I find that I am learning much about what it means to be a pastor, a teller of God’s story.
Recently, a Clemson University professor invited me to speak to her class, a course listed in the fall catalog as “Clergy in American Public Life.” Hoping to engage the question of how religious voices have influenced (or seek to influence) public discourse and values, the professor asked me to discuss anything related to my vocation and my views on how pastors interact with the broader culture.
How would one begin such a dialogue? Would it have been wise to appeal to some of our best voices—Martin Luther King Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer—each speaking justice to power? Should I have immediately distanced myself from our more embarrassing voices, making it plain that calling for the assassination of a foreign head of state is not typical Christian public policy?
I took a different tack and began the conversation by appealing to two other characters, Toot and Puddle. Toot and Puddle are pigs, best pals who live together in Woodcock Pocket. Toot likes to travel while Puddle enjoys staying home. Toot is usually itching to explore while Puddle can often be found hunting for a good recipe. As I read their adventuring tales to my boys Wyatt and Seth, I find, perhaps oddly, that I am learning much about what it means to be a pastor, a teller of God’s story.
Spiritual leaders (both within the Christian community and within the culture at large) are called to tell stories. It is a call to set the stage, to give texture to the plot, to remind all who are listening to be aware of the cues, remember their lines and pay attention for the time when it is their destined moment to step on stage. We must be careful here, though. This is not just any story we tell. This is God’s story. Perhaps the most essential element of our storytelling is to call attention to the name scribbled down as the author: God.
The Gospel, God’s story, has fallen prey to many myths. At times, these myths are even promulgated by those who would seem to love the story most dearly. The Gospel we are called to live and breathe is not fundamentally a worldview or political stance. It is not first a moral code or a social institution. In a world that is increasingly disconnected from the Biblical ethos, it is easy—too easy—to see the Gospel as a way of defended or a social stance to be upheld or an institutional vision to be deployed rather than a story to be lived. When a spiritual leader forgets this truth, surrenders the role of storyteller and instead takes on the mantle of leadership guru, corporate consultant or (anti) cultural warrior, a portion of our unique voice and calling fades. Eugene Peterson reminds us that we “must learn how to be gospel storytellers.”
God’s story is a subversive force, a true story inviting us to listen to its words and to feel its weight. It invites us to live its ethos and be reordered by its way of telling us what is true. It is this way of telling that often seems ignored. Scripture, and the Gospel it contains, is not given to us as a sterile collection of data. It is not a textbook or a dissertation on moral questions. It has data, to be sure. It engages moral dilemmas, no doubt. However, it does not enter these discussions merely with facts. It tells a Grand Story of a God who created a people, remarkably allowed these created ones to shake their fists in His face, and then set on the preposterous path of surrendering His own life to win these people back. It is a story of a God who is always God. And a people who are never God, no matter how much we act to the contrary. This story doesn’t answer every question we bring to it. It doesn’t allow us to package it as neatly as we might like. But it is the story God has given. It is His story. It is a story big enough to live in.
So, as I spoke at Clemson on clergy and all things related, I said the pastor should be viewed less as a vocational expert or a moralistic, cultural warrior. A pastor is certainly not some quaint but irrelevant spokesperson of a bygone age. A pastor is a family storyteller, reminding us what is true, reminding us of how God has acted through the centuries and how He is still moving today. This is the only narrative providing hope to a humanity deprived of the story-speaking God. This calling is the same, I believe, for all of us who lead and live in spiritual communities, whatever the form and whatever the title.
I recently read that Ivan Illich was asked what he believed to be the most revolutionary way to change society: is it through violent revolution or gradual reform? “Neither,” he answered. “If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story.”