Returning to Square One: Eugene Peterson on the Essence of Christian Spirituality

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Last Friday, I read a pointed, pastoral call to basic attention to God and His word throughout our lives, and it resonated so deeply with me that I wanted to share it. These words come from Eugene Peterson’s essay “Back to Square One: God Said (The Witness of Holy Scripture),” included in a collection of his writings, Subversive Spirituality.

Peterson refers to “Square One” below, which he describes earlier in the essay as “the place at which we realize that there is a huge world that we have not yet seen, an incredible creation that we cannot account for…There is far more that we don’t know than what we do know” (21). It is the place we encounter our limitations, or human finitude, and begin to learn of God and listen for God. In particular, Square One is where we attend to God’s Word in Scripture, “listening to God call us, heal us, forgive us” (27), and respond to God.

That is the background to what Peterson writes in the final two pages:

I want to simplify your lives. When others are telling you to read more, I want to tell you to read less; when others are telling you to do more, I want to tell you to do less. The world does not need more of you; it needs more of God. Your friends do not need more of you; they need more of God. And you don’t need more of you; you need more of God.

The Christian life consists in what God does for us, not what we do for God; the Christian life consists in what God says to us, not what we say about God. We also, of course, do things and say things; but if we do not return to Square One each time we act, each time we speak, beginning from God and God’s Word, we will soon be found to be practicing a spirituality that has little or nothing to do with God. And so it is necessary, if we are going to truly live a Christian life, and not just use the word Christian to disguise our narcissistic and promethean attempts at a spirituality without worshiping God and without being addressed by God, it is necessary to return to Square One and adore God and listen to God. Given our sin-damaged memories that render us vulnerable to every latest edition of journalistic spirituality, daily re-orientation in the truth revealed in Jesus and attested in Scripture is required. And given our ancient predisposition for reducing every scrap of divine revelation that we come across into a piece of moral/spiritual technology that we can use to get on in the world, and eventually to get on without God, a daily return to a condition of not-knowing and non-achievement is required. We have proven, time and again, that we are not to be trusted in these matters. We need to return to Square One for a fresh start as often as every morning, noon, and night.

[From Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 30-31.

(You may also enjoy the article I wrote for Preaching Today, Remembering Eugene Peterson: 10 ways he shaped my pastoral ministry.”)

Learning to Minister: John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood

The past year has been an interesting one for pastors in North America. A series of colossal moral failures from famous pastors is matched only by the rash of recent pastoral suicides. The heartbreak on one side and the outrage on the other leaves many pastors simultaneously sympathetic and disappointed. In that dark valley, pastors, too, search for answers to pressing questions. Why has this happened in our day and time? Is something devastatingly wrong with our models of ministry or conception of the church? At the most basic level, what is ministry really all about?  More personally, how can I make it as a pastor in this day and age?

In the midst of questions like these, we need sane guides for pastoral ministry in our current milieu. We need voices that can speak about the pastoral vocation with a clarity and sensibility that is hard to find. I confess that it is hard to find because there are not many pastors writing about pastoral ministry today. Don’t misunderstand me. There are pastors writing today, but, valuable as some of their writing is, most of it has very little to do with the ministry of the pastor.

To find sane guides for pastoral ministry, we will need to look elsewhere, to other times and places. For the last year or so I have been searching out those voices. One of those I recently listened to was St. John Chrysostom through his brief work entitled On the Priesthood. John Chrysostom, whose life stretched from 349-407, was the renowned Patriarch of Constantinople, dubbed “the golden mouth” for his power as a preacher. His writings take up six volumes of the first series of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (outmatched only by St. Augustine of Hippo’s eight volumes), mostly due to his extensive homilies on the Scripture.

His small work On the Priesthood is an apology for the serious nature of pastoral (or priestly) ministry, particularly elevation to the calling of the bishop. The book is structured around a dialogue between Chrysostom and his friend, Basil, based around an event centering on Basil and John’s election and forced ordination to the bishopric. While foreign to us, such a situation was more common in their time. John eludes elevation while Basil, thinking that John had given in to ordination, submits and becomes a bishop, only to find out later that John had avoided it entirely. Some scholars debate whether the dialogue structure and situation are historically true or a fictitious creation or literary device to discuss the heart of the book, which is all about “the pre-eminent dignity, and sanctity of the priestly officer and the peculiar difficulties and perils which beset it.”

While I have no desire to summarize it, one particularly interesting aspect of the book is just how much effort Chrysostom gives to describing reasons why someone might want to avoid pastoral ministry. Since the situation giving rise to the book is a justification for Chrysostom’s avoidance of forced ordination to the bishopric, he makes a strong case for how one might avoid the calling to ministry due to the difficulty and dangers of ministry, significant pressures of caring for the flock, the requirement of a excellence of spirit, and even love for Christ. If only we had more frequent mention of these warnings before entry to ministry today, we may have warded off some who entered ministry more for the sake of their own reputation or personal gain than for the sake of Christ.

