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.]

Learning God’s Love with St. Bernard of Clairvaux

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St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk in 12th century France, rose from relative obscurity to influence many  aspects of church life during his time. Born within a wealthy, Bernard forsook all of that to bring enter into a small monastic community in Cîteaux, influencing his five brothers and around twenty-five friends to join with him. Over time, his strict renunciation of life’s pleasures and influential love of God brought him to leadership, first in forming a new monastic community in Clairvaux and later to be an advisor to church leaders. His least admirable legacy was helping to whip up interest in the Second Crusade.

However, what Bernard is often best-known for today is his writings on the love of God. His work, On Loving God (available in full here or summarized here), provides one of the most powerful explanations of both God’s love for human beings and human love returning toward God. Most notably, he outlines four degrees of love for God, which have provided a framework for growing in love toward God for many over the years. In fact, I first heard about Bernard of Clairvaux in a seminar on the love of God that I attended during my college years while at the Urbana conference. The speaker referenced Bernard again and again, and I figured this was someone who I needed to know more about.

When I returned to school after Christmas break at Wheaton College, I scoured the lower level of Buswell Memorial Library until I found works by Bernard of Clairvaux. This led me to a four-volume set of his 86 sermons on the Song of Songs (excerpts available online here). Convinced that, as Paul writes in Ephesians 5, the relationship of a husband and wife in Christ mirrors the love relationship that exists between Christ and the Church, Bernard preached these sermons on the Song of Songs as a means to better understand God’s love in Christ for His people. When you read those sermons, you know that Bernard knew the love of God that surpasses all our knowing. Eugene Peterson, that rugged pastor to pastors, once wrote: “Love is Bernard’s theme, a non-sentimental, hardheaded and warmhearted love that is equally informed by self-knowledge and God-knowledge” (Take and Read 10).

Reflecting on God’s love and our love back to God, Bernard once wrote to a friend: 

You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason why he is to be loved. As for how he is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love. [1]

If you are looking for a good guide into the love of God, I cannot recommend too many more heartily than St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

 


[1] Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God,” https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-24/on-loving-god.html.

Sexuality and Marriage

HS 4My wife, Kelly, and I concluded the “Holy Sexuality” series this past weekend at Eastbrook Church by talking about sexuality and marriage. I was so glad to have Kelly join me for preparation and delivery of the message. She is such a gifted pastor and woman of God, and working together on this made the message so much better.

You can view a video of the message and the accompanying outline below. You can also listen to the message via our audio podcast here.

As always, I’d like to invite you to connect with us further at Eastbrook Church on VimeoFacebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

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Intimate Love and the Song of Songs

Whether using provocative sexuality to advertise products or acclaiming sex as the pinnacle of human experience, there is no doubt that our culture is sexually charged. Unfortunately, Christians often react to this aspect of culture in two less than helpful ways. The first is to lambast the glorification of sexuality as evil, at times avoiding healthy conversation about sexuality entirely. The second tendency is to ‘Christianize’ the sexual emphasis in our culture. Thus, some churches have developed a “40 days of sex” focus without giving careful thought to the implications for our views of human person-hood.

Sexuality is one aspect of our essential ‘good’-ness as created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-31). Sexuality is not a result of the Fall into sin. At the same time, like any other aspect of our humanity, our sexuality is often bent by sin and brokenness. Although originally ‘good’, our sexuality needs redemption.

This is where the beautiful poetry of Solomon’s Song of Songs speaks so powerfully. Read More »

In the Bedroom…

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This past Sunday, October 18th, Kelly and I spoke together at Brooklife Church in the third week of our series on marriage entitled “Happily Ever After?”

Our message was entitled “In the Bedroom” and, as you might expect, we were talking about sex and sexuality. Our message addressed the goodness of sexuality, the need for guard rails with our sexuality, God’s hope and healing for our hurts in sexuality, and, lastly, providing some practical insights from Song of Songs 4 on sex in marriage.

You can access the audio recording of my message at the Brooklife Church web-site here or subscribe to our weekly podcast here.

Also, you can view the slides that accompany the message below.