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An Open Letter to J

19 June 2008

She is a friend of mine; I hope I am a friend to her.  We served together on the search committee back in the day.  We were wounded together there by that process, and we were wounded along with many others by the result, or more precisely by the result of the result.  We were scarred, scattered, cast aside, and never – not once! – did we hear from any of the shepherds of our souls.  They had more important things to do.

Now, more than a year later, she is second-guessing herself.  Was she not submissive enough then?  Is she not submissive enough now?  Is she really little more than a rebel, a malcontent?  Is she ruled by her baser desires, her carnal instincts?

*****

As is often the case, Eugene Peterson – stern pastor to pastors – applies the salve.

Within the Christian community there are few words that are more disabling than “layperson” and “laity.”  The words convey the impression – an impression that quickly solidifies into a lie – that there is a two-level hierarchy among the men and women who follow Jesus.  There are those who are trained, sometimes referred to as “the called,” the professionals who are paid to preach, teach, and provide guidance in the Christian way, occupying the upper level.  The lower level is made up of everyone else, those whom God has assigned jobs as storekeepers, lawyers, journalists, parents, and computer programmers.

It is a barefaced lie, insinuated into the Christian community by the devil (who has an established reputation for using perfectly good words for telling lies).  It is a lie because it misleads a huge company of Christians into assuming that their workplace severely limits their usefulness in the cause of Christ, that it necessarily confines them to part-time work for Jesus as they help out on the margins of kingdom work.  It is particularly damaging in matters of ways and means, for we are used to deferring decisions in these matters to qualified experts or professionals…

The plain fact is that most people who set out and continue to follow Jesus are laypersons.  So why do many of us habitually and pliantly take a subordinate position under certified experts in matters of faith?  As a pastor myself, I’ve never gotten over my surprise – and dismay – at being treated with doggish deference by so many people.  Where do all these Christians, who by definition are “new creatures in Christ” and therefore surely eager to taste and see for themselves (a universal characteristic in newborns) that the Lord is good, pick up this deprecating self-understanding?  They certainly don’t get it from the Bible or from the gospel.  And certainly not from Jesus.  They get it from the culture, both secular and ecclesial.

They get it from leaders who love the prerogatives and power of expertise, who bully people by means of their glamorous bravado into abdicating the original splendor of a new life in Christ and then declining into the wretched condition of the consumer.  The consumer is passivity objectified:  passive in the pew, passive before the TV screen, vulnerable to every sort of exploitation and seduction, whether religious or secular.  And worst of all, passive in the ways and means of following Jesus, letting others who we think must know better tell us how to do it.

Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2007), 11, 13.

*****

Five decades of ministry and five decades of working out his own salvation under Christ have brought Peterson to a point where he could justifiably claim the privileged mantle of a “called one,” especially in the company of these young, self-important pups who impose on us disciples of Jesus the unyielding yoke of the American way:  larger, more spectacular, more clever, more standardized, more influential, more powerful, more hierarchical, more impersonal, more independent, and wealthier.  He spurns it, preferring the company of the hordes and masses who wander aimlessly about, like sheep without a shepherd.  And as he writes, he brings a word of confident assurance to a tender, sometimes timid housewife, mother of two fine children, nurse, life partner to a skillful practitioner of the fathering and the healing arts, curious fellow-traveler on the Jesus way.

J, I hope you hear what Peterson is saying to you.  Deal with Jesus concerning your true heart and its motivations, as you must, and be willing to receive his rebuke when it comes.  But do not mistake the grinding, surging, throaty growl of an American-made, religious machine for the voice of Jesus.

Love,

qb

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