The Pastoral Work of Prayer-Directing: Song of Songs [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 2]

As I continue my journey of re-learning and recovering what it means to be a pastor, I am blogging my way through Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. In this book, Peterson seeks to recover a sense of pastoral practice and integrity based on the Megilloth, the five scrolls connected with five key Jewish festivals:

  • Song of Songs at Passover
  • Ruth at Pentecost
  • Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab
  • Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles
  • Esther at Purim

The first of the Megilloth that Peterson explores as a resource for pastoral ministry in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work is Song of Songs. While it might seem like a strange place to begin, but Peterson points out that “much of pastoral work has to do with nurturing intimacy, that is, developing relationships in which love is successfully expressed and received — shared” (24). The is spiritual in the broadest sense, encompassing both our “vertical relationship” with God and our “horizontal relationships” with other people. Peterson discusses the connection between our intimacy nurtured through relationships with others, including our sexuality, and our intimacy nurtured through relationship with God through prayer. This intimacy and longing for relationship is sacred and, in many ways, defines what it means to be human. Pastoral work engages with this tender intimate area, both in its earthiness and its divinity. As Peterson writes:

We live in a whole world of creation and redemption in which all the relationships which stretch along a continuum of sexual identity and spiritual capacity are involved in our daily growth and discipleship. Pastoral work refuses to specialize in earthly or heavenly, human or divine. The pastor is given a catholic cosmos to work in , not a sectarian back-forty. (26)

Peterson goes on to reflect on how salvation recreates and redeems our lives and relationships. The Exodus event is pivotal to our understanding of salvation and the Passover celebration of the Exodus rehearses God’s saving work again and again. While Song of Songs, with all its romantic imagery, may seem like a strange book to read at the Passover meal, Peterson argues for its appropriateness in the midst of “nurturing devotional intimacies and relational wholeness — the personal, immediate, experiential aspects of the gospel in the context of salvation” (31). The pastor ministers at the crossroads of the human and divine, the everyday and the transcendent, as we try to help everyone—including ourselves—stay alert to the wonders of God’s salvation.

The pastor’s task is to gather people together every Sunday, center each week in a response to the risen Lord, and nurture a participation in the resurrection life in Christ that works as well on any Wednesday afternoon at 5 o’clock as on Easter at sunrise. (32)

Building from Karl Barth’s commentary on Genesis 2, Peterson traces themes through the prophets before portraying Song of Songs as an extended commentary on Genesis 2 in light of the saving work of God in the Exodus. Creation and covenant come together in relationship with God and the other as depicted in Song of Songs. While some of the greatest interpreters of Song of Songs, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, seem to read it only figurally, Peterson encourages us to see what is going on through their eyes:

The ancients may not have known what the book was made of [liturgical fragments, wedding songs, and love songs], but they know what it was — an exposition of love in a creation in which all love in one way or another is an aspect of salvation. (39)

It is because of this that we can read the unabashedly erotic language of the Song of Songs simultaneously as both an expression of the goodness of human love and beauty within God’s creation and as a reflection upon the spiritual intimacy of love with God.

The erotic must be read in the theological context. The ancients did not read the Song devotionally because they were embarrassed by its sexuality, but because they understood sexuality in sacramental ways. Human love took its color from divine love. (42)

Pivotal here is concept of covenant, which grounds love and intimacy within a framework of committed relationship. Just as covenant roots sexual intimacy in ongoing human relationship, so, too, does covenant ground spiritual intimacy of human life in relationship to God. “Covenant, in effect, means that humanity cannot understand life apart from a defined and revealed relationship with God” (44).

Building upon his exploration of intimacy, relationship, salvation, love, and covenant, Peterson then walks through aspects of Song of Songs to show how it relates to pastoral work. Here are some highlights:

Pastoral work is a concentration on names. After the Bible, the church roll is the most important book in the pastor’s study. We work in communities that are composed of names. The pastor (like Adam in the garden) gives names — presents a person by name at the baptismal font, invokes the name of God at the table, proclaims the name of God from the pulpit, and combines those names in every pastoral conversation and prayer. (48)

Intimacy is not easily achieved….Pastoral work acknowledges the difficulty and the pain of the quest and shares it….It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow. (49-51).

