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For as long as I’ve been a pastor (and that’s longer than you think) pastors have been saddled with images and metaphors drawn from the world of business and capitalism to describe pastoral vocation. Some of us have nearly given up, declaring, “If I’m being asked to be the religious version of a used car salesman, then forget it!” There have been a few voices that have helped pastors recover the ancient pastoral art. Among these voices are well-known pastors and theologians like Eugene Peterson, William Willimon, Walter Brueggemann… and M. Craig Barnes.

The current issue of The Christian Century has an incredible article by Barnes, entitled “Poet in Residence: Listening for the Sacred Subtext,” which is essentially chapter 2 of Barnes’ new book, Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in Ministerial Life (Eerdmans). Here’s an excerpt:

Poets are devoted more to truth than to reality; they are not unaware of reality, but they never accept it at face value. The value of reality is found only by peeling back its appearance to discover the underlying truth. This is why poets care about the text, what is said or done, but only in order to reveal subtext, which reveals what it means. They value the reality they see primarily as a portal that invites them into a more mysterious encounter with truth. This is what distinguishes poets from those whose contributions to society are focused simply on following a particular text. Engineers, for example, follow their textbooks in constructing bridges that lead across deep ravines. And one hopes that they have been very, very devoted to those texts. By contrast, a poet who crosses the engineer’s bridge will go home and spend all day constructing verse that reveals the longing of the soul to find such an overpass when we stand on the banks of a disaster and peer down into the valley of death.

The last thing anyone sitting in a church pew needs is for the preacher to give advice on following the necessary algorithms for engineering better bridges. Or lessons in economics, politics or how to raise children. This doesn’t mean that any of these topics are out of bounds for the pastor-poet. But to be faithful to our particular calling, we need to get beneath the reality of what is being said and done to explore the often mysterious truth of what this means. In making interpretations of this mystery, the pastor is not a free agent but a faithful devotee to his or her biblical and theological tradition of interpretation. This tradition is filled with poetic insights that guide the contemporary pastor into a particular way of uncovering reality to expose eternal truth. Both the realist and the truth teller are necessary, but they are seldom found in the same office of leadership.

This should be required reading for every pastor. If you are feeling burdened by expectations, whether from the outside or (worse yet) those you place on yourself, then this article will be salve for your soul.

I’m not sure who thought of it first, but I learned these thoughts first from Walter Brueggemann in his incredible and lesser known book, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Brueggemann is writing more about preaching, but the sense is the same. He makes an urgent call for “Poetry in a Prose-Flattened World.”

Prose-flattened world. This has been an evocative phrase for me for the past 5 years and relates deeply to what I have been writing (here and here and here). Brueggemann writes:

Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching. Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it a soothing good humor.

It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel.

Here’s to being Pastor-Poets!

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