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.”)

God’s words falling into us

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In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer relates an old Hasidic tale that examines the tension between the limitations within our current reality and the possibility of our hearts opening into a new reality.

He writes:

The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”

I find this to be so true in my life. How often there come moments where God mysteriously opens my heart to receive transformationally in new ways truths of His word that I have known intellectually for quite some time.

It is valuable to store up God’s words in our heart, but sometimes, they may merely rest on top of our hearts. May God give us grace to have hearts open to His word in such a way that His word comes into the deep places of our souls, transforming us into the fellowship of the burning heart. We may say, as the disciples did after their walk with the risen Christ along the Emmaus road, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

God’s Multifaceted Word: reflecting on Psalm 119

In my own daily times of Scripture reading and prayer, I’ve been meditating on Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms by far with 176 verses. This psalm is an extended reflection on the delight and power of God’s word, structured as an acrostic poem with one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The psalm offers an expansive catalog of the diverse characteristics of God’s word that is impressive. When I read through Psalm 119, I feel like I am getting a multifaceted look at the word of God that is enlightening, stretching, and encouraging.

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I preached on Ephesians 6:10-24 in a message entitled “A Crash Course in Spiritual Conflict.” In this well-known passage, we encounter Paul delineating the armor of God. The only offensive piece of that armor comes last: “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17b). The Word of God is powerful and a vital piece of our armor in the spiritual conflict we face daily as God’s people. As the writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Here is a brief list of some of the facets of God’s word outlined within Psalm 119. I’d encourage you to read through the list and, when one statement jumps out at you, to open your Bible to Psalm 119, read that verse, and then meditate on those words for the day. There is so much here in each verse to grow and deepen us with God.

God’s word is:

  • to be fully obeyed (4)
  • righteous (7, 61, 106, 123, 137, 144, 164, 172)
  • a guide for purity of life (9)
  • a way to keep from sin (11)
  • from the Lord’s mouth (13, 88)
  • full of wonderful things (18)
  • a delight (24, 35, 70, 77, 143, 162, 174)
  • a counselor (24)
  • a revelation of God’s wonderful deeds (27)
  • a picture of the way of faithfulness (30)
  • good (39, 68)
  • a revelation of God’s salvation promises (41)
  • a bringer of freedom (45)
  • a promise to preserve our life (50)
  • ancient (52)
  • a comforter (52)
  • precious (72)
  • a pathway away from shame (80)
  • completely trustworthy (86, 138)
  • eternal (89, 152, 160)
  • firm in the heavens (89)
  • boundless in its perfection (90)
  • what makes us wiser than our enemies and our teachers (98, 99, 100)
  • sweet like honey (103)
  • a lamp and light for our path (105, 130)
  • the joy of our heart (111)
  • wonderful (129)
  • thoroughly tested (140)
  • true (142, 151, 160)
  • a bringer of peace (165)
  • sustenance (175)

The Weekend Wanderer: 5 January 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

View More: http://thejoesphotos.pass.us/anyabwilefamily“Diverse Theologians to Read in 2019”Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor at Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition, offers a great resource for those trying to broaden the voices of their theological conversation partners. “Recently a brother on Twitter asked if I could recommend some orthodox theologians from around the world that he could read in 2019. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten such a request. So I thought I’d put together a short list of theologians and leaders from differing ethnic backgrounds for those who may be interested to diversify their reading lists.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 1.14.18 PMThe Tech-Wise Family Challenge – Without a doubt, the best book that I have read related to living a healthy life as a family in the digital age is The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. If you have not read it, I would strongly encourage you to do so. Because of this, I was thrilled to hear about Barna Group partnering with Crouch to offer a 21-day Tech-Wise Family Challenge that begins this coming Monday, January 7. Find out more about it here.

 

uganda peace“Risking Peace: How Religious Leaders Ended Uganda’s Civil War” – At Commonweal, David Hoekema writes about the influence of religious leaders in shaping peace for the end of the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. “Far less known—scarcely mentioned in news reports—was the formation of an alliance of religious leaders in the darkest period of the conflict. Overcoming centuries of mistrust and disagreement, the Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim communities of the Acholi region joined forces to help relieve suffering caused by the violence and to bring government and rebel leaders to the negotiating table. Their work bears witness to the transforming power of interfaith collaboration and to the ability of local communities in Africa to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict.”