Every person in every parish is involved in the desires and the difficulties of intimacy….Which is why prayer is the chief pastoral work in relation to a person’s desires and difficulties with intimacy….Prayer is thus the language, par excellence, of the covenant. (54-55)

Pastoral work is a ministry for taking seriously the details that differentiate us from each other and from God, and then praising them, for “in separateness only does love learn definition.” By listening to attentively to a persons’ dreams, desires, and longings, and by sharing passionately a persons’ struggles, painful frustrations, and difficulties significance is given to them. (60)

The single most significant phrase that a pastor can speak (either aloud or sub voce) is “I will pray for you.” (61)

In closing, Peterson connects the delightful praise of the Song of Songs with pastoral prayer lifted up in connection with the eucharist. Just as the two lovers of the Song experience joy and delight in one another, we experience joy and delight in God at the eucharistic meal that extends into our life together. And so, the pastor offers prayer in joy, gratitude, and reconciliation, not just for the abstractions of salvation and community, but for the real people we minister to, counsel with, visit in their homes and hospital beds.

Prayer is the pastoral work that is most suited for recognizing the compelling quality of God’s invitations and promises, and perpetuating it in others. (71)

[This is the second in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

Recovering Pastoral Practice [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 1]

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I first stumbled into the work of Eugene Peterson in the 1990s through his translation work with The Message. It was not too much later, however, that a pastor and mentor introduced me to his writing on pastoral ministry, sometimes referred to as Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library.

About three years ago, I re-read and steadily worked my way through one of the treasures of that library, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Doing that helped to ground me in a time of instability in my sense of what it meant to be a pastor. Through Working the Angles, Peterson became an invaluable conversation partner in re-learning what it means to be a pastor.

As I continue that journey, I want to do something similar with the first of those books, published in 1980, is Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. I want to blog my way through this work to recover a sense of pastoral practice and integrity. I do not mean integrity merely in the moral sense, but integrity in the sense of how something holds together. I am increasingly convinced that the very integrity of pastoral ministry, from calling to character, from practice to disciplines, is at stake in North America, if not elsewhere. We are in a crisis and need a renewal of pastoral integrity. So, here goes…


In the introduction to Five Smooth Stones, Peterson describes what we are about as pastors:

Pastoral work is that aspect of Christian ministry which specializes in the ordinary. It is the pragmatic application of religion in the present. (1)

While such work should be rooted in the biblical sources, Peterson points out the tendency in his day (which is no less present in our own) to turn toward the latest fads or social theories as the basis for pastoral ministry. However, this impulse is not helpful, and Peterson claims:

“When I look for help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation, the one century that has the least to commend it is the twentieth.” (2)

Having found the “counsel of my contemporaries” tried and wanting, Peterson outlines his deep desire—one which I resonate with—and the goal of this book: “I want a biblical base for the whole of pastoral ministry, and not just for its preaching and teaching” (5).

Peterson then walks through four aspects in the work of the pastor that he will explore in the coming chapters.  First, there is the tension between the timeless word and will of God and the local and personal place in which ministry is done. This happens best “not by acquiring new  knowledge but by assimilating old wisdom, not by reading the latest books but by digesting the old ones” (10).

Second, there exists “the distinction between biblical foundation and pastoral superstructure” (11). Here Peterson tells us “each generation of pastors, and to a certain extent each pastor, has to build his or her own superstructure of pastoral work. But we don’t, and we must not, lay out our own foundations” (11).

Third, Peterson grounds all pastoral work within the action of worship. “Pastoral work has no identity in and of itself. It is a derivative work, and worship is that from which it is derived” (18).

Fourth, pastoral work is not about abstraction, but about “the local, the specific, and the personal” (20). Like a hiker on the trail,

It is the pastor’s task to work along such trails using a style of speech and a mode of action that is local, specific, and personal so that each person met is addressed as an object of the love of God, which is not merely universal but particular in its universality. (21)

It is within the second distinction that Peterson introduces the framework for Five Smooth Stones, which will follow the Megilloth, the five scrolls connected with five key Jewish festivals:

  • Song of Songs at Passover
  • Ruth at Pentecost
  • Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab
  • Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles
  • Esther at Purim

Seeing this connection of biblical sources with the community at worship, Peterson seeks to retrieve them for reintegration within the work of the pastor. He writes:

Each of the Megilloth, set by Judaism in an act of worship, deals with an aspect of pastoral work: learning how to love and pray in the context of salvation (Song of Songs); developing an identity as a person of faith in the context of God’s covenant (Ruth); dealing with suffering in the context of redemptive judgment (Lamentations); unmasking religious illusion and pious fraud in the context of providential blessing (Ecclesiastes); and becoming a celebrative community of faith in the environment of the world’s hostility (Esther). (17)

Peterson readily admits that “not everything a pastor does fits into the five areas, but a remarkable amount of it does, giving promise that the Megilloth may be highly serviceable for pastoral use” (17).

