Earthy Spirituality II: The Books of Eugene Peterson

     Last month’s column visited some of the writings
of Presbyterian pastor and Regent College adjunct, Eugene Peterson. I raved
about his exceptionally well-written biblical meditations such as Long
Obedience in the Same Direction
, Traveling Light, and especially
Leap Over a Wall. Each of these, I suggested, were chock-full of insight
for what we in the CCO call whole-life discipleship. Peterson’s worldview is
thoroughly and deeply biblical: his writings virtually throb with an earthy
spirituality. A favorite passage from Run With the Horses illustrates
this constant theme in his work: Ideas that drive a wedge between God and
creation are false. Prayers or acts of devotion that divert or incapacitate us
from the here and now are spurious. Biblical faith everywhere and always warns
against siren voices that lead people away from specific and everyday
engagements with weather and politics. Dogs and neighbors, shopping lists and
job assignments. No true spiritual life can be distilled from or abstracted out
of this world of chemicals and molecules, paying your bills and taking out the
garbage. With the current interest in spirituality, we must be on guard not to
revert to an other-worldly piety, more gnostic than incarnational; we must read
even the devotional classics with an eye on the New Earth. (When, at a Jubilee
Romper Room coffee-house, Kent comedy duo Chuck & Chuck declared
“dualism” a new dirty word, they weren’t kidding. And it wasn’t funny
that so few got the joke.)

     And, so, read Peterson. (If you skipped the
excerpt written above, go back and read it!) For those who are overwhelmed with
too many books on their nightstand (or, if, like me, you carry ’em around with
you in your backpack) try starting with Living the Message. Like similar
compilations by Madeleine LÕEngle and Brennan Manning, it is a 365-day
collection of excerpts of his previously published books. Although at times too
brief, it is a nice way to “dip in” to his large body of work. It is
just right for sharing bits with students and friends, or to start a meeting or
prayer time. A second type of book which Mr. Peterson writes will be of
particular interest to CCO staff, your pastors, youth worker colleagues and
Christian leaders of all sorts. These are his works on what he calls
“vocational holiness.” For Peterson, there is a dangerous trend which
sees pastoral work as essentially managerial; the clergy persona replaced by
that of a CEO. (See Elaine Storkey’s succinct comments on this fruit of the
idol of economism on page 19 of Search for Intimacy, which I know many
of you are reading!) To see his concern, please read this excerpt, which I
quote from Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, where he
starts off with this wild-eyed claim: “Pastors are abandoning their posts,
left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches
and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names
remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on
Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone
whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of
pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors
have done for most of twenty centuries.

     A few of us are angry about it. We are angry
because we have been deserted. Most of my colleagues who defined ministry for
me, examined, ordained and then installed me as a pastor in a congregation, a
short while later walked off and left me, having, they said, more urgent things
to do… …It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom
you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral
work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of
images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status.
Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills. The
pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shop-keepers, and the
shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeepers’ 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.”

     Working the Angles is, in my opinion, a
must-read for anyone in church or para-church ministry. It argues for
“three acts so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of
everything else.” They are, simply, prayer, reading Scripture and giving
spiritual direction. Peterson is convinced that not enough of us do these
things, let alone teach others to do them. Although Five Smooth Stones for
Pastoral Ministry
is considered the first in Peterson’s “vocational
holiness trilogy,” I’d read it second, after Working the Angles.
There, we find rich and poetic and biblical reflections on various tasks of
pastors. These chapters are surely worth reading just for the good biblical
study, since so few of us dig deeply into these particular texts. The book is
rather complex reading, creatively written, but laid out simply. From Song of
Songs Peterson draws the pastoral work of prayer-direction; from Ruth, what he
calls story-making; the pastoral work of pain-sharing comes from his study of
Lamentations. In the next chapter, the pastoral work of nay-saying is drawn
from Ecclesiastes. And from the book of Esther comes the work of
community-building. Third in the trilogy is the stunning Under the
Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness
. A study of the
book of Jonah, Under… shows the subversive nature of the well-known story.
Many of us, I’m afraid, will relate to the story he shares with searing honesty
about his own personal crisis four years into his ordained ministry. Listen
carefully. It may shake us up.

     Of course the book is more than Eugene Peterson
stories (although the one of searching for a spiritual friend as a young
college student near the end of the book is just great!). It is also more than
a dry exegesis of Jonah. Here is how Thomas Long (himself a prestigious
professor of preaching at Princeton) reviews it: “With the book of Jonah
as a mariner’s chart, Peterson sets sail across the deep sea of his own
ministry. And like Jonah, he finds in his pastoral vocation seasons of fleeing
for Tarshish, churning in the raging storm, praying in the lonely belly of the
fish, and finding his way to Nineveh, the place of mission. This book provides
refreshment for all who, fearfully, or gladly, reluctantly or eagerly, sense
the lure of God’s calling.”

     If that quote doesn’t interest you in the book,
I’m afraid nothing I can say will. I do know, though, that some of you are
struggling with your identity as a CCO worker. In youth group meetings and
resident halls, in reformational reading groups and wilderness experiences,
many are doing well, but not well enough. And some of us who work hard are on
the verge of burnout while others dawdle away the precious time, uninspired and
uninspiring. These books may help. This trilogy of professional books for
pastors and leaders will not, of course, solve all of our problems. As those
rereading Elaine Storkey will know, the fragmented culture itself makes
authentic living and good relationships difficult. It isn’t easy to live
faithfully and fruitfully in a world such as ours. Maddening as it is, even our
churches, mission agencies and Christian institutions often are not much help,
or even much different than the culture around us. Things will not change, I
think, until pastors and leaders reclaim their callings. (Another reason,
perhaps, that I have been so strongly recommending Os Guinness’ book and tapes,
The Call.) Of course we must all go to meetings, raise funds, serve as
teachers and administrators, develop strategies and lead action groups. Campus
politics and civic duties are the context for ministry for all of us. But with
Peterson in our hands, we can continue to develop a rhetoric of and a vision
for ministry that is less managerial, secular, therapeutic or political and
more profoundly pastoral, spiritual and, finally, human.

     Interestingly, Peterson maintains that when
Christian leaders “work the angles” of prayer and teaching the
Scriptures, they create a counter-culture community that will become salt and
light in their worlds of work and home and politics. Pastors don’t necessarily
have to organize social crusades or projects of culturally-engaging
reformation. But if we prayerfully allow a passion for God to shape the
discipling, mentoring, preaching and counseling we do, we will let loose a
force amongst our people that will change the course of human history. So don’t
misunderstand, Peterson’s plea for pastors to be more pastoral is not,
ultimately a retreat from culture or a return to an anti-social
super-spirituality. Remember, one of his books is, after all, entitled
Subversive Spirituality.