Building the Perfect Pastor: Thoughts from Capon


Though it may come as a surprise to some who know me, the two authors that have made the greatest contribution to my identity as a pastor are not, denomination-wise, Lutherans. They are an Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, and a Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson. In this new (infrequently) recurring feature, I will lay out some of the insights that I’ve learned from the two of them, as I endeavor to build the perfect pastor, or at least the perfect job description.

Robert Capon (whom I have mentioned before, see here and here) was a pastor after my own heart. He adored New Testament Greek, he appreciated French cooking, and he had a bitterly ironic sense of humor. Perhaps then, it’s no surprise that I resonate with his thoughts on pastoring. While ruminating on the parable of the faithful and wise steward, he puts forward a intriguing argument. The faithful and wise steward, he says, is Jesus’ idea of a pastor. And in following our Lord’s job line of thinking, pastors will be faithful and wise and stewards. Beginning today with faithful, I’m going to tackle his thoughts on each of those three requirements.

In some sense, the requirement to be faithful stands as the most simple requirement. But as anyone who’s taken a cursory glance at this blog knows, it’s the simple that you’ve got to watch out for. Because being faithful means being called to believe and to wait. In a world of doing, in a world of moving and shaking, in a world where 30 seconds of buffering is an eternity, you can see where the difficulty lies. The difficulty lies in not trying to take responsibility for the success of Jesus’ endeavor to save the lost and despairing. It lies in not having much to do other than talk about what Jesus has already done. As Capon writes, “Their vocation is simply to be faithful waiters on the mystery of Jesus’ coming in death and resurrection.” Well, then, you might ask, what’s a pastor to do? Just sit and read in their office all day until the Lord returns? While that’s not a half bad idea, I’d point you back to the lines I just quoted. There’s a fun play on words here: the stewards are also waiters! So, pastors set the table of the Lord’s Supper and preach the Word. And just like waiters, the most important thing is that the pastor is not in charge of the establishment. Just as the wait-staff in a fine dining establishment generally has no hand in the branding, the menu, or the aesthetic of the restaurant, the pastor’s not leading any charge forward or innovating solutions. All that a church needs to see from their pastor is “their commitment to the ministry of waiting for, and waiting on, the only Lord who has the keys of death (Rev. 1:18).”

For those interested in reading Capon’s thoughts in their original context, you can find them in: Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002, 243-245. Check back soon for parts 2 and 3.

Remembering Jaroslav Pelikan and his Books

The United States of America is really sort of a backwater in terms of Lutherans. There aren’t very many of us, and, quite frankly, the credentials of all of the “Lutheran” churches look a little dubious, depending on the lighting. Because of that, the famous Lutherans have generally been European. This is the second in a series of posts highlighting both important and improbable characters from the American side of the things.


Not the right kind of Pelikan.

Bear with me for a short time on this one. On Wednesday, September 28th, the Roman church observes the feast day of St. Wenceslas. For those of you who don’t know, in addition to going out on the feast of St. Stephen, Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any famous Czech-American Lutherans. However, thinking about the Czechs made me remember that they formerly shared the country of Czechoslovakia with the Slovaks. And I do know of a Slovak-American Lutheran that you all should know about: Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan.

And while there’s a lot to know about Dr. Pelikan, I’d like to focus on one thing: his voluminous literary output. He wrote a lot of books, both popular and academic, and I’d like to focus on his books because they represent a facet of Dr. Pelikan’s life and work that the Lutherans in America often sorely miss.

Jaroslav Pelikan represents a Lutheran theology grounded in history and not afraid to do serious academic digging. He knew over a dozen languages and had an interest in subjects as diverse as the music of Bach and the literature of Dostoevsky. And so, in honor of St. Wenceslas, Dr. Pelikan, and my own convoluted chain of thought, here are three books by Jaroslav Pelikan that every pastor ought to read (and every layman could benefit from):

  1. Fools for Christ – In this book, Pelikan weaves together the story of six towering figures in the history of Christian theology: the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Johann Sebastian Bach. In weaving them together, he highlights the three chief temptations of Christian theology, namely the identification of the Holy with the good or the true or the beautiful. In each instance, he redirects the theology back to its true object: Jesus Christ.
  2. Whose Bible is It? A Short History of the Scriptures – In Whose Bible is It?, Pelikan turns his historical interest to the formation of the Bible. Written for a popular audience, this book provides clear answers to common questions about how the Bible came to be.
  3. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine – This last recommendation is actually a five volume set. To put it simply, in these five books, Pelikan does the reading for you. While not light reading by any measure, Pelikan presents an accessible guide to the development of Christian doctrine, all the way from the early church up to the present day. As both a history and a reference, it ought to be in every pastor’s office.

A Normal Time Burden

It’s now June, and that means that we’ve entered the season of Pentecost, or as they used to call it, Normal Time. It’s a season of the church year that comes about when people have run off to their cabins and other vacations, and so Normal Time gets little press and even less love. So I’ve dreamed up an idea to spice the season up.

I call my idea a “Normal Time Burden.” Think Lenten discipline, but instead of giving something up, take on the burden of reading a book. And not just any book. Read a boring book.

Read a book, not to be entertained, but to learn. Read a book full of obtuse terminology and words that you have to look up. Instead of a free flow of words, slog your way into a strange discipline. Struggle. Slow down. Find a monograph on the classification of mayflies. Read John McPhee’s colossal work of popular geology, Annals of  a Former World.

But why? Why read geology or mayfly taxonomy? How will this improve your standing with God? It won’t. Aside from the fact that reading about mayflies will present you from committing any heinous crimes for a short amount of time, there’s nothing holy about it. And that’s the point.

