December 16, 2017

Eugene Peterson on Jesus-Shaped Spirituality

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The Christian community is interested in spirituality because it is interested in living. We give careful attention to spirituality because we know, from long experience, how easy it is to get interested in ideas of God and projects for God and gradually lose interest in God alive, deadening our lives with ideas and the projects. This happens a lot. Because the ideas and projects have the name of God attached to them, it is easy to assume that we are involved with God. It is the devil’s work to get us worked up thinking and acting for God and then subtly detach us from a relational obedience and adoration of God, substituting our selves, our godlike egos, in the place originally occupied by God.

Jesus is the name that keeps us attentive to the God-defined, God-revealed life. The amorphous limpness so often associated with “spirituality” is given skeleton, sinews, definition, shape, and energy by the term “Jesus.” Jesus is the personal name of a person who lived at a datable time in an actual land that has mountains we can still climb, wildflowers that can be photographed, cities in which we can still buy dates and pomegranates, and water which we can drink and in which we can be baptized. As such the name counters the abstraction that plagues “spirituality.”

Jesus is the central and defining figure in the spiritual life. His life is, precisely, revelation. He brings out into the open what we could never have figured out for ourselves, never guessed in a million years. He is God among us: God speaking, acting healing, helping. “Salvation” is the big word into which all these words fit. The name Jesus means “God saves” — God present and at work saving in our language and in our history.

The four Gospel writers, backed up by the comprehensive context provided by Israel’s prophets and poets, tell us everything we need to know about Jesus. And Jesus tells us everything we need to know about God. As we read, ponder, study, believe, and pray these Gospels we find both the entire Scriptures and the entirety of the spiritual life accessible and in focus before us in the inviting presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh.

• Eugene Peterson
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology

Comments

  1. Brianthedad says:

    Amen.

  2. Without the Jesus I meet in the New Testament, I’m completely lost. I still struggle with my doubts, I still have my suspicions that the whole edifice of the Bible and Christianity is built on a massive cloud of illusion, nothing but a thick forest of human projects and human projections through which nothing, and no one, can be clearly seen. But the figure of Jesus is a light that shines in the darkness of the Bible itself, of Christianity itself, and it, and he, draws me; that light has caught me up. Whether I’m like a moth flying blindly into the light of certain death, or a lost wanderer in the wilderness following the light that leads home, only time will tell.

    • “. Whether I’m like a moth flying blindly into the light of certain death, or a lost wanderer in the wilderness following the light that leads home, only time will tell.”
      That is the allure of Christ. Like the disciples I say, “To whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” Then as Paul said, ” ..I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.” If this is grand delusion, so be it.

    • We’re all in that boat with you, man. I’ve come to the conclusion that if there isn’t eternal hope in Jesus, then there’s no such thing as eternal hope. And even if we turn out to be wrong, we’ll never know it. We’ll just go out like a used-up light bulb, and that will be that. Mostly I take hope in a strong sense that He has really taken up residence inside me. Such a sense is far from scientific evidence and it’s terrribly subjective and inconsistent, but, somehow, it has sustained my faith through the years.

    • Yes, Robert. Beautifully said.

    • Not sure if this fits with your comment or not, Robert F, but here goes…

      Contemplating God’s Existence as
      I Sit in Church Worshipping Him
      (Rick Rosenkranz, 2014)

      God either is or He isn’t,
      and if He isn’t, then I believe
      in something that is Not,
      like 2+2=5.

      But that’s not exactly right,
      for God’s existence isn’t
      straightforward like an equation,
      and can’t be proven by math.

      No, believing in a God who isn’t
      is more like believing I have a soul
      when maybe I don’t,
      or believing in light

      when there is none.

      Do I want to believe
      there’s no light, no hope?

      But if God is, then I believe
      I have a soul when really I do,
      and I believe in an Almighty
      who’s as expansive as the universe,

      and I believe in a King
      who is as intimate as a friend
      and as gracious as Perfection,
      and I believe in light and hope

      when it looks like there is none.

