The contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson Book review

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to think about Christian ministry. While it is addressed to pastors, I think that it should have a much wider audience. While it is written by a Presbyterian, I think it should be read by Quakers.

Before I get into the book itself, I should point out that Peterson and I come from very different faith traditions within Christian Orthodoxy. Peterson is a Calvinist, he is the pastor of a Presbyterian church, and as such he belongs to a faith tradition which treats the ‘sermon’ as the chief sacrament. People come to grace by hearing the Word, which they cannot hear unless there is a preacher.

I come from the Religious Society of Friends, which is partially a reaction against Peterson’s faith tradition. While I love a good sermon, I’d rather not hear a 20 minute lecture designated as ‘the sermon’ during our worship hour. I feel that the sermon distracts from our focus on God, what is said might be important, but it can be better said in the context of a Sunday school class. Bluntly, I feel that we Christians try to squeeze every thing into one hour, and we fail at everything we do by not giving anything the time and space it requires.

That being said, Peterson is someone who I cannot help but appreciate. He is deep in the tradition of treating words as sacramental. He is a poet, a logician, and a story teller. I happen to love poetry, debate, and stories. Peterson reminds us to embrace God’s grace in the ordinary, not to force ourselves and our conversations into ‘higher things’. He calls us to recognize that God is in the ordinary too. He warns against leading through crisis management, because the majority of our lives is not a crisis. We need to value that normality. Peterson calls us to value small talk, recognizing the holiness of even mundane words.

Peterson calls the pastor to be unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. I would observe that in order to be the first and the last, it is necessary to be the middle. Peterson is deep in the main stream, Presbyterians unlike Quakers are part of traditional culture. We see Calvin in English, Scottish and Dutch spirituality. American Christians think of ourselves more in relation to Calvin than in relation to Athanasius, Augustine or Aquinas. As Peterson is deep in the mainstream, everything he does to correct the sin of our culture is subversive. Perhaps I also need to be subversive, but in a very different way.

His example of unbusyness was subversive in his example of using the day-planner to create non-busy time. It seems so simple, but he is using the tools of the world, made to keep track of our business in order to keep this business at bay. It is about doing what is important and learning that we can have full lives without having our lives over-scheduled.

Being apocalyptic also requires subversion. It is more difficult for Peterson than it is for me, for he is a poet in a tradition of logicians. He is in a group that looks for heaven in the future, Peterson tries to remind them to embrace Jesus now. He tries to teach poetry in a culture of debate. This maybe easier for me, in a tradition which includes realized eschatology, but I see his challenge.

The general need for subversiveness comes from the fact that people do not change rapidly. We learn slowly, and it takes time to change our worldviews. If we shock the system, the system rejects the sudden change it feels wrong.
Rescue mission to plato's cave Plato told the story of a cave filled with people who only saw shadows. Someone tried to tell them about the real world, ask them to turn around, all that he found was frustration. The work of the subversive is to teach those who see the sacrament of words through debate, to accept their value as art and poetry. In my case, we need to teach those who value the radical, where the root lies so they do not throw out the baby, and keep the bathwater. Jesus himself did what we must do. He emptied Himself, and entered the cave. While Jesus was the light that came into the World, he did not blind the world by coming as bright as the sun — but instead as bright as we could handle. How can I, like Jesus, mount a rescue mission into Plato’s cave within my own tradition, and within my own culture?

Peterson calls on me to consider what is important, and to ask if all the business that is expected even needs done in the first place. As a bonus, he rewards me for reading his book by offering a final chapter that is only poetry. I might not be a Presbyterian, but here is a pastor after my own heart. He reminds me that my ‘job’ is first of all the work of prayer. Prayer takes priority over preaching, and this lesson is comes no less clear from a Presbyterian then it would from a Quaker who should be preaching to the choir.


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