[This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

10 Reasons Holy Week Can Become More Powerful during the Time of the Virus

Rembrandt - The Three Crosses

Holy Week is the pinnacle of our Lenten journey, drawing us into the Passion of Jesus. This year, our Holy Week journey finds us simultaneously facing into one of the worst crises of our lives with the COVID-19 pandemic. This past weekend I reflected on the significance of this intersection of Holy Week and COVID-19, leading me to write these ten reasons our Holy Week journey can become more powerful during the time of the virus.

  1. Stripped – In this time, our activities and lives feel stripped of so much that seems normal. We can fight against this, or we can enter into it with an openness to what God may want to do with us during this time. I think of the physical reality that Jesus was stripped of His garments (Matthew 27:28) speaking to His complete yielding to the Father’s will. May we, too, enter into this Holy Week with humble openness to God. This is no passivity nor resignation, but the living trust in God as our Good Shepherd these days.
  2. Helplessness – During this time, we encounter our helplessness more clearly than ever before. We are put in touch with one of the central realities of the Lenten journey, which is that we are helpless in life apart from God.  We can more deeply cry out to God, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
  3. We all will face death – Lent teaches us about the fragility of life, and the truth that we will all face death. Death is unavoidable for all human beings, even if we do believe that there is hope of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ journey to the Cross brings into sharp focus this great reality, while also reminding us that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  4. Consolation removed – Because of public health considerations, we face the removal of many of our normal consolations in life, such as friendships, meals with others, and many of the normal pleasures of life. In Holy Week, we see Jesus stepping beyond the consolations of human experience into the place of desolation. He loses His dignity, His clothing, His friendships, and eventually His life. As we let go of many of our own consolations, it reminds us of everything that Jesus lost during His Passion.
  5. Forsakenness – The ultimate desolation is Jesus’ forsakenness from the Father, and the isolation that results. Some of us  may feel abandoned in this time, even forsaken by God. Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the Cross shows us how great the sense of abandonment was between Jesus and the Father as He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In our own forsakenness and isolation we experience some measure of the weight of Jesus’ forsakenness for us.
  6. Suffering surrounds – In the news and in our lives, we are suddenly surrounded by human suffering. We cannot shelter ourselves from it, as some of us have had the luxury of doing in times past. When insulated from the suffering, we often wonder why Jesus’ suffering should be necessary. However, when we face suffering so clearly, we are put in touch with the reality of Jesus’ suffering on the way to the Cross. This makes us more aware of the cost of Jesus’ Passion in Holy Week.
  7. Mental anguish – When praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to God, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Luke tells us that Jesus experienced such anguish that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). As we wrestle with mental pressure and struggles with anxiety because of COVID-19, we are able to have some sense of the weight of the world pressing in upon Jesus during Holy Week.
  8. Tears for those in need – Because of the pandemic, we now see the suffering of others so clearly that it becomes heartbreaking to us. Often times our hearts are hardened to others, but this is softening us to the reality of human need. As Jesus looked at Jerusalem after the triumphal entry, He “saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). Our tears meet with Jesus’ tears over those in need for humanity as we journey through this week.
  9. Hungry to belong – Our hunger for belonging is high in this time of physical distancing. We miss shaking hands or giving hugs. We miss having grandchildren sit on our laps to read a story or passing dishes around the table with friends. We want to experience relationship, and we can do that thanks to technology, but the barriers are high. This leads us into an encounter with our own needs and loneliness that we often try to avoid. We realize that underneath this is not just our longing for God, but also the God who longs for relationship with us. His longing is so high that He will suffer anything to bring reconciled relationship and belonging.
  10. Longing for hope – Our longing for hope – for life after this death – pulses like the beating of our hearts. We cannot wait for this to “be over,” so that we can return to “life as normal.” We all know that life will not be the same normal that we experienced before, but we still hope for it. How much more meaningful is the resurrection of Jesus Christ than in these days where the longing for hope rises up more sharply than ever before?

