Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson

Jonah and the plant

The first book on the ministry which I’ve read since becoming a full-time pastor, Eugene Peterson’s Under the Predictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, was a perfect gift to me at the perfect time. Its author, of course, is best known for his Bible paraphrase/translation, The Message, but his best work by far is his series on spiritual theology for pastors.

Under the Predictable Plant finds its title and structure by mapping the vocation of the Christian minister onto the story of Jonah, and the book is divided into that Biblical narrative’s sections. “Buying Passage to Tarshish” cuts to the bone of the pastor’s ego, with Tarshish cast as the Shangri-La of all the acclaimed ministry that we want for ourselves. “Escaping the Storm” is about our ego trip to Tarshish leading us into personal and vocational crisis. “In the Belly of the Fish” is a celebration of coming to know the Christ of Holy Saturday in the tomb. “Finding the Road to Nineveh” covers the journey after our reorientation to obedience. Finally, “Quarreling with God under the Unpredictable Plant” engages the mixed motives and need for repentance we all continue to find mixed in with our faithful ministry work.

With all five pieces brought together, this is a book to return to. I am certain that sections that I thought I understood this time through will be ten times more pertinent (and humbling) on another reading in another time and place, because vocational journeys have stages, and I haven’t been through nearly all of them yet.

If you do some sort of vocational Christian service, even beyond local parish pastoring, this may well be a great book for you. I’ll let Eugene Peterson demonstrate why:

Men and women are called by God to a task and provided a vocation. We respond to the divine initiative, but we humbly request to choose the destination. We are going to be pastors, but not in Nineveh for heaven’s sake. Let’s try Tarshish. In Tarshish we can have a religious career without having to deal with God.

It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish. At this moment, I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie. Pastoral work consists of modest, daily assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.

Preaching Small

One of the problem areas I have begun to notice when critiquing my own preaching is my tendency to add theologically dense passages, a practice which I am convinced is never helpful and ever-tempting. From just this past week, part of my conclusion:

This is the work that Christ has done. By the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Virgin Mary, at his birth God the Son was united not just with humanity, but with the entire creation. In his death, Jesus showed he would die for love of a dying creation. In his resurrection, he showed he will resurrect and redeem all of creation, completing that task when he returns in glory, but beginning that task in us now.

On a given Sunday morning, I have been working hard for twenty-plus minutes to help a whole congregation to gel as one and to focus in on something important the Lord is saying to us, and then right at the climax, I shout, “Look over there!”

Why do I do it?

First, I am inexperienced. I’ll make sure to put that out there. Second, I like theology. Third, I like words.

Something more important is happening, though: I have failed to recognize that the sermon as we generally define it—that period of exegeting Scripture, comforting and challenging a congregation—is only one part of the proclamation of the Gospel which happens in Christian worship. The sermon is only one piece of the Sunday liturgy, which is only one day in a liturgical year, which is only one year in the life of a Christian, which is only one life in the communion of saints.

I am small, and that is a good thing. Those twinned truths are the beginning of worship, and as such they need to form my sermon each week. My sermon is small, and that is a good thing. I don’t need to say or do everything. I need to do one part. I need to say one thing. And I need to let everyone and everything else perform their parts.

Very practically on a Sunday morning, our prayers are part of the proclamation, and so is our singing, our offering, our gathered prayer, and so is the Creed, and so is our confession and absolution, and so is our gathering at the Table. The challenge is this: can I let those things bear the load of the proclamation, so that my small part we call “sermon” can be comfortable just being its small but important self?