Hearing with Our Eyes [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 6]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Over the past several weeks, I have been reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. I am doing this in part as a way to honor the numerous ways that Peterson shaped my approach to pastoral ministry, but also as an attempt to reconsider – and perhaps recover – the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson holds up before us.

With the second part of the book, Peterson explores what he calls the second angle of the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry: Scripture. He launches into the first chapter within this section with his characteristic intensity:

It is an immense irony when the very practice of our work results in abandoning our work. In the course of doing our work we leave our work. But in reading, teaching, and preaching the Scriptures it happens: we cease to listen to the Scriptures and thereby undermine the intent of heaving Scripture in the first place (87).

This, then, is the central thrust of chapter four of the book: we must release our control over the Scripture text as readers and recover the ability to listen to God in Scripture again. But how do we do this when Scripture is something we read with our eyes, not our ears? Peterson suggests we remember three things. The first is that we recognize that ‘remarkable invention’ of movable type by Gutenberg has simultaneously made Scripture more accessible to us and also increasingly made Scripture reading an individualized experience. The second is to understand how modern education has shaped us through print books into acquirers of disembodied information, often eliminating the relationality present in oral cultures. The third thing we must remember is that our modern culture has transformed us into consumers of goods, which has led us to view everything as a transaction of goods for services.

All three of these realities shape the way we often approach Scripture. Peterson asserts:

These three powerful, hard-to-detect influences operate quietly behind our backs and subvert the very nature of Scripture, which is to provide a means for listening to the word of God (99).

To escape from this cultural captivity, we must re-approach the fourfold sequence of Scripture’s integrity: “speaking, writing, reading, listening” (99). Books connect listeners with speakers from all times and places through the process of writing and reading. However, in a culture that often puts the emphasis upon the middle two elements of writing and reading, we need to recover the radical relationality that must exist in Scripture between the God who speaks and the us who listens.

What is the key to this? Leaning into Psalm 40:6 in the Revised Standard Version – “ears thou hast dug for me” – Peterson says the key is letting God turn our eyes into ears. We have to recover the listening necessary as our eyes scour the pages of Scripture.

The act of reading becomes an act of listening. What was written down is revoiced….No longer is God’s word merely written; it is voiced. The ear takes over from the eye and involves the heart (102).

And so, pastors must recover the ability to hear with their eyes, while engaging their hearts in the approach to Scripture. We must not read informationally but transformationally, and that transformation comes first through our sense being reoriented and reengaged in our approach to the word of God. When we begin to do this as pastors, we can help our congregations do the same. In the midst of that engagement, the words of Jesus again loom large in our imagination – and our ears – with great depth:

He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:9).

[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.]

Praying by the Book [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 5]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Following his reflections on the shortcomings of modern pastoral ministry in regard to prayer, Eugene Peterson turns his attention to how a pastor develops the life of prayer. In a world of quick fixes and shortcuts, Peterson’s starting advice on prayer is perhaps more necessary than ever: “Be slow to pray” (43). Why should we take it slow?

We want life on our conditions, not God’s conditions. Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray. (44)

How do we slow down? First of all, we must remember that we are not the initiator of prayer. Prayer is our response to the initiative of God. He is always the conversation starter, and we are always the conversation responder. This does not mean that God is not a listener, it simply means that before all – before we took our first breath or every thought to pray – God had already been speaking to us. “Prayer is answering speech” (45).

Because of this truth, the pastor’s approach to prayer must be rooted in the fundamental understanding of prayer as answering. Peterson goes into greater depth with this in another of his books, Answering God, but here he homes in on the work of the pastor to “develop within ourselves the means for a full and continues awareness of its [prayer’s] secondary quality, its answering character” (47). Turning to Genesis for of the initiating word of God in creation and John’s Gospel for the initiating word of God in redemption, Peterson reminds us that, as with learning to speak in childhood, someone else’s word is always previous to our own. In ministry – and in all of our spiritual life – that previous word is God’s word and God’s word alone. When entering into prayer, whether in worship services or at the bedside, at a school graduation or a family dinner, the pastor must always enter with a serious awareness of God’s previous word.

Along with this awareness about prayer as answering speech, Peterson encourages the pastor to enroll in “the great and sprawling university that Hebrews and Christians have attended to learn to answer God, to learn to pray…the Psalms” (50). Taking the psalms as our school in prayer, both as pastors for our own souls and as pastors leading congregations in prayer, helps us to send roots down deep into the richest soil of inspired prayer. The Psalms, often called “the prayerbook of the Bible,” are that rich soil from which our answer to God arises. Peterson masterfully outlines how the fivefold book division of the Psalms (1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150) answers the fivefold book division of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), thus visibly displaying how the Psalms exist as an ‘answer’ to the ‘previous’ word of God in the Torah. Here, Peterson urges the pastor toward the vital curriculum of prayer in the psalms:

Too much is at stake here—the maturity of the word of God, the integrity of pastoral ministry, the health of worship—to permit pastors to pick and choose a curriculum of prayer as they are more or less inclined….Prayer must not be fabricated out of emotional fragments or professional duties….Praying the Psalms, we find the fragments of soul and body, our own and all those with whom we have to do, spoke into adoration and love and faith (57-58).

