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.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 20 October 2018

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.

Oscar Romero“A ‘Voice For The Voiceless’: Sainthood For El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero” – This past Sunday, the Vatican elevated Archbishop Óscar Romero and Pope Paul VI to sainthood, along with five other “lesser-known” saints. “Known to his followers as Monseñor (Monsignor), Romero was a champion of human rights at a time when El Salvador was on the brink of civil war. His tireless fight for civil rights ranks him among figures like Martin Luther King Jr. His devout following filled San Salvador’s towering cathedral each Mass.”

 

peterson-square1“Eugene Peterson Enters Hospice Care” – Eugene Peterson has been one of the most significant influences upon my life as a pastor. His outstanding writing on the work of pastoral ministry, spiritual theology, and memoir of life in ministry have helped keep me on track as a pastor in the North American culture that tends to fashion church celebrities. Given all this, I was sad to hear this past week that Peterson entered hospice care as he nears the end of his earthly life. Christianity Today shares a wealth of the articles and resources that Peterson has written in the pages of their publications.

 

Image“The State of Theology: What Do People Really Believe in 2018?” – Ligonier Ministries partnered with LifeWay Research in their third biennial study on religious beliefs in the United States. “This year’s survey both confirmed previous findings and brought some unexpected results. Year after year, we are seeing the increasing grip of relativism on our culture and deep confusion among evangelicals. For example: 91 percent of evangelicals affirm that people are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, but 51 percent of evangelicals also believe that God accepts the worship of all religions. How can this be? What do Americans—and people in the pew—really believe?” [Thanks to Jim Bohn for sharing this link.]

 

_103887398_kievworshipgetty14oct“Orthodox Church split: Five reasons why it matters” – “The Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with the Church leadership in Istanbul, the Constantinople Patriarchate traditionally regarded as the Orthodox faith’s headquarters. The Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church has at least 150 million followers – more than half the total of Orthodox Christians. The dispute centres on Constantinople’s decision last week to recognise the independence of Ukrainian Orthodox worshippers. Just another arcane theological dispute, you might think. Well, there is more to it than that.”

 

Walker Percy“Walker Percy: The Hopeful Dystopian” – Walker Percy is one of my favorite novelists, because his work opens up the unique insanities of culture, the depravity of humanity, and the unexpected places that hope rises up. All that being said, Percy’s work is not for the faint of heart.  Daniel Ritchie reviews Brian A Smith’s Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer (a steeply-priced book published by an academic press) for Christianity Today, and gives the reader some helpful insights both into Percy in general and the value of Smith’s book.

 

Smith-headshot-243x300-circleIn other news at the junction of Christianity and the arts, Image magazine announced James K. A. Smith as their new editor in chief. This is welcome news, as Jamie is an amazing thinker and writer on issues of faith and culture. I look forward to the leadership he will bring in pulling together an editorial team for this important journal on faith, art, and mystery.

 

U“Floating pipe set to start massive ocean cleanup process” – “A 2,000 foot-long floating pipe nicknamed Wilson is about to start its mission to collect all the plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Last month, the Ocean Cleanup foundation launched the world’s first ocean cleanup system out of San Francisco to take on the notorious “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a giant floating trash pile between San Francisco and Hawaii that is twice the size of Texas. It’s the largest of five ocean trash piles on Earth.”

 

1380“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world” – This latest article from Harriet Griffey in The Guardian is just the latest in a stream of conversation around the destruction of our ability to concentrate in a distracted, digital world. “This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate.” I am currently working on a series of messages for a retreat with students in the winter connecting this theme with the plea for “an undivided heart” found in Psalm 86:11.

 

Reader Come Home.jpg“What we lose by reading 100,000 words every day” – Jennifer Howard reviews Maryanne Wolf’s new book, Reader, Come Home. “Wolf wants to understand what’s happening to our reading brains at this historic juncture between the old ways and the new. A lifelong book lover who turned her fascination with reading into a career as a cognitive neuroscientist, she continues to explore how humans learned to do such an astonishing thing as read in the first place….While neuroplasticity allowed humans to develop our ‘deep-reading circuit,’ she explains, it also makes us vulnerable to constant streams of digital input. Clutching cellphones, scrolling through Instagram feeds, browsing websites all day, ‘we inhabit a world of distraction,’ she writes.” [Thanks to David Taylor for sharing this article.]

