Sometime in the late eighties, when I was slogging my way through my first senior pastorate, I was introduced to Eugene Peterson. I don’t remember how I got on to his books, but I read Working the Angles, and I was hooked. His opening words stopped me in my tracks—“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…they continue to appear in pulpits…but they are abandoning their calling.”
As a young pastor trained to lead the church, create a vision, and think strategic, I could not help but ask—have I gone “whoring” after other gods? Have I metamorphosed into a shopkeeper concerned to keep the customers happy, or into a CEO committed to church management? Peterson has served to keep these and other questions before me ever since. I think I have read just about every book he has written. Most notable include The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones, Under the Unpredictable Plant, and The Pastor.
Recently, I came across Pastoral Work, a new book edited by Byassee and Owens (I posted a blog recently that refers to it). The book is composed of articles written mostly by pastoral theologians, but what every writer has in common is that he/she has been powerfully influenced by Peterson. Their insights have reinforced my own conviction that Peterson is the most influential pastoral theologian in the church today.
Some of the writers discuss Peterson and his approach to words. This is part one of the book, and part one of my post. A reason his writing is so pleasurable to me is because Peterson has a high regard for language. He forces those of us who enter the pulpit to ask what Barbara Brown Taylor asks—“Have you done your homework? Are your words the very best you could find?” This is needful, for as she puts it, “nourishing words are so hard to find—words with no razor blades in them, words with no chemical additives. Most of the words offered to us have been chewed so many times there are no nutrients left in them.” This reminds me of sports radio, where some voices repeat the point so often you wonder if they are simply trying to use up air time between commercials. Sometimes I scream, “Okay, I get the point. Move on.” Could it be all too many in the pew feel the same way?
I’m not impatient with Peterson. He makes his point and moves on, though I often hang around to ponder what I have just read. His words feed the soul. They nurture because of Peterson’s own commitment to God’s Word. God’s decision to use words as a means of revealing Himself underscores the importance of language. He honors the Word of God as a living message, a voice to be heard. Reading and listening are not the same. He warns those of us who come with our exegetical tools to keep in mind that this is no lifeless cadaver inviting an autopsy. “Exegesis, if it is to serve the church’s life and be congruent with the pastor’s calling, must be contemplative exegesis”.
Likewise, we dare not read for mere personal reasons; we read to participate in an immense world, one that can never be domesticated. We read to be broken apart and put back together. We read—not for information—but for formation. We must, for the Word of God is written to form our core identity. We read—not acquisitively—but receptively. If we are receiving, if we are listening, we will find the Word leading us out from under the low, gray ceiling of our own purposes to a place where we might see infinitely broad horizons of God’s purposes.