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: 4 December 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.


Supreme Court abortion debate“Supreme Court Abortion Case Holds Signs of Hope for Pro-Life Evangelicals” – Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today: “After a long-awaited challenge to Roe v. Wade made it to the US Supreme Court on Wednesday, pro-life evangelicals who had rallied for the cause for decades were encouraged that the conservative-leaning court appeared willing to uphold a contentious Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. The justices’ decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, due in late June, could overturn the country’s landmark abortion rights cases, making way for more restrictive state laws protecting the rights of fetuses in the womb. White evangelicals—who are twice as likely than the average American to want to make abortion illegal—gathered outside the high court in Washington and, across the country, listened to the oral arguments streamed online due to the pandemic. But the two-hour discussion—the greatest threat to abortion policy in 50 years of prayer and advocacy—largely skipped over familiar evangelical talking points to focus on the legal grounds for the case.”


Ray Chang - pastor burnout“7 Ways Pastors Can Avoid Burnout Before It’s Too Late” – Ray Chang at The Better Samaritan with Kent Annan and Jamie Aten: “The number one thing I am hearing from people is about how exhausted they are. It seems like most people are running on fumes, with barely just enough to get through each day. This includes pastors. I am hearing so much from pastors who are on the brink of burnout or pushing through in the midst of burn out from everything that has been taking place. Everything from the COVID-19 pandemic and all of its entailments, to the deep political polarization that rears its head throughout churches, the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories, issues surrounding racial injustice and sexual abuse and how the church ought to respond, mental health struggles, and economic challenges, have all led to a compounding weight of sheer exhaustion. As I continued to hear what pastors have been sharing, I found that the primary points of exhaustion had to do with some combination of needing to lead through transition after transition, in addition to already having to do too much and being stretched too thin, with less support and help than ever. Essentially, the uncertainty of the pandemic and multitude of complex overwhelmings are leading to a significant strain on the soul. As a result, here are a few things I have been encouraging pastors and church leaders to do. Adapt and adopt if it can serve you.”


Bethlehem“Do You Know These Details of Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem?” – From Faith Life: “Christians understand the meaning of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem . . . but there’s so much that’s hazy in our imagination and understanding of the details. Popular Christmas songs, Christmas movies, and Christmas media have given us the wrong idea. Read about the fascinating truth in this excerpt adapted from the Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels….For example, the geographical setting of Bethelehem: The ancient village of Bethlehem was located five miles (eight km) south of Jerusalem, one half mile (0.8 km) east of the watershed at the end of a short, narrow spur of chalky limestone angling southeastward. Its elevation, at just over 2500 feet (762 m), is about the same as Jerusalem, and the rainfall is virtually identical for Bethlehem and Jerusalem (twenty-four in, or sixty-one cm, per year, about the same as the wheat fields from central Nebraska to central Texas).”


https://www.intouch.org/about-us/meet-dr-charles-stanley

“Died: Labib Madanat, Who Showed the Bible to Palestinians and Israelis in Word and Deed” – Morgan Lee in Christianity Today: “During his decades of ministry, Labib Madanat repeatedly passed through Israel’s main international airport. So regularly did security detain and thoroughly search him, he developed his own response. ‘Ben Gurion is my mission field,’ Madanat would say. ‘When I tell them that I am a Palestinian Arab Christian, and that I love the God of Israel and their Messiah, I get their full attention!’ The son of Jordanian missionaries who later led his father’s Jerusalem church, Madanat’s role as director of the Palestinian Bible Society (PBS) and later coordinator of all the Bible societies in the Holy Land offered him a platform to live out the gospel in a polarized region. He died on November 15 at the age of 57, after suffering three consecutive seizures during a ministry trip to Baghdad, Iraq. ‘There are people in the world who work and provide help to different groups not like them but don’t always have a love for those people,’ wrote his brother-in-law Daoud Kuttab, secretary of the Jordan Evangelical Council. ‘This was not Labib. He genuinely open-heartedly loved everyone he came in contact with, Arabs or foreigners, Palestinians or Israelis, Iraqi Shiites or Sunnis, Amazigh from North Africa, or Kurds in Irbil.'”


Scot McKnight“Jesus Creed Books of the Year” – Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed blog: “The late Justice Antonin Scalia, known for his crystal clear and mind-shaping prose, once said this about what makes for good writing: ‘I think there is writing genius as well – which consists primarily, I think, of the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one’s audience; to assume only what the assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain they need explained; to think what they must be thinking; to feel what they must be feeling.’  Herewith, I announce today the Jesus Creed Books of the Year, simultaneously the Tov Unleashed Books of the Year. These are good books I have read and not some kind of magical survey of everything written. Many of you will know my picks from the blog posts and newsletters, but much thought goes into picking which books become the subject of our conversations.”


Ijaz-Still“Pakistani Minister Whose Church Was Bombed to Resume Ministry at Home” Anne Lim at Eternity News: “Sydney-based Anglican minister, the Rev Ijaz Gill, is not letting fear stop him from returning to his homeland of Pakistan to resume his ministry – despite a horrific bomb attack that killed 122 of his congregation, many of them children, and injured 168 of his friends. Rev Gill was just about to remove his robe after morning service at All Souls Church in Peshawar when the first bomb hit on 22 September 2013. The historic 19th-century church was crowded with about 500 people, including many families, who were celebrating wedding announcements with a spread of food and sweets. ‘When the first bomb blast hit, I fell down; it hit my head and shoulder, I was injured. The second bomb blast hit many, many people,’ he recalls, shaking his head over the immense carnage. Rev Gill believes the suicide bombers targeted his church, located on the border with Afghanistan, because of his outspoken stand against the Taliban.”


Music: J. J. Wright, “Transfiguration Hymn,” from Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

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).

A Prayer for Renewal based on 2 Timothy 1

“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

Lord, my God—

The Giver of every good and perfect gift,
You are the One who has saved me
through the sinless life, sacrificial death on the Cross,
and victorious resurrection of Jesus Your Son.

The fruit of Your Spirit in my character
and the gifts of Your Spirit in my ministry
are all Your great and gracious work in me
and not from myself.

I come to You, the Only Awesome One,
the God who is holy and an all-consuming fire,
asking You to rekindle both my heart of love for You
and the ministry calling and gifts I received in You.

Renew me, Lord, that, with my heart set ablaze
and my life set on fire for You,
I might enjoy You and serve You,
set like a shining light in a dark day and time.

When my spirit fails and I grow weak
restore in me Your Spirit of power, love, and self-discipline in me,
all for the glory of Your Holy Name,
O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.