Why read Patrick O’Brian? There are many reasons. I could mention the gripping plots, the interesting characters, the historical accuracy and the air of authenticity, the many hilarious passages mingled with ones that break your heart. But here’s another reason: the quality of the language. Where else (besides Shakespeare) can you find such enjoyable invective, here from the mouth of Dr. Stephen Maturin?
They are deeply attached to one another; but since her mother, a widow with considerable property under her own control, is a deeply stupid, griping, illiberal, avid, tenacious, pinchfist lickpenny, a sordid lickpenny and a shrew, there is no hope of marriage… (H. M. S. Surprise, p. 26).
So if a minister ought not to be a shopkeeper, aiming at getting more customers to buy the church’s goods, what should he be doing? Eugene Peterson gives three answers: praying, reading (actually: hearing) Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Working the Angles devotes three chapters to each of those tasks.
When it comes to prayer, Peterson urges caution:
We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray (44).
That may sound odd, but consider Ecclesiastes 5:2: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.” Prayer is dangerous, Peterson maintains, and we should not pray lightly. But so often such light prayers seem to be what people demand of pastors:
One of the indignities to which pastors are routinely subjected is to be approached, as a group of people are gathering for a meeting or a meal, with the request, “Reverend, get things started for us with a little prayer, will ya?” It would be wonderful if we would counter by bellowing William McNamara’s fantasized response: “I will not! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion’s den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.'”
I am not prescribing rudeness: the bellow does not have to be audible. I am insisting that the pastor who in indolence or ignorance is politely compliant with requests from congregation or community for cut-flower prayers forfeits his … calling. Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get things going. They suppose that the “real action,” as they call it, is in the “things going” — projects and conventions, plans and performances. It is an outrage and a blasphemy when pastors adjust their practice of prayer to accommodate these inanities (46).
What does Peterson recommend as a remedy? Saturating ourselves in Scripture, and the Psalms in particular, understanding that all of our prayers are responses, second words in response to God’s first words:
What do we do? We do the obvious: we restore prayer to its context in God’s word. Prayer is not something we think up to get God’s attention or enlist his favor. Prayer is answering speech. The first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary… (47).
The opening paragraph of P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Sam the Sudden, it seems to me, could well apply to southwest Lousiana … except that it starts in May, not August:
All day long, New York, stewing in the rays of a late August sun, had been growing warmer and warmer, until now, at three o’clock in the afternoon, its inhabitants … had divided themselves by a sort of natural cleavage into two main bodies — the one crawling about and asking those they met if this was hot enough for them, the other maintaining that what they minded was not so much the heat as the humidity. — P. G. Wodehouse, Sam the Sudden, p. 11.
For a long time I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation. The curriculum would consist of four courses. Course I: Creative Plagiarism. I would put you in touch with a wide range of excellent and inspirational talks, show you how to alter them just enough to obscure their origins, and get you a reputation for wit and wisdom. Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling. We would develop your own distinct style of Holy Joe intonation, acquiring the skill in resonance and modulation that conveys an unmistakable aura of sanctity. Course III: Efficient Office Management. There is nothing that parishioners admire more in their pastors than the capacity to run a tight ship administratively. If we return all telephone calls within twenty-four hours, answer all letters within a week, distributing enough carbons to key people so that they know we are on top of things, and have just the right amount of clutter on our desks — not too much or we appear inefficient, not too little or we appear underemployed — we quickly get the reputation for efficiency that is far more important than anything that we actually do. Course IV: Image Projection. Here we would master the half-dozen well-known and easily implemented devices that create the impression that we are terrifically busy and widely sought after for counsel by influential people in the community. A one-week refresher course each year would introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends and at the same time solidly rooted in all the traditional values of our sainted ancestors.
(I have been laughing for several years over this trade school training for pastors with which I plan to make my fortune. Recently, though, the joke has backfired on me. I keep seeing advertisements for institutes and workshops all over the country that invite pastors to sign up for this exact curriculum. The advertised course offerings are not quite as honestly labeled as mine, but the content appears to be identical — a curriculum that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion. I’m not laughing anymore.) — Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 7-8.
Any church which forsakes the regular and uniform for the periodical and spasmodic service of God, is doomed to decay; any church which relies for its spiritual strength and growth entirely upon seasons of “revival” will very soon have no genuine revivals to rely on. Our holy God will not conform His blessings to man’s moods and moral caprice. If a church is declining, it may need a “revival” to restore it; but what need was there of its declining? — T. L. Cuyler, Recollections, cited in P. Y. DeJong, Taking Heed to the Flock: A Study of the Principles and Practice of Family Visitation, p. 19.
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. — Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, p. 2.
This quotation at the outset of Peterson’s book hits the nail on the head, and perhaps especially for church planters (such as I was until recently), for whom the thought “How can I get more people to attend church?” is never far away. This is the second of Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry and I’ve enjoyed it even more than the first, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, valuable as that was. I’d recommend it for every pastor. Expect more quotations from it from time to time, now that I’m back to regular pastoral work and back to blogging.