3 Transformational Ways to Read Scripture

This past weekend in my message, “The Messiah’s Call,” I emphasized the importance of regular, transformational reading of Scripture. If we are going to truly hear Jesus’ call toward discipleship, we need to put ourselves regularly before the Scripture, asking God to speak into our lives.

For some of us, this is an easy practice to develop. We have experience with reading the Bible and we may have figured out what works well for us. For others, this may seem overwhelming or hard to figure out. Because of that, let me suggest four ways we can read Scripture for transformation. Each of these approaches to reading Scripture are things I have written about previously, so I hope you don’t mind if I refer you to other blog posts about them.

First, let me encourage us to consider slowing down to read Scripture meditatively through the ancient practice of lectio divina, or divine reading. These three posts will help you familiarize yourself with this practice:

Second, if you have never read through the Bible in a year, let me encourage that practice. There are many Bible reading plans that you can access, such as Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s plan or the One Year Bible reading guide. Several years ago, I invited our entire church to read the Bible in a year and I have an introductory letter about that: “Guidance for Reading through the Bible in a Year”.

Third, while reading the entire Scripture through methodically can be powerful, I have found that a helpful balance to that is slowing down to memorize passages of Scripture for ongoing meditation and prayer during the day. Read this post for guidance on Scripture memory: “Tips and Tools for Memorizing Scripture.”

What have been some of the ways you have most transformationally engaged with reading Scripture?

The Pastoral Work of Community-Building: Esther [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 6]

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

In the fifth and final section of Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work he searches out how the book of Esther, the fifth of the Meggiloth scrolls, guides pastors in the important work of building the community. As Peterson writes:

Pastoral work is interested in people and their failure to achieve the humanity that is theirs by the will of the God who created them. The pastor who works with such people sees them not as a unicellular organism but as ‘members of the body.’ (194)

But there are many challenges to this work, particularly in an American context that emphasizes rugged individualism, which stands in sharp contrast to the “biblical view of man and woman [as] person-in-community, a ‘people of God’” (195). Pastors will always struggle to recall people to a sense of who they are as a people, not just as individuals. Not only that, Peterson claims, but the very context of church as community is often misunderstood as just one more voluntary organization amidst many. However, that is not what the church is.

The story of Esther and the rescue of the people of God celebrated at Purim is an antidote to these misunderstandings and a guide to pastors today. The joy of God’s salvation for the people of God is evident in this book and marked with the festival and guides the pastoral concern for joy and salvation to be seen as gifts of God for our congregations.

Esther and Purim provide a model for exhibiting the celebrative existence of a people who freely share and exchange God’s gifts of created and redeemed life together. It is the story and feast of what is discussed in theological terms under the heading communio sanctorum, the communion of the saints. (202)

God’s people, Israel, traces their identity to Abraham, but that identity becomes clearer after the deliverance from Egypt at the Exodus and the establishment in the Promised Land of Canaan. After generations in the land, the monarchy fails and the people turn away from God. The end of this is exile to Babylon, which leaves questions of what it means to be God’s people now. The book of Esther picks up the story of God’s people within this radically changed existence, but an existence, nonetheless. The community has survived by God’s grace, even if it is limping along imperfectly.

With the help of archaeological backgrounds, Peterson helps us see that the Jewish communities we know of at this time, in Susa and Elephantine, struggled and were not ideal. He reminds us they “are important for pastoral work inasmuch as neither demonstrates a community at its best. Neither is a ‘model’ congregation” (207). Still, this non-ideal community is God’s community, saved by Him, and this theological reality must orient us as pastors.

The pastoral  imagination that is oriented in this history will be quick to spot essentials and sense what is foundational. It will develop a  theological understanding of the community of faith as opposed to a sociological, or even historical understanding. It will understand the people of God as a grouping of persons who God has called together, whom God will keep together, who will survive by God’s grace. It will not understand them as a group of people who attempt to be religious together. (208)

This theological many times stands in sharp contrast to the guides we are often given for understanding or “evaluating” the church. Read this paragraph from Peterson on this point:

The pastoral understanding of community that is thoroughly immersed in this long, biblical tradition and comprehends the biblical dynamics of grace will not be quickly impressed with comparative statistics that judge the church by its visibility in the world or its impact on the census tables, and then be distracted into ventures of titanism and multitudinism. From a biblical point of view it is hard to conceive of a method for describing or understanding or evaluating the church that is less likely to get even a glimpse of its reality than those devised by statisticians or sociologists. Yet these persons provide the bulk of the material that is used to exhort the pastor in his or her work as a leader in the community of faith. (209)

And yet, as pastors today we feel the pressed urgency of contemporary statistical renderings of religion and the church in North America. Certainly we should not put our heads in the sand, yet at the same time we must consider what is truly shaping our understanding of our ministry and God’s people.

