Soil for Spirituality: Eugene Peterson on the Right Conditions for Spiritual Growth [Under the Unpredictable Plant 3]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Picking up on Peterson’s earlier discussion of askesis he offers a view of spiritual growth through the lens of organic farming. I find Peterson’s outworking of this all very helpful because he recognizes the conditions in which we live our lives as intimately tied to spiritual growth.

Earlier I used the words organic and soil as metaphors for the development of a customized askesis. These metaphors from organic gardening are apt. They are also useful for guarding against the proliferation of mechanical and imposed schemes of spirituality that promise so much and ruin so many.

I use the image of soil to represent the place in which I cultivate the life of prayer which then develops into my vocational spirituality. When analyzed, this soil is seen to comprise many elements: actual congregation, family background, personal education, individual temperament, regional climate, local politics, mass culture. The soil conditions in Vermont are different from those in Texas. Any attempt to grow crops that is not mindful of soil will not be successful.

Any attempt to cultivate a spirituality copied from something grown on someone else’s soil is as misguided as planting orange groves in Minnesota. Careful and detailed attention must be given to the conditions, inner and outer, historical and current, in which I, not you, exist. Nothing comes to grief more swiftly than an imitative spirituality that disregards conditions. Spirituality cannot be imposed, it must be grown. Prayer is not a scarecrow put together from old scraps of lumber and cast-off clothing and then pushed into the soil; it is seed that germinates in the soil, sensitive to everything that is there — nitrogen and potash, earthworms and potato bugs, rain and sun, April and October, rabbit teeth and human hands. Most of what goes on is invisible and inaccessible to human control. Everything is connected, proportions are important, size is critical. Anyone who works this soil of spirituality for very long becomes wary of artificial additives. Pesticides and fertilizers that perform miraculously for a season are often ruinous over a lifetime. Tools must be used according to what the plant and soil need, not according to what we are good at doing: enthusiasm with a shovel will destroy a tender tomato plant when all that was needed was the deft application of a hoe to loosen the soil. Knowledge of the tools (disciplines) is necessary, but the knowledge will surely be destructive if not incorporated into a practiced familiarity with the actual soil conditions and a studied reverence in which vegetables, fruits, souls, and bodies actually grow.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 108-110

Other posts in this series:

The Church and Mission: Three Compelling Statements

Here are three statements that I have returned to recently in my thinking about the church and its mission. Each is saying similar things with distinct emphasis. What do you think about these statements? What do you think about the relationship between the church and its mission?

Vincent Donovan, a missionary to the Masai in Tanzania in the mid-twentieth century, in his book Christianity Rediscovered:

Mission is the meaning of the church….The church exists only insofar as it carries Christ to the world….The idea of church without mission is an absurdity.

William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury in the early twentieth century:

The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

Paul Borden in his book, Direct Hit:

Healthy congregations are defined by sacrifice… They exist more for those who are currently not part of the group than for those who comprise the current congregation.

What do you think?

Growing in the Belly of the Fish?: Eugene Peterson on the Need for Askesis [Under the Unpredictable Plant 2]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Here is Peterson on the necessity of askesis in the spiritual life and in particularly in the life of the pastor. Comparing it to Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish, Peterson helps us get a sense of what is necessary for a thriving spirituality in general and, perhaps, especially for pastors.

The belly of the fish was the unattractive opposite to everything Jonah had set out for. The belly of the fish was a dark, damp, and probably stinking cell. The belly of the fish is Jonah’s introduction to askesis.

Askesis is to spirituality what a training regimen is to an athlete. It is not the thing itself, but the means to maturity and excellence. Otherwise we are at the mercy of glands and weather. It is a spiritual equivalent to the old artistic idea that talent grows by its very confinement, that the genie’s strength comes from his confinement in the bottle. The creative artist and the praying pastor work common ground here. Without confinement, without the intensification resulting from compassion, there is no energy worth speaking of. This is not an option for either artist or pastor. This is not an item that may or may not be incorporated into the creative/spiritual life. This is required. The particular askesis that each person embraces varies, but without an askesis, a time and a place of confinement/concentration, there is no energy of spirit

Askesis is not a New Testament word, but the early church used it to make analogies with athletic training and spiritual development. This use has carried askesis into our language as an aspect of prayer and spirituality. But the disciplined practice behind the world permeates every human activity that deals with creativity and strives toward excellence.