Recovering the Wonder of Advent: Four pathways for preaching in Advent

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I had the privilege to write an article on preaching in Advent for Preaching Today, which was just recently released. You can read the entire article, “Recovering the Wonder of Advent: Four pathways for preaching in Advent,” at Preaching Today, but here’s a taste of what you will find there.

In my childhood, one of the greatest moments of anticipation was Christmas. I couldn’t wait for the chance to decorate, eat Christmas cookies, and, of course, open presents on Christmas Day. Every Christmas Eve I struggled to go to bed, and was usually the first one up to see what was waiting under the tree. The anticipation and wonder were like adrenaline coursing through my body.

As we grow older, most of us lose some of our wonder. The novelty of Christmas starts to wear off, at least a little bit. Along with that, our anticipation gets trampled down under the weight of responsibilities, the rush of preparations, and, at times, the heaviness that comes on those of us for whom the holidays bring sadness.

There is a remedy for lost wonder and trampled anticipation. That remedy is not getting more expensive presents, having flashier decorations, or inviting the right people to our parties. The remedy is stepping back enough to realize what we have lost it, and then going through a journey of recovery. Like a relationship that has lost its spark or a hobby that has lost our interest, we need to take time and effort to see what’s right in front of us with fresh eyes.

The church has a recovery program of sorts for lost wonder and trampled anticipation leading toward Christmas. That recovery program is called Advent, which means “appearing,” coming from the Latin word adventus. Advent looks back with wonder at Jesus’ birth over two-thousand years ago, while also looking forward with anticipation to his future return at the end of human history.

As preachers, we have a unique opportunity to help our congregations enter into that recovery of anticipation and wonder. My hope in this article is to offer four pathways for preaching in Advent so that our congregations both taste the longing that leads us to cry out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and savor the joy that sings, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

Old Camel Knees: a brief reflection on the remarkable prayer life of James the Just

James_the_Just_(Novgorod,_16_c.)The fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, relates a story gathered from the lost works of Hegesippus during the second century about James “the Just,” who likely wrote the epistle of James and was the earthly brother of Jesus. In the midst of outlining the persecution of the church in his Ecclesiastical History , Eusebius details the death of James in Book II, Ch. XXIII:

3. The manner of James’ death has been already indicated by the above-quoted words of Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows:

4. “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James.

5. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath.

6. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.

7. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him.

There is so much we could discuss here, but today I merely want to draw attention to point (6) above, which highlights James’ ongoing life of prayer, specifically his worship of God and petitions for forgiveness on behalf of others. His dedication to prayer is such that his physical body reflected it: “his knees became hard like those of a camel.” It is because of this phrase that James is often referred to as “camel knees.”

The idea of praying on our knees is mentioned frequently in Scripture (Psalm 95:6; Daniel 6:10; Luke 5:8; Ephesians 3:14). Praying on our knees conveys humility – an appropriate sense of who we are – and awe – an appropriate sense of who God is. Getting down on our knees tells us in a very tangible way – through the posture of our bodies – that something different is occurring in our experience that requires something different from our bodies. As one commentator writes, kneeling in prayer communicates something vitally important: “We recognize that God is everything for us and that without his merciful love, we are, literally, nothing.”

These days many of us, especially those within evangelical traditions, rarely get on our knees in prayer. In fact, it is so out of the ordinary that when I recently invited our church community to kneel, I had to take extra time to set it up ahead of time. Those in what would described as traditional churches likely find it more common to descend to a kneeler each week for the confessional prayer. Regardless of our worship tradition, I would like to suggest that all of us could learn quite a lot from the Apostle James in his example of dedicated, humble prayer through appropriate kneeling.

However, let me take it a step further, and say that pastors and ministers of all sorts should take a cue on prayer from “Old Camel Knees.” It would be an invaluable breakthrough in ministry practice if all of us serving in ministry left a legacy like James of dedication in prayerful worship of God and intercession before God on behalf of our people. May God give us grace that our bodies would be marked by our dedication in prayer.