Because these variables are notoriously inconstant, spiritual and biblical integrity is far more important than the skillful use of propaganda in doing pastoral work, the doctrine of providence of more significance than any image-making publicity.  

As stewards of the community God has created, pastors may need to relearn what it means to stand in the biblical roots of community leadership. This may help free us from the pervasive fixations of many pastors today: “anxiety over survival, worry over size, an obsession with arithmetic” (211).  In America in particular we may need to come alongside of biblical figures like Mordecai to regain our senses.

For those familiar with Peterson, you may know his oft-quoted statement that one cannot truly be a pastor of a church over 750 people. I’ve wrestled with that statement as a pastor of a church larger than that. But I took some comfort from Peterson’s way of addressing pastoring and numbers in Five Smooth Stones:

The plain biblical fact is that it makes no difference whether a community of faith numbers thirty-seven persons or thirty-seven hundred. Each soul is of eternal value, and needs to live with a few other souls in order to grow in grace and charity. The pastors’ task is to guide the growth of the thirty-seven (if that is where they find themselves) or the thirty-seven hundred (if that be the place) by leading in prayers, preaching God’s word, and administering abilities and aptitudes of the Spirit so that ministry takes place. The plain biblical fact is that it makes no difference if there are ten persons in a cavernous gothic city church or five hundred persons  crowded into a suburban barn…the communities contrast in size and condition but are constituted by the same means (the Holy Spirit) and require the same ministries (worship, prayer, teaching, preaching). (212)

Returning to Esther, Peterson uses the character of Haman to emphasize the important insight of grasping that there are enemies to God’s people.

Wherever there is a people of God there are enemies of God. Pastoral work that seeks to build up the community of faith cannot afford to be innocent about Haman. (219)

How does a pastor respond to this reality? Peterson offers an apt summary of pastoral work:

The pastoral responsibilities for building up a community of faith under such conditions are grave and must not be trivialized or secularized: scripture must be taught and preached, prayers must be offered, visitation must be conducted, sacraments must be administered, counsel must be given, worship must  be led. (219-20)

There are other things that should be done, but the pastor shouldn’t do all of them.

The pastoral work ought to be defined as narrowly as possible to guarantee that it be accomplished expertly and thoroughly….Pastors who take upon themselves everything that appears worthy of ministry are either unsufferably arrogant, thinking they are the only ones in church capable of hearing commands and obeying in faith, or else extraordinarily faithless (ogligopistoi!) who do not give the Holy Spirit credit for being able to lead or direct anyone else. (220)

It was Mordecai who encouraged Esther to step forward to approach King Xerxes. Mordecai did not do it himself, because it was not his opportunity to take. Certainly he did other things, but he was not concerned with the center stage. “The importance of Mordecai for the pastor derives from his style of leadership, a style that exemplifies the way of the servant” (225). Peterson points out that many biblical examples of leadership in Scripture are attractively charismatic – “Gideon and Deborah; Elijah and Elisha; Amos and Hosea” – but the leadership of the diaspora community is simply a servant. And this is what we need to recover now, more than ever. At a time when bold and catchy leadership models have taken over the church, when pastors aspire to become “church famous,” we need to recover the servant way of Jesus, lived out by Paul, and sung about in Isaiah’s “servant songs” (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-9; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). As Peterson reminds us, “‘Servant’ is not a particularly difficult concept to grasp. It is, though, a difficult role to embrace” (229).

It is perhaps fitting that this is the note with which Peterson ends his exploration of the Meggiloth. Pastors are servants. The imagery of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work derives from David who, after having set aside Saul’s armor which did not fit him, stooped at stream for ammunition before facing off against Goliath (1 Samuel 17:31-40). As David set out on a new way, Peterson writes, “a new leadership ministry was taking shape.” May we pastors, too, take up a new, but old, way as we live out our calling before God in the midst of His people.

[This is the sixth (and final) in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying: Ecclesiastes [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 5]

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

With such strong words as an opening salvo, how could Ecclesiastes equip pastors for ministry? According to Eugene Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Ecclesiastes, the fourth of the Meggiloth scrolls, teaches pastors to say “no” to what people often think they want when they approach the pastor for help.