When discussing the temptations that come upon the pastor, Chrysostom does not hold back. The minister is to be a person of high character with “a healthy, robust soul” (83). The minister must always be alert and attentive. “A priest must be sober and clear-sighted and possess a thousand eyes looking in every direction, for he lives, not for himself alone, but for a great multitude” (82). It is not merely the activities of ministry that are required of the minister, but deep attention to their own soul, for ministry will reveal all that we are  not just what we can do. “The priest’s shortcomings simply cannot be concealed. On the contrary, even the most trivial soon get known” (85).

Again, it is to the character of the pastor that Chrysostom returns again and again, even when discussing the necessary tasks of ministry, such as visiting widows or the sick, enforcing church discipline, and preaching. What sort of character should the pastor have?

Consider, then, what qualities a man needs if he is to withstand such a tempest and deal successfully with these obstacles to the common good. He must be dignified yet modest, impressive yet kindly, masterful yet approachable, impartial yet courteous, humble but not servile, vehement yet gentle, in order that he may be able calmly to resist all these dangers and to promote a suitable man with full authority, even though everyone opposes him, and reject an unsuitable man with equal authority, even though everyone favours him. One thing alone he must consider: the edification of the Church. (93)

Chrysostom holds up a weighty list that may feel overwhelming to pastors. But he does not stop there. He also holds up the eternal rewards and punishments for the pastor who does or does not undertake his ministry well, referencing more than once the words of the Apostle James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

It is understandable that the book ends with significant attention to the ministry of the Word. This is a primary responsibility of the pastor, but also a primary interest for John Chrysostom himself, whose renown is largely linked with his powerful ministry of preaching. In another place on my blog, I shared a passage from Chrysostom’s call for the preacher to seek to please God more than pleasing humans, which is one example of his dual attention to the craft of preaching and the character of the preacher.

If you read this short work you will feel at times like it has arrived from another planet, whether due to the situation that gave rise to writing it, comments on women in the church, or other cultural uniquenesses. However, other passages come across just as relevant to our own day as if they were written by an astute pastor observing the struggles of the twenty-first century North American church in its crisis of ministry. As contemporary pastors, may God give us ears to hear the old voices, like that of St. John Chrysostom, echoing strong and sturdy with time-tested truths about pastoral ministry. And may we not only hear it, but heed it as we live out our calling in a confused time.

Solitude Brings Coherence

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness. Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude. True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

– Wendell Berry, “Healing,” Stanza IV in What Are People For?

Wendell Berry’s statement that we lose loneliness by entering solitude seems completely counter-intuitive. Most of us are afraid of solitude for the very reason that we feel, in being alone, we will necessarily become lonely. But it does not have to be that way.

As Berry mentions, it is often in the “wild places” are where I feel most at ease in solitude. The fresh air, the rugged wildness, and the scurrying of creatures around makes me aware of both my smallness in the vastness of God’s creation, yet also God’s infinite attentiveness to the cosmos He has made. In the midst of this, nature’s contours soothe my soul. I am sure this soothing arises in part because, as Berry writes, in these wild places we are without “human obligation.”  In wild places we are away from people we feel obligated to engage with and things we feel obligated to do.

Both for good and ill, it is in solitude that we hear inner voices. Words that have been floating around inside of us – whole streams of though – suddenly take on such clear force that we are at times overwhelmed. We wonder, “Where did that thought come from?” Or, “I haven’t thought about that in awhile.” In reality these thoughts and ideas – these inner voices – are ever-present yet go unheeded because of the clamor of people and things in our daily lives. The voices and thoughts are there, but until we quiet ourselves enough, both externally and internally, we often either suppress them or ignore them.

When we are attentive to these inner voices and more intimate thoughts, we have the opportunity to come to a more comprehensive internal order with God and ourselves. We bring those clamoring voices to the living God and ask to hear His voice in it all. The unheeded voices that were always there speaking messages of fear or hurt or joy to us have been heard, conversed with, and brought to greater resolution in conversation with the God who hears and knows us. They grow quiet now. God’s voice becomes more solid, enduring, and strong. It is in this journey that we achieve a sense of coherence. We become less divided and distracted.

It is from this order and coherence that God sends us out with the ability to more fully engage with others and the created world. We become more fully present and able to connect with those around us.  We are in tune with God and the cosmos because of His work in our turbulent souls. With the Spirit’s power strengthening our will we can face the things that come into our daily lives, both planned and unplanned.

In solitude the various slivers of our distracted and fragmented selves come to a greater unity in God’s presence. That greater unity enables us to receive people into true relationship and bring our tasks toward completion. It is that powerful reality mentioned in the psalms:

Teach me Your way, Lord, that I may rely on Your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name. (Psalm 86:11).

John Chrysostom on Preaching to please God and not for human praise

In my ongoing efforts to re-learn pastoral ministry, I am turning to books commended through the ages about what it means to be a pastor. One of those I just recently read was St. John Chrysostom’s brief work, Six Books on the Priesthood. I share these comments that I found particularly helpful, from the end of that book, about preaching to please God and not for human praise.

