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The Contemplative Pastor:

Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.

By Eugene H. Peterson.

Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989, 171 pp.

 

Review by Song Cheng Hock,

Adjunct Faculty, Counselling, BGST

Truth hurts. Truth also challenges us to re-examine­ the status quo, revise benchmarks and implement changes. This book tries to embody all that. It is an impassioned call to pastors to recover (and perhaps for some, to discover) the neglected art of spiritual direction. It has become a rare Protestant ecclesiastical craft because pastors­ are simply too busy "running the church." Eugene Peterson, a former pastor himself­, is keenly aware of the pastor's obligatory­ duties and responsibilities. So he is never dismissive. But he senses something is troublingly amiss - the busy pastor is not a contemplative pastor and consequently could not have practised spiritual direction! Busyness is an unacceptable excuse. "The word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection." The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterise a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous­ scandal, a blasphemous affront" (p. 17).  

This book is divided into three sections. The first section, Redefinitions, forms the backbone of the book. It advocates an "adjectival rehabilitation" of the word "pastor" (p. 16). Peterson fears that the word has been so domesticated and tainted by his own culture that its true essence has been compromised and damaged. Its unwritten agenda is contagious as it commends the industrious. It is not difficult to find pastors who are so overly preoccupied with their ministry that they miss its true essentials. Their unstinting devotion could be a facade to camouflage their need for significance­ and ironically their laziness. Their undiscerning submission to cultural expectations might earn them some polite respect. But in earnest retrospect, it could mean the pastor has lost his cutting edge so that "in parody we are usually treated as harmless innocents, in satire as shiftless parasites" (p.29). Thus that vocational designation necessitates a radical redefinition.

For any redefinition to be significant, it must not only recapture the inherent intentions, integrity and spirit of the word to be redeemed but also induct risky semantics. Here Peterson never disappoints­. He produces three unlikely adjectives­ unbusy, subversive and apocalyptic. Yet they are the very essence of the shepherd's ministry. Unbusy, so that he could have the time to cultivate a life of prayer, to immerse himself with the Scriptures when preparing his sermon, and to listen to his flock. Subversive, because the pastor's work is "shadow work" - unseen but effective through "prayer words with God, parable­ words with men and women" (p. 37). Apocalyptic because the pastor must "repeat and insist on these kingdom realities against the world appearances­" (p. 41).  

If the first section of the book is a description­ of what the pastor should be doing, the second section entitled Between­ Sundays, is a prescription­ for that work. The pastor­ is "to discover­ what God is (already) doing and live appropriately with it"(p. 61). That is the basic assumption of spirituality­. Without that awareness, spiritual direction­ is a futile and meaningless exercise. Consciousness of the divine must be a daily experience that can be realised only through deliberate contemplation­ and "since most pastoral­ work takes place on the six days, an equivalent attention­ must be given to them, practicing­ the art of prayer in the middle of the traffic" (p. 54).  

Here Peterson shows us how the pastor could be a curer of souls, use language and poetry in preaching and in prayer, engage in the art of small talk without being spurious and even planning­ a sabbatical. These are not just helpful instructions or useful information on the apprenticeship­ of spiritual direction. They are also Peterson's personal sharing of his own spiritual­ journey. He is not just a passionate campaigner for pastoral contemplation but a tested­ and seasoned practitioner as well.

The third and final section of the book entitled The Word Made Flesh is the shortest but also the most intense. It is a collection of Peterson's poems focussing on the incarnation, "the doctrine­ closest to pastoral work" (p. 156). It is commonly assumed that certain cryptic nuances are often embedded in most poetic structures. Fortunately, Peterson's reflections are more direct­ and are within the layman's literary grasp. There is no necessity to second guess its meaning­.

However, readers might be uncomfortable with his obsessive enthusiasm over poetry. He is impatient with pastors who are disinclined to embrace it. He asks incredulously, "Is it not significant that the biblical prophets and psalmists were all poets? It is a continuing curiosity­ that so many pastors whose work integrates­ the prophetic and psalmic (preaching and praying), are indifferent to poets" (p. 156). Tough words. Too pushy perhaps? But that is the strength of this book. It forces the reader to think in the subterranean level of his own pastoral consciousness. It deserves to be among the top order of a pastor's "must read" and "yearly re-read" list. It will serve as a valuable point of reference for those who are serious about plying their pastoral craft. But be warned: it may lead to a paradigmatic vocational reformation!

CHAPEL NOTES

Chapel on the 22 Sept 2004 was taken by Dr Ng Peh Cheng. She shared some highlight of the Asia Theological Association triennial General Assembly held in Bangkok on Aug 2004.

A VCD clip was also shown to thank God for the 175 years of protestant faith in Thailand.

Chapel Speaker on 6 October will be Dr Aquila Lee.

NEWS BITS

1.       Please note that The Parable of Jesus by Dr Aquila Lee and Curriculum Theory & Development for Education Ministry by Dr Ng Peh Cheng will be rescheduled to next year, 2005.  

2. Mr Andrew Lee Boon Hui has been nominated as Student Representative of the BGST Alumni Network. Congratulations!

3.  Farewell to Ps Eman Kumar and Mr Mathews Abraham. They will be heading home to India on 9 Oct and 11 Oct respectively. May the Lord’s guidance and richest blessings be with them in their ministries

 

A Blessed Birthday to…

Mr Hosea Lai  29/9

Mrs Wong Kar Foon  29/9

Ms Wong Ee Kian  30/9

Mr Lim Yew Meng  30/9

Mr Freddie Ho  1/10

Dr Ling Moi Lin  2/10

Mr Michael Teo  2/10

Mr Leong Kwok Hoong  4/10

Mr Ralph Amirtharaj  4/10

Mr Chan Siew Kong  4/10

Mr Mangentang Matheus  6/10

Ms Caroline Lee  8/10

Ms Christina Goh  9/10

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