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.]

The Pastoral Work of Prayer-Directing: Song of Songs [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 2]

As I continue my journey of re-learning and recovering what it means to be a pastor, I am blogging my way through Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. In this book, Peterson seeks to recover a sense of pastoral practice and integrity based on the Megilloth, the five scrolls connected with five key Jewish festivals:

  • Song of Songs at Passover
  • Ruth at Pentecost
  • Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab
  • Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles
  • Esther at Purim

The first of the Megilloth that Peterson explores as a resource for pastoral ministry in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work is Song of Songs. While it might seem like a strange place to begin, but Peterson points out that “much of pastoral work has to do with nurturing intimacy, that is, developing relationships in which love is successfully expressed and received — shared” (24). The is spiritual in the broadest sense, encompassing both our “vertical relationship” with God and our “horizontal relationships” with other people. Peterson discusses the connection between our intimacy nurtured through relationships with others, including our sexuality, and our intimacy nurtured through relationship with God through prayer. This intimacy and longing for relationship is sacred and, in many ways, defines what it means to be human. Pastoral work engages with this tender intimate area, both in its earthiness and its divinity. As Peterson writes:

We live in a whole world of creation and redemption in which all the relationships which stretch along a continuum of sexual identity and spiritual capacity are involved in our daily growth and discipleship. Pastoral work refuses to specialize in earthly or heavenly, human or divine. The pastor is given a catholic cosmos to work in , not a sectarian back-forty. (26)

Peterson goes on to reflect on how salvation recreates and redeems our lives and relationships. The Exodus event is pivotal to our understanding of salvation and the Passover celebration of the Exodus rehearses God’s saving work again and again. While Song of Songs, with all its romantic imagery, may seem like a strange book to read at the Passover meal, Peterson argues for its appropriateness in the midst of “nurturing devotional intimacies and relational wholeness — the personal, immediate, experiential aspects of the gospel in the context of salvation” (31). The pastor ministers at the crossroads of the human and divine, the everyday and the transcendent, as we try to help everyone—including ourselves—stay alert to the wonders of God’s salvation.

The pastor’s task is to gather people together every Sunday, center each week in a response to the risen Lord, and nurture a participation in the resurrection life in Christ that works as well on any Wednesday afternoon at 5 o’clock as on Easter at sunrise. (32)

Building from Karl Barth’s commentary on Genesis 2, Peterson traces themes through the prophets before portraying Song of Songs as an extended commentary on Genesis 2 in light of the saving work of God in the Exodus. Creation and covenant come together in relationship with God and the other as depicted in Song of Songs. While some of the greatest interpreters of Song of Songs, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, seem to read it only figurally, Peterson encourages us to see what is going on through their eyes:

The ancients may not have known what the book was made of [liturgical fragments, wedding songs, and love songs], but they know what it was — an exposition of love in a creation in which all love in one way or another is an aspect of salvation. (39)

It is because of this that we can read the unabashedly erotic language of the Song of Songs simultaneously as both an expression of the goodness of human love and beauty within God’s creation and as a reflection upon the spiritual intimacy of love with God.

The erotic must be read in the theological context. The ancients did not read the Song devotionally because they were embarrassed by its sexuality, but because they understood sexuality in sacramental ways. Human love took its color from divine love. (42)

Pivotal here is concept of covenant, which grounds love and intimacy within a framework of committed relationship. Just as covenant roots sexual intimacy in ongoing human relationship, so, too, does covenant ground spiritual intimacy of human life in relationship to God. “Covenant, in effect, means that humanity cannot understand life apart from a defined and revealed relationship with God” (44).

Building upon his exploration of intimacy, relationship, salvation, love, and covenant, Peterson then walks through aspects of Song of Songs to show how it relates to pastoral work. Here are some highlights:

Pastoral work is a concentration on names. After the Bible, the church roll is the most important book in the pastor’s study. We work in communities that are composed of names. The pastor (like Adam in the garden) gives names — presents a person by name at the baptismal font, invokes the name of God at the table, proclaims the name of God from the pulpit, and combines those names in every pastoral conversation and prayer. (48)

Intimacy is not easily achieved….Pastoral work acknowledges the difficulty and the pain of the quest and shares it….It is the pastor’s task, rather, to be companion to persons who are in the midst of difficulty, to acknowledge the difficulty and thereby give it significance, and to converse and pray with them through the time so that the loneliness is lightened, somewhat, and hope is maintained, somehow. (49-51).