Let the craftsman be the judge of his own handiwork too, and let us rate his productions as beautiful or poor when that is the verdict of the mind which contrived them. But as for the erratic and unskilled opinion of outsiders, we should not so much as consider it. So too the man who has accepted the task of teaching should pay no attention to the commendation of outsiders, any more than he should let them cause him dejection. When he has composed his sermons to please God (and let this alone be his rule and standard of good oratory in sermons, not applause or commendation), then if he should be approved by men too, let him not spurn their praise. But if his hearers do not accord it, let him neither seek it or sorrow for it. It will be sufficient encouragement for his efforts, and one much better than anything else, if his conscience tells him that he is organizing and regulating his teaching to please God. For in fact, if he has already been overtaken by the desire for unmerited praise, neither his great efforts nor his powers of speech will be any use. His soul, being unable to bear the senseless criticisms of the multitude, grows slack and loses all earnestness in preaching. So a preacher must train himself all else to despise praise. For without this addition, knowledge of the technique of speaking is not enough to ensure powerful speech.

– John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. by Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 133.

God’s words falling into us

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In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer relates an old Hasidic tale that examines the tension between the limitations within our current reality and the possibility of our hearts opening into a new reality.

He writes:

The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”

I find this to be so true in my life. How often there come moments where God mysteriously opens my heart to receive transformationally in new ways truths of His word that I have known intellectually for quite some time.

It is valuable to store up God’s words in our heart, but sometimes, they may merely rest on top of our hearts. May God give us grace to have hearts open to His word in such a way that His word comes into the deep places of our souls, transforming us into the fellowship of the burning heart. We may say, as the disciples did after their walk with the risen Christ along the Emmaus road, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

A. W. Tozer on Our Neglect of the Holy Spirit

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A. W. Tozer‘s book, Knowledge of the Holy, is a favorite of mine. One of my college roommates was highly influenced by another of his books, The Pursuit of God. The rest of Tozer’s work is, in my opinion, a bit hit and miss, but I came across this treasure from him on the neglect of the Holy Spirit. While the words were written more than 50 years ago, I think they are just as relevant today.

A doctrine has practical value only as far as it is prominent in our thoughts and makes a difference in our lives. By this test the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as held by evangelical Christians today has almost no practical value at all. In most Christian churches the Spirit is quite entirely overlooked. Whether He is present or absent makes no real difference to anyone. Brief reference is made to Him in the Doxology and the Benediction. Further than that He might well as not exist. So completely do we ignore Him that it is only by courtesy that we can be called Trinitarian….

…The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life and light and love. In His uncreated nature He is a boundless sea of fire, flowing, moving ever, performing as He moves the eternal purposes of God. Toward nature He performs one sort of work, toward the world another and toward the Church still another. And every act of His accords with the will of the Triune God. Never does He act on impulse nor move after a quick or arbitrary decision. Since He is the Spirit of the Father He feels toward His people exactly as the Father feels, so there need be on our part no sense of strangeness in His presence. He will always act like Jesus, toward sinners in compassion, toward saints in warm affection, toward human suffering in tenderest pity and love.

It is time for us to repent, for our transgressions against the blessed Third Person have been many and much aggravated. We have bitterly mistreated Him in the house of His friends. We have crucified Him in His own temple as they crucified the Eternal Son on the hill above Jerusalem. And the nails we used were not of iron, but of the finer and more precious stuff of which human life is made. Out of our hearts we took the refined metals of will and feeling and thought, and from them we fashioned the nails of suspicion and rebellion and neglect. By unworthy thoughts about Him and unfriendly attitudes toward Him days without end.

Excerpted from “The Forgotten One,” from God’s Pursuit of Man.

Five Quotations on Prayer

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This past weekend, I concluded a preaching series at Eastbrook Church called “Power in Prayer: Learning to Pray with St. Paul.” Through the series, I shared quotations on prayer throughout the series, and several people asked if I could share them. There were a few that I had in my notes that I never mentioned, so here they all are.

 

Baron Friedrich von Hugel: “The decisive preparation for prayer lies not in the prayer itself, but in the life prior to the prayer.”[1]

John Wesley: “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”[2]

John Stott: “So, the major preoccupation of children who come into their Father’s presence in prayer is not that we may receive what we need but that He may receive what He deserves – which is honor to His name, the spread of His kingdom, the doing of His will.”[3]

Richard Foster: “The primary purpose of prayer is to bring us into such a life of communion with the Father that, by the power of the Spirit, we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son.” [4]

Dallas Willard: “Prayer is, above all, a means of forming character.”[5]


[1] Baron Friedrich von Hugel, The Life of Prayer, 30.

[2] In Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), 34.

[3] John R. W. Stott, Sermon: “Growth in the Prayer Life,” 20 August 1989.

[4] Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 57.

[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), 250.