It Needs to Get Inside of You: Eugene Peterson on the Spiritual Disciplines

peterson-square1One of my favorite authors is Eugene Peterson. Peterson is best known as the author behind the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. As a pastor, his works on pastoral ministry for our contemporary era, such as Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral IntegrityFive Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and Under the Unpredictable Plant, are unparalleled. In the midst of my ongoing exploration about spiritual practices for pursuing the deep life with God, I unexpectedly came across these reflections on the idea of spiritual disciplines that I wanted to share. This is taken from an interview with Image. Peterson gets it right here, I believe, because he cautions against over-ownership of our efforts in growth, even though he acknowledges the importance of spiritual practices in our transformation into Christlikeness.

Image: This may be an audacious question, but what spiritual disciplines do you observe?

Eugene Peterson: I read scripture slowly. I pray. I worship….

A caveat about the disciplines: I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality. When you practice a discipline, you’re doing something. There’s not much relaxation. There’s not much letting go. Some people say to me, “You’re such a disciplined person.” I ran marathons for twenty years, but it wasn’t a discipline. I loved it. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I have the same feeling about reading scripture, prayer, worship.

I was talking just this last week to a retired businessman. He led Bible studies for most of his life, but at some point he realized that he wasn’t getting it inside of him. He went to his pastor for advice, but his pastor couldn’t really help. So on his own, without any direction, he developed a system of lectio divina, almost exactly the way the books tell you how. He compiled huge notebooks of meditation and reflection on scripture. He told me he’d been doing this for ten years, that he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning and he couldn’t wait to start. It wasn’t a discipline. It simply got inside of him.

Spiritual Tourists or Pilgrims?: Eugene Peterson from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

pilgrim wayNot too long ago, I was sitting with some of my staff in what feels like an altogether different universe from today. We were talking about the calling of the church and what it means to really do ministry. I shared with them this introduction from Eugene Peterson’s masterful book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Reading it again today, I felt like the words were just as pertinent about the long obedience of discipleship that moves beyond spiritual tourism and into lifelong pilgrimage. I hope you enjoy his bracing words as well.

This world is no friend to grace. A person who makes a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior does not find a crowd immediately forming to applaud the decision nor old friends spontaneously gathering around to offer congratulations and counsel. Ordinarily there is nothing directly hostile, but an accumulation of puzzled disapproval and agnostic indifference constitutes, nevertheless, surprisingly formidable opposition.

An old tradition sorts the difficulties we face in the life of faith into the categories of world, flesh and devil. We are, for the most part, well warned of the perils of the flesh and the wiles of the devil. Their temptations have a definable shape and maintain an historical continuity. That doesn’t make them an easier to resist; it does make them easier to recognize.

The world, though, is protean: each generation has the world to deal with in a new form. World is an atmosphere, a mood. It is nearly as hard for a sinner to recognize the world’ temptations as it is for a fish to discover impurities in the water. There is a sense, a feeling, that things aren’t right, that the environment is not whole, but just what it is eludes analysis. We know that the spiritual atmosphere in which we live erodes faith, dissipates hope and corrupts love, but it is hard to put our finger on what is wrong.

One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture, anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is a little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church. For others, occasional visits to specials services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so, somehow, expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen, faith-healing, human potential, para-psychology, successful living, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything-until something else comes along.

I don’t know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture in the latter part of the twentieth century the aspect of world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analyzed as “today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.” Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach, and teach, want short cuts. They want me to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour guide. I have no interest in telling apocryphal religious stories at and around dubiously identified sacred sites. The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth, at least, with great clarity wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is …that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” It is this “long obedience in the same direction’ which the mood of the world does so much to discourage.

In going against the stream of the world’s ways there are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim. Disciple (mathetes) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.

Pilgrim (parepidemos) tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” and set out for the “Father’s house.” Abraham, who “went out,” is our archetype. Jesus, answering Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” gives us directions: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:5-6). The letter to the Hebrews defines our program:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).

[From Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 15-16.

Worship and the Idolatrous Heart: Spiritual Harlotry in Hosea

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One of the pervasive themes in Hosea, chapters 1-3, is that God’s people have become like a promiscuous spouse through their idolatry. Like a harlot seeking after other lovers, God’s people turned to other gods, seeking good things in them as lovers, even though God is the source of every good thing they have.

This longing for other lovers shapes the way we worship, in particular what we are looking to find in the worship we offer. Worship that arises from a spiritually wayward heart, from the Baal worshiper, is self-focused and looks more to the satisfaction of our own desires than meeting with the Living God. To encounter the God of the Bible in worship means the displacement of ourselves and our desires from the center.  It means we let God be God, speak what He wants to speak, and shape us the way He wants to shape us. This theme echoes throughout Scripture, as Eugene Peterson points out in his book The Jesus Way in a chapter on Elijah and the encounter with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18.

