The Pastor’s Kid.
Author: Barnabas Piper.
Genre: Non-Fiction (but not story) Spiritual Advice
Quick Spin. Barnabas Piper, son of pastor and author John Piper, shares some of the strains, pains, and pitfalls common to the children of Pastors, even as he shares living advice on how to handle certain burdens of birth. While geared directly to the children of Pastors and those who know them, the Pastor’s kid is a good read for any who would learn how to relate to persons whose identity is tied to someone else. Beyond that, this “kid” has a pretty deep understanding of the human condition.
Some years ago I read the book “Crazy for God” by Frank Shaeffer, son pastor/theologian Francis Shaeffer in which Frank sought to explain -- with full literary flourish, what it was like to grow up under the roof of an Evangelical legend. As is, Frank has arrived at MUCH different place than his Dad, and now seeks in many ways to distance himself from both the theology and impact of his parents. “Crazy” is at once literary, passionate, angry, introspective, detailed, bitter, sensual, and jarring. It may make for a good read, but is also (for those of us who loved Francis) disorienting and ugly.
The book, the Pastors Kid, by Barnabas Piper is none of those things. It does not even attempt to be.
Barnabas would be the first to tell you. This is not literature. This is not an expose.
Barnabas does share personal anecdotes, and we even get a whiff of dysfunction, but the spirit of his book is to engender understanding, not to tear down.
Indeed, Barnabas is not just telling his story. Over the years Barnabas has established a network of relationships with hundreds of PK’s. So think of Barnabas as a “representative” speaking to the needs and concerns of a community.
The writing is straightforward and descriptive, neither highbrow nor sappy. Barnabas has a certain phlegmatic charm, a dry wit, and writes in a clear and compelling fashion. He has written at a level appropriate to teens, but with wisdom worthy of a larger audience.
There is a certain irony in the very way I came to read this book and write this review. For sundry reasons I am well acquainted with the father of this author. I say acquainted, because I don’t know John Piper on any personal level. I have read at least a dozen of his books. I watch him on Youtube and sometimes reply to his Facebook posts. (He doesn’t reply)
My own interests in John are as multihued as the man. His book “Desiring God, Confessions of a Christian Hedonist” simply transformed the way I think about life. For the unacquainted, John pushes the idea that Christians should be given to the pursuit of unbridled pleasure and that to be found first and foremost in the Lover of our Souls. It’s a pretty big idea. Beyond that John Piper is most peculiar mix of sensibilities: part poet, part theologian, part zany arm waver… part lover of sanctified rap (really). He is a Baptist who talks about race and reconciliation and loving your homosexual neighbor and keeping sexually pure… and…. being knocked out drunk on the glory of God. (Those may be my words)
All of which is to say…I am much aware of the world of John Piper.
So…When traversing about the internet, I stumble across a blog, and later the social media presence of a certain Barnabas Piper I am intrigued. I deduce….This must be the son of Pastor John!
I cannot now remember what in particular tipped me off…But my first thought was… Hmm. This kid doesn’t come across so much like his dad.
Barnabas doesn't seem to have the same gravitas… He doesn't speak like Jonathan Edwards … or his Dad. He is given to sports and movies -- he likes to joke and seems pretty relaxed. He is far less serious and isn't beyond posting a link to a silly You-tube video. As is, Barnabas runs a blog, and routinely features links to videos he finds entertaining. I have yet to see him post anything outright rank… but a few of his posts lean earthy. I remember after watching one such video and thinking…. Hmmmm. I don’t think John would have posted that video.
Which is precisely the point of this book. Barnabas IS NOT JOHN.
Without even thinking about it, I have fallen into some of the very thought patterns that Barnabas works to address. You see, I had expectations of who Barnabas should be…then, raised a brow when he did not fit that mold. And that is exactly why Barnabas wrote this book… Just for me. (Fast writing bud!)
Now take my expectations, multiply that by the many me’s out there, by every day of your life…and there you have it. A recipe for frustration or failure.
Barnabas’s first task is to let us just what it is like to be a Pastor’s kid. He speaks to living in the world of high expectations, and living in a fishbowl in which every body watches every your every move. Barnabas related how he was routinely called out for the kind of behavior that might have been overlooked in another kid.
This little anecdote made me laugh:
I was seventeen years old and rolling in my parents’ blue 1991 Chevy Lumina and pushing the factory-made stereo to its tinny max with
Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. Windows down, seat reclined, I cruised
into the church parking lot closely behind two friends in their cars
blaring tunes equally as loud, each of us competing for the title of
“most obnoxious punk listening to music he will later realize is rubbish.”
Boys will be boys, right?
Wrong. Not this boy. As soon as I sauntered into the church, I
was pulled aside and roundly chastised for my choice of both band
and decibel level. Those friends likely don’t recall this incident at all.
That’s because they weren’t chastised at all. They were just boys being
boys, while I was the PK being an idiot. Pg 27
Beyond the world of moral expectations, Barnabas reports that a PK is often expected to toe the specific theological commitments of his Pastor Dad --- as well as the specific commitments of the church community of which he is apart. Not only must a PK live right, he or she must “drive in the same lane.”
