but according to news accounts, they played a significant role, particularly on matters having to do with race.”


webRNS-Refugees-Afghanistan1-100821-768x512“Showing Hospitality to Strangers: Texas Churches Welcome Afghan Refugees” – Heather Sells in CBN News: “As many as 50,000 Afghan refugees will soon be re-settling in US communities, most fleeing right after the Taliban takeover of their country in August. The regime change happened at breakneck speed, forcing many, like former US Army interpreter ‘Zaheer’ and his family, to flee with little more than a small bundle of personal items. Zaheer initially applied for his SIV visa in 2018 but admits he struggled in August when it became clear he and his family must go. ‘It’s very difficult to walk away,” he said. “I got only one small bag with me, a little bit of clothes.’ Thanks to the faith-based resettlement agency World Relief and church volunteers in the Ft. Worth area, Zaheer and his family were able to rent an apartment and find furniture. Zaheer’s priority now is to find a car and a job. He’s willing to take anything to provide for his family.”


Blanchard Hall“Wide Awoke at Wheaton?” – Vince Bacote in Current: “I experienced a range of emotions—including exasperation and anger—upon reading Gerald McDermott’s “Woke Theory at Evangelical Colleges” in First Things last week, an article written as an exposé of what is happening at my own institution, Wheaton College, and elsewhere. McDermott charges Wheaton, Baylor, and Samford, among others, with a compromising submission to standards and practices identified with the broader social justice movement in American higher education at large. The use of minimal evidence, anonymous voices, and suggestions of infidelity to the faith presented a genuine temptation to respond in anger and take the road of holy rage in reply to an ephemeral and thin article—ephemeral, because of the ongoing avalanche of media content; thin, because the article seems not to be the result of an effort to know what is really happening at institutions like my own and others. One wonders whether McDermott thought to go to the sources of purported wokeness at Wheaton, Baylor, and Samford, instead of merely to the voices of concern or worry.  But rather than anger, I write from a place of lament.”


Self-Portrait-with-Grey-Felt-Hat-846x1024“Vision, Leadership & van Gogh” – Derek R. Nelson at Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program: “Before he was a great-but-not-much-appreciated painter, Vincent van Gogh was a lousy-but-very-much-appreciated pastor. The details of this little-known chapter in his life are of some interest, I think, to those who are wondering about how early career pastors find sources of resilience to sustain them in their ministries, and also how pastors seeking to exercise leadership in their communities can do so effectively….After some failings in love, work and art, van Gogh needed a new start. He hoped to become a preacher like his father. He was not considered a strong candidate by the theological faculty at Amsterdam because of his volatility and apparent mental instability. His refusal to learn Latin — he already was fluent in four “living” languages and did not wish to learn a dead one! — gave them the pretext they needed to deny him admission. Lacking a path to the usual credentials, Vincent volunteered to be a missionary preacher to the Borinage, a very impoverished mining region in Belgium. He went at the age of 25 and remained there two years.”


online radio concept
rivalry between old and new:laptop computer and retro radio on the table

“How to Fix Social Media” – Nicholas Carr in The New Atlantis: “Around two o’clock in the afternoon on October 30, 1973, a disc jockey at the New York City radio station WBAI played a track called ‘Filthy Words’ from comedian George Carlin’s latest album. ‘I was thinking one night about the words you couldn’t say on the public airwaves,’ Carlin began. He then rattled off seven choice examples — ‘f***’ was among the milder ones — and proceeded to riff on their origin, usage, and relative offensiveness for the next ten minutes. A Long Island man named John Douglas heard the broadcast as he was driving home from a trip to Connecticut with his teenaged son. He promptly filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission. ‘Whereas I can perhaps understand an “X-rated” phonograph record’s being sold for private use, I certainly cannot understand the broadcast of same over the air that, supposedly, you control,’ he wrote. ‘Can you say this is a responsible radio station, that demonstrates a responsibility to the public for its license?’…Today, mired as we are in partisan, bitter, and seemingly fruitless debates over the roles and responsibilities of social media companies, the controversy surrounding George Carlin’s naughty comedy routine can seem distant and even quaint. Thanks to the Internet’s dismantling of traditional barriers to broadcasting, companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter transmit a volume and variety of content that would have been unimaginable fifty years ago. What’s at issue now is far greater than the propriety of a few dirty words. Arguments over whether and how to control the information distributed through social media go to the heart of America’s democratic ideals.”


Music: Jpk., “Some Days.”

A Litany for Pastors based on Matthew 23

I wrote this litany for those who are in ministry after reading Jesus’ sharp rebuke of the Pharisees and teachers of the law as recorded in Matthew 23. Every one of us in ministry struggles to live our calling faithfully, yet we also must let the Holy Spirit regularly search us and lead us to repentance. May this series of prayers help all of us in ministry continue to grow with God and serve others for His glory out of the overflow of humble and repentant lives.


O Lord, deliver us from the hypocrisy
of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.

Save us from burdening others in how we present Your truth
and help us to practice what we preach.

Rescue us from practicing our spirituality for others’ eyes
and focusing more on externals than true inner change.

Humble us that we might not seek position or title
but might learn to be servants of all.

For the ways we make Your kingdom hard to enter
and for how we lead people toward ourselves instead of Your kingdom
—forgive us, O Lord.

For the ways we discriminate about trifling matters
and miss the most important things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness
—forgive us, O Lord.

For the false righteousness we build in external things
and the dead places within us that have not yet been transformed
—forgive us, O Lord.

For the ways we honor the Word of God and Your messengers
while our lives are at odds with You and Your ways
—forgive us, O Lord.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Almighty God, the Creator of all things and preserver of life,
heal and transform us, forgive and deliver us,
that our lives and ministry might reflect the joy of Your kingdom
and that those we encounter and under our care
might know You, the One true God better
and thrive in the good life of Your kingdom.

All this we ask through Jesus Christ,
who, with You and the Holy Spirit,
are One God,
both now and forevermore.
Amen.