At this point pastoral work encounters a complex difficulty, for the vocation of pastor does not permit trafficking in either miracles or answers. Pastors are in the awkward position of refusing to give what a great many people assume it is our assigned job to give. (152)

Qoholeth, the teacher, of Ecclesiastes names the vacuity—the vanity and meaninglessness—of much religious talk and activity, aiming for repentance and purging for all involved.

The pastor reads Ecclesiastes to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, from ideas that are idolatrous and feelings that cloy. (155)

As an unnamed teacher, Qoholeth stands alongside pastors “with concerns that a religious leader in the community has for the health of the people who assemble” (157). The clear, pure faith of early Israel has been tainted in Qoholeth’s time, leaving a polluted stream of stagnant religion. Qoholeth, and the pastor, calls people back to face the reality of God’s greatness and human encounter with the divine.

But this is no abstract religious fancy. Rather, it is an earthy holiness rooted in God’s yes to humanity and inviting humanity to respond with their own yes and amen.

Pastoral work consists in repeating the gospel yes in every conceivable life-situation and encouraging the yes answer of faith. (159)

The pastor helps their congregation answer “amen!” to God with a faith that is not false or full of pretense, that is more than propaganda and richer than cheer-leading. The Feast of Tabernacles, which Ecclesiastes is connected to, was one of the greatest festivals of thanksgiving, combining “the seasonal festivities of a harvest festival (bounty) with the historical memories of miraculous preservation in the wilderness (blessing)” (162). Tabernacles was a celebration of God’s yes to His people.  How strange, it would seem, that Ecclesiastes, which sounds more like a “no,” is the text of choice. Peterson suggests:

The most negative of the scrolls was required reading at the most positive of the festivals…[because] if at any point there is a separation between the God of blessing and the blessings of God…grave dangers threaten the life of the people of God. (162)

For the pastor this is instructive. We all know from experience how easy it is to lose perspective, to let go of wisdom with apparently-wise foolishness, to blur the differentiation between what is true and what only seems true but is false.

For the pastor has the responsibility to nurture the affirmative without encouraging the gullible; to keep alert and prepared to say yes to every yes of God in every part of existence without at the same time being a patsy for every confidence game in town; to train people in robust acceptance of what God brings to us and not to passively submit to the trashy merchandising of religious salespeople. (164)

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes, as well as the entire wisdom tradition, aims to ground God’s people in God’s truth for living. But this only functions in relationship to God, not in isolation. Ecclesiastes’ strong wisdom-words cut against the human tendency toward spiritualized inspirations and bumper-sticky theologies. It does the same for pastors, even as we’re tempted to cater to people’s demands for miracles and answers. The “nay-saying” of Ecclesiastes helps pastors, as well as their congregations, learn to say yes to living relationship with God and walking in His ways.

It is preaching the Scripture and prayer-infused worship that keeps us with God and in God’s wisdom. It is living as God’s community together with the Lord as our Shepherd that keeps us grounded instead of flying off in spiritual fancies and clouded individual self-actualization.

Everything we know about God comes out of the preaching and praying communities of Israel and church. Truths about God are not found, like arrowheads in old fields, by people off by themselves hunting souvenirs. (173)

Contrasting the cult of Baal with Yahwism, Peterson depicts the importance of covenant and the proclamation of the Word within the worship of God’s people. While drawn to the flashy and the miraculous, Ecclesiastes, echoing some of the prophets, calls us back to the heart of the matter. Yes, we have personal experiences and, yes, we may have feelings while we pray, but the heart of worship is not about us but about the God who has spoken His “yes” to us first. Our worship is all response and service to God.

People bring so many mistaken expectations to the gospel, so much silly sentiment, and so many petulant demands, that they hardly hear its real message or confront its actual message….[The pastor’s] work is simply to clear away what is mistaken for religion so that we are free to hear the word of God. (188-189)

Or, in the word of Qoholeth:

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

The Pastoral Work of Pain-Sharing: Lamentations [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 4]

In a messy world marked by untimely death and stillbirths, racial injustice and relational ruptures, we all wrestle with the problem of evil and suffering. Does God mean anything or a pastor have anything to say in such situations? Eugene Peterson thinks so.