Every person in every parish is involved in the desires and the difficulties of intimacy….Which is why prayer is the chief pastoral work in relation to a person’s desires and difficulties with intimacy….Prayer is thus the language, par excellence, of the covenant. (54-55)

Pastoral work is a ministry for taking seriously the details that differentiate us from each other and from God, and then praising them, for “in separateness only does love learn definition.” By listening to attentively to a persons’ dreams, desires, and longings, and by sharing passionately a persons’ struggles, painful frustrations, and difficulties significance is given to them. (60)

The single most significant phrase that a pastor can speak (either aloud or sub voce) is “I will pray for you.” (61)

In closing, Peterson connects the delightful praise of the Song of Songs with pastoral prayer lifted up in connection with the eucharist. Just as the two lovers of the Song experience joy and delight in one another, we experience joy and delight in God at the eucharistic meal that extends into our life together. And so, the pastor offers prayer in joy, gratitude, and reconciliation, not just for the abstractions of salvation and community, but for the real people we minister to, counsel with, visit in their homes and hospital beds.

Prayer is the pastoral work that is most suited for recognizing the compelling quality of God’s invitations and promises, and perpetuating it in others. (71)

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

Recovering Pastoral Practice [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 1]


I first stumbled into the work of Eugene Peterson in the 1990s through his translation work with The Message. It was not too much later, however, that a pastor and mentor introduced me to his writing on pastoral ministry, sometimes referred to as Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library.

About three years ago, I re-read and steadily worked my way through one of the treasures of that library, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Doing that helped to ground me in a time of instability in my sense of what it meant to be a pastor. Through Working the Angles, Peterson became an invaluable conversation partner in re-learning what it means to be a pastor.

As I continue that journey, I want to do something similar with the first of those books, published in 1980, is Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. I want to blog my way through this work to recover a sense of pastoral practice and integrity. I do not mean integrity merely in the moral sense, but integrity in the sense of how something holds together. I am increasingly convinced that the very integrity of pastoral ministry, from calling to character, from practice to disciplines, is at stake in North America, if not elsewhere. We are in a crisis and need a renewal of pastoral integrity. So, here goes…

In the introduction to Five Smooth Stones, Peterson describes what we are about as pastors:

Pastoral work is that aspect of Christian ministry which specializes in the ordinary. It is the pragmatic application of religion in the present. (1)

While such work should be rooted in the biblical sources, Peterson points out the tendency in his day (which is no less present in our own) to turn toward the latest fads or social theories as the basis for pastoral ministry. However, this impulse is not helpful, and Peterson claims:

“When I look for help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation, the one century that has the least to commend it is the twentieth.” (2)

Having found the “counsel of my contemporaries” tried and wanting, Peterson outlines his deep desire—one which I resonate with—and the goal of this book: “I want a biblical base for the whole of pastoral ministry, and not just for its preaching and teaching” (5).

Peterson then walks through four aspects in the work of the pastor that he will explore in the coming chapters.  First, there is the tension between the timeless word and will of God and the local and personal place in which ministry is done. This happens best “not by acquiring new  knowledge but by assimilating old wisdom, not by reading the latest books but by digesting the old ones” (10).

Second, there exists “the distinction between biblical foundation and pastoral superstructure” (11). Here Peterson tells us “each generation of pastors, and to a certain extent each pastor, has to build his or her own superstructure of pastoral work. But we don’t, and we must not, lay out our own foundations” (11).

Third, Peterson grounds all pastoral work within the action of worship. “Pastoral work has no identity in and of itself. It is a derivative work, and worship is that from which it is derived” (18).

Fourth, pastoral work is not about abstraction, but about “the local, the specific, and the personal” (20). Like a hiker on the trail,

It is the pastor’s task to work along such trails using a style of speech and a mode of action that is local, specific, and personal so that each person met is addressed as an object of the love of God, which is not merely universal but particular in its universality. (21)

It is within the second distinction that Peterson introduces the framework for Five Smooth Stones, which will follow the Megilloth, the five scrolls connected with five key Jewish festivals:

  • Song of Songs at Passover
  • Ruth at Pentecost
  • Lamentations on the Ninth of Ab
  • Ecclesiastes at Tabernacles
  • Esther at Purim

Seeing this connection of biblical sources with the community at worship, Peterson seeks to retrieve them for reintegration within the work of the pastor. He writes:

Each of the Megilloth, set by Judaism in an act of worship, deals with an aspect of pastoral work: learning how to love and pray in the context of salvation (Song of Songs); developing an identity as a person of faith in the context of God’s covenant (Ruth); dealing with suffering in the context of redemptive judgment (Lamentations); unmasking religious illusion and pious fraud in the context of providential blessing (Ecclesiastes); and becoming a celebrative community of faith in the environment of the world’s hostility (Esther). (17)

Peterson readily admits that “not everything a pastor does fits into the five areas, but a remarkable amount of it does, giving promise that the Megilloth may be highly serviceable for pastoral use” (17).

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

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.]