Attending to the Details of Congruence

No one has to remind the forsythia bush outside my dining room window to break forth into yellow luminescence as an announcement that spring has come.  The sassy gray squirrel steals shamelessly from the bird feeder “according to his kind,” and the chickadee scolds and stitches up the air behind her — because that is what chickadees do.  Of all God’s creation, it is only humanity that struggles toward congruence of our inside with our outside, of our calling and our walking.  Gerard Manley Hopkins captures the beautiful true-to-essence behaviors of stones and dragonflies, of violin strings and bells in his classic poem As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire and nodding in agreement with his conclusion, Eugene Peterson has borrowed the title for his 2017 compilation of sermons taken from 29 years of preaching from a pulpit in Maryland.

Peterson concludes that part of spiritual formation is living into this congruence between “the means by which we live” and “the ends for which we live.”  For humans, this is not a mindless outcome of biology and physics, but rather a living out of the Christ life, one glorious manifestation of Hopkins’ “ten thousand places” in which Christ plays.

This witness from a poem — along with his realization that there was a disconnect between his preaching and his deepest convictions of what he should be doing as a pastor — marked the beginning of a new way of viewing ministry for Eugene Peterson.  He began to see his congregation “just as they were, not how [he] wanted them to be.”  He stopped viewing them as “either problems to be fixed or resources to be exploited.”  The new collaborative relationship, in worship and in life, is reflected in this collection of forty-nine sermons arranged in seven sections:

Part 1:  Preaching in the Company of Moses

Although Peterson addresses his introductory material to those who preach for a living, those of us who teach or write (for a life) will be enriched by insights like this:

“Is it possible to take the Torah apart historically and then put it back together again as a book of faith with theological and literary integrity?  I think it is.  It is not only possible but worth any effort it might take.”  (6)

With that in mind, the seven sermons in this section are designed to “nourish the storytelling imagination” (7) through stories in Genesis that reveal the nature and character of God.  Abraham, the friend of God; Moses, the signpost pointing to Christ; and a stunning analysis of Leviticus 19:18 that takes the focus off the law and the lists and puts it on love:  “the primary verb in our Scriptures.” (37)

Part 2:  Preaching in the Company of David

Sermons based on the Bible’s prayer book, the Psalms, drive home the truth that “prayer is an act of attention.”  Reading through the Old Testament right now with my patient husband, we are hopping back and forth between David-on-the-run and David the lyricist.  Since “everything that happened in David’s life became prayer,” I am encouraged to let my own context flow seamlessly into conversation with God.  Seven sermons from the Psalms bridge Old and New Testaments with surprising connections that encourage me to look for ways in which  my own story is woven around and through listening prayer.

Part 3:  Preaching in the Company of Isaiah

I saved this chapter for last (like dessert) because Isaiah is my favorite prophet, and I was not disappointed.  The jarring realism of the prophetic word gets ample play in Peterson’s analysis:

“Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call.  And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be.”

A right reading of the prophets protects us from dividing the secular from the sacred, setting off a safe place for a tame God to act, and then tending to our own business in the “real life” category.  “Prophets will have none of this.”  Everything is God’s, and the flood of His holiness knocks down the dividing walls and brings everything under His scrutiny and jurisdiction.

Part 4:  Preaching in the Company of Solomon

I doubt if I’ve heard seven sermons in my whole life taken from Old Testament Wisdom literature, so I’m in dire need of the enhanced “quotidian imagination” Peterson writes of: an “imagination soaked in the ordinary, the everyday.”  With characteristic clarity, Peterson notes a “polarity” among these books in which the Song of Solomon and Job contrast ecstasy with devastation while the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contrast the sacredness of the everyday round with the determination to persevere in spite of the mundane details.

“In these books, human experience as the arena in which God is present and working is placed front and center.”