 

Jerry Falwell Jr“Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’ – In an interview with Joe Heim in The Washington Post, Jerry Falwell, Jr., speaks out in favor of Donald Trump in a way that is worth paying attention to because his justification is theologically questionable. Falwell credits his ongoing support for President Trump as based on Trump’s success in business and that we need a President “to run the country like a business.” While that could be true, Falwell  goes on to dismiss the importance of character in public leaders and downgrades the importance of caring for the poor. Citing a simplistic approach to two kingdoms theology, Falwell says: “In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.” Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist Pastor, offered a scathing critique of Falwell’s statement that is worth pondering.

 

85735“Building on the Black Church’s Bible Legacy” – “African Americans have held tight to their Bibles over the years. Amid cultural shifts in beliefs and reading habits, their demographic consistently outranks other racial groups for their reliance on the Word. Last year, the American Bible Society (ABS) once again named African Americans ‘the most Bible engaged in the US.'”

 

dante inferno online“An Illustrated and Interactive Dante’s Inferno: Explore a New Digital Companion to the Great 14th-Century Epic Poem” – I guess you could be wasting your time playing Fortnite, so why not explore Dante’s Inferno? “The online, interactive companion to the Inferno you see screen-shotted here does not attempt to join their ranks. Its charming, children’s-book-graphic visual presentation takes a G-rated approach, ditching accurate human anatomy and horrific violence for a cartoonish video game romp through hell that makes it seem like a super fun, if super weird, place to visit. Created by Alpaca, an Italian design cooperative, and design studio Molotro, the tool aims to be ‘a synsemic access point to Dante’s literature, aiding its study.'”

 

Thomas Merton“Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet” – In The New Yorker, Alan Jacobs offers a wonderful reflection on the life of Thomas Merton, that quirky, most-popular monk of the twentieth-century. “Merton lived the public world, the world of words and politics, but knew that living in it had killed him. (‘Thomas Merton is dead.’) He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us. He is perhaps the proper patron saint of our information-saturated age, of we who live and move and have our being in social media, and then, desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence, only to return. As we always will.”

 

85769“Billy Graham, Eugene Peterson, and Other Evangelicals Lost This Year” –  Christianity Today highlights some of the most notable figures in the evangelical world that died in this past year. While most of us probably heard of the deaths of Billy Graham and Eugene Peterson, we may not have known about the passing of James Earl Massey, Bob Buford, George Lindbeck, and others on this list.

 

book open“10 Novels Every Pastor Should Read” – I stumbled upon this article by Kolby Kerr and liked it right away. Here he offers an apologetic for reading fiction for pastors that is winsome and clear, while also offering a very energizing list of suggested reading for pastors. There were a few on this list that I haven’t read, and so I look forward to exploring them. There were some missing that I would have included, but such is the subjectivity of book lists. Some may not know that the reason I studied English Literature as an undergrad was because of my calling toward pastoral ministry. I could not have been more happy for the education that I received and the way it has shaped my life and vocation.

 

PNG.jpegWhich country has the most languages?” – The BBC reports: “Papua New Guinea has about eight million people, but more than 800 languages. The oldest ones, in the Papuan group, date back tens of thousands of years. So why are there so many languages in this mountainous island country?”

 

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Church is a Hospital for Sin-Sick Sinners: J. I. Packer from a Quest for Godliness

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This past weekend in my message, “Friend of Sinners,” I mentioned an article by J. I. Packer that I read many years ago in which he talks about the church as a hospital for sinners. In searching for it, I discovered that the article was actually an excerpt from Packer’s book, A Quest for Godliness. I found an excerpt that I am sharing below:

Truth obeyed, said the Puritans, will heal. The word fits, because we are all spiritually sick — sick through sin, which is a wasting and killing disease of the heart. The unconverted are sick unto death; those who have come to know Christ and have been born again continue sick, but they are gradually getting better as the work of grace goes on in their lives.

The church, however, is a hospital in which nobody is completely well, and anyone can relapse at any time. Pastors no less than others are weakened by pressure from the world, the flesh, and the devil, with their lures of profit, pleasure, and pride, and, as we shall see more fully in a moment, pastors must acknowledge that they the healers remain sick and wounded and therefore need to apply the medicines of Scripture to themselves as well as to the sheep whom they tend in Christ’s name.

