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

fullsizeoutput_ad4

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.]

A Prayer inspired by the prophet Haggai

LORD of hosts,
Almighty King of all the earth,
You are worthy of all our praise
and deserve the best of what we have to offer.

Help us to give careful thought to our ways,
that we may not be found wanting
in presenting all of who we are
and all of what we have to You.

In Haggai’s day, You called the people to rebuild Your house,
strengthening them to accomplish the task by Your grace.
In our day, help us to hear Your calling for the church,
and strengthen us to accomplish that calling by Your grace.

May no opposition overcome us
and no circumstances dissuade us
from giving ourselves fully to You
and Your mission upon earth.

All this we pray, through Jesus Christ,
to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit
be all honor and glory, now and forever.
Amen.

Following the Spirit and not our Feelings: Evelyn Underhill on Calling and Desire

Evelyn UnderhillJust a few days ago, I came across this extended quotation from Evelyn Underhill from her fine little book, The Spiritual Life. Underhill speaks to the interface of our calling and our desires, and the challenge our feelings can bring to truly following God’s call upon us. I had originally read these words about three years ago while on sabbatical, but reading them again was incredibly helpful for me. I hope you benefit from her words as well, regardless of where God has you stationed right now.

So those who imagine that they are called to contemplation because they are attracted by contemplation, when the common duties of existence steadily block this path, do well to realise that our own feelings and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Spirit.

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his hermitage on the Farne, but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he was decisively called. In all of these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognise not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this – and they are constantly happening – gradually convince us that the over-ruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.

[Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life (Atlanta: Ariel Press, 1937, reprint 2000), 23-25.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 1 December 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

jo saxton“Calling Versus Narcissism” – In this ten-minute message given at Q Ideas, Jo Saxton reflects on the slight difference between calling and narcissism. Building off of the myth of Narcissus and the contemporary discussion of the narcissistic personality disorder, Saxton speaks to Christians about how we can view calling through the eyes of God, and authentically position our service for the good of others.

 

Jean Pierre Gatera“He Led Churches in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. Now He Waxes Floors” – You will be moved by this powerful account of Jean Pierre Gatera, a bivocational pastor in the US, who is also a refugee. He spent 20 years in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, where he pastored several congregations.

 

85361“US Missionary Killed by ‘World’s Most Isolated’ Tribe” – “A 26-year-old American missionary was killed on a remote island off the coast of India, where he attempted to share the gospel with the most isolated tribe in the world. All Nations, a Christian missions agency based in the US, confirmed that John Allen Chau traveled to North Sentinel Island after years of study and training to evangelize its small indigenous population, who remain almost entirely untouched by modern civilization.” You can read the BBC’s initial report here and updates on attempts to retrieve Chau’s body here. You can find out more about the Sentinelese people here. This also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the way that we tell missionary stories. Read Lucy Austen’s article on this dilemma, “From Jim Elliot to John Allen Chau: The Missionary-Martyr Dilemma,” over at Christianity Today.

 

img_3744_slide-6b53600232d81844eff1806355dec33c4a5e739f-s1500-c85“In Iraq, A Race To Protect The Crumbling Bricks Of Ancient Babylon” – In the midst of our series on the book of Daniel at Eastbrook Church, I have spent quite a bit of time researching the history of ancient Babylon. NPR reports here on the challenges of preserving that cultural history as a result of the conflicts that have raged in the midst of Iraq over the past ten years and more.

 

luke-palmer-305434-unsplash.jpg“How to experience the Bible in a digital world” – “Spark and Echo, cofounded in 2010 by the composer Jonathan Roberts and the actor and musician Emily Clare Zempel, aims to “illuminate” every single verse of the King James Bible by the year 2030. The way it works is this: Patrons contribute funding and have a chance to mark with a ‘spark’ particular verses they would like to see ‘echoed’ by an artist, writer or musician. Then, the program commissions—and pays for—an original work based on those verses.”

 

Old-Vintage-Books“8 Works of Fiction Every Christian Should Read”Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well, shares eight fiction books that every Christian should read. You will find treasures from Charlotte Bronte, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and Charles Dickens, as well as a few surprises. This is a fantastic list worth taking a look at for your Christmas list or just for adding to your to-read list for 2019.

 

christopher tolkien“The Steward of Middle-Earth” – Speaking of good literature, you might enjoy Hannah Long‘s fascinating reflection on the work of Christopher Tolkien, son of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. “In 1975, Christopher Tolkien left his fellowship at New College, Oxford, to edit his late father’s massive legendarium. The prospect was daunting. The 50-year-old medievalist found himself confronted with 70 boxes of unpublished work. Thousands of pages of notes and fragments and poems, some dating back more than six decades, were stuffed haphazardly into the boxes. Handwritten texts were hurriedly scrawled in pencil and annotated with a jumble of notes and corrections. One early story was drafted in a high school exercise book.”

 

Andy Crouch“Tech Wise”Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making and The Tech-Wise Family, speaks at Menlo Church about what he calls “the upgrader’s dilemma.” What is that? That dilemma is the simultaneous reality that even as technology is progressing through upgrades that astound us, other things in our world and our lives do not feel like they are progressing at all, but might be getting worse. Crouch explores the possibility that the very things that are progressing are contributing to our failure to progress in other areas.

 

151103120643-italian-elderly-man-exlarge-169“Drug overdoses, suicides cause drop in 2017 US life expectancy; CDC director calls it a ‘wakeup call'” – “Life expectancy in the United States declined from 2016 to 2017, yet the 10 leading causes of death remained the same, according to three government reports released Thursday. Increasing deaths due to drug overdoses and suicides explain this slight downtick in life expectancy, the US Centers for Disease Control says. Overdose deaths reached a new high in 2017, topping 70,000, while the suicide rate increased by 3.7%, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports.” If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please don’t delay in reaching out for help. Find support resources here.

 

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

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

fullsizeoutput_ae1

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.]