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)