Wecome to Logia, the personal blog of Paul Hartwig. Reflections and resources to enhance understanding of what God has revealed of himself in Scripture.
No writer has helped me understand my task and identity as a pastor as Eugene Peterson has. The light that has shone forth from his many books in such relevant clarity and force has convinced me that he is one of today’s pastoral prophets, a pastor’s pastor with a message from God.
During my annual leave last year I took out his latest book 'The Pastor' from the Cape Town Baptist Seminary and listened with much relish as my wife read it to me. It so encouraged me as a pastor that I wanted to terminate my leave and get back to my congregation! In his biography he distills for us his essential convictions of what this mysterious calling of pastor is all about. All his pastoral books (there is a series of five books available) introduce us to an experienced guide who partners us in our endeavour to keep going due-north in this vocation as pastor. I would like to share with you in outline some of his pastoral confessions which I think are most necessary for us as pastors to hear in our time. I hope they will be as salt in your mouth sending you to drink first hand from this pastoral series.
Though Peterson is rightly famous for his most phenomenal achievement The Message, his life’s work has been radically pastoral. The Message grew out of his private attempts to get the message of Galatians into the lives of his TV indulgent congregation. He wanted Galatians to strike home to each of them as if it was written in the idiom of the TV guide or daily newspaper. So, he started working from the Greek text and transposed the meaning and message of the Greek text into the idiom of 20th century North American. His pastoral ambition was to get his congregation into Galatians in such a way that “after two years they wouldn’t know whether they were living in Galatia or America”. What he did in Galatians for his Bel-Air Presbyterian congregation, he went on to do in the other 65 books of the Bible for the entire world. The result was The Message - his greatest written pastoral act. Besides The Message, his writings in the more narrow field of pastoral theology and practise is, I believe, of similar significance. His distinctly personal help for pastors will be what I will share with you on in three issues of Baptists Today.
The greatest help that Peterson has given to me has been in the forming of a pastoral imagination. He has the ability to envision for us our vocation as pastors in a way that sends disaffected pastors back to their problem-riddled congregations with a hopeful realism born of understanding the staggering nature of what congregational life entails. He does this by insisting on a pastoral imagination.
Imagine yourself (!) walking onto a construction site. To your left and right are brick layers at their work. You approach one and ask him what he is building. ‘A wall’ he replies. You walk over to the other worker and ask him the same question. ‘A Cathedral’ is his answer. What is the difference between the two brick layers? Imagination. The way we look at things before us, how we see things, will determine our experience of the pastoral call. The imagination is our internal capacity to see the bigger picture and to connect the particular into the wonderful God-realities of His word and world. We are so busy rushing on in life, that we do not stop, look, and comprehend the staggering magnitude of the realities before us.
Peterson’s subtitle for his biography The Pastor distils this: ‘Every step an arrival’. When we pay attention to the particulars that are before us we can begin to appreciate what is here and the workings of grace in the present (i.e., the congregation). Peterson learned this inductive imagination from his father’s butcher’s shop. ‘Carving a quarter of beef into roasts and steaks was not a matter of imposing my knife-fortified will on dumb matter but respectfully and reverently entering into the reality of the material... respecting the material at hand... a submission of the will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of humility.’ Attentiveness to present conditions - which is the focus of love - is essential to pastoral work and imagination.
We pastors work with invisible and submerged realities that need to be seen imaginatively. This is why that great teacher of the Christian imagination C S Lewis put these words into the mouth of Lucy in his last book in the Chronicles of Narnia: ‘the inside is bigger than the outside’. This is the language of imagination. I think that what C S Lewis and G K Chesterton did for the culture of the mind, so Peterson is doing for the culture of the congregation.
Imagination is almost like faith. It is that which connects us to a bigger story, it is the bridge between what we see and what we do not see; it pulls us from what we immediately see into what we don’t see. When imagination involves trust and participation in the unseen, when we walk over the bridge and respond to God personally, then it becomes faith. Imagination and Faith are twins and always belong together - though imagination is the first-born! Hebrews 11 is clear evidence for this couple and their order. Yet for us who are pastors, we are not out doing acts of faith in Palestine like our predecessors in Hebrews 11, our particular terrain is the congregation; the immediate visible realities before us are people, the congregation. In our place, the bigger imaginative picture of the nature of this congregation in terms of its truly glorious dimension of Creation, Redemption and Consummation are revealed for us in Scripture. And because we pastors are called to be sentinels between the two horizons of the visible and invisible continents, we stand or fall by our ability or disability to see things clearly and significantly enough. “I charge you in the presence of God Timothy.....”.
What Peterson does in all his pastoral books is to call pastors back to the angles of pastoral imagination: attention to God, attention to His Word and attention to His people.