As I read this I could not help but recall two statements I read in Tim Keller’s book, Prayer. “For help, we should turn first to the Psalms, the inspired prayer book of the Bible” (Keller, Prayer 3). Just a few pages later, Keller writes about his own changes in prayer after battling thyroid cancer.

I made four practical changes to my life of private devotion. First, I took several months to go through the Psalms, summarizing each one. That enabled me to begin praying through the Psalms regularly, getting through all of them several times a year. The second thing I did was always to put in a time of meditation as a transitional discipline between my Bible reading and my time of prayer. Third, I did all I could to pray morning and evening rather than only in the morning. Fourth, I began praying with greater expectation. (17)

When two great pastors agree on something, it is good to pay attention. When they agree about it because many great pastors from earlier eras agreed about it as well, then we must not merely pay attention, but drop everything and immediately do our best to learn from that in the practical rhythms of our lives.

Pastors, let us learn to pray with the Psalms as our curriculum. Let us not merely talk about it, but let us do it without delay.

[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.]

Recovering Prayer [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 4]


For the majority of the Christian centuries most pastors have been convinced that prayer is the central and essential act for maintaining the essential shape of the ministry to which they were ordained.

With this strong word, Eugene Peterson begins his exploration of the first of the three angles of pastoral ministry: prayer. Peterson suggests that, in contrast to previous centuries, pastors of our current age “don’t view prayer as the central and essential act that keeps pastoral work true to itself, centered in word and sacrament” (26). He wonders aloud if conditions have changed today or if theological developments have led us to this change? Neither of those is really true. Instead, we have “let ourselves be distracted, diverted, and seduced” by a slippery loss of the best of Greek wisdom and Hebrew spirituality.

Drawing on the Greek myth of Prometheus, Peterson suggests that we have lost a sense of our own limitations, including mortality, and the sense of danger produced by blind ambition. Like Prometheus, who introduced the technology of the gods (fire) to humanity and unshackled human beings from a sense of necessary limits, the modern secular age has delivered to us ever-improving technologies while simultaneously convincing us we can overcome all of our limits, including death. “We ourselves have become Promethean—working in a good cause, compassionately helping people, but uncritically using the means offered by the world” (31). This Promethean spirit has infected the church and pastoral ministry. We are enamored with utilizing the latest and greatest technologies, both in our personal work and our churches, without often giving much thought to how this blind acceptance shapes us. Likewise, we rarely regard our ministry as preparing congregants for “holy living and holy dying.” Instead, we aim more at living ‘healthy’ lives as long as possible without much thought to the dying part.

Right alongside this Promethean challenge, Peterson highlights the loss of the best of Hebrew spirituality, of which prayer is the center. Tracing higher criticism’s sculpting of our approach to Scripture, Peterson focuses on Julius Wellhausen as a representative of the scholars who unintentionally evacuated prayer from its central place in the worship-focused life of Israel. Wellhausen did this by retelling Hebrew history, from the patriarchs through the prophets and on to the exilic restoration, through the lens of historic development of religions. This shift in the view of Israel unintentionally charted a noticeably different course for the education of pastors, leading to the exaltation of two forms for ministry: “the prophetic pastor of action and the managerial pastor” (38). This theological re-creation is like a “modern Prometheus” (to steal a phrase from Shelley), leaving us with a monster devoid of real life and love.

What we need, in light of these losses, is to recover the place of the Psalms at the heart of biblical spirituality and the place of prayer at the heart of pastoral ministry. Leave it to Peterson to put this in striking terms:

The implication of this for pastoral work is plain: it begins in prayer. Anything creative, anything powerful, anything biblical, insofar as we are participants in it, originates in prayer. Pastors who imitate the preaching and moral action of the prophets without also imitating the prophets’ deep praying and worship so evident in the Psalms are an embarrassment to the faith and an encumbrance to the church

[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 Holy Trigonometry of Pastoral Calling [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 3]

fullsizeoutput_ae1In his attempt to recover the essence of pastoral ministry and help pastor’s hold onto their essential vocation, Eugene Peterson takes an image from an unlikely source: mathematics.

I have found a metaphor from trigonometry to be useful in keeping this clear; I see these three essential acts of ministry as the angles of a triangle. Most of what we see in a triangle is lines. The lines come in various proportions to each other but what determines the proportions and the shape of the whole are the angles.

The visible lines of the ministry triangle are those pastoral actions that people readily see: preaching, teaching and administration. Our congregation wants us to do well with each of these, and oftentimes our ministry is judged by how effective we are at these three things. However, it is the invisible angles of ministry – prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction – that shape those visible lines of ministry.

