Tuesday, April 4, 2017

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: The Poetic, Prophetic Eugene H. Peterson

What I love about Eugene H. Peterson's writing is that he reveals how much of a poet and a prophet he really is and those are two of my favorite things because both approach God as mystery, as something of such importance and reverence that mere words cannot express accurately but only metaphorically the nature of our Creator and His kingdom. No other theologian has had a huge an influence on my own spirituality as he has with seminal works like A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Run with the Horses

Peterson was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church where he served for twenty-nine years, which he documented in The Pastor: A Memoir. In that book, he wrote honestly of the difficulties that face pastors, "The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans." Yet it is obvious from this collection of his sermons that Eugene Peterson was not one of those pastors. No, he, like another Presbyterian pastor (Frederick Buechner), understands the vital role a pastor can play and of the importance story is as sacrament. 

The title of the book comes from a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, which is apropos because Peterson clearly has a love for language, for poetry, for how the ineffable is best expressed in imagery. He, himself is a poet, a lover of language and understands that a diminished language diminishes liturgy, diminishes worship and our understanding of the Divine Mystery who is the Word and spoke all creation into being. As he writes, "Poetry is a way of using language that draws us into participation. Poetry is language used with personal intensity." That is exactly how Peterson uses language. He not only draws from and quotes poets like Hopkins, T.S. Eliot and Wendell Berry, but he, at his heart, is a psalmist (which is why the section entitled "All My Springs Are In You: Preaching in the Company of David" was one of my favorites). 

What I find in Peterson's writing is that his words make the reader fill with holy astonishment as one encounters the sacred beauty of Divine Mystery. He deftly weaves sermon and story to draw the reader and, I'm sure when he preached to them, his congregation in to the narrative. Because of his skill, he makes the reader see scripture with fresh eyes and a new perspective. The book is broken into seven parts focusing on different sections and figures of the Bible (Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John of Patmos).

The sermons included in this book are nuanced and not black-and-white dogmatics. Peterson is not someone who is afraid to simply ponder a question and he writes of the importance of questions in dealing with the book of Job. God alone asks Job sixty-one questions in the one hundred and twenty-three verses of His response. He encourages us not to look for answers but to stop and actually listen to God's questions. 

He addresses not only the issues facing our culture, but also the Church itself. In his sermon entitled "Land of the Living," he writes:

We live in a culture that knows little or nothing of a  life that listens and waits, a life that attends and adores. What makes things even more difficult, we live in a church that knows even less of this life that makes friends with silence, a life that leaves time and space for the Holy Spirit to breath into our hourglass lives and form a mature Christ life. The consequences are alarming as our great Christian heritage becomes superficial by the decade, shallow and trivialized, noisy and glitzy with god-talk.

His sermons show that Peterson is not one of those interested in such noise and superficiality, but has a profound depth that comes from truly studying and meditating the subjects that he loves and writes about. These are sermons that the reader will not want to rush through but to slowly ponder and consider what the life of a follower of Christ really means in the context of scripture and culture. 

Eugene Peterson has a compassionate pastoral heart and his writing shows his attention to biblical details and deep theological issues presented in an understandable and yet comprehensive and contemplative way. Even the introductions that he wrote for each of the seven sections are well worth the read. With these sermons, there is no cheap moralizing but a grand magnifying of God. 

Like any great conversationalist, Eugene Peterson is relational in his communication skills and he uses language as if he were sitting down at a table to share with you in fellowship. And it's obvious that he views scripture in the same way, that it's a continuing dialogue between God and man. His writing is filled with nuances, rhythms and sounds that it makes it easier to hear Peterson speaking the words as one reads them on the page. There is a life to this theology that breathes and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the words that flow from the strength of the narrative. 

One of my favorite lines comes in the book comes from the sermon "Land of the Living" in which Peterson writes, ". . . there is a kind of initial willed passivity in which all truly Christian creative living begins, a silence and a waiting, attentiveness and adoration, a letting go and simply being here." It is sentences like that which make me simply sit and consider them for a while. He makes me aware of the need between congruence between my inner and outer, between what I read in scripture and how I live that out in my daily life. This book, like Peterson's previous ones, continue to make me reevaluate what it really means to call myself a disciple of Jesus. He helps me to reunite spirituality with theology, to be sensitive to Christ in this complex, ordinary life. This book is a gift to the reader and I,for one, am eternally grateful for his writing and his example. 

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is published by Waterbrook, a branch of Multnomah Publishers, and will be released on May 2017.

Official book trailer:

Peterson: In Between The Man & The Message:

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