Getting a Spiritual Director [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 10]

fullsizeoutput_ae1There is a saying among physicians that the doctor who is his own doctor has a fool for a doctor. It means, as I understand it, that the care of the body is a complex business and requires cool, detached judgment….If those entrusted with the care of the body cannot be entrusted to look after their own bodies, far less can those entrusted with the care of souls look after their own souls, which are even more complex than bodies and have a correspondingly greater capacity for self-deceit (165).

In this way, Eugene Peterson continues his attention on spiritual direction in chapter eight of Working the Angles. This time, he turns to why and how a pastor must find a spiritual director, not for others, but for themselves. Peterson highlights the reality that, in the past, having a spiritual director (whether called that or not) was a requirement for pastors, but that this is no longer the case. “It is rare today to find a pastor who has a spiritual director” (166). The results in contemporary pastoral ministry, and I could corroborate Peterson’s description here, is disastrous:

The wreckage accumulates: we find pastors who don’t pray, pastor who don’t grow in faith, pastors who can’t tell the difference between culture and the Christ, pastors who chase fads, pastors who are cynical and shopworn, pastors who know less about prayer after twenty years of praying than they did on the day of their ordination, pastors with arrogant, outsized egos puffed up by years of hot-air flattery from well-meaning parishioners (166).

I would be more happy to read Peterson’s clear diagnosis of pastoral ministry in our day if it were not so painfully true. My experience with friends and colleagues in ministry over the years fits this ‘wreckage’ fully. At the same time, my own personal experience has shown me how hard it is to move forward as a pastor with an “undivided heart” (Psalm 86:11) without someone speaking from the outside into my areas of slippage, shortcoming, or confusion. Why is this the case?

Peterson traces the contours of one of the most distinct challenges of pastoral ministry, which is that the role calls for the exercise of both authority and submission. “At memorable moments of life…pastors are robed in dignity and represent God’s authority….But the practice of our faith involves the exact opposite of wielding authority, namely, the exercise of obedience” (167). The pastor lives at the intersection of these two seemingly contrary realities and therein arises much of the tension for pastors. We must preach God’s word with authority, but we must also obey it, particularly in areas where it is most challenging for us. We must represent Christ at the communion table, in the waters of baptism, and in visitation within hospital rooms, but we must also receive Christ at the table of our lives for our own daily bread and hear Him call us to take up our cross of selfless obedience.

It is at the point of this tension that our need for a spiritual director finds traction. In one footnote, Peterson shares a quotation from St. Dorotheus of Gaza on this point:

There is nothing more harmful than trying to direct oneself….That’s why I never allowed myself to follow my own desires without seeking counsel (166).

Comparing this work of the pastor both to learning a musical instrument and ascending a mountain climb, Peterson calls pastors to have teachers and lead climbers who will point the way ahead of us, highlight our errors, and direct us into the most fruitful practices of ministry. A spiritual director serves toward these very ends. For pastors this means letting go of absolute authority and fierce independence in order to allow a trusted other to be present with, listen to, and speak into our life and ministry.

Peterson describes his own journey to find a spiritual director who could speak into his journey. I will not recount his words here, but will share my own journey with those who have served as spiritual directors for me over the years. During college I reached out for an older man in the faith to mentor me. He agreed to meet every other week in his office. Not knowing what to ask for, I let him set the agenda, but was shocked when he said he would like for us to simply pray for an hour every time we met. I’m not sure why I was shocked, but I’m glad that was the agenda. As I should have expected, I learned more about prayer by praying than by talking about prayer or talking about myself. It was a few years later, that a professor, who also was a pastor, became a spiritual father to me near the end of my college years and into my first years after college. I lived in the basement of his home for a summer and it was not only our formal lunches where we talked about the spiritual life that directed me in the ways of growth in ministry, but also the laughter over a Sunday night meal or the way he and his wife interacted in marriage that set me up for growth as a pastor in my own marriage and family.

Many years later, I have had mentors and spiritual directors, both formal and informal, who have spoken into my life and ministry in various ways. I am so thankful for those I’ve mentioned and others who have helped me become the disciple of Christ and pastor of His church that I am today. I would not be here without them. It has always been a challenge to discover the right person to look toward for spiritual direction, but never so challenging as in my role as Senior Pastor of a larger church over the past several years. I have been forced to seek it out and strive to find it with greater intentionality than ever. Sometimes people I have look to for spiritual guidance have moved to another geographic location, and I have had to start over. Sometimes, I have needed specific guidance for specific things, whether during a recent ministry sabbatical or as I wrestle with specific challenges in ministry. Through it all, however, I cannot agree more with Peterson on the priority of spiritual direction in the life of the pastor. Concluding the chapter, he writes about how his own growth was helped through spiritual guidance:

Quite obviously none of these experiences depends on having a spiritual director. None of them was new to me in kind but only in degree. Some people develop marvelously in these areas without ever having so much as heard of a spiritual director. Still, for most of the history of the Christian faith it was expected that a person should have a spiritual director. In some parts of the church it is expected still. It is not an exceptional practice. It is not for those who are gifted in prayer or more highly motivated than the rest. In fact, as responsibility and maturity increase in the life of faith the subtleties of temptation also increase and the urgency of having a spiritual director increases (176, emphasis mine).

