The Pastor as Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 9]

fullsizeoutput_ae1In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson outlines three essential acts of pastoral ministry: prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. These three acts are, to use a metaphor from mathematics, a holy trigonometry of three inner angles that shape outer, visible acts of ministry: preaching, teaching, and administration. I turn now, in my journey through this book, to the third of those inner angles: spiritual direction.

Peterson spends most of chapter 7, “Being a Spiritual Director,” defining and clarifying what he means by spiritual direction. Here are a few of his definitions.

Spiritual direction is the aspect of ministry that explores and develops this absorbing and devout attentiveness to “the specific detail of everyday incidents,” “the everyday occurrences of contemporary life” (150).

Spiritual direction is the task of helping a person take seriously what is treated dismissively by the publicity-infatuated and crisis-sated mind, and then to receive this “mixed random material of life”…as the raw material for high holiness (150).

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).

Many are unfamiliar with the term and uneasy with its implications….what I call spiritual direction is what they [pastors] are doing when they don’t think they are doing anything important (150-151).

Peterson emphasizes the ordinary sources for spiritual direction and the relational environment in which such guidance takes place. This is a return to one of the essential tasks of pastoral ministry with a terminology that was widely used throughout the history of the church. While Peterson is not the first to encourage a return to this (see Thomas C. Oden’s 4-volume Classical Pastoral Care or John T. McNeill’s now out-of-print A History of the Cure of Souls), he does speak with direct insight into contemporary shortcomings in pastoral practice of spiritual guidance. 

Let me share a few of Peterson’s insights about the contemporary pastor’s role as spiritual director.

Being a spiritual director, which used to loom large at the center of every pastor’s common work, in our times has been pushed to the periphery of ministry. Ironically, this is the work that many people assume that pastors do all the time: teaching people to pray, helping parishioners discern the presence of grace in events and feelings, affirming the presence of God at the very heart of life, sharing a search for light through a dark passage in the pilgrimage, guiding the formation of a self-understanding that is biblically spiritual instead of merely psychological or sociological (151).

Being a spiritual director means a readiness to clear space and arrange time to look at these elements of our life that are not at all peripheral but are central — unobtrusive signals of transcendence. By naming and attending and conversing, we teach our friends to “read the Spirit” and not just the newspapers (152).

For most pastors being a spiritual director doesn’t mean introducing a new rule or adding another item to our overextended job descriptions, but simply rearranging our perspective: seeing certain acts as eternal and not ephemeral, as essential and not accidental (153).

Being a spiritual director means noticing the familiar, naming the particular. Being knowledgeable in the large truths of sin, grace, salvation, atonement, and judgment is necessary but not sufficient. A lot of our work takes place in the details of the particular (157).

I love Peterson’s comments about spiritual direction, but I almost wish that I could sit with him to see how a week of his ministry would have played out. Thankfully, he gives some practical insight for those of us looking for it: “For me, at least, formal spiritual direction involves only five or six people with whom I meet at intervals of four to six weeks” (161). This makes what Peterson is suggesting both clear and, although I hesitate to use the word about these matters, manageable. Reading works like this, or perhaps older texts on spiritual direction, we may sometimes tend to idealize the pastoral role as doing nothing but meeting with souls hungry for a word from God. Peterson graciously dashes that idealized picture, while still calling pastors to pay attention, listen, and join in the journey as guides for those God entrusts to us.

Three pithy statements in this chapter are worth holding up here at the end of the post for further reflection:

Any Christian can do this, and many do. Spiritual direction is no prerogative of the ordained ministry….But the fact that anybody can do it and that it can occur at any time and place must not be construed to mean that it can be done casually or indifferently. It needs to be practiced out of a life immersed in the pursuit of holiness (160, emphasis mine).

This is one part of our work that stubbornly resists generalizations. All the same, I will risk one: the “unimportant” parts of ministry might be the most important. The things we do when we don’t think we are doing anything significant might make the most difference (161, emphasis mine).

It would be unwise to forget for a moment that in this business we are sinners dealing with sinners; still, the primary orientation is toward God, looking for grace. It is easier to look for sin (163).

Pastors, let us return to the art of spiritual direction in our ministry, not pushing it aside as unimportant or missing the significant in what we feel is insignificant.

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

The Pastor as Guide on the Spiritual Quest [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 8]

fullsizeoutput_ae1This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began as an attempt to honor Peterson’s influence upon me while also reconsidering the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson affirms. The book explores what he calls the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry, built around three angles of ministry: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction.

This is the third and final post on the second of those angles, Scripture, which began with Peterson’s exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture and continued with his call to contemplative exegesis. This next chapter, chapter six entitled “Gaza Notes,” was very powerful for me personally, as Peterson focuses on the hermeneutical work of the pastor bringing Scripture to life for people. He starts into the chapter with an extended reflection on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, particularly looking at the questions between the two:

  • “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30)
  • “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (8:31)
  • “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (8:34)
  • “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (8:36)

Essential to this is Peterson’s emphasis that good exegesis – which brings meaning out of the text – must be augmented by good guidance – leading a person in the way of the text.

Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more. The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide….Philip has to make a choice: will he stand alongside the chariot, providing information and answering questions about Scripture, exegetical work that comes easily for him, or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with this stranger? (128).

This brings us into the essence of how Peterson applies Acts 8 to the ministry of pastors: we must become guides on the pathways of interpretation, walking alongside of and entering into the lives of those before us. The challenge of this is the perceived distance between the world around us and the world of Scripture.

Reading Scripture involves a dizzying reorientation of our culture-conditioned and job-oriented assumptions and procedures…Scripture calls into question the domesticated accommodations we are busily arranging for the gospel. The crisis into which the act of reading Scripture brings us does not usually mean emotional intensity or dramatic turn-about, but rather the solemn awareness, repeated as often as daily, that the world of reality to which we have vowed ourselves in belief and vocation is a divinely constituted world in which God calls upon us; it is not a humanly constituted world in which we, when we feel like it, call upon God (132).

And with this, Peterson launches into a portion of the book that moved me so deeply that I actually had tears in my eyes as I read it aloud with my wife, Kelly. On pages 133-139, he calls pastors to take a different way in their preaching and handling of Scripture; a way set apart from “breezy familiarity” (132), “abstraction” (134), or “distilling truths from Scripture” (135). All those tendencies are hallmarks “of the gnostic, for whom matter is evil and history inconvenient.” This is, in my opinion, the most common approach to preaching in North American Christianity today. It is something I have tried to resist in my preaching, but have at times felt like a wild man in the wilderness when everyone else is trying to “preach one main point” or “serve up the principles of the text.” Peterson continues, highlighting the temptation to become a gnostic purveyor of principles instead of a steady guide through the jagged terrain of Scripture:

In the early Christian centuries the gnostic program was to dump the entire Hebrew Scriptures and disembowel the Gospels. The parts of St. Paul that talked theology they liked pretty well. What they proposed instead can be read in the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946: Jesus as guru, safely distanced from the common and profane, serenely uttering eternal truths. This is tea-room religion where the ‘women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ (T. S. Eliot)” (136).

It is in paragraphs like these that Peterson’s prophetic edge comes forth. It is an edge that is so painfully necessary in our day that it felt both painful and liberating to read. That prophetic edge strikes, to borrow a quote from Franz Kafka that he uses earlier in the chapter, like “an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us” (133).

To close out the chapter, Peterson retells Walker Percy’s parable from The Message in the Bottle about longing, communication, and meaning in a way that connects with life in the church and the ministry of the pastor with the Scriptures. I will not retell it entirely here, although it is worth the read, but let me share the final words:

Most mornings on the island on many of its beaches there are people walking, wonderingly attentive, looking for bottles with a message in them. On Sunday mornings they gather on some assigned beaches and read to each other what has been collected over the years. A lot of people on the island have yet to figure out what all the fuss is about (145).

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

Choosing Hell: W. H. Auden on Charles Williams’ view of Hell

Here is W. H. Auden in his introduction to Charles Williams‘ The Descent of the Dove:

The popular notion of Hell is morally revolting and intellectually incredible because it is conceived of in terms of human criminal law, as a torture imposed upon the sinner against his will by an all-powerful God. Charles Williams succeeds, where even Dante, I think, fails, in showing us that nobody is ever sent to Hell; he, or she, insists on going there. If, as Christians believe, God is love, then, in one sense, He is not omnipotent, for He cannot compel His creatures to accept His love without ceasing to be Himself. The Wrath of God is not His wrath but the way in which those feel His love who refuse it, and the right of refusal is a privilege which not even their Creator can take from them.

Auden’s comments on Williams remind me of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which is one of my favorite books by Lewis. There, souls are invited to respond to the love of God and enter into the Eternal City. Too often, however, they do not see the beauty for what it is, and resist it so that they might have their own way, which is, in a sense, a simple description of what Hell is really all about.

Recovering Contemplative Exegesis [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 7]

fullsizeoutput_ae1This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began as an attempt to honor Peterson’s influence upon me while also reconsidering the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson affirms. The book explores what he calls the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry, built around three angles of ministry: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. Now in the second of those angles on Scripture, Peterson began with his exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture, not just reading it with our eyes. In this next chapter, Peterson turns to an essential tool of hearing with our eyes, which he calls “contemplative exegesis.”

Despite the unsurpassed academic training that American pastors receive, it looks very much as if no generation of pastors that we know about historically has been so embarrassingly ill-trained in the contemplation of Scripture….Exegesis, if it is to serve the church’s life and be congruent with the pastor’s calling, must be contemplative exegesis (109).