      So I think I’ll believe,
      whether He is or isn’t.

      • I’m copying this.

      • Yes, except that for me it’s not a choice to believe. The figure of Jesus is in my imagination, in my bones and flesh. My heart can no more abandon that figure than my brain can escape from the skull that encases it. If this is indeed the result of some kind of choice that I made, then it’s a choice made in the most non-rational regions of my being, beyond the reach of logic and objectivity. I’m not engaging in Pascal’s Gamble; I’m not throwing the dice, I’m not rolling the bones. It’s more like I’m the dice, I’m the bones, being rolled.

        • I know what you mean. My poem doesn’t cover all aspects of the equation, just the “does God exist” idea. Jesus does sort of change some of that. For example, at one time I thought that for someone to believe in Jesus that they had to believe in God first. Now I wonder, do you suppose some people come to believe in God because of an encounter with Jesus?

          –> “It’s more like I’m the dice, I’m the bones, being rolled.”

          Do you think that’s a by-product of “Follow me”?

    • Exactly, Robert. Or, as I read it some years ago somewhere, following Jesus may lead us to Heaven, as He promised. Or it may be that He Himself believed that, and jumped over a cliff into the abyss. If so, I’m going to jump over the cliff with Him.

      Or, as the Jewish Leonard Cohen put it:

      Jesus was a sailor
      When He walked upon the water
      And He spent a long time watching
      From His lonely wooden tower,
      And when He knew for certain
      Only drowning men could see Him
      He said ‘All men will be sailors then,
      Until the seas shall free them.’

      But He himself was broken
      Long before the sky would open,
      Forsaken, almost human,
      He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.

      And you want to travel with him
      And you want to travel blind,
      And you think maybe you’ll trust him,
      For he’s touched your perfect body
      With his mind.

  3. turnsalso says:

    That was beautiful.

  4. “Jesus is the name that keeps us attentive to the God-defined, God-revealed life. The amorphous limpness so often associated with “spirituality” is given skeleton, sinews, definition, shape, and energy by the term ‘Jesus’…. Jesus is the central and defining figure in the spiritual life.”

    I recently reread Michael’s post “On Christless Preaching” and find myself asking this question: If a church consistently fails to make Jesus “the central and defining figure” in her worship and ministry, is it still a church?

  5. –> “The four Gospel writers, backed up by the comprehensive context provided by Israel’s prophets and poets, tell us everything we need to know about Jesus. And Jesus tells us everything we need to know about God.”

    This.

    I’m learning to appreciate more and more Eugene Peterson’s take on things.

  6. Burro [Mule] says:

    The panic attacks started when I was laid off from my cushy IT management position with a Fortune 50 company. I couldn’t sleep nights and had to have my whole family in the bedroom with me, and even then couldn’t find sleep until nearly dawn. Four months later, we suffered the 9/11 attacks, and the rest of the country joined me in my misery. What happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – the immediate search for a scapegoat, the Busholatry, the curtailing of civil liberties in the Patriot Act, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the creeping upward of gasoline and food prices , all of this led to a growing sense of insecurity and unease, and I remember asking the Lord in my prayers why He had to leave.

    “I’d be able to sleep nights, Lord Jesus, if You were the Secretary-General of the United Nations with plenipotentiary executive powers. There aren’t any grown ups in charge down here, and us kids are going to fvck things up so bad even You won’t be able to fix them.”

    The Lord doesn’t always answer me so quickly, but the response was immediate, and in a way that left little doubt that it was not my own subconscious speaking to me –

    “It is to your benefit that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Comforter will never come. If I go away, I will send Him to you.”

    Wow. Explain to me again how this is such an advantage, Lord.

    Now, I’m all for Jesus-shaped spirituality – learning about Jesus, emulating Jesus, praying to Jesus, and so forth. I wish the Orthodox Church would talk more about Jesus and less about Orthodoxy. I would like it even more if more Orthodox could talk about Jesus in the same way that a few Godstruck young longhaired kids did forty-five years ago, strumming their guitars in the park and asking passers-by if they “knew Jesus”.