The idea behind the “Normal Time Burden” is to stop for one moment and not try to “do the right thing” or “be a good person.” That’s it. Just stop and be boring, like a blog post without a picture. It’s Normal Time. Be normal.


Whale, Whale, Whale, It’s Maundy Thursday Again

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is not the easiest book to read. A large part of it has to do with the way that Melville swamps his readers with details. For an example of his minutiae, look no further than the sermon delivered by Father Mapple in the Whaleman’s Chapel. Another author may have simply written “From the pulpit, Father Mapple began to preach about Jonah, describing the prophet’s sin and God’s wrath.” Melville, on the other hand, writes out every word of the preacher’s sermon. In the Oxford University Press paperback edition, Melville’s sermon takes almost nine pages.

And truth be told, not only does Melville write an entire sermon, he writes a good sermon. In preaching on Jonah, Father Mapple illustrates a point of Lutheran preaching that’s often misunderstood. When people hear about Law and Gospel preaching, it often conjures up images of balance: Half the sermon should be Law, half the sermon should be Gospel. Don’t go into either ditch, but keep on the narrow road. Find the proper mix of responsibility and freedom.


However, for Luther and those who follow in his footsteps, the key is not balance. The key to Lutheran preaching is to preach 100% of the Law and 100% of the Gospel in every sermon, and that almost never leads to a sermon equally divided between the two. Father Mapple understand this and illustrates it. For eight pages, Mapple thunders, hammering home Jonah’s sins and God’s wrath. He leaves Jonah and his hearers no escape from the hand of God. He drowns his readers in a sea of Law until they sink straight to the bottom. But then, when his hearers flounder in the watery depths, in two sentences, he preaches the Gospel: “Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet-‘out of the belly of hell”-when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

That’s it. Eight pages of Law, 2 sentences of Gospel. But each preached 100%.

Quotations from Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. 41-49.

Beware the Third Peacock on the Left

In his book, Irrational Man, William Barrett referred to theodicy as the great tragicomedy of philosophy. In The Third Peacock, Robert Farrar Capon tackles the subject, with a special emphasis on the comedy.

I am a big fan of Capon’s work (a line from his book Bed and Board gave this blog its name). His wit and his ability to toe the line of absurdity make him a dangerous theologian to tangle with. In The Third Peacock, he takes on the usual attempts to explain evil in the world, and finds each one lacking. In their places, he takes his readers on a theological journey where necessity is replaced by adventure and logic is replaced by love. For those involved in the day to day work of pastoral care, The Third Peacock is worth reading for the way in which Capon’s writing knocks down the tired cliches that tragedy continually drags forth. That’s not to say that Capon provides his readers with an easy one-liner to replace the cliches. Instead, he guides his readers into really thinking about God, His creation, and suffering.

The Third Peacock isn’t only useful to spur thinking on the problem of evil. In fact, the seventh chapter, entitled “The Hat on the Invisible Man,” is pure ecclesiological gold. As a capstone to his argument, Capon lays out one of the best short definitions of the church that I’ve ever read. He slyly rebukes proponents of the church as principally a well-spring of social service and calls for a return to a ministry of Word and Sacrament that takes seriously the reality of Christ’s presence. It’s masterful stuff, and at only 119 pages, it can be read in two or three days. If you’re a pastor, The Third Peacock is ignored at your own peril. If you’re not, it’s enjoyable enough to be read anyways.

Niebuhr’s Notebook

During my time as an intern pastor, I’ve been reading memoirs written by other pastors, in an effort to learn about what has changed in the pastoral ministry and what hasn’t. The first that I’ve read comes form the pen of Reinhold Niebuhr.


In 1929, shortly after moving away from Detroit, Reinhold Niebuhr published Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, excerpts from his journal during his time as a pastor in Detroit. As a piece of history, Niebuhr’s writings are well worth the time, though as a reflection of Niebuhr’s views of the ministry, they are more depressing than anything else.

As a history of Christianity in the 1920’s, Niebuhr’s journal deserves to be read by all pastors. For one, reading Leaves will lead the observant pastor to a Ecclesiastes 1:9 moment. If not for his constant references to “industrialists and Henry Ford,” Niebuhr could have written his book within the last ten years. The concerns of Niebuhr for the working poor and societal inequity have not gone away. His criticisms of fundamentalists and the social gospel are repeated by pastors all the time. On a personal level, the concerns that he voices over pastoral visitation, preaching, and his relation to his parishioners continue to resonate with the pastoral life today. A reading of his book should serve as necessary medicine to both the pastor who longs for the “good ol’ days” and the pastor who thinks that they’ve arrived at something revolutionary.

But, today’s echoes of Niebuhr’s concerns also point to the depressing side of his book. Within the pages of his journal, one can trace the beginnings of the slow decline of mainline Protestantism. Niebuhr’s book points to the fact that mainline Protestantism (and its children, the Social Gospel and the Emerging Church) have been beating the same drum for almost one hundred years now. Thoughts of the intrinsic goodness of humanity, societal reform and the “ethics” of Jesus dominate Niebuhr’s writings. His main concern is to change his parishioners into instruments for social change and to give them a greater social consciousness. Niebuhr’s concerns are repeated over and over in pulpits today; the problem is that Niebuhr had demographics on his side. But even as his church grew, in his moments of clarity, when he describes his conversations with Jewish and socialist leaders, Niebuhr wrestles with the realization that his preaching may render his brand of Christianity superfluous.

Almost a century later, pastors should continue to read Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. As a snapshot of mainline Christianity in the 1920’s, it is informative. As a book of pastoral theology, it’s tired, and ought to be put to bed.