Recovering Contemplative Exegesis [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 7]

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. Now in the second of those angles on Scripture, Peterson began with his exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture, not just reading it with our eyes. In this next chapter, Peterson turns to an essential tool of hearing with our eyes, which he calls “contemplative exegesis.”

Despite the unsurpassed academic training that American pastors receive, it looks very much as if no generation of pastors that we know about historically has been so embarrassingly ill-trained in the contemplation of Scripture….Exegesis, if it is to serve the church’s life and be congruent with the pastor’s calling, must be contemplative exegesis (109).

What does this involve? Peterson offers two essential aspects of contemplative exegesis: hearing the orality of God’s voice in Scripture and receiving the word as vitally tied to the form in which it comes. The first of those two is “a realization that a word, any word, is originally and basically a phenomenon of sound, not print” (110). That God speaks to us reflects what we understand about language, that, quoting from Walter Ong, “a word ‘is the call of one interior through an exterior to another interior'” (111). God is communicating to us via Scripture from the interior depths of who He is through the exterior of words into the interior of who we are. The pastor as exegete must remember that Scripture is not just theology to be read but communication to be heard. “We read Scripture in order to listen again to the word of God spoken, and when we do, we hear him speak. Somehow or other these words live” (113). Peterson contrasts the basic orality of God’s communication in the Judeo-Christian worldview with the Greco-Roman emphasis upon visual images in theater and statuary. Given our increasingly image-laden society this contrast is perhaps more important than ever to recover.

Along with hearing the orality of God’s voice in Scripture, Peterson says that contemplative exegesis requires “receiving the words in the form in which they are given” (117). Here we find Peterson’s call to recover the narrative, or storied, nature of Scripture. Certainly we want to examine the language etymologies and individual pieces of communication with great depth and scholarly aptitude, but all of that important work must fit within a grasp of the over-arching story of God revealed in Scripture. Peterson writes:

The Bible is the story that is sound and developed. Here the language that God uses to reveal himself comes into story from that is most complete. When we listen to the word of God in Scripture, listening for what God is revealing out of himself, a story is shaped in our hearing; and the fact that it is story and not something else – systematic theology, moral instruction, wise sayings – has powerful implications for exegetical work. For just as words have a revealing quality to them, so stories have a shaping quality to them (119).

Note that last phrase about how stories have a shaping quality to them. Because of this, Peterson urges pastors as contemplative exegetes to hold onto the form of Scripture and the essential storied nature of the text that shapes us into beings held in the hands of God, the Divine Author. Building on the work of Northrop Frye, Peterson unfolds how the five basic characteristics of story are found throughout the Scripture, as well as specifically within both Old and New Testaments:

  1. There is a beginning and an ending.
  2. A catastrophe has occurred.
  3. Salvation is plotted.
  4. Characters develop.
  5. Everything has significance.

The Christian Scripture is unique in this way, and we do not want to miss that. Pastors have to respect and pay attention to this story of God written in Scripture, allowing it to shape the way that we handle Scripture, including our preaching. If we miss the overall context of the story of God, much of what we read in Scripture will not make sense, or at least not the sort of sense it was meant to make. As many say in the work of interpretation: context is king.

Here is one last statement from Peterson which summarizes this chapter:

Contemplative exegesis, then, involves these two matters: an openness to words that reveal and a submission to words that shape. Words are double-dimensioned: they carry meaning from their source, and they carry influence to their destination. All words do this in one way or another. God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and for shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it (126).

[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.]

Hearing with Our Eyes [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 6]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Over the past several weeks, I have been reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. I am doing this in part as a way to honor the numerous ways that Peterson shaped my approach to pastoral ministry, but also as an attempt to reconsider – and perhaps recover – the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson holds up before us.

With the second part of the book, Peterson explores what he calls the second angle of the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry: Scripture. He launches into the first chapter within this section with his characteristic intensity:

It is an immense irony when the very practice of our work results in abandoning our work. In the course of doing our work we leave our work. But in reading, teaching, and preaching the Scriptures it happens: we cease to listen to the Scriptures and thereby undermine the intent of heaving Scripture in the first place (87).

This, then, is the central thrust of chapter four of the book: we must release our control over the Scripture text as readers and recover the ability to listen to God in Scripture again. But how do we do this when Scripture is something we read with our eyes, not our ears? Peterson suggests we remember three things. The first is that we recognize that ‘remarkable invention’ of movable type by Gutenberg has simultaneously made Scripture more accessible to us and also increasingly made Scripture reading an individualized experience. The second is to understand how modern education has shaped us through print books into acquirers of disembodied information, often eliminating the relationality present in oral cultures. The third thing we must remember is that our modern culture has transformed us into consumers of goods, which has led us to view everything as a transaction of goods for services.