    However, I think He had a reason for leaving and sending the Holy Ghost, and despite the seeming apocalypticality (is that a word?) of our times, I have feeling that the Holy Ghost is only beginning his mission.

    I need the Triune God.

    • Amen.

    • Mule you’ll be happy to know that Peterson grounds what he says in this book in a robust Trinitarian context. Perhaps on another day I’ll run one of those passages.

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        I wasn’t accusing him of being Apostolic Oneness. 🙂 I hope you can run that passage quickly. I would be very interested.

        Speaking v-e-r-y generally, I’d never experienced Trinitarian Christianity until I quit Protestantism. The noble Reformed were kinda gun-shy of the Holy Ghost, probably because of charismatic excesses. The less noble among them wanted to restrain him to being something of a nite-light shining on the Bible.

        • Christiane says:

          Hi MULE, I think that there must be some confusion about the Holy Trinity among some fundamentalist Christian people. I had the experience of reading this from a frequent commenter on a Southern Baptist blog:

          “. Therefore the Holy Spirit must be seperate from God Who is spirit. Further, notice in John 14:16-17 “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” Again, observe that Jesus refers to another Helper coming, meaning the Holy Spirit, not God the Father coming. Therefore, I would say that while God is Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is seperate from God. ”

          The individual was not pleased when I challenged his thinking, but he acknowledged that he had somehow ‘mis-spoken’. I told him it looked like he had ‘God’ and the “Father” conflated. He didn’t admit to it, but I think he saw my point.

        • Tomorrow’s post = Peterson on the Trinity.

    • I don’t know. My understanding, my experience, is that the Holy Spirit makes Jesus, in both his humanity and divinity, present everywhere. Otherwise what does it mean for him to promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age”? The presence of the Spirit is the presence of the Jesus who lives beyond death; heaven is in the depths of things, the Father’s right hand is in your own heart, and Jesus is at the Father’s right hand. And the Spirit hovers above the waters of chaos even now. In the case of the Trinity, and the economy of the Trinity, there seems to be more both/and than either/or.

    • And isn’t one of the reasons that Jesus “left” and sent the Holy Spirit so that the Incarnation could extend into everything, so that he might become “all in all”?

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        Yes, you are right.

        It is our fault that it is taking so long.

        • I know what it’s like to lay awake at night practically paralyzed with fear and anxiety. Peace to you, Mule. Peace.

  7. No single person has all the answers, or even most of them, but E. Peterson gives me the same feeling that Hosmer does when he goes yard with guys on base…. ALWAYS encouraged by, challenged by, lifted up by that guy (Peterson…. that is).

    Keep the E.P. train moving, Chappie, and go CUBS.

  8. Now I know why Peterson always makes so much sense to me: His focus is in the right place.

    This was an encouraging reminder to me at a time when I’ve been pretty discouraged by some of what I hear from some conservative evangelical friends who seem to have it all figured out, including exactly who’s going to hell and who’s not — all with pat answers and neatly wrapped up anecdotes. Meanwhile I’ve struggled to the point of asking God if the Christian faith I was raised with, steeped in and still hold to is the right one to find him or if I should try one or more other options. It’s one of the few times I got what I take to be a clear answer as a thought that wasn’t mine took shape in my head, that thought being that all religions offer some knowledge about God but only in Jesus do we see and know God himself offered to us, living among us, here for us.

  9. I know this isn’t exactly on par for the post, but my sister was in a horrific traffic accident this afternoon. Her Altima was hit by a log truck and ended up bouncing off both a pickup truck and a tractor-trailer. There is practically nothing left of the car. But my sister is okay. Bruised up and sore, to be sure, but no broken bones or internal injuries.
    I just felt like I needed to thank my Lord Jesus for my sister’s life.

    • Wow. Log truck, pickup and tractor-trailer!

