November 29, 2014

Practice Resurrection, part one

Today’s post is by guest blogger Chaplain Mike.

Here on Internet Monk, Michael has made no secret of the fact that he is a huge fan of pastor, author, and professor Eugene Peterson. And I am right there with him in my admiration of Peterson’s writings.

If you would like to go back and read some of what Michael has said about the man and his writings, here are some posts from the iMonk archives about Peterson:

Though best known in popular circles as the author of The Message paraphrase of the Bible, it is Peterson’s earlier works on what it means to be a pastor and his devotional books and Bible studies that I have long loved and treasured as encouragements for my spiritual life and ministry.

The other day I received my copy of Eugene Peterson’s new book, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. In this work, Peterson has his readers contemplate the message of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to help us learn what it means to, “grow up to the full stature of Christ.”

This is the final book in Peterson’s “Conversations on Spiritual Theology” series. Each book is deeply insightful and well worth reading. The other four are:

  1. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology
  2. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading
  3. The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way
  4. Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers

I plan to put up several posts on what Eugene Peterson has to say in Practice Resurrection. I hope you will join the conversation.

In my view, Eugene Peterson has been one of the most thoughtful and eloquent critics of American Christianity. In the introduction to Practice Resurrection, he takes on the subject of how we have handled spiritual growth.

We cannot overemphasize bringing men and women to new birth in Christ. Evangelism is essential, critically essential. But is it not obvious that growth in Christ is equally essential? Yet the American church has not treated it with an equivalent urgency. The American church runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth—getting people into the church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs. We turn matters of growing up over to Sunday school teachers, specialists in Christian education, committees to revise curricula, retreat centers, and deeper life conferences, farming it out to parachurch groups for remedial assistance. I don’t find pastors and professors, for the most part, very interested in matters of formation in holiness. They have higher profile things to tend to.

Americans in general have little tolerance for a centering way of life that is submissive to the conditions in which growth takes place: quiet, obscure, patient, not subject to human control and management. The American church is uneasy in these conditions. Typically, in the name of “relevance,” it adapts itself to the prevailing American culture and is soon indistinguishable from that culture: talkative, noisy, busy, controlling, image-conscious.

…Not long ago a pastor who has made an art form of pole vaulting from church to church told me that I was wasting my time on this, there was no challenge to it, it was about as exciting as standing around watching paint dry.

I suggested to him that most of our ancestors in both Israel and church have spent most of their time watching the paint dry, that the persevering, patient, unhurried work of growing up in Christ has occupied the center of the church’s life for centuries, and that this American marginalization is, well, American. He dismissed me. He needed, he said, a challenge. I took it from his tone and manner that a challenge was by definition something that could be met and accomplished in forty days. That’s all the time, after all, that it took Jesus.

For far too long now, with full backing from our culture, we have let the vagaries of our emotional needs call the shots. For too long we have let ecclesiastical market analysis set the church’s agenda. For too long we have stood by unprotesting as self-appointed experts on the Christian life have replace the “full stature of Christ” with desiccated stick figures.

That’s a powerful critique.

Peterson’s counter-cultural answer is for the church to “practice resurrection,” to learn to walk with Jesus in a reality that is not of our own making or controlling.

I can’t wait to see what he has to say. Hope you’ll join the journey and the conversation.

Comments

  1. This sounds like a great book, Pastor Mike. I recently read his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology and loved it. I also have his The Message and enjoy his paraphrasing of the Bible. He really brings it to life. I would say Eugene Peterson is the real deal. I love him.

  2. The passage quote from Peterson, particularly the last paragraph, reminds me of iMonk’s description of discount Jesus. Smiley-face Jesus, cool Jesus, I’m okay you’re okay Jesus; any version of Jesus that markets well is just a poor faxsimile of the real thing. The guys I run with have been doing a lot of study on suffering lately. Hebrews 2 describes how Jesus sufered and why God chose suffering, and 1 Peter 2 calls us to imitate Christ when we suffer. Peace-sign Jesus doesn’t know anything suffering, so he must not be the author and finisher of our faith.

    I think Perterson is onto something we should all be able to get behind; we should be conformed to the image of Christ rather than remaking his image into something everyone can appreciate without offense. We need to study and understand the hard sayings of Jesus, rather than explain why they are not hard. I look forward to what comes next.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Smiley-face Jesus, cool Jesus, I’m okay you’re okay Jesus; any version of Jesus that markets well is just a poor faxsimile of the real thing.

      I think you could say something similar about just about anybody; it’s the difference between a cartoon of someone and the actual person.

  3. Well ok then. It looks like I’ll have to throw this book on top of the really, really, really ridiculously long list of books I’m trying to get to reading. Peterson is brilliant. And I share his frustration that when he tries to explain the above claims to your average generic-evancelical-who-is-really-a-baptist-and-doesn’t-know-it, they can’t seem to grasp it whatsoever. The church in America has failed to produce little Christs, the sooner we wake up to it the better. It is time to get on our knees and repent, going about the work to which we were originally called; walking in newness of life, not strategizing for converts.

  4. I remember a quote from a period move where a Roman said, “Chastity is a virtue best admired in others.” I have a feeling that Americans would say the same of spiritual depth. It is appealing, but only as a spectator phenomenon.

    If we are to look for solutions, however, I suspect we cannot succeed by targeting The Church. Our only real hope is in individuals. Jesus focused on 12 and seems to have done remarkably well by them over the long haul. Like leaven, I think we should work quietly, almost silently, while the dough around us responds to the influence. I doubt that a program or movement or advocacy group stands much chance of success. Rather, the personal influence of one Christ-follower on his neighbors will achieve over the long haul what needs to be done.