Pastors, let us take Eugene Peterson’s words to heart. Join me in seeking the wisdom of another who can, like a music teacher or a lead climber, direct us toward thriving and flourishing in ministry over the long haul.

[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 Pastor as Guide on the Spiritual Quest [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 8]

fullsizeoutput_ae1This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began as an attempt to honor Peterson’s influence upon me while also reconsidering the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson affirms. The book explores what he calls the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry, built around three angles of ministry: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction.

This is the third and final post on the second of those angles, Scripture, which began with Peterson’s exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture and continued with his call to contemplative exegesis. This next chapter, chapter six entitled “Gaza Notes,” was very powerful for me personally, as Peterson focuses on the hermeneutical work of the pastor bringing Scripture to life for people. He starts into the chapter with an extended reflection on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, particularly looking at the questions between the two:

  • “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30)
  • “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (8:31)
  • “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (8:34)
  • “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (8:36)

Essential to this is Peterson’s emphasis that good exegesis – which brings meaning out of the text – must be augmented by good guidance – leading a person in the way of the text.

Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more. The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide….Philip has to make a choice: will he stand alongside the chariot, providing information and answering questions about Scripture, exegetical work that comes easily for him, or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with this stranger? (128).

This brings us into the essence of how Peterson applies Acts 8 to the ministry of pastors: we must become guides on the pathways of interpretation, walking alongside of and entering into the lives of those before us. The challenge of this is the perceived distance between the world around us and the world of Scripture.

Reading Scripture involves a dizzying reorientation of our culture-conditioned and job-oriented assumptions and procedures…Scripture calls into question the domesticated accommodations we are busily arranging for the gospel. The crisis into which the act of reading Scripture brings us does not usually mean emotional intensity or dramatic turn-about, but rather the solemn awareness, repeated as often as daily, that the world of reality to which we have vowed ourselves in belief and vocation is a divinely constituted world in which God calls upon us; it is not a humanly constituted world in which we, when we feel like it, call upon God (132).

And with this, Peterson launches into a portion of the book that moved me so deeply that I actually had tears in my eyes as I read it aloud with my wife, Kelly. On pages 133-139, he calls pastors to take a different way in their preaching and handling of Scripture; a way set apart from “breezy familiarity” (132), “abstraction” (134), or “distilling truths from Scripture” (135). All those tendencies are hallmarks “of the gnostic, for whom matter is evil and history inconvenient.” This is, in my opinion, the most common approach to preaching in North American Christianity today. It is something I have tried to resist in my preaching, but have at times felt like a wild man in the wilderness when everyone else is trying to “preach one main point” or “serve up the principles of the text.” Peterson continues, highlighting the temptation to become a gnostic purveyor of principles instead of a steady guide through the jagged terrain of Scripture:

In the early Christian centuries the gnostic program was to dump the entire Hebrew Scriptures and disembowel the Gospels. The parts of St. Paul that talked theology they liked pretty well. What they proposed instead can be read in the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946: Jesus as guru, safely distanced from the common and profane, serenely uttering eternal truths. This is tea-room religion where the ‘women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ (T. S. Eliot)” (136).

It is in paragraphs like these that Peterson’s prophetic edge comes forth. It is an edge that is so painfully necessary in our day that it felt both painful and liberating to read. That prophetic edge strikes, to borrow a quote from Franz Kafka that he uses earlier in the chapter, like “an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us” (133).

To close out the chapter, Peterson retells Walker Percy’s parable from The Message in the Bottle about longing, communication, and meaning in a way that connects with life in the church and the ministry of the pastor with the Scriptures. I will not retell it entirely here, although it is worth the read, but let me share the final words:

Most mornings on the island on many of its beaches there are people walking, wonderingly attentive, looking for bottles with a message in them. On Sunday mornings they gather on some assigned beaches and read to each other what has been collected over the years. A lot of people on the island have yet to figure out what all the fuss is about (145).

[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.]