Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989). 171 pages.
Quite often when I read Eugene Peterson on pastoring I feel my blood pressure dropping and my spirit settling into the place it longs to be. As a pastor I am subject to a lot of theories and expectations about what it means to do my job, and I suspect most of them are warmed-over corporate make-work that simply do not belong in my vocation. Peterson, however, expresses with great experience and aplomb what it is like to try and be a good pastor.
When I sat down to open up "The Contemplative Pastor," I thought I would just read a couple of pages to get started and so did not have a pencil in hand. I read the first sentence, put the book down, and returned with a pencil. "If I, even for a moment, accept my culture's definition of me, I am rendered harmless." I do not want to be harmless, but I suspect that is how many view me. I knew then that if the rest of the book lived up to the promise of this first thought I was in for a marvelous read.
Peterson's goal in the book seems to be reshaping what we mean when we talk about the vocation of pastor. What do we do? What makes us different from other people helping professions? Is there anything different between the two, and if so, is there a way of recapturing it? He begins with describing the pastor as "unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic." And so the book goes, relabeling the pastor in ways that are not in-step with current cultural trends but which capture the significant, if hidden, vocation of pastor. One particularly insightful passage near the end deals with the adolescence of our age and how that kind of immaturity has crept into even the pastor's life.
The first half of the book simply soars with insight and encouragement to be something different from what the world around us, and even within us, wants us to be. At moments halfway through the book I thought the pastoral insight waned a bit, but overall it never really lost its subversive encouragement. Throughout, Peterson moves expertly from discussing a theology of sin and what that does to our view of others, to the genuine expectations of a congregation, to the value of learning to use language well through reading and writing poetry. There is a lot here to absorb and learn from.
The biblical role of pastor has been lost in our American and Western cultures, and therefore needs to be regained. It is something of significant value in the lives of people, congregations, and communities and thus cannot be surrendered to corporate style leadership or nice-guy optics. Peterson is a phenomenal guide back to the path we should be trodding.
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