Part 5:  Preaching in the Company of Peter

In addition to his letters, Peter’s voice vibrates behind Mark’s in the second gospel.  With this in mind, the “incarnational storytelling” of the New Testament takes on an electrical quality.  Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ” arises from three years of intimate research, meals on the road, sharing of daily space. While we may struggle to embrace the human side of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, Peter would have had no doubt.

When he made his insightful statement that Jesus is “the Christ,” what Peter was really saying was this:  “You are God among us.”  And no sooner had he come to this elaborate conclusion, but God the Son began the process of introducing the notion that He would die.  Nowhere else do we witness this degree of conceptual whiplash between the idea of Jesus as “God through and through” and “human through and through.”

Peterson’s inclusion of his sermon on “the manure story” feels almost like bonus content, for it presents a four verse parable about an unproductive fig tree as an invitation to join God in the slow (and sometimes messy) solution to a presenting problem:  Be quiet in the presence of death while waiting for new life to emerge.

Part 6:  Preaching in the Company of Paul

Prolific Paul is described as “the gold standard in the world of theology,” and Peterson dips his brush into seven of Paul’s letters to illustrate four elements of Paul’s “theological imagination:

  1.  His submission to Scripture —  “Paul is not an independent thinker figuring things out on his own. . . As he writes his letters, Paul’s mind is entirely harnessed to Scripture.” (269)
  2. His extravagant embrace of mystery — “There is a kind of mind, too common among us, that is impatient of mystery.  We want to know what is going on.  But such impatience short-circuits maturity.” (271)
  3. His use of language — “Ivory tower intellectuals and rubber-hits-the-road pragmatists like things organized and orderly.  That is not the kind of language we find in Paul.  Paul uses words not to define but to evoke.” (272)
  4. His words came to us through letters in accessible terms – “Theology is not talking about God but living in community with persons in relationships . . . [Paul’s} theology was written in community with a host of people in the context of living out the faith.”  (273)

Part 7:  Preaching in the Company of John of Patmos

John’s writing emphasizes Jesus’ conversations and His prayers.  As a lover of the Word, Peterson throws the spotlight on John’s easy familiarity with the Old Testament:  in Revelation’s 404 verses, there are 518 references to earlier scriptures.  John wrote in three different genres, but all with the heart and soul of a pastor, communicating in love to a group of believers.  Perhaps it is for this reason that Eugene Peterson’s pastoral heart is apparent in this final section:

“As it turns out, in this business of living the Christian life, one of the most neglected aspects in reading the Scriptures is reading them formatively and imaginatively, reading in order to live.

“Worship God. . . Worship gathers everything in our common lives that has been dispersed by sin and brings it to attention before God.”

As Kingfishers Catch Fire captures the heart and wisdom of a pastor with a sense of calling and a deep knowledge of Scripture.

With an overwhelming volume of content available online and so many new books being published every month, these “kingfisher sermons” stand by themselves in their timeless application of Scriptural truth to boots-on-the- ground living.  I can’t think of a thing on Netflix or anywhere else that I would bother to “binge watch,” but I most heartily enjoyed (and highly recommend) the “binge-reading” of Eugene Peterson’s sermons.

//

This book was provided by Waterbrook, a division of Penguin Random House via Blogging for Books in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Read more about Eugene Peterson and As Kingfishers Catch Fire at these sites provided by Multnomah.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

33 thoughts on “Attending to the Details of Congruence”

  1. I recently listened to Krista Tippet’s interview with Eugene Peterson (maybe it was a rerun? but it was new to me). So I’m especially happy to see this compilation of his sermons here. He has a way of bringing the scriptures to such relevance for me. I’ll look into this book. Thanks, Michele!

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    1. Yes, I’ve listened to that as well, and would love to re-listen. His wisdom is so accessible, and this collection of sermons really does satisfy my curiosity as to what it would have been like to sit under his ministry when he was pastoring a church.