      Every breath is a gift from God. Praise The Lord for some additional breaths of life for your sister. I’d love to see a picture of her car. If you end up getting one and are a member of the Internet Monk Facebook group, please post it.

    • Amen. Praying the insurance comes through and she’s back on the road healthy and safe soon.

    • Thanks, guys. Sorry I don’t have a photo to post. Just imagine a white Altima smashed in from the back so that the contents of the trunk ended up in the back seat area, and the rest of the car looking like it was attacked by angry gorillas. According to my sister, even the EMT’s and the highway patrolmen on the scene were amazed that she wasn’t seriously injured or killed.

  10. Continuing this idea thread a little…

    It’s not a good feeling to take care of someone who can take care of themselves. I find myself increasingly in that position. For years I was trying to be the responsible one who took care of friends, made sure they were doing good, going to church, etc. It was really bad with women. I was the Nice Guy, and i honestly did it with no expectation of anything in return, although most “Nice Guys” do.

    But it was also there with guys. One night, I had dinner with a friend, and he had polished off 3/4 of a bottle of Jameson before I got there. Drunk all night. Told me nearly nightly he loaded the gun and put it into his mouth. Only time I’ve ever seen him get emotional. In a flash, it scared me, and I wanted to take care, take charge, help him…and in the same second, I realized…not my problem. That IDGAF. Go ahead.

    I obviously did care. I sat and talked with him for hours. Reasoned, pondered, was a good friend. He seemed better when I left. But if I had woken up the next day to find out he’d kill himself, I wouldn’t have cared too much. Or, maybe, I’d have cared the proper amount. A friend would be gone, but in no way was it “my fault”, or “his blood on my hands”, or “if i leave he’ll do it”.

    A friend I’m getting to know recently opened up to me. Horrible childhood. Parents in jail or addicted to hard drugs, step parents abusive, was responsible basically for raising their own siblings. Before they got out when they turned of age, and went out and made a life for themselves. I envy that, i’d have been too afraid. And it’s horrible to think about. This is a normal person, I’d never have known if they hadn’t shared. I’m honored, and I take that trust seriously.

    So to tie this back into God, the recent U2 album, Songs of Innocence, deals with a lot of these themes. Addiction to heroin. Losing faith and gaining it back. Witnessing a mass murder bombing, and losing faith entirely. Pedophilia by priests. Being set free from abusive controlling religious institutions. All of it. If there’s any true Innocence on the album it’s at -0.00, before it’s lost.

    A line from the song The Troubles has been bouncing around my head a lot lately. I’ve had to step back from many people and not let myself be their caretaker. I neglected to take care of myself. Love yourself, know yourself, and out of that you can best help others. But the line has been sinking into me more and more, and I want to learn it’s lesson.

    Thanks for the good comments the other day, everyone. Feeling a little stuck and disappointed with a few things at the moment, but I know my life is better than ever, I’m just stuck in a moment, this time will pass.

    You think it’s easier
    To put your finger on the trouble
    When the trouble is you
    And you think it’s easier
    To know your own tricks
    Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

    I have a will for survival
    So you can hurt me
    And then hurt me some more
    I can live with denial
    But you’re not my troubles anymore

    Somebody stepped inside your soul
    Somebody stepped inside your soul
    Little by little they robbed and stole
    Till someone else was in control

    You think it’s easier
    To give up on the trouble
    If the trouble is destroying you
    You think it’s easier
    But before you throw me a rope
    It was the one thing I could hold on to

    I have a will for survival
    So you can hurt me
    And then hurt me some more
    I can live with denial
    But you’re not my troubles anymore

    Somebody stepped inside your soul
    Somebody stepped inside your soul
    Little by little they robbed and stole
    Till someone else was in control

    God knows it’s not easy
    Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain

    God now you can see me
    I’m naked and I’m not afraid
    My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed

    Somebody stepped inside your soul
    Somebody stepped inside your soul
    Little by little they robbed and stole
    Till someone else was in control