‘Harlotry’ is the stock prophetic criticism of the worship of the people who are assimilated to Baalistic forms (Jer. 3:1ff.; 5:7; 13:27; 23:10; 23:14; Ezek. 16 and 23; Hos. 1:2ff. and 4:12; Amos 2:7; Mic. 1:7). While the prophetic accusation of ‘harlotry’ has a literal reference to the sacred prostitution of the Baal cult, it is also a metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passions of the worshiper as its baseline. ‘Harlotry’ is worship that says, ‘I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I’ll do it in the form most arousing to you.’ A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible in Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshiper. Its canons are that it should be interesting, relevant, and exciting – that I ‘get something out of it.’

[From Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 110.

St. John the Theologian: a reflection by Eugene Peterson

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In his exceptional essay, “Poetry from Patmos: St. John as Pastor, Poet, and Theologian” in Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson describes the Apostle John as the sort of theologian we most need and are most ready to hear. Theologians sometime receive a bad name because they seem removed from existence. But the best theologians step into the muddle of everyday life with a word about God that is life-giving and clarifying. May God give us more theologians like this.

St John is a theologian of a particularly attractive type: all his thinking about God took place under fire: ‘I was on the isle, called Patmos,’ a prison isle. He was a man thanking on his feet, running, or on his knees, praying, the postures characteristic of our best theologians. There have been times in history when theologians were supposed to inhabit ivory towers and devote themselves to writing impenetrable and ponderous books. But the important theologians have done their thinking and writing about God in the middle of the world, in the thick of the action: Paul urgently dictating letters from his prison cell; Athanasius contra mundum, five times hounded into exile by three different emperors; Augustine, pastor to people experiencing the chaotic breakup of Roman order and civitas; Thomas, using his mind to battle errors and heresies that, unchallenged, would have turned Europe into a spiritual and mental jungle; Calvin, tireless in developing a community of God’s people out of Geneva’s revolutionary rabble; Barth arbitrating labor disputes and preaching to prisoners; Bonhoeffer leading a fugitive existence in Nazi Germany; and St. John, exiled on the hard rock of Patmos prison while his friends in Christ were besieged by the terrible engines of a pagan assault: theologos.

The task of these theologians is to demonstrate a gospel order in the chaos of evil and arrange the elements of experience and reason so that they are perceived proportionately and coherently: sin, defeat, discouragement, prayer, suffering, persecution, praise, and politics are placed in relation to the realities of God and Christ, holiness and healing, heaven and hell, victory and judgment, beginning and ending. Their achievement is that the community of persons who live by faith in Christ continue to life with a reasonable hope and in intelligent love.

The Christian community needs theologians to keep us thinking about God and not just making random guesses. At the deepest levels of our lives we require a God whom we can worship with our whole mind and heart and strength. The taste for eternity can never be bred out of us by a secularizing genetics. Our existence is derived from God and destined for God. St. John stands in the front ranks of the great company of theologians who convince by their disciplined and rigorous thinking that Theos and logos belong together, that we live in a creation and not a madhouse.

Returning to Square One: Eugene Peterson on the Essence of Christian Spirituality

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Last Friday, I read a pointed, pastoral call to basic attention to God and His word throughout our lives, and it resonated so deeply with me that I wanted to share it. These words come from Eugene Peterson’s essay “Back to Square One: God Said (The Witness of Holy Scripture),” included in a collection of his writings, Subversive Spirituality.

Peterson refers to “Square One” below, which he describes earlier in the essay as “the place at which we realize that there is a huge world that we have not yet seen, an incredible creation that we cannot account for…There is far more that we don’t know than what we do know” (21). It is the place we encounter our limitations, or human finitude, and begin to learn of God and listen for God. In particular, Square One is where we attend to God’s Word in Scripture, “listening to God call us, heal us, forgive us” (27), and respond to God.

That is the background to what Peterson writes in the final two pages:

I want to simplify your lives. When others are telling you to read more, I want to tell you to read less; when others are telling you to do more, I want to tell you to do less. The world does not need more of you; it needs more of God. Your friends do not need more of you; they need more of God. And you don’t need more of you; you need more of God.

The Christian life consists in what God does for us, not what we do for God; the Christian life consists in what God says to us, not what we say about God. We also, of course, do things and say things; but if we do not return to Square One each time we act, each time we speak, beginning from God and God’s Word, we will soon be found to be practicing a spirituality that has little or nothing to do with God. And so it is necessary, if we are going to truly live a Christian life, and not just use the word Christian to disguise our narcissistic and promethean attempts at a spirituality without worshiping God and without being addressed by God, it is necessary to return to Square One and adore God and listen to God. Given our sin-damaged memories that render us vulnerable to every latest edition of journalistic spirituality, daily re-orientation in the truth revealed in Jesus and attested in Scripture is required. And given our ancient predisposition for reducing every scrap of divine revelation that we come across into a piece of moral/spiritual technology that we can use to get on in the world, and eventually to get on without God, a daily return to a condition of not-knowing and non-achievement is required. We have proven, time and again, that we are not to be trusted in these matters. We need to return to Square One for a fresh start as often as every morning, noon, and night.

[From Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 30-31.

(You may also enjoy the article I wrote for Preaching Today, Remembering Eugene Peterson: 10 ways he shaped my pastoral ministry.”)