 

winners-to-be-announced-668x1024Book Awards – And since we are on the topic of books, at the end of last week the finalists for the National Book Award were announced. You can access the entire list here with the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, as well as a new category of translated literature. The winner will be announced on November 14. The winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction, whose short list I shared in September, was also announced this past week with Anna Burns taking home the prize for her third full-length novel, Milkman.

[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 Weekend Wanderer: 26 May 2018

The “Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly post in which I gather a smattering of news, stories, resources, and other media you could explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

82069“Two Slave Brothers Birthed Africa’s Oldest State Church” tells the story of the two unlikely 4th century missionaries who brought the gospel into the Axum Empire in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. These two brothers, kidnapped into slavery, entered the the royal household and helped transform the kingdom for Christ.

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 11.15.58 AM“The US has had 57 times as many school shootings as the other major industrialized nations combined” – Last week’s shooting in Santa Fe highlights the challenges we face as a nation in relation to gun violence. No matter where you stand on this issue politically, we are overdue for deep reconsideration of how we personally and governmentally deal with guns. You may also want to read Mark Galli’s recent article “God Hates Gun Violence” over at Christianity Today.

 

crying music“Musical trends and predictability of success in contemporary songs in and out of the top charts” – A recent study out of the University of California-Irvine examines trends in contemporary music, including the undeniable “a clear downward trend in ‘happiness’ and ‘brightness’, as well as a slight upward trend in ‘sadness’.” If that is confusing, you may want to also read “Why We Can’t Stop Listening to Sad Songs.”

 

_101640493_d25a7344-d7af-4bba-9863-46659f9264bfWith all the hoopla around the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last weekend, maybe you could step back for a moment and watch or read the sermon given during the ceremony by Bishop Michael Curry – the first African American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA. Drawing from the Song of Solomon, 1 Corinthians 13, the Gospel of Matthew and other texts, he preaches about the power of love.

 

fuller seminary“The Future of Fuller” – Fuller Theological Seminary announced this past week that it was relocating its campus from Pasadena to Pomona, California. Fuller cites a number of reasons for this, some that are specific to Fuller and others that are contextual for higher education. My own seminary, Northern Theological Seminary, made a similar move this past year, relocating from Lombard to Lisle, Illinois. On a related note, Calvin College announced plans to rename as “Calvin University” by 2020, which is a trend in Christian colleges, er, universities, recently.

 

Cyanometer-1Two Hundred Years of Blue: Cerulean splendor from Goethe, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Rachel Carson, Toni Morrison, and other literary masters.” – If you like the color blue, why not join Maria Popova for an exploration of the historic, literary associations of that color. Ranging from Georgia O’Keefe to Henry David Thoreau, Popova’s article over at BrainPickings is just fun to read.

 

walker_percy

One of my favorite modern authors is the southern, gothic writer Walker Percy. His novels and his philosophical writings have helped me think well about Christian living with imagination in our post-Christian day. In a recent article, “Walker Percy’s Funny and Frightening Prophecy,” Ralph C. Wood offers poignant reflection on how Percy’s Kierkegaardian Catholicism provides a way forward in what feels like our present time of ruin. Specifically, he showcases Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins as prophetic words that “reads as if it were written in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election.”

 

williamson-art“Advice for Incels: Join a Church” by Kevin Williamson will probably take you in many directions you never expected in relation to underlying aggression and dissatisfaction in our culture. I can guarantee you will probably dislike some of what he writes, while also be provoked to think longer about other things he writes. In case you’re not aware, the incel movement is “an online community of men united by their inability to convince women to have sex with them. (‘Incel’ stands for ‘involuntarily celibate’)” (from Vox), and has been blamed for attacks in Toronto this past April.

[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.]