All Christians need Scripture truth as medicine for their souls at every stage, and the making and accepting of applications is the administering and swallowing of it.

J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 1990, reprint (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 65, paragraphing added.

Practicing Spiritual Direction [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 11]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Spiritual direction is difficult. Pastoral wisdom is not available on prescription. Every person who comes to a pastor with a heart full of shapeless longings and a head full of badgering questions is complex in a new way. There are no fail-proof formulae (179).

Eugene Peterson brings this book, Working the Angles, to conclusion with attention to what it means for the pastoral to practice spiritual direction with his parishioners. As he mentioned earlier in the book, spiritual direction “takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” (150). But how does a pastor do that well?

Peterson begins by drawing out five examples of how not to do spiritual direction. He borrows those five negative examples from the journal of George Fox, who, in his desperate searching, experienced multiple failed attempts to find spiritual guidance. Here they are:

  1. First Pastor: Nathaniel Stephens, who turns Fox’s search for guidance into a theological inquiry and fodder for sermons he will preach. “When a person comes to me for spiritual direction it is not to get into a theological discussion but to find a friend in a theological context” (182).
  2. Second Pastor: The ancient priest at Mancetter, who “doesn’t see Fox as a person to be directed but as a consumer of spiritual goods, a possible buyer of a remedy” (183). When we depersonalize people into customers, we are missing the point of spiritual direction.
  3. Third Pastor: The priest living about Tamworth, who comes across as “an empty hollow cask” because he is focused on techniques or experiences instead of being the sort of person who can really guide Fox. Peterson comments: “our primary task is to be a pilgrim. Our best preparation for the work of spiritual direction is an honest life” (184).
  4. Fourth Pastor: Dr. Cradock, who is fixated on orthodoxy in theology and orthodoxy in life as a means for diagnosis of another’s life. Yet, when Fox transgresses his models, he lashes out in anger. “If we should mistakenly do our work in the dogmatic schoolmaster style of Dr. Cradock, we will deserve the epitaph ‘miserable comforter'” (186).
  5. Fifth Pastor: one Macham, who is regarded as a pastor of high value, but sets to action upon Fox as a means to accomplish something. “Pastors are particularly imperiled in this area because of the compulsive activism, both cultural and ecclesiastical, in which we are immersed simply by being alive at this time in history” (187).

These pastors have good reputations and experience, hold mastery in degrees and techniques, but fail as spiritual guides to George Fox. When we succumb to these impulses, we, too, as pastors miss the point of spiritual direction. What wisdom does Peterson offer for those of us wanting to stay on track as spiritual directors? The wisdom comes in three main points.

  1. “For a start, I can cultivate an attitude of awe” (188). This calls us as pastors to see those sitting with us as wonders made in the image of God, whose lives, full of joys and challenges, are worth paying attention to. Peterson comments: “George Fox was a remarkable person, but not one of his five pastors had the faintest inkling of it” (189).
  2. “Second, I can cultivate an awareness of my ignorance” (189). There is so much we do not know about the person with whom we are dealing, that we must admit it, or we will fail to see what we do not yet see. Even more, we are often ignorant about God and what He is doing in this person’s life. “My words and gestures and actions take place in the midst of a great drama, about the details of which I know little or nothing” (191). This puts perspective on our limitations, helping us to lean into our dependence upon God to see and hear what is happening in the one we are meeting with.
  3. “Third, I can cultivate a predisposition to prayer” (191). Peterson assumes that what people need most is to learn to pray so that they might enter into conversation with God. We are not merely engaging in discussion about ideas or truths, but trying to take them into deeper engagement with God. “Spiritual direction is then conducted with an awareness that it takes place in God’s active presence, and that our conversation is therefore conditioned by his speaking and listening, his being there” (192).

And so, Eugene Peterson’s “holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry” – prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction – concludes, as does my journey through the entire book. The book ends suddenly, in my opinion, as if Peterson is thrusting us out into the work he has outlined. Perhaps one of the final lines of the book best reminds us of what Eugene Peterson is really calling pastors to in these days:

More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God (192).

Pastors, let us help people keep company with God. Let us live in and minister from these three holy angles of prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. Let us not lose heart in the cultural confusion or drift out of focus with fads and models, but once again send down deep roots into the biblical foundations and historic practices of pastoral ministry.

[This post concludes my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]

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.]