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.