Book Review: The Contemplative Pastor

contemplative_pastorThe Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson

I’ve read a lot of books written by Eugene Peterson and can say without exaggeration that his books are among my favorites; he is among my favorite authors…on any given day, arguably my most favored. I just finished The Contemplative Pastor, one of four books that make up a pastoral theology series authored by Peterson. While this book is less than two-hundred pages, I have spent the better part of the last six months reading and soaking in it. I mentioned this is one of four in a series; the other books are Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Under the Unpredictable Plant, and Working the Angles. I have now completed three of the four books and plan to begin the remaining book in the series in the next few days, but this review is not about the “other” books…it is about the Contemplative Pastor.

One of the things I have liked about this series is the intimate approach Eugene Peterson takes in speaking to the heart of the pastor. I suppose this might be one of the reasons he is called “the pastor’s pastor.” Nevertheless, personally, I connect at some deep level with his writing style. This particular volume comes/came at a pivotal point in my life. I started reading it upon my return from a conference where Peterson was in attendance; in fact, the conference theme was one of his more recent books, The Jesus Way. During the conference and after the close of the conference, I had the opportunity to meet and spend a short period of time with Eugene and his wife Jan. What I found were two very gentle, congenial, and spirit-filled people. The intimacy and wisdom that Peterson writes from in his books, was displayed and extended to me in person. I realized that the thousands and thousands of words that I had read from his pen were genuine and not “ivory-tower-talkenese.” The subject matter of The Contemplative Pastor was timely for me as I have already said and my meeting experience with Eugene helped me to take the contents of this little book all the more seriously. This also accounts for my extended period of time for its reading.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am very task-driven, goal-oriented, and results-focused… on occasion this becomes my undoing. It is a character trait that has been beneficial to me in many ways, but it has also been detrimental when I let my guard down. “Focus-itus” often causes me to lose my peripheral vision…and my spiritual sensitivity. The Contemplative Pastor, and books like it, help me to remember to keep my spiritual guard up and remind me of what God has invited me to be a part of… keeping the “main thing the main thing;” His Kingdom…His people.

Ok, so about the book…particulars; how did it keep me grounded? The opening pages of the book take the reader on a journey of redefinitions and deconstructions. Three things are mentioned that help define the call of the pastor; these three things are (1) become a pastor who prays; one who cultivates their relationship with God, wanting all of life to be intimate—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—with God who makes, directs, and loves them. (2) Be a pastor who preaches; who speaks the Word of God that is Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people he lives with… a pastor who has no desire and interest in delivering sermons, but challenging people to hear the Word of God preached in such a way that they hear its distinctive note of authority as God’s Word, and to know that their own lives are being addressed on their home territory.  (3) Be a pastor who listens; who takes the time and energy to really listen to people so when they are through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking. These three things grabbed my attention and I knew deep in my soul that there was much God the Holy Spirit wanted to teach me from this book. These redefinitions comprise most of this chapter “The Unbusy Pastor,” all of this in the first twenty-five pages of the book.

The next chapter describes the subversive pastor and begins with the following quote:

“I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God. I am being subversive.”

There was much I liked about this chapter; I especially liked the explanation of Jesus being the master of subversion. Peterson likened Jesus’ use of parable like “time bombs that would explode in unprotected hearts…these word-story bombs would go off in the heart of the listener leaving an abyss at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded…

The subversive pastor chapter leads directly into the apocalyptic pastor. God used Eugene Peterson to speak in a mighty way to me through the reading of this chapter. Most of the content that makes up the apocalyptic pastor is highlighted or annotated by me in some fashion, but I think you might get the gist of what this exposition is about from the following excerpt:

“Prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal .Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God…”

“And so pastors, instead of practicing prayer, which brings people into the presence of God, enter into the practice of messiah: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding the shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross  can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. People love us when we do this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God. It feels wonderful to be treated in the godlike way. And it is work that we are generally quite good at.

A sense of apocalypse (urgency) blows the whistle on such messianic pastoring. The vastness of the heavenly invasion, the urgency of the faith decision, the danger of the impinging culture—with these pouring into our consciousness accompanied by thunder and lightning, we cannot stand around on the street corners of Sunday morning filling the time with pretentious small talk on how bad the world is and how wonderful this new stewardship campaign is going to be.

If we have even an inkling of apocalypse, it will be impossible to act like the jaunty foreman of a home-improvement work crew that is going to re-landscape moral (or immoral) garden spots. We must pray. The world has been invaded by God, and it is with God we have to do.”

My response is; “oh my goodness.” I have felt this urgency and sensed the apocalyptic nature of my call. Time and time again I have been “hushed and shshhed” by those who don’t like the apocalyptic God. He demands that we deal with Him on His terms though and those terms are His Cross taken for our sins. If we are to have relationship with Him, it will be on His terms. Christ Jesus continues to bring us to the crossroads of decision named “surrender and self;” the apocalyptic pastor forever points to this crossroad as the means of reconciliation. This chapter meant (means) a lot to me and I am forever and resolutely changed for the good by it.

The next section, Between Sundays, covers nine chapters and Peterson used the Beatitudes of Christ as the framework for his expression of pastoral ministry out from behind the pulpit. This teaching is gold and I know that it should be on my yearly reading list. I need to be reminded over and over of the responsibility that I have as a shepherd over God’s flock. There is simply too much to glean from this section of The Contemplative Pastor to do it injustice by quoting a few excerpts. Get the book. If you have any conviction of call to mentor God’s people in any capacity, this book should be in your personal library. As I fan through a few of the pages that have heavy highlighting on them, I decided to share a couple of very meaningful quotes (to me)—

“I decided, after an interval of confused disorientation, that being a physician of souls took priority over running a church, and that I would be guided in my pastoral vocation by wise predecessors rather than contemporaries” [From Curing Souls: The Forgotten Art; chp. 6]

“I only know enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand…” [quoting Annie Dillard from chp 7, Praying with Eyes Open]

Peterson exposits on the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” in chapter nine “Is Growth a Decision?” and speaks about a revelation he had concerning the language of “middle voice.” One word; fabulous. Chapters ten and eleven were terribly convicting to me, but in a good way. In chapter ten Pastor Eugene speaks to the ministry of small talk as a pastoral art. As I mentioned earlier about myself, I am often stricken with focus-itus and have the mindset that small talk is an inconvenience that cannot be tolerated because, of course, we are involved in “apocalyptic ministry” (remember?). Here Peterson ever so gently reminds me that as important as the apocalypse is to our call, so is small talk…my toes still sting. Pastor Eugene also reminded me in a very fatherly way (chapter eleven) that I must not forget to see people as sinners. This chapter, Unwell in a New Way, was probably among the most meaningful to me by way of instruction for this whole book.

I cannot endorse or promote this book enough; I think it is a tremendous gift to the pastorate. In similar fashion, I submit my endorsement for this entire pastoral theology series by Pastor Peterson…at least for the volumes that I have read although I have no reason to think the remaining book in the series will be any less impacting than the three I have completed. I thank God for the ministry of Eugene Peterson and the experience and wisdom he has shared through his writing.

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