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.”)

The Key Nutrient of Blessing [Psalm 1, part 3]

Psalm 1

When Kelly and I were newly married we had a knack for killing the house plants we had in our apartment. One day, we saw one of our neighbors, an elderly woman named Elsie, digging a plant we had killed out of the dumpster. We watched as she took it back in her apartment, left to wonder what she would do with the pot or how she might reuse the soil. It was only later that Kelly discovered that Elsie’s apartment was filled with house plants that she had carefully nurtured back to life. Every plant needs healthy nutrients to experience life. Without those required ingredients, it will die.

The same is true in the spiritual life. The first two verses of Psalm 1 set the tone of how God brings blessing – life – into our lives. Pay attention to verse two with me for some insight into the nutrients required.

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.

If the environment for growth is related to our relationships and our activities or choices, then the psalmist shows us that the essential food for growth is the Scripture or, as stated here, ‘the law of the Lord.’

The word here is literally the ‘Torah of Yahweh.’ The Torah could refer literally to the law of Moses, or the first five books of the Bible. It is more likely here, however, that the phrase refers to the instruction God gives to human beings for their guidance and livelihood. It does not seem like too far of a stretch to include the entire Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, as relevant to this Psalm.

The Psalmist tells us that, in contrast to one who takes up wicked and ungodly relationships that slowly drag them down into a life of ruin, the truly ‘blessed’ person – the person who experiences the full joy of God’s plans for humanity – is the one who takes delight in and meditates upon God’s instruction.

There are some who come to the Bible with a sense of weariness day by day. Surely, there are times when it is hard work and discipline to get focused on reading the Bible, but the writer’s description here is quite different.

The psalmist says this reader of God’s instruction finds delight in it daily.  Because the Scripture is the powerful and truthful instruction of God, it is not just something we have to read but it is actually a source of deep joy and life for us. It is the place where blessing is found. If we really believe that the Bible contains the instruction of God, we will soon be able to exclaim words similar to those found in Psalm 119:

I rejoice in following your statues as one rejoices in great riches….I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word. (Psalm 119:14, 16)

Secondly, we come to the Scripture to meditate upon it. Meditation doesn’t mean that we hit some gongs and sit in the lotus position. What it means is that we consider it deeply. We do not simply read it and pass on, but we take time to mull it over. We read it and chew on it, as one author says, like a dog chewing on a bone or like a child who could read the same short book over and over again. We allow our minds to be deeply shaped by the instruction of God instead of by the foolishness of the wicked, or sinners, or mockers mentioned in verse 1.

When we take delight in and meditate upon the Scripture it becomes the food by which we grow in experiencing the blessed life with God. It becomes the source by which, as Paul writes in Romans 12:2, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Like a plant, we were made to grow. But we need to have the essential food for growth or we will not grow at all.

Would you say you are getting the right nutrients for blessing in reading Scripture regularly?

What hinders you most from finding delight in reading God’s word?

What might it look like to take a step forward in reading Scripture regularly?

[This is the third in a series of posts on Psalm 1, which began here.]

Saturday Prayer 29

How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to Your word. (Psalm 119:9)

Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth. (John 17:17

Lord, make me alive according to Your word.
Take me into the truth, for Your word is truth.
I want to live according to Your word, but am amazed by how I fall out of Your path.
Come and teach me.

Shine upon the crooked, untrue ways in me, that I might live in You.

[This is part of a series of prayer posts in 2012 that began here.]

Devoted to God’s Word

We continued our series “Living Church” this weekend at Eastbrook Church by looking at the statement, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). My message was entitled “Devoted to God’s Word.” The main point was that if we are going to be a church that is alive – a church living out our […]