    • So true Mr. Presley! It’s easy to admire virtue from afar, but it takes so much work to develop it within ourselves!

      And indeed nothing inspires like the example from those we know and admire. People can form groups and associations and try to stimulate a response, but what’s most effective generally happens slowly and organically. Long story short – Christianity needs more saints! And more people trying to be saints!

    • Gandhi said “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Imagine if Gandhi could see us now what he’d say.

    • very well said Rick; yes, I suspect this will be a very sneaky revolution. the good news, ?? look at the radical nature of the 1st century revolution started by a mere handfull.

      nice post
      Greg R

    • Good insights, Rick. I agree that there’s not much use in trying to target or instigate fundamental reforms in The Church — by which I take it you mean these long-standing religious institutions that dominate Christendom. Institutions of any kind, but particularly those of the religious variety, tend to be resistant to fundamental change by their very nature. They’re a lot like physical buildings in that sense. You can perform renovations or make additions to a building quite easily. But when it comes to making alterations at a foundational level, that is very difficult, if not impossible — not without threatening to bring the whole structure down.
      Maybe we just need to expand our definition of The Church beyond traditionally established institutional boundaries. Jesus said that He would be present if only two or three people were gathered together in His name. So, maybe, one person discipling another or a family or group of friends pursuing Christ together fits Christ’s perception of His church just as much as any denomination or institution containing thousands or even millions of believers. I know many Christians would reject this view, but maybe it really is that simple — that whenever God’s people get together in Christ’s name to pursue His purposes, regardless of the setting or the number of people involved, we actually become His body and His church. If that is true, then we are not part of The Church only when we “go to church” — but, rather, we are The Church any time and any where there’s more than one follower of Christ in the same place, even if those gathered are members of different church institutions or denominations. Christians of different denominations and traditions worshipping, seeking, and serving Christ together? — And also viewing themselves as The Church in a way that is not limited to specific church or denominational boundaries? Now that’s a revolution I’d like to see in my lifetime.

  5. Glad to hear it’s out! For me, Peterson, Willard and Nouwen have been the most prophetic, pastoral and accessible (well, maybe not Willard :) in pointing us back to living the Christian life in the Jesus way.

  6. Eugene Peterson writes, “Typically, in the name of ‘relevance, it [the American church] adapts itself to the prevailing American culture and is soon indistinguishable from that culture: talkative, noisy, busy, controlling, image-conscious.”

    I wonder if the noise and business is because the church is evangelical or whether the evangelical church has simply been overcome by sweeping cultural changes. In other words, if we get rid of the noise and business, is evangelical Christianity worth preserving? Or is it a phenomenon that may very lead us to abandon all of Protestant Christianity and join the Holy Roman Church?

    • Tom Huguenot says:

      Well, the thing is, American Evangelicalism is not “Protestant Christianity” as a whole, and, for that matter all American evangelical churches are not talkative, noisy, busy, controling and image conscious.

      My father-in-law has been pastoring a small church (like 50 in attendance on a given Sunday) for 35 years and I do not find in his ministry and in the life of this church the problems that are so often mentioned on IM.

      This being said, I certainly not believe that evangelical Christianity (whether American or its tiny European franchise) is worth preserving. Actually, the sooner it falls, the better. Now, I could say the same thing about the kind of Protestant liberalism I was raised in or the different trends within Roman Catholicism.

      I am a fairly conservative guy theologically speaking but working daily in secularized Europe makes me think that a massive change of pardigm is inevitable and that none of our churches will remain untouched by it.

  7. When in Papua New Guinea as an “american” missionary I discovered a Christian walk in European missionaries that had some extra umph in it. The main thing seemed to me to be their willingness to embrace suffering while walking in obedience to Christ. This puzzled me, maybe it shouln’t, however it did. Peterson raises the bar for Americans.

    • To live is to suffer.

      I believe that the handicapped who suffer abuse and neglect are the heroes of the Christian faith. It is my intention to embrace my own neglect and suffering so that I may enter heaven fully aware of the sufferings of Christ.

      May God never deliver me for His glory.

  8. It’s so true that because spiritual growth doesn’t have the same glamour, it usually doesn’t get much attention. People often make the criticism of Christianity that there is no huge, discernible difference between Christians and non-Christians. Perhaps this is why. It takes a lot of effort and discipline to continue to grow in Christ throughout an entire lifetime – and most people don’t (or won’t) make the effort. Let’s pray that in the next decade there will be a new emphasis on this supremely important growth!

  9. Denise Fath writes above, “Let’s pray that in the next decade there will be a new emphasis on this supremely important growth!”

    Yes, I agree, Denise. (And I clicked on your name to take a look at your blog and you have written some great stuff there!)

  10. This is something I’ve been praying for and working at in my own walk lately. For me, the Prayer Book has been the biggest practical help. I remember the leader of a Messianic Jewish group once tell me that when it comes to becoming more Torah observant (which is definitely the classic Jewish method of spiritual formation), you “don’t eat the whole elephant at once.” Kosher-related irony aside, that is very good advice for any spiritual formation. If we look at the goal, it seems totally unobtainable. But by making little changes here and there, we build those spiritual muscles. Taking some advice from Fr. Brian Taylor (Spirituality for Everyday Living: An Adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict), I’ve begun to use the Daily Office devotions as the starting point. I’ve found a few things: 1) it helps me think about God more throughout the day. 2) While I might sometimes miss the Noon or Early Evening devotion, the Morning and At the End of the Day ones are now hard to miss. 3) The places in the devotions reserved for optional personal prayers has helped to build up my sensitivity for more intercessory prayer as it reminds me to pray for others. 4)The liturgical prayer has led to better prayer in general. So, yeah, little steps that will lead to bigger ones :)