Working the angles is what gives shape and integrity to the daily work of pastors and priests. If we get the angles right it is a simple matter to draw in the lines. But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry. (5)

It is easy to be dismissive of Peterson’s strong statement here, but there are reasons why this is evidently true. The visible work of preaching, teaching, and administration does not in itself make an effective ministry. If ministry is primarily about God and His work in the lives of human beings, then pastors must be in touch with God, allowing our ministry to flow out of our deep attention to and connection with God. In fact, if we are not “working the angles,” which shape the lines of the visible triangle of pastoral ministry, then our ministry work will quickly become a husk of life that eventually will be seen for what it is: evacuated of God’s presence.

Jesus’ great critique of the Pharisees was that their appearances did not much reality their reality. “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” (Matthew 23:25, NLT). It wasn’t that the Pharisees did not know Scripture or regularly pray. In fact, the Pharisees were known for their commitment to Scripture and prayer. However, their inner lives were empty of the real life of God, even as their outer lives gave the impression of godliness through furniture and wall hangings associated with God. Unfortunately, their appearance was not the real thing, but merely a facade with nothing behind it. We can draw upon Jesus’ own words again: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (23:27, NIV).

What is the remedy for this situation that can creep up on us as pastors? First, let me encourage us to pay attention to the areas of tension that we feel in our lives as pastors. Particularly, we must pay attention to where we begin to sense that our lives do not match what we say or portray. This gap is the hidden gap in which death is born. Second, let me encourage us to return to, as Peterson exhorts us in Working the Angles, attentiveness to God with our selves, Scripture, and others as the primary work of our calling and ministry. This is not just part of what we do, this is essentially what we do. Thirdly, and this is the flip-side of the second point, let us challenge the prevailing tendencies of cultural models of ministry that focus almost entirely on the visible lines of ministry. Peterson wryly suggest the prevailing cultural model is summarized in a four-course curriculum: Course I: Creative Plagiarism; Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling; Course III: Efficient Office Management; and Course IV: Image Projection (7). If all our attention is on these things without attention to God, then we will sow the seeds of emptiness or death into the lives of those in our congregations.

If the pastors of America were asked two questions, ‘What do you think about God?’ and ‘What do you want to accomplish as a pastor?’ I believe that a great majority of answers would have to be judged satisfactory. But what if we are asked a third question, ‘How do you go about it — what means do you use to bring your spiritual goals into being in your parish?’ At this point the responses would range, I am quite sure, from the faddish to the trite to the silly. Pastors, by and large, have not lost touch with the best thinking about God, and they have not lost touch with the high goals of the Christian life, but they have lost touch with the trigonometry of ministry, the angles, the means by which the lines of the work get connected into a triangle, pastoral work. The pastor who has no facility in means buys games and gimmicks and programs without end under the illusion of being practical. (15-16)

Lord, deliver us from games and gimmicks and endless programs so that we might recover the integrity of our calling in pastoral ministry. Give us grace to pay attention to You for the good of our congregations, as well as our very own lives and vocation.

[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.]

Learning to Pay Attention [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 2]

fullsizeoutput_ae1If we are to hold onto our identity and calling as pastors in North America, then we must resist the consumer-driven impulses that have infested our culture and even the church. We must become, as Eugene Peterson suggest, more than religious shopkeepers who keep the budget growing, the building improving, and the congregation busy. We must re-learn how to pay attention, not just in general, but primarily by paying attention to God. There are three pastoral acts that Peterson says are “so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else.” What are they? “The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction” (3).

These three pastoral acts are part of “the pastor’s responsibility…to keep the community attentive to God” (2). Peterson goes on to explain the way in which of those acts does this:

prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading scripture is an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at any given moment.

Always it is God to whom we are paying, or trying to pay, attention. The contexts, though vary: in prayer the context is myself; in Scripture it is the community of faith in history; in spiritual direction it is the person before me. God is the one to whom we are being primarily attentive in these contexts, but it is never God-in-himself; rather, it is God-in-relationship — with me, with his people, with this person. (3-4)

This attentiveness to God in various contexts is difficult. As Peterson suggests, “great crowds of people have entered into a grand conspiracy to eliminate prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction from our lives” (4). This feels even more true in the thirty-year distance since he wrote this book. Distractions multiply like rabbits with the rhythmic clicking of a laptop touchpad or the frictionless swiping of a smart phone.

In a distracted culture, how countercultural is it for the pastor to be a person who is utterly attentive to God, self, Scripture, and others? Well, it so countercultural that many of us pastors are as distracted as anyone else, simultaneously immersed in our social media profiles and the endless notifications on our devices. When was the last time we knew what it was to truly enter into uninterrupted solitude with God ourselves? When did we last hear the voice of God whisper into our souls while we sat across from someone asking us for a word from God?

I have returned again and again to the cry of the psalmist:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name. (Psalm 86:11)

Lord, teach us pastors Your ways, and strengthen us to walk in your truth, that we might enter into the undivided heart that leads us to reverent attentiveness before You in our calling and ministry activity.

[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.]