Among other things pastoral work is a decision to deal, on the most personal and intimate terms, with suffering….The biblical revelation neither explains nor eliminates suffering. It shows, rather, God entering into the life of suffering humanity, accepting and sharing the suffering. (113-114)

With this strong statement, Peterson continues his work in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by engaging with the brutally honest book of Lamentations, the third of the five scrolls of the Megilloth. Within the context of suffering, loss, and carnage, Peterson describes Lamentations as “a funeral service for the death of the city” (115). Each year, the people of Israel remembered the Fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile with a fast on the Ninth of Ab. The fast looked fixedly both at the suffering resulting from the ruin of Jerusalem, but also the sin that caused that ruin. Learning from this, Peterson writes:

Pastoral ministry [deals] with the suffering in such a way as to direct the despair that ordinarily accompanies guilt toward God and not away from him….The task of pastoral work is to comfort without in any way avoiding the human realities of guilt or denying the divine realities of judgment. (117)

The book of Lamentations is a series of five acrostic lament poems that serve to chronicle the breadth of suffering from start to finish, from A to Z. Such an intentional and deliberate work “organizes grief, patiently going over the ground, step by step, insisting on the significance of each detail of suffering. The pain is labeled…arranged” (122). For pastors this helps us walk alongside others both chronicling their grief fully, without minimizing it, while also pointing to the reality that there is an end to the grief. At a practical level, Peterson encourages pastors to listen to those suffering, but also to provide boundaries and limits to it, through set appointments that, in a sense, remind the sufferer that suffering does not control reality or have endless power of their life.

There is no question in Lamentations about not taking suffering seriously…Finally, though, it says ‘Enough.’ Evil is not exhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention. (124)

The challenges of suffering are rooted in historical realities. For Israel this was the fall of Jerusalem, but for us it may be a wide range of experiences. Lamentations helps us see the importance of tracing suffering toward its historical roots.

When a pastor encounters a person in trouble, the first order of pastoral ministry is to enter into the pain and to share the suffering. Later on the task develops into clearing away the emotional rubble and exposing the historical foundations: all suffering is triggered by something. There is a datable even behind an act of suffering—a remembered word of scorn that sounded, a describable injustice causing injury, a death with a date on it pinpointing the hour of loss, a divorce decree giving legal definition to a rejection. (126)

The pastor explores this historical foundation of suffering so that healing can come. We do not pry into personal lives for curiosity’s sake or to merely open up wounds again. No, pastors explore the history “to pin it to the actual and so make it accessible to the grace that operates, as we know from biblical accounts, in the historical” (129).

As with Israel’s remembrance of the Fall of Jerusalem, this often leads us into an encounter with the anger of God. Today, many pastors debate the validity of God’s wrath or anger, but Peterson is strong on its biblical and theological importance:

The moment anger is eliminated from God, suffering is depersonalized, for anger is an insistence on the personal—it is the antithesis of impersonal fate or abstract law. (131)

The God of the Bible is deeply personal and relational. His anger reinforces this reality,  P. T. Forsyth says: “God cares enough for you to be angry with you” (133). Lamentations brings focus for the pastor to how human wrestling with suffering relates both to God’s care and God’s anger. Pastors help those suffering grasp how their pains find meaning within the context of “the immense backdrop of a majestic salvation” that also leads into God’s “immediate companionship” (135).

It is because of this that Peterson reacts against the contemporary tendency to approach suffering from a merely therapeutic framework. Instead, he calls pastors to “neither attempt explanations of suffering nor mount programs for the elimination of it” (139). Instead, letting go of mere technique, we invite people to pay attention to God and grace in the vulnerable experience of suffering. “Encouraged by Lamentations, the pastor will have the strength to do far less in relation to suffering and be far more” (141).

Lamentations also teaches the pastor that encountering suffering should not merely be a personal journey. Instead, it is a community journey. We enter into personal counseling, but lament communally. The individual does not really surface in Lamentations until chapter 3. The predominant approach is corporate lament and common prayer. We raise our voices and we weep together, and this, at least in part, is where healing arises. Such work slows us down to experience comfort only after truly facing into the suffering, not just on our own, but also with others.

Pastoral work patiently listens and enters into suffering, traces the contours of the history that brought the pain, and invites the individual and community to respond not in hurry and trite platitudes but deep engagement. As Peterson reminds us, quoting Nietzsche, “Only where graves are, is there resurrection” (148).

