On the eucatastrophe of the cross and a city-slicker’s embrace of rural ministry.
Of all the questions that have been asked of me since I moved from Florida to Pennsylvania, the one that takes the cake is, perhaps, the simplest: “Why?” Why on earth would you want to move from the beaches of the Sunshine State to the mountains of the Keystone State?Why would you move from the warmth of Florida to the frigid temperatures of Pennsylvania? Well, to be honest with you, I don’t really know. I like to say, somewhat jokingly, that the only crazy thing that’d make anyone make such a move is God. And, joking aside, that is the God’s honest truth. There’s no way Natalie and I would be so confident in this significant transitionary chapter in life without knowing that God was calling us to this. And throughout this first (almost) year of being Pennsylvanians, that calling has only become more sure and concretized.
A fallacy arises when you try and segregate “urban” from “rural” ministry, as if one is somehow different (or better) than the other. To be sure, there are significant tactical variants when planting a church in the city or revitalizing a church in the country. But while the methodology might be different, the message is still the same: that sinners find hope, pardon, and peace in the God who gave himself particularly for sinners. Notwithstanding the context of your ministry, that is the message of the gospel. It is the inescapable and ever-applicable announcement of the eucatastrophe of the cross. In, perhaps, his most trenchant piece writing, an essay entitled “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien coins that term — eucatastrophe — and asserts that that is what makes fairy-stories so worthwhile. He writes:
The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function . . . The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far as evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.1
This “sudden joyous turn” of “miraculous grace” is, indeed, what is announced in evangelium of Christ crucified. In fact, Tolkien proceeds to aver that the gospel itself is the greatest fairy-story ever told, not only because it is evidently true but also because it contains the “Great Eucatastrophe” of Christian faith and joy. He continues:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories . . . and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe . . . The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.2
What makes pastoral ministry so supremely meaningful is that the Creator himself has, in unforeseen mercy, allowed for sinners to not only partake of this sudden and miraculous grace, but also to participate in the grand fairy-story of man’s redemption. Such is why Patrick Fairbairn refers to pastors as “the special keepers and dispensers of Heaven’s peculiar treasure!” Because in the pronouncement of God’s eucatastrophic gospel, they become “living conduits of that divine word which God Himself delights to magnify above all His name!”3 Therefore, whether you’re in the urban or the rural context, the worth and value of your ministry is tied exclusively to Christ. Not stats or analytics or ballooning budgets or snazzy social media or filled parking lots. Rather, ministerial success has for its chief measure the proclamation of the gloriously good news of Jesus’s passion and resurrection which secures for sinners a joyous turn from death to life.
Such is the message that formed and shaped my calling to the pastorate of Stonington Baptist Church in Paxinos, Pennsylvania. I recently asked to talk about this amazing transition from South Florida to rural Pennsylvania on the “Rural Pastor’s Talk” podcast. It was such a joy to share my heart for the ministry with these fellow pastors. So, if you can spare a few minutes, watch and listen as I share my passion for the gospel in this encouraging interview. Blessings!
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 153–54.
Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1875), 59.