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.

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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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