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 3]

The work of the pastor each weekend moves from the place where God’s Word is proclaimed and prayers are offered to the ordinary places and relationships of people’s lives met immediately after the service. Eugene Peterson describes it this way:

The people having received the benediction, now make a disorderly re-entry into a world of muddled marriages and chaotic cities, midlife boredom and adolescent confusion, ethical ambiguity and emotional distress. The pastor who has just lifted the cup of blessing before the people now shakes hands with the man whose wife has left him for another; the pastor who has just poured the waters of baptism on the head of an infant now sees pain in the eyes of the mother whose teenager is full of angry rebellion. The pastor who has just addressed a merciful Father in prayer now arranges to visit a bitter and cynical executive who has been unexpectedly discharged from his job; the pastor who has just ben confidently handling the scriptures now touches hands that are tense with anxiety and calloused in a harsh servitude. (74-75)

This is how Peterson begins his exploration of the second of the five scrolls of the Megilloth, Ruth, as a key for making sense of human lives through story in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Tracing the narrative arc of the book of Ruth as a story of one who moves from outsider to insider, of cast-off to brought home, Peterson sees it as an example of how we all can make sense of our lives in light of “the epic narration of God’s saving history” (76). This is not simplistic but takes note of the interplay between God’s will and our humanity’s will in the developing story of our lives and the life of the world.

The way the story developed was not fixed. What was certain was that there was a story: God’s will and man’s will both had meaning, the meanings interacted and provided the content for the narration. (81)

Peterson sees the book of Ruth as significant because of the way it makes sense of individuals’ lives in relation to God’s great story. Like short stories collected into a book, human lives—like Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz—find their place as they are woven into the greater story. This encourages pastors to “learn how to be gospel storytellers” (85).

Such work saves pastors from two common errors, says Peterson: “moralism and condescension.” Pastoral moralism focuses on what is wrong with people, bypasses the complexities of life, and offers trite answers. Pastoral condescension flattens people into two-dimensional, depersonalized statistics or illustrations.

The true pastor engages with the uniqueness of each person, including their unique story. The starting point for this is listening. As people tell their stories, the pastor sits with them to listen and discern the work of God in their narrative arc.

The pastor begins this work, then, not so much as a storyteller, but as one who believes that there is a story to be told, the curiosity to be attentive to the life of another, and the determination to listen through the apparently rambling digressions until a plot begins to emerge. (88)

Peterson cites the guidance of the French clinician and inventor of the stethoscope, Laënnec, to his students in this regard, “Listen, listen to your patient! He is giving you the diagnosis.”

This ability to be a gospel storyteller through the attentiveness of listening guides Peterson into two practices of pastoral work that are essential: counseling and visitation. With strong words against the secularization of pastoral counseling through the development of therapeutic approaches, Peterson urges a recovery of pastoral visitation. To do this, he encourages pastors to re-learn visitation from the Apostle Paul:

One thing that Paul did in reclaiming visitation as a tool for storymaking was to make it very clear that the visitation was not “professional”—he had not been hired to do the public and difficult parts of religion for people….they are in it together, they are companions in faith. (94)

The second thing that Paul did to re-establish the visit as an authentic pastoral act was to use the visit to share his own experience in Christ. (95)

The pastor, then, seeks to show up as a fellow pilgrim, make themselves available, and listen together with another to what God is writing into the story of their lives. Or, as Peterson so arrestingly puts it, “The pastor is God’s spy searching out ways of grace” (96).

As we search out God’s ways of grace with others, pastors help others get their bearings within God’s story right from where they are. Turning to the book of Ruth, Peterson reveals how these characters entered into God’s story in ordinary ways. “Naomi got into the story by complaining” (98). “Ruth got into the story by asking for what she wanted” (100). “Boaz got into the story by taking up new responsibilities” (102). We, too, find our way into the story—or realize the way we can awaken to it—through ordinary means in ordinary places.

Such work is part of a grand story. The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that puts this four-chapter short story within the bigger story that God is telling. This is instructive for pastors:

Pastoral work, after collaborating with persons in the making of their stories, leads them back to the vicinity of the Pulpit, and Table, and Font, where they discover their faith lineage with Perez in the background and David (and Christ!) ahead. The Christian faith matures only when it is comprehended in the longer perspectives. (110)

It is through this ordinary working with people in visitation and counseling, through listening and availability, that “pastors help people tell the stories of their lives,” by which “we contribute to a coherent sense of self” (110). So may we pastors become God’s spies, listening and discerning, drawing near with others and becoming attentive to the contours of the story that God is telling in our lives and in the life of the world.

[This is the third in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]