For whatever reasons, this part of the book most resonated with me. While I am not the son of a Pastor, my mom, while she was living, was a woman of fierce spiritual temperament. She was something of an itinerant evangelist, with strong opinions about everything. Mom had a very hard time when I rejected her particular school of “Left Behind” end-times theology -- And God have mercy if you ever drank wine or quoted a democrat. As is, mom tempered as she aged; She tolerated but did not accept my differing theological commitments. Which has nothing to do with this book, but… be it ever so little, I identified with the pressure that many PK’s must face. Tow the party line… or disappoint not only your parents, but possibly the local church.
I must confess then when I read maybe half way through the book, I thought… Okay, this clicks. I can really see how this speaks to the demographic, and I have been made to think about the particular plight of the PK. I even know two or three PK’s and will keep the things I have learned in mind.
And if that is all Barnabas had for us, he probably could have thrown out half the words, written a magazine article and been done with it. But about midway, we find ourselves walking with Barnabas… out of the shallows into the deep end. We plunge from the groundwork and practical advice… down into the very depths of grace and the human condition.
There is something funny about Barnabas. From his blog and other offerings a person might casually assume that Barnabas is more about fun than head-banging theology. (Wrong words?) but suddenly I am running into keen understanding of human nature.
First, Barnabas understands just how ridiculous … How challenging, and humanly impossible the task of any pastor is…
In the Western church the role of pastor has taken on responsibilities
and definitions it ought not. The pastor is seen as the spiritual
burden bearer for an entire congregation. He is the prophetic voice of
authority, the nearly infallible voice of God. He is the answer man for
questions on topics ranging from sex to stewardship to sanctification.
He is the figurehead of a religious institution, and often this means he
is a political pundit too. He must be an expert accountant, theologian,
psychologist, marketer, strategist, and orator. In short, he must exhibit
every spiritual gift God intended to be dispersed throughout the entire
church. The cultural expectations on pastors are mostly unbiblical,
entirely impractical, and generally downright stupid. We each expect
the pastor to meet our particular need with expediency and wisdom. It
is an untenable situation, a burden no man can bear.
Beyond that, Barnabas gets sin…. In himself, in the PK, in pastors and congregants.
Most Christians will accept that “mankind is sinful.” But sometimes sin shows up where we cannot smell it. Sin can be found in raw rebellion… Or it can manifest itself in a loss of integrity as the PK puts on an act to satisfy the expectations of those around him. He can take on form without substance or follow rules without transformation. A sinful PK might look like a good kid, but not have deep relationship with Christ. Or.. a sinful PK might look like a sinful kid. In short... PKs are kids of every stripe, born into conditions they did not choose.
On the other hand, sinful congregants can fail to extend to the PK the same grace they claim for themselves or those they love…
I bet Barnabas would agree with this quote from a musician friend of mine, Mo Leverett.
It is mystifying to observe that those who embrace brokenness and total depravity as the universal human condition - and thus grace as the only ontological hope - also appear surprised and condescendingly disappointed with other's failure - casting the proverbial first stone or shunning with hypocritical disgust. Thankfully God is neither surprised nor overwhelmed. Ironically - without brokenness and failure - we will never encounter God - or for that matter, our true selves.
And lest we let Dad off the hook, Barnabas knows that sin is a part of every Pastor’s life.
(While Barnabas works to honor his folks and family, there are some places where personal pain seeps through. This could be some other pastor-dad but maybe not. We see: A dad much given to the needs of others… a Dad who has a hard time coming off his pastoral or theological high horse.. a Dad in need of a hobby…etc.
Indeed, Barnabas points out…Pastors will readily acknowledge they are sinful – but rarely do they share their specific sins.!
What Barnabas gets more than anything else… is that the grace of God is far more than the forgiveness of sins… Grace is the very atmosphere by which we enter into communion with God and man.. It is freeing, it is empowering… the very means by which we are enabled to live honestly, authentically, and without living for others expectations.
But grace also knows that it is only God who can form the PK into anything at all, so it does not harangue, harass, or manipulate the PK. Grace will seek to assist and encourage rather than direct and command. It will point out strengths and possibilities rather than command actions and expect results. This is especially applicable as the PK grows older—through the adolescent years and beyond—and begins to seek independence. This is what I missed out on most growing up and even through college. I came away with no ideas of what God made me to be, what He gifted me with. I knew I wasn't dumb and that I was capable of lots of things, but what things? PKs need gracious guidance and freedom from manipulation in order to become the persons we are uniquely designed to be as reflections of God. p93
Final Thought. I started out this essay speaking to a form of Irony. I was made aware of Barnabas Piper because of his Dad, which in turn led me to read a book in which Barnabas Piper is seeking the right (for both himself and others) not to be defined in total by the household of their birth.
And now I add irony to irony.
I have heard nothing from Barnabas that indicates he has any desire whatsoever to be connected to the pastorate. He has crafted an independent identity and is responding to his own sense of personal responsibility before God. That said, I hope he will not find it contrary to his mission to say… I see in Barnabas a Pastor’s heart. It may not be the call of pulpit preaching, but when it comes to communicating vital truths that add grace to the church -- and minister in particular to wounded or disoriented hearts, Barnabas shows that he shares a pastor’s concerns. My bet: He has picked up more from home -- or even the pulpit than he lets on.