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]


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.]

Abandoning Our Pastoral Calling [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 1]


In reflecting on the ways Eugene Peterson shaped my pastoral ministry after his passing (see “Remembering Eugene Peterson“) on Monday, October 22, I took a look through his writings again. I asked myself a number of questions, amongst them being: what was it about Peterson that helped me so greatly as a pastor?

I saw a note in one  book saying that I re-read Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work in August 2016. I remember receiving that book like a glass of cool water on a hot day right when I needed it. Part of what made his words in that book so refreshing was the way in which he opened up Scripture so powerfully and clearly with application to pastoral ministry today.

fullsizeoutput_ae1As I continued peaking through the pages of his writing on pastoral ministry, I was quickly sucked in by the first few pages of Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. This book, published in 1987, strikes a chord so relevant for our own day. I will share the extended excerpt that caught my attention below, but over the next few weeks, I will share some reflections on this outstanding book. I hope you benefit from it as much as I do.

American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.

A few of us are angry about it. We are angry because we have been deserted. Most of my colleagues who defined ministry for me, examined, ordained, and then installed me as a pastor in a congregation, a short while later walked off and left me, having, they said, more urgent things to do. The people I thought I would be working with disappeared when the work started. Being a pastor is difficult work; we want the companionship and counsel of allies. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. ‘A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,’ says Martin Thornton, ‘but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.’

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 1-2.

As I read those first two pages of the book, it was as if I were reading so much of my own story, and the story of so many other pastors, as we wrestle to hold onto our vocation in a culture and church culture that seems many times dead-set on forcing us to let it go of it. Throughout the rest of the book Peterson works out how the pastor can hold onto appropriate biblical vocation through three “angles” of prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. More to come on that in future posts, but perhaps now is a good time to consider whether we have abandoned our post — our pastoral calling — as pastors in North America.

[This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. You can read all the posts here.]

Calling (discussion questions)

jesus-on-the-move-series-gfx_app-squareHere are the discussion questions that accompany my message, “Calling,” from this past weekend at Eastbrook Church. This is part of our series, “Jesus on the Move.” The texts for this week are from Luke 5 & 6.

Discussion Questions:

  1. We continue the series “Jesus on the Move” by looking at a series of stories about calling in Luke 5 and 6. Before we start ask God to speak to you from His Word.
  2. Read Luke 5:1-11 aloud. Jesus is by the Sea of Galilee (another name is ‘Lake of Gennesaret’) by Capernaum teaching a crowd the word of God from the boat of Simon Peter. What does Jesus ask Simon to do and why is this odd according to Simon’s response?
  3. What happens in 5:6-7 and what does it tell us about Jesus?
  4. Why does Simon respond the way he does and what does Jesus ask him to do? How does the event in boat relate to the work Jesus asks of Simon Peter?
  5. Now read Luke 5:27-32 aloud. Jesus visits the low-level taxman, Levi (also known as Matthew), and invites him to become a disciple. Why might this be shocking?
  6. Levi throws a party in Jesus’ honor and invites all his sinful friends. Why are some of the religious leaders upset with Jesus about this (5:30)?
  7. Jesus responds with a bold declaration about His life and mission in 5:31-32. What is the point of what Jesus is saying here?
  8. Why do you think religious people sometimes miss the point of Jesus’ mission?
  9. Now read the third episode, Luke 6:12-16, aloud. Here Jesus is calling a select group from within the large crowd of disciples to a specific role and purpose. What is it? Why is this important for Jesus?
  10. The life with Jesus is a journey of discipleship with defining moments along the way. What are 1 or 2 defining moments in your own journey with Jesus?
  11. What is one way God is calling you into a deeper life with Him through this study? If you are with a small group, discuss that with one another and pray for one another. If you are studying on your own, write it down and share it with someone.



Daily Reading Plan

To encourage us together in our growth with God, we are arranging a weekday reading plan through this entire series with the Gospel of Luke. As you read each day, ask God to speak to you from His word.

Follow along with the reading plan below, through the Eastbrook app, or on social media.

  • Jan. 9- Luke 5:1-11; Mark 1:16-20
  • Jan. 10 – Luke 5:27-32
  • Jan. 11 – Matthew 9:9-13; Hosea 6:4-6
  • Jan. 12 – Luke 6:12-16
  • Jan. 13 – Mark 3:13-19