Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ramblings on "The atheist and the Nun"

Still slowly reading Eugene Peterson's "The Pastor: A Memoir" and after reading this chapter, I thought I should quickly reflect and ramble on it instead of procrastinating :-) So many sentences in this short chapter caught my eye and heart ...

The first is the reason Peterson was teaching at St. Mary's Seminary while still busy as a pastor.

 But the invitation to give courses at the Ecumenical Institute, as it turned out, was neither diversion nor detraction from my pastoral work. It contributed a kind of reinforcement, an enrichment. It gave me a supplementary congregation very different from the suburbanites I gathered for worship each week and with whom I lived as a companion. My classes were multiethnic, a gathering of people off the streets of Baltimore from missions, New Age cults, workers with the homeless, men and women who hadn't found their place, looking for a place. Some were Christians looking for guidance and stimulus in sharpening their witness and understanding. Some were professionals bored with professionalism. They kept me in touch with an energy that seethed in the city but also with its poverty and crime. My sense was that all of them were looking for God but often didn't have a name for what they were looking for. Their language and their stories protected me from being lulled into complacency by suburbia.

The seminary also maintained a connection with the life of the mind, a devout community of intellectual seriousness that did not exactly flourish in my congregation, homes in which there was a TV in every room. St. Mary's Seminary trained priests for holy orders. It was the oldest Roman Catholic seminary in America. I had a couple friends who were professors on the faculty. The life of the mind, the theological mind, flourished here. The library was elegant. The conversations were lively. A few hours a week at the seminary were enough to keep my mind engaged with the life of the Spirit, the Word of Life, a living link with the life of the mind. 

The pastoral vocation in America is always in danger of becoming flabby with consumer religion and lazy with cliches. Those years and hours at St. Mary's Seminary provided a defense against both the flabbiness and the cliches.

While I certainly won't be asked to teach a course at seminary, and I have no energy or desire to be a full time or part time seminary student again, my resolve to make it a priority to attend Laidlaw College's twice yearly Leaders Day (example can be seen HERE)  has been further strengthened.

One of my recent laments to a few people was my struggle that even after a powerful presence of God in worship and a challenging sermon (in which many make it a point to mention to me , thank me or ask me to let the worship leader or preacher know etc.), in a short while the conversations turn to "consumer religion" (to borrow Peterson's term) AND trivial mundane every day matters of little spiritual value.

Not to say that I think every thought and conversation has to be directly tied in to God, but there is something worrying when it is almost as if "well, church is over, so back to my other life?" It's something hard to explain *sigh* And it is not that I personally am devoid of any interest in "secular things" :-)

Anyway, one thing I remind myself often is that it is "unfair" of me to expect most people to understand some things they way I do simply because we are at different stages in our relationship with God and it is my "job to spend most of my time thinking of "spiritual things".

And even if I do not teach in a course in seminary or take formal courses as a student, I need to block significant time for serious study and reflection less I find my mind disengaging with the life of the Spirit and Living Word .... and get "flabby" theologically.

The second is title of the course he was teaching! 

This semester my course was A Theology of Ministry in the Workplace. There were eleven students. I introduced myself. We got acquainted—their names, what they did for a living, and so forth. Then I gave an orientation to the course. The working assumption was that ministry is what we do for a living, all of us, any of us. It is not a specialty work for pastors or priests or missionaries. As we met together around this seminar table, we would describe what we did for a living and see if we could find ourselves as workers in a workplace in the biblical story, a vocation of salvation. We would use Jesus's words in John 5:17 as our text: "My Father is still working, and I also am working."  The Gospel of John as a whole would provide background and resource.

"The major requirement of the course is to write a paper on your personal assessment of the theology of a ministry that you are in. Each will present a paper in class. That will be the text that we will discuss. ..."

I wish I could sit in on such a class! And I am glad he shared some highlights in this chapter. It also made me think about the possibilities in my life, should the LORD tell me my "tour of duty" as a "church pastor" is up. Not that I dislike being a pastor. I love it and I do believe it is my calling BUT there are times when I realize that there are limitations that come with the job ...

But I do think such courses need to be offered in every seminary and in church so that every Christian will get excited via discovering their ministry as I agree with the assumption that ministry is what we do for a living, all of us, any of us. Then perhaps(?) this would result in more people after church talking excitedly about what happened in their week, and how God was seen in their lives and how it impacted others around them.

The third is of course the comments by the NUN and the ATHEIST and how God changed them.

Discussion was animated. Except for one woman, a nun. She taught fifth grade in a parochial school. About fifty years old, plain, sullen, lumpish. She said nothing. Attempting to get something started with her, I asked, "Why are you taking this course?"
"It's not my idea. Faculty requires it—continuing education."
The next week she didn't have a topic. She said, "I don't have a ministry."
"Josephine, didn't you tell me when we were talking before class that you ran a bingo game every Saturday for the elderly in a nursing home?" 
She was curt. "That's not ministry, that's penance." I backed off.

LOL. I can just imagine the scene.
Then of course the change ... which I think is best read for oneself

And how the atheist, Bear changes as well and meets Christ

But what inspires me is that all this came about because people were willing to honestly discuss tough issues theologically in a safe community setting.

One comment by Peterson that kind of sums things up ...

Bear set down the conditions that prevailed for the rest of the semester: honest, probing, vulnerable, prayerful, and personal. And Christian.

Such deep conversations is something I miss ...


  1. Thanks for the honest and provoking reflection on this section of Peterson's memoirs. We need to continually reflect on what is our vocation and how we live out that vocation.

    1. further to this, Paul, may I suggest you read Eugene's The Contemplative Pastor concurrently with reading his memoirs.