What does this involve? Peterson offers two essential aspects of contemplative exegesis: hearing the orality of God’s voice in Scripture and receiving the word as vitally tied to the form in which it comes. The first of those two is “a realization that a word, any word, is originally and basically a phenomenon of sound, not print” (110). That God speaks to us reflects what we understand about language, that, quoting from Walter Ong, “a word ‘is the call of one interior through an exterior to another interior'” (111). God is communicating to us via Scripture from the interior depths of who He is through the exterior of words into the interior of who we are. The pastor as exegete must remember that Scripture is not just theology to be read but communication to be heard. “We read Scripture in order to listen again to the word of God spoken, and when we do, we hear him speak. Somehow or other these words live” (113). Peterson contrasts the basic orality of God’s communication in the Judeo-Christian worldview with the Greco-Roman emphasis upon visual images in theater and statuary. Given our increasingly image-laden society this contrast is perhaps more important than ever to recover.

Along with hearing the orality of God’s voice in Scripture, Peterson says that contemplative exegesis requires “receiving the words in the form in which they are given” (117). Here we find Peterson’s call to recover the narrative, or storied, nature of Scripture. Certainly we want to examine the language etymologies and individual pieces of communication with great depth and scholarly aptitude, but all of that important work must fit within a grasp of the over-arching story of God revealed in Scripture. Peterson writes:

The Bible is the story that is sound and developed. Here the language that God uses to reveal himself comes into story from that is most complete. When we listen to the word of God in Scripture, listening for what God is revealing out of himself, a story is shaped in our hearing; and the fact that it is story and not something else – systematic theology, moral instruction, wise sayings – has powerful implications for exegetical work. For just as words have a revealing quality to them, so stories have a shaping quality to them (119).

Note that last phrase about how stories have a shaping quality to them. Because of this, Peterson urges pastors as contemplative exegetes to hold onto the form of Scripture and the essential storied nature of the text that shapes us into beings held in the hands of God, the Divine Author. Building on the work of Northrop Frye, Peterson unfolds how the five basic characteristics of story are found throughout the Scripture, as well as specifically within both Old and New Testaments:

  1. There is a beginning and an ending.
  2. A catastrophe has occurred.
  3. Salvation is plotted.
  4. Characters develop.
  5. Everything has significance.

The Christian Scripture is unique in this way, and we do not want to miss that. Pastors have to respect and pay attention to this story of God written in Scripture, allowing it to shape the way that we handle Scripture, including our preaching. If we miss the overall context of the story of God, much of what we read in Scripture will not make sense, or at least not the sort of sense it was meant to make. As many say in the work of interpretation: context is king.

Here is one last statement from Peterson which summarizes this chapter:

Contemplative exegesis, then, involves these two matters: an openness to words that reveal and a submission to words that shape. Words are double-dimensioned: they carry meaning from their source, and they carry influence to their destination. All words do this in one way or another. God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and for shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it (126).

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

Real Shepherds: Thomas Oden on pastoral leadership as service

tom odenIn Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, he takes one chapter to reflect on the analogy of pastor as shepherd. In the midst of that chapter, he strikes at the heart of what I think is missing within much of pastoral ministry as it is currently practiced in North America: pastoral authority approached as service.

The shepherd is not without authority, but it is of a special sort. The shepherd’s authority is based on competence grounded in mutuality, yet this authority requires accurate empathy to be properly empowered. Pastoral authority is not primarily coercive authority, such as that of a judge or a policeman, but rather authority based on covenant fidelity, caring, mutuality, and the expectation of empathic understanding (Gregory, ACW, vol. 11, Part 2).

This conception of authority has a christological base in the minds of Christian believers. From where else did Christianity learn this unusual view of authority? It is precisely from the servant messiah that we learn of the paradoxical unity of dignity and service. It is from the true God, true man, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9), “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8, RSV). The pattern of authority is that of the incarnate Lord, who expressed in a single, unified ministry the holiness of God amid the alienations of the world, the incomparable power of God that was surprisingly made know in an unparalleled way amid crucifixion and resurrection.

Wherever Christians speak of authority or dignity of ministry or headship of the shepherd, those are not properly understood as coercive modes of power, but persuasive, participative modes of benevolent, empathic guidance. This is an extraordinarily complex, subtle, and highly nuanced conception of authority, but it is intimately familiar to those who love Christ and listen for his voice. The proper authority of ministry is not external, manipulative, alien power that distances itself from those “under” it, but rather a legitimized and happily received influence that wishes only good for its recipient, a leadership that boldly guides but only on the basis of a deeply empathic sense of what the flock yearns for and needs. The analogy of shepherd was not promiscuously or thoughtlessly chosen by Jesus as the centerpiece of ministry, but wells up from the heart of God’s own ministry to the world. (p. 53)