Practicing Spiritual Direction [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 11]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Spiritual direction is difficult. Pastoral wisdom is not available on prescription. Every person who comes to a pastor with a heart full of shapeless longings and a head full of badgering questions is complex in a new way. There are no fail-proof formulae (179).

Eugene Peterson brings this book, Working the Angles, to conclusion with attention to what it means for the pastoral to practice spiritual direction with his parishioners. As he mentioned earlier in the book, spiritual direction “takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” (150). But how does a pastor do that well?

Peterson begins by drawing out five examples of how not to do spiritual direction. He borrows those five negative examples from the journal of George Fox, who, in his desperate searching, experienced multiple failed attempts to find spiritual guidance. Here they are:

  1. First Pastor: Nathaniel Stephens, who turns Fox’s search for guidance into a theological inquiry and fodder for sermons he will preach. “When a person comes to me for spiritual direction it is not to get into a theological discussion but to find a friend in a theological context” (182).
  2. Second Pastor: The ancient priest at Mancetter, who “doesn’t see Fox as a person to be directed but as a consumer of spiritual goods, a possible buyer of a remedy” (183). When we depersonalize people into customers, we are missing the point of spiritual direction.
  3. Third Pastor: The priest living about Tamworth, who comes across as “an empty hollow cask” because he is focused on techniques or experiences instead of being the sort of person who can really guide Fox. Peterson comments: “our primary task is to be a pilgrim. Our best preparation for the work of spiritual direction is an honest life” (184).
  4. Fourth Pastor: Dr. Cradock, who is fixated on orthodoxy in theology and orthodoxy in life as a means for diagnosis of another’s life. Yet, when Fox transgresses his models, he lashes out in anger. “If we should mistakenly do our work in the dogmatic schoolmaster style of Dr. Cradock, we will deserve the epitaph ‘miserable comforter'” (186).
  5. Fifth Pastor: one Macham, who is regarded as a pastor of high value, but sets to action upon Fox as a means to accomplish something. “Pastors are particularly imperiled in this area because of the compulsive activism, both cultural and ecclesiastical, in which we are immersed simply by being alive at this time in history” (187).

These pastors have good reputations and experience, hold mastery in degrees and techniques, but fail as spiritual guides to George Fox. When we succumb to these impulses, we, too, as pastors miss the point of spiritual direction. What wisdom does Peterson offer for those of us wanting to stay on track as spiritual directors? The wisdom comes in three main points.

  1. “For a start, I can cultivate an attitude of awe” (188). This calls us as pastors to see those sitting with us as wonders made in the image of God, whose lives, full of joys and challenges, are worth paying attention to. Peterson comments: “George Fox was a remarkable person, but not one of his five pastors had the faintest inkling of it” (189).
  2. “Second, I can cultivate an awareness of my ignorance” (189). There is so much we do not know about the person with whom we are dealing, that we must admit it, or we will fail to see what we do not yet see. Even more, we are often ignorant about God and what He is doing in this person’s life. “My words and gestures and actions take place in the midst of a great drama, about the details of which I know little or nothing” (191). This puts perspective on our limitations, helping us to lean into our dependence upon God to see and hear what is happening in the one we are meeting with.
  3. “Third, I can cultivate a predisposition to prayer” (191). Peterson assumes that what people need most is to learn to pray so that they might enter into conversation with God. We are not merely engaging in discussion about ideas or truths, but trying to take them into deeper engagement with God. “Spiritual direction is then conducted with an awareness that it takes place in God’s active presence, and that our conversation is therefore conditioned by his speaking and listening, his being there” (192).

And so, Eugene Peterson’s “holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry” – prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction – concludes, as does my journey through the entire book. The book ends suddenly, in my opinion, as if Peterson is thrusting us out into the work he has outlined. Perhaps one of the final lines of the book best reminds us of what Eugene Peterson is really calling pastors to in these days:

More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God (192).

Pastors, let us help people keep company with God. Let us live in and minister from these three holy angles of prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. Let us not lose heart in the cultural confusion or drift out of focus with fads and models, but once again send down deep roots into the biblical foundations and historic practices of pastoral ministry.

[This post concludes my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]

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