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  2. Thanks so much for sharing about this book, Michele! I’ve always been fascinated by the way Eugene Peterson writes but to see his sermon titles and content makes me want to “binge read” his sermons! 🙂

    I love his quote “As it turns out, in this business of living the Christian life, one of the most neglected aspects in reading the Scriptures is reading them formatively and imaginatively, reading in order to live.” I’m passionate about scripture myself and this just reinforces it.

    I marvel at the fact so few Christians actually pick up the book and read for themselves. I guess they expect the Pastor to bottle-feed them!

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    1. I do love talking books with you, Jerralea! Eugene Peterson’s pastor’s heart comes through so clearly in his writing. I’m reading Practice Resurrection and Run with the Horses right now ((I know, I know . . . slow down, right?) and feel as if I am gulping great doses of truth.

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  3. I love reading your book posts. You give such a thorough look at the books you feature. Many of these, I would never have known about. You’re right that there is much overlap between preaching and writing!

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  4. I so agree there is a lot to take in from this book for us writers as well. Michele. Thanks so much for sharing all this wisdom. I love this: “Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call. And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be.” Such an important way to live.

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  5. This review has piqued my interest in getting this book for the way it would clearly enrich my lens of the windows through these great icons of the Bible. I also love your alliteration “sassy squirrel steals shamelessly”!! Thanks, my friend!

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  6. What a wonderfully written post! You made me want to run right out and get the book. I, too, love a well-crafted sentence and mourn biblical illiteracy. Thanks for a wonderful blog.

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  7. So much to learn about life and faith from these wonderful people in the Bible. Thanks for sharing these to us, Michele.

    And Happy Mother’s Day to you and to all moms here—biological or not.

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  8. Fascinating!! Love the image of forsythia! We had some in the yard around the house I grew up in, but I haven’t been blessed by their beauty in some time! This looks like a deep and insightful book! Blessings!

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  9. Such a well-written, thorough review. Love pastors who can view their congregation like Eugene – as people to have relationships with. 🙂 I have to admit, I struggle sometimes with this mentality, especially as an introverted person. I don’t really like being around people all of the time. Investing in people takes lots of effort and time, and it can be draining for sure! I’m so thankful for the people who’ve invested in me, so I strive to follow their example. 🙂

    Thanks for linking up with Literacy Musing Mondays. Have a blessed week!

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    1. I totally get what you’re saying. It’s so easy to let ourselves slip into being lazy with relationships — we have so much energy going in so many directions, and yet the priority needs to be people over projects. I need to be reminded of this all the time. Thanks for your honest sharing.

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  10. Michele, first of all, you must be a crazy-fast reader. I’m always amazed at the in-depth reviews and insights you share on your blog!

    Second, there is so much that could be said about what you’ve shard. But, I’ll say the thing that spoke to me the most was about David and prayers. I LOVED this: “everything that happened in David’s life became prayer,”

    God has been speaking to me about being more intentional in praying. And the thought of praying as a part of living, not just dedicating a certain time to pray in a day? That’s how I want to live. Thank you for this, friend.

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    1. I love reading Eugene Peterson on prayer. He conveys the truth of it as so simple and yet so profound. Right now I’m reading his thoughts on Ephesians in Practice Resurrection, and it’s just amazing. Thanks for your input, here, Jeanne, and for letting me know what resonated with you.

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  11. I have to say, I really like the observation that everything in David’s life became prayer, and the lesson you drew from it, about conversation with God in the course of your own life. Thank you for sharing!

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  12. Wow! This looks really good. I especially want to read the sermons on Revelation as I remain quite baffled by that book! Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com this week! Always a pleasure having you!
    Tina

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  13. Your book posts are always so thorough. You always introduce me to books I would’ve never otherwise heard about. Thanks for linking up to #fridayfrivolity! Xx

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    1. Wow, that’s good to know! Sometimes I wonder how reviews are being received — and also if people share my interests and genre preferences. Like you, I enjoy reading a review of a book that is not my normal reading material.

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