A new weekly series is beginning on rmkocak.com by the title of Preview Mondays (PM). Last year with JD Walt and friends, we envisioned a new way to look at book reviews. Instead of a pessimistic review of a book, we desired to provide a comprehensive exposure to the substance of the book. We eventually came up with a format that went by the code name, “The Big Idea Preview.” It consists of a brief summary, the “big idea” of the book, two “little ideas”, and finally the take-away for the reader. By the end of reading one of the book previews, the reader should know what they can expect from the book and whether or not they are interested in picking it up and reading it for themselves.
A few months ago, I was in the ordination process to become a Presbyter (Priest) and read through a series on Pastoral Theology books by Eugene Peterson with Father Joe Boysel. I first read “The Contemplative Pastor” and wrote a review on it in August, but since getting ordained shortly thereafter, I didn’t get around to writing about the others. Today I amend that with my preview of “Working the Angles.”
Eugene Peterson needs to be read in his context: an age of the unaware religious consumer and the religious shopkeeper. The pervasiveness of marketing these days is not limited to only businesses and government, but now the church. Peterson in “The Contemplative Pastor” pointedly said that Pastors are leaving their posts by the thousands to become shopkeepers, even if their product is a pre-packaged, sanitized, domesticated religious product. Peterson builds on this critique by looking at the “shape of pastoral integrity.”
THE BIG IDEA:
Most of what we see in a triangle is lines. The lines come in various proportions to each other but what determines the proportions and the shape of the whole are the angles.
The visible angles of pastoral work are preaching, teaching, and administration. The small angles of this ministry are prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction.
Working the Angles, page 5
This quote summarizes the governing thesis of Peterson’s work. It is the unseen and seamlessly invisible aspects of the Pastor’s work that matter immensely in the visible ministry that the parish sees. Peterson in his layout out the book works out this thesis in a beautiful and sweeping story of three angles: “prayer”, “Scripture”, and ” spiritual direction.”
For Peterson these are the foundation of being a successful and faithful Pastor according to Scripture and church history. You can build a huge, luxurious, extravagant house and fill it with a lot of cool decorations; however, it will not last long if the foundation isn’t strong enough to support it. As Peterson puts it, “If we get the angles right (prayer, scripture, spiritual formation) it is a simple matter to draw in the lines (preaching, teaching, and administration). But if we are careless with or dismiss the angles, no matter how long or straight we draw the lines we will not have a triangle, a pastoral ministry.”
LITTLE IDEA #1
“The life of faith is not DONE to us but DEVELOPED in us by commanding and blessing words that are completed in words of obedient assent and willing praise. All the parts of our lives and all the parts of our history are addressed by God and then answered by us.”
Working the Angles, page 62.
One of the strongest sections in the book is on prayer and the extent by which Peterson frames it. He helpfully gives many ‘modes’ of prayer and connects it to something that we cease to “do” or “perform”, but it eventually becomes a way of life, a natural rhythm of our souls, offering words of blessing and praise and receiving from the Lord. Prayer also resists one of the major “spiritual forces of wickedness in our present evil age”, namely instant fulfillment, the ungodly ethic of busyness, a works based practice of the discipline of prayer.
Peterson highlights the often “bipolar” prayer life of Pastors by looking at the controversy between Pelagian (we earn salvation) and Augustine (grace not works).
“We are, most of us, Augustinians in our pulpits…But the minute we leave our pulpits we are Pelagians. In our committee meetings and our planning sessions, in our obsessive attempts to meet the expectations of people, in our anxiety to please, in our hurry to cover all the bases, we practice a theology that puts our good will at the foundation of life and urges moral effort as the primary element in pleasing God.”
Peterson suggests that part of the angle of prayer is keeping sabbath and healthy daily rhythms. During sabbath isn’t the time to pragmatically perform the chores or catch up on work, but instead it should be characterized by praying and playing.
LITTLE IDEA #2
“Spiritual direction means taking seriously, with a disciplined attention and imagination, what others take casually. “Pray for me” is often a casual remark. The spiritual director gives it full attention. All those movements in life when awareness of God breaks through the crust of our routines – a burst of praise, a pang of guilt, an episode of doubt, boredom in worship – these take place all the time and are mentioned from time to time in half-serious ways while we are on the run to something big or important.
Being a spiritual director means a readiness to clear space and arrange time to look at these elements of our life that are not all the peripheral but are central – unobtrusive signals of transcendence. By naming and attending and conversing, we teach our friends to “read the Spirit” and not just the newspapers.”
Working the Angles, page 151-152.
Peterson demystifies the term “spiritual director” and simply frames it as being and doing the things you would think a pastor would do for people. Spiritual direction is not about preaching and leading bible studies and admin meetings for a large group of people. It is a highly personal ministry and asks the soul questions that are personally going in your life. Spiritual direction is how you respond when someone says, “Pray about this, what should I do about this, help me get through this sorrow, pain, etc… ” We sit with these questions and comments, making them a priority and giving them attention as we seek God’s grace and wisdom to apply scriptural truth in a personal situation.
There are three convictions that underpin spiritual direction meetings according to Peterson:
- God is always doing something: an active grace is shaping this life into a mature salvation.
- Responding to God is not sheer guesswork: the Christian community has acquired wisdom through the centuries that provides guidance.
- Each soul is unique: no wisdom can simply be applied without discerning the particulars of this life and situation.
Spiritual direction (like all the angles) calls pastors to be counter-cultural, “The culture conditions us to approach people and situations as journalists: see the big, exploit the crisis, edit and abridge the commonplace, interview the glamorous. But the Scriptures and our best pastoral traditions train us in a different approach: notice the small, persevere in the commonplace, appreciate the obscure.”
THE TAKE AWAY
This book is not for the feint of heart. If as a pastor you are satisfied running the church like a corporation and overvalue the visible aspects of pastoring to the hidden work that pays little earthly dividend, then you should go read one of the many other books on “how to _____ .” If however, you burned out, weary, jaded, needing a fresh vision for how to care for a parish then this is the read for you!
Peterson casts a vision for pastors that is a narrow road and a stark contrast to the width of the modern pastoral highway. Peterson’s vision is cogent and compelling for those Pastors who want to get back to the simple way of being a Pastor and the practices that throughout the history of the church were the foundations of the pastoral ministry: prayer, scripture, and spiritual formation.