Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Old Testament
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Eugene Peterson’s primary message and intent in Under the Unpredictable Plant is to depict his concept of “vocational holiness.”  Peterson employs the story of Jonah to describe the temptations that are common in pastoral ministry.  These temptations, the desire of ambition, are designated as “Tarshish”, Jonah’s destination in running away from God’s call.  The current culture of religion has made the Church a marketplace of religiosity.  It is an extension of the consumer society.  As a result, pastors are often more concerned about climbing the ladder of corporate success than being stable ministers at a location for the long haul.  The culture emphasizes personal gain over the community; the Church only mimics the mantra of self-absorption.

Tarshish is the utopian ideal and false fantasy that Peterson denotes as Ecclesiastical Pornography.  Pastors lust after the “perfect” congregation and excuse their infidelity as kingdom work.  Peterson is extremely harsh at this point because he feels that a pastor is more like a farmer than a CEO.  However, our culture inundates us with “success” that drives us to not care for the land (congregation) but “rape it for profit.”  We view the congregation as a stepping stone rather than a place to put down roots and grow.

Peterson also believes that pastors are in danger of replacing God in their ministries.  They stand in such a position as to speak for God that at times the pastor does not deem it necessary to be connected to God.  It is prayer-less activity that is lacking “askesis.”  Pastors forego discipline, not simply of flesh beating, but the discipline that leads to humility.  It trades in reflection and contemplation which leaves us spiritually hollow.  This powerless spirituality may be disguised under dynamic personalities and winsome campaigns or programs, but it lacks Spirit and Word.  It is dead spirituality.  Peterson admonishes pastors that prayer must be an integral part of the ecclesial life for there to be any substance.

Being a pastor is not a matter of utilizing power to change people.  It’s not re-packaging the culture’s method of getting things done.  Rather, it is like Dostoevsky’s character, Prince Myshkin.  Myshkin is able to move about and relate with various people who all try to use him.  However, Myshkin is “unusable” and not much good for anything, “he is simply good.”  He’s not playing the game of power politics.  He doesn’t bow to the cultural trends.  Rather, he simply is.  I think Peterson is trying to communicate that “we” don’t change people, God does.  We are simply open to be there as the embodiment of God’s presence, expressions of God’s love.  We do not need to convict, motivate, move, or coerce people into a certain mold or path.  Instead, we live out our faith which marks us as totally different from those around us.  Ironically, this makes others attracted to us, like they were to Myshkin.  Being a pastor is not what you do, but who you are.

The vision of “vocational holiness” does not relish in the glamorous duties of the pastorate.  There are moments and places for these things; they are not bad in and of themselves.  But, they are not, according to Peterson, our primary moments of significance.  The “best sellers” come in the lists of our daily activities; the mundane, routine, run-of-the-mill, every day things we participate in.  There are God-moments and God-stories happening in the “lists” of those situations.  We are called to see the things God is doing in us and those around us in the everyday moments of life.

The problem for pastors and congregations is that they lack imagination.  They have facts and are fluent in those realities, but lack the competence of imagining the unseen.  That’s why we record numbers and stats.  We cannot see, nor work with those realities that are not before us.  As such, “unimportant” people and regular routines become boring and irritating.  We lack the vision to capture the beauty in those moments and people.  We are blinded by the present, ignorant of God’s work that He is preparing and accomplishing in us.  Thus, the luring call of Tarshish echoes in our ear.

By Peterson’s own admission, his pastoral identity is shaped in large part by his mother’s work as a pastor to the outcasts of society.  She ministered to the rough and tumble workers of the small, rural community.  She taught them and loved them with a great passion that Peterson has adopted.  His mother was later hindered from doing ministry by a “bully”, which he resented.  This deep passion to minister within one’s local context, putting down roots, and giving stability to a place is not only identified in Jonah but in his mom’s ministry.

