The Common Good
September-October 1998

A Pastor's Perspective

by Don Luther | September-October 1998

Eugene Peterson's approach to spiritual growth.

Eugene Peterson's Subversive Spirituality is a collection of articles, essays, and conversations published over 25 years in a variety of journals. An expected unevenness is understandable given the fact that it spans such a long period of time.

But much more memorable is Peterson's passion and his stunning insights as he explores "spiritual theology," which he describes as "the discipline and art of training us into full and mature participation in the Jesus' story while at the same time preventing us from taking over the story." This discipline and art is practiced as spiritual direction, which in its classic form in the church has almost always been subversive, in tension with the dominant culture in which Christians find themselves. Peterson describes spiritual direction this way:

...a friendship or companionship which enables another person to recognize and respond to God in their lives in detail, not in generalities....I must remember that I am a subversive. My long-term effectiveness depends on my not being recognized for who I am as a pastor. If the church member actually realized that the American way of life is doomed to destruction and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn't be pleased at all. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me. True subversion requires patience. You slowly get cells of people who are believing in what you're doing, participating in it.

In a day when so much of pastoral ministry is consumed with concern over how to grow the church, with planning and designing congregations on the basis of people's needs, when management and administration head the list of pastoral responsibilities, it's refreshing to read the work of a pastor who spent 29 years in a congregation that usually had 250 to 300 members. Over those years, Peterson touched the lives of 2,000 people who moved through that small church. He did it while practicing pastoral ministry that focused on preaching, leading worship, and spending time with people in their homes.

His comments on worship are riveting at a time when entertainment is tending to dominate Sunday morning.

I'm convinced that most pastors don't give two cents about worship. They really don't. And there's a good reason for it. True worship doesn't make anything happen. It is a losing control, a weaning from manipulative language and entertainment. It's tough to practice that reality because, given the choice between worship and dancing around the golden calf, pastors know people are going to dance. Pastors sense that if they really practice worship, they are going to empty out the sanctuary pretty fast.

Peterson has a different pastoral agenda, "to deepen and nurture spiritual growth, and build a Christian community—not collect crowds." And that from a man who was born and raised in the Pentecostal church and was pleased the Presbyterians gave him an alternative household of faith, though he never truly felt at home there.

CENTERING ON spiritual direction once again: "Traditional Christian spirituality is not taking bits and pieces of doctrine and putting them to use—it's entering into the life of God that is already in motion....Are we in a spiritual bazaar where we are picking out verses and texts that we can use, or are we in a home that is ordered by the Father, Son, and Spirit, where we can enter into what's already going on?"

Eugene Peterson is alert to what's going on, and in one of the most helpful themes in the book, he introduces us to people he calls "unexpected allies"—novelists and poets. Instead of labeling and categorizing human beings, novelists are committed to exploring "the most ordinary and least promising human: the unexpected depths of the ordinary, the capacity for good and evil in the apparently conventional." Novelists awaken our imagination to the wonder of the Spirit's creation. "Poets are caretakers of language, the shepherds of words, keeping them from harm, exploitation, misuse....[They] care about words, are honest with them, respect and honor their sheer overwhelming power."

Peterson's deep respect for these "unexpected allies" is almost palpable. Indeed, one of his greatest gifts in this book may be his encouragement of the reader to keep company with these imaginative, storytelling allies.

Subversive spirituality is of course a life of prayer, a life lived in the God who is already in motion. "Prayer is the life you're immersed in," says Peterson. "It is the interiorness of our life in relationship to the God who has spoken to us....[O]ur life enters this lively word, this revelation, prayer is living our life now in response to that....When I get up off my knees, that's when I start praying." Years ago, William Stringfellow said it this way: "Prayer is not something you do; prayer is someone you are."

Subversive Spirituality. Eugene H. Peterson. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

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