All three of these realities shape the way we often approach Scripture. Peterson asserts:

These three powerful, hard-to-detect influences operate quietly behind our backs and subvert the very nature of Scripture, which is to provide a means for listening to the word of God (99).

To escape from this cultural captivity, we must re-approach the fourfold sequence of Scripture’s integrity: “speaking, writing, reading, listening” (99). Books connect listeners with speakers from all times and places through the process of writing and reading. However, in a culture that often puts the emphasis upon the middle two elements of writing and reading, we need to recover the radical relationality that must exist in Scripture between the God who speaks and the us who listens.

What is the key to this? Leaning into Psalm 40:6 in the Revised Standard Version – “ears thou hast dug for me” – Peterson says the key is letting God turn our eyes into ears. We have to recover the listening necessary as our eyes scour the pages of Scripture.

The act of reading becomes an act of listening. What was written down is revoiced….No longer is God’s word merely written; it is voiced. The ear takes over from the eye and involves the heart (102).

And so, pastors must recover the ability to hear with their eyes, while engaging their hearts in the approach to Scripture. We must not read informationally but transformationally, and that transformation comes first through our sense being reoriented and reengaged in our approach to the word of God. When we begin to do this as pastors, we can help our congregations do the same. In the midst of that engagement, the words of Jesus again loom large in our imagination – and our ears – with great depth:

He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Mark 4:9).

[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.]

Abandoning Our Pastoral Calling [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 1]

fullsizeoutput_ad4

In reflecting on the ways Eugene Peterson shaped my pastoral ministry after his passing (see “Remembering Eugene Peterson“) on Monday, October 22, I took a look through his writings again. I asked myself a number of questions, amongst them being: what was it about Peterson that helped me so greatly as a pastor?

I saw a note in one  book saying that I re-read Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work in August 2016. I remember receiving that book like a glass of cool water on a hot day right when I needed it. Part of what made his words in that book so refreshing was the way in which he opened up Scripture so powerfully and clearly with application to pastoral ministry today.

fullsizeoutput_ae1As I continued peaking through the pages of his writing on pastoral ministry, I was quickly sucked in by the first few pages of Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. This book, published in 1987, strikes a chord so relevant for our own day. I will share the extended excerpt that caught my attention below, but over the next few weeks, I will share some reflections on this outstanding book. I hope you benefit from it as much as I do.

American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.

A few of us are angry about it. We are angry because we have been deserted. Most of my colleagues who defined ministry for me, examined, ordained, and then installed me as a pastor in a congregation, a short while later walked off and left me, having, they said, more urgent things to do. The people I thought I would be working with disappeared when the work started. Being a pastor is difficult work; we want the companionship and counsel of allies. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. ‘A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,’ says Martin Thornton, ‘but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre.’

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 1-2.

As I read those first two pages of the book, it was as if I were reading so much of my own story, and the story of so many other pastors, as we wrestle to hold onto our vocation in a culture and church culture that seems many times dead-set on forcing us to let it go of it. Throughout the rest of the book Peterson works out how the pastor can hold onto appropriate biblical vocation through three “angles” of prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. More to come on that in future posts, but perhaps now is a good time to consider whether we have abandoned our post — our pastoral calling — as pastors in North America.

[This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. You can read all the posts here.]

||40days|| week four: listen to His words

When I do premarital counseling with couples, one exercise I always have them do is called the wish list. Each person must identify three things they wish happened more or less in their relationship, and then share that with one another. While one person is speaking, the other person has to listen without making a judgment on these statements. Then, they have to repeat back what the other person said to insure that they have really listened. It’s harder than you might think. It’s one thing to let the words make their way into your ears, but it’s another thing to truly listen to another person.

The way we listen to God is not altogether different. We must move beyond simply letting His words enter our ears or eyes, but we must be active listeners, who truly hear what He has to say. As we continue our ||40days|| journey through Lent, today we are focus on listening to God’s words. We draw near to the experience of the Old Testament prophets, whose experience is so often marked by this phrase:

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite. (1 Kings 21:17, NIV)

The word of the LORD came to me (Jeremiah 2:1, NIV)

As we acknowledge our difficulties and turn from them, we must first and foremost turn to the words of God. We do this because the words of God are life-giving. As Moses reflected on the manna God gave the people to satisfy their hunger on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land, he said: Read More »

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 […]