Spirituality requires context. Always. Boundaries, borders, limits. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” No one becomes more spiritual by becoming less material. No one becomes exalted by ascending in a gloriously colored hot-air balloon. Mature spirituality requires askesis, a training program custom-designed for each individual-in-community, and then continuously monitored and adapted as development takes place and conditions vary. It can never be mechanically imposed from without; it must be organically grown in locale. Askesis must be context sensitive.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 74-76.

Other posts in this series:

Vocational Idolatry?: Eugene Peterson on Recovering Vocational Holiness for Pastors [Under the Unpredictable Plant 1]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Near the beginning of the book, Peterson sets out issue which he is trying to address in pastoral calling through the book of Jonah. Based on his own crisis of pastoral ministry, Peterson puts before pastors the need to recover not just holiness, but vocational holiness. Here he explains what he means by that.

Why do pastors have such a difficult time being pastors? Because we are awash in idolatry. Where two or three are gathered together and the name of God comes up, a committee is formed for making an idol. We want gods that are not gods so we can “be as gods.”

The idolatry to which pastors are conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.

Vocational holiness, in deliberate opposition to career idolatry, is my subject. Personal holiness, the lifelong process by which our hearts and minds and bodies are conformed to Christ, is more often addressed. But it is both possible and common to develop deep personal pieties that coexist alongside vocational idolatries without anyone noticing anything amiss. If the pastor is devout, it is assumed that the work is also devout. The assumption is unwarranted. Sincerity in a carpenter does not ensure an even saw cut. Neither does piety in a pastor guarantee true pastoral work. My impression is that the majority of pastors are truly good, well intentioned, even godly. But their goodness does not inevitably penetrate their vocations.

The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol—a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing.

Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of a holy vocation, but in our working lives we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality. I would like to see as much attention given to the holiness of our vocations as to the piety of our lives.

Basically, all I am doing is trying to get it straight, get straight what it means to be a pastor, and then develop a spirituality adequate to the work. The so-called spirituality that was handed to me by those who put me to the task of pastoral work was inadequate. I do not find the emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism adequate. I do not find the veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma adequate. I require something biblically spiritual—rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ, soaked in Spirit.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 4-5.

Bibliography for Stories of the Kingdom: the parables of Jesus

When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share resources I utilized in my study and preparation for sermons. Here is the bibliography for our recent series, “Stories of the Kingdom: the parables of Jesus,” which is the fifth part of an extended walk through the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13.

Bibliography for “Stories of the Kingdom: the parables of Jesus” [Gospel of Matthew, part 5]

Kenneth E. Bailey. Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983.

________. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008.

Craig L. Blomberg. Interpreting the Parables, 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity, 2012.

Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts. Matthew. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

Michael Joseph Brown. “The Gospel of Matthew.” In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount, 85-120. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007.

John Calvin. A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Volume 1. Trans. By A. W. Morrison. Calvin’s Commentaries. Ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.

John Chrysostom. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. NPNF, series 1, vol. 10. Ed. by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.

C. H. Dodd. The Parables of the Kingdom. New York: Collins, 1961.

R. T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Joachim Jeremias. Rediscovering the Parables of Jesus. London: SCM Press, 2012.

Craig S. Keener. Matthew. IVPNTC. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997.

Scot McKnight. “Matthew, Gospel of.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 526-541. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.

Manlio Simonetti, editor. Matthew 1-13. ACCS. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001.

Klyne R. Snodgrass. “Parable.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 591-601. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.

________. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, 5th edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992.