The second person of great import was his first spiritual director, Reuben Lance.  Lance was an imposing man that seemed anything but fit to be a spiritual director.  However, after two failed attempts, one with his pastor and the other with a “spiritual” lay-person, Peterson found Lance to be liberating.  The man did not impose his own agenda on Peterson, nor did he conduct a glorified Bible study to impute his wisdom upon the young man.  Rather, Lance simply listened and talked about the regular things of life.  He gave Peterson space to be and to learn.  It was a safe place to question and to search, to learn and discover.  This time of spiritual direction shaped Peterson’s idea of vocational holiness in a profound way.

The idea of a spiritual director is a necessary one, Peterson asserts, until a fuller understanding of the biblical role of a pastor is recovered within our society.  However, Peterson also believes that spiritual director as a title is a bit of a misnomer.  It could lead one to possibly misunderstand its intended purpose.  Despite this reservation, he believes it is a distinction from the typical role of messiahs and managers, both of which are necessary parts of the pastoral calling but can be equally misconstrued by our ego.  The spiritual director is primarily a role of “unknowing” and “uncaring.”

Peterson writes, “All the same, difficult or not, there is a long-standing conviction in the Christian community that there are moments when unknowing takes precedence over knowing, and uncaring takes precedence over caring.  A common term to describe these moments is ‘spiritual direction’” (187).  Spiritual direction is given to those who are of a certain “level of maturity, both in intellect and in virtue.”  We do not undertake this with everyone.  It is not the opportunity to instruct others, but much more of a dynamic give-and-take relationship.  It is someone that becomes a “soul-friend.”  It is being “modest enough and wise enough simply to be companions… in the becoming and the entering in… Clearing the ground.  Removing obstructions.  Affirming the Real Presence.  Listening for the still small voice” (190).  It is entering a story, using words, not only to communicate, to commune with one another.

In reading Under the Unpredictable Plant, I found myself in hearty agreement with the author.  I believe the role of the pastor has become distorted by the various pressures of the culture.  There is an enormous push in the Church to “be successful”, which inevitably entails pastoring a large church, writing books, getting the “proper” education.  None of these things are bad in and of themselves; however, we often place those who achieve these standards on a higher pedestal than those who do not go the “prescribed” route.

I know I have fallen into the trap of Tarshish.  Out of a desire to do good and be a good steward (sin always distorts the good), I have often become prey to pride.  I did not enter ministry to become a CEO, but I can see where I have been pressed into that type of mold and model.  But, as I gain knowledge and “stature” among colleagues and the general church, I sense the ambition rise like a coiled snake ready to strike.  I glad-hand the right people, say the proper incantations of greeting, and pose like a show dog competing for the prize… although as I think on it, I’m not sure what prize that might be.

It is in those moments of ambition that I become disdainful of my congregation, self-sufficient (oxy-moronic), and defiant against God’s plan.  When Tarshish is my destination of choice there is little in the way of prayer, contemplation, and reflection.  I become angry and discontented with the menial, repugnant, typical, mundane, ordinary situations that I go through on a routine basis.  I have no sense of wonder at God’s mighty works displayed for all to see, either in myself or in the lives of those whom I am called to serve.  In all, I become very much like Jonah complaining under the withered leaves of the unpredictable plant.

The underlying thread of vocational holiness can be none other than love: love for God and love for my neighbor.  It means that I must be connected to the source that is my life and communing with those in my surrounding context.  My imagination must see, not what is, but the potential held within each person.  I am called to see with eyes of faith the wonderful ways that God is transforming the lives of those around me.  It is listening to the still, small voice.

Beyond that sentiment, as a spiritual director I am not always called to be “knowing” and “caring”, although that is an integral part of pastoral ministry.  Rather, I am called to be what I like to term “the power of Presence.”  In some mysterious way, pastors represent the tangible presence of God to others.  That does not mean that we have and hold all the answers or that we must “fix” all of the problems.  Rather, at times, it means we must do the exact opposite.  It means that we must be willing to do nothing.  Perhaps better worded, it means that we are to “be still and know that I AM God.”  We marvel at our smallness before the majesty of God’s power, love, and mercy.



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