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Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, $18.95
Reviewed by David Hansen, pastor, Belgrade Community Church, Belgrade, Montana.
Trying to speed-read this book reminds me of a two-hundred mile drive I once took to a retreat center. There I would spend a few days walking, praying, resting, meditating. I was cruising down a wide-open Montana highway, pedal to the floor, pushing to arrive on time, when blazing-blue lights flashed in my rearview mirror.
I got a ticket for speeding to a retreat for quiet and contemplation.
After I cooled down from being ticketed, I realized I needed to slow down. Not so that I didn't get another ticket, but so that I wouldn't waste another second. By slowing down I began to notice where I actually was: the pines, the river, the big sky. I started to notice God. I started to pray. My retreat began on the way.
In Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson arrests speeding pastors, urging them to slow down to pray. This is not a book about how to deepen our prayer life, however, but about how to dive deep into prayer with our whole life.
"The task to which I have set myself, and in which I have found Jonah so much help, is to recover an awareness of the comprehensive and integrating reality of prayer-particularly for pastors," writes Peterson, a pastor for 29 years and now professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.
Under the Unpredictable Plant is a collection of stories from the author's life, wisdom from his ministry, and prophetic oracles about the state of pastoral ministry today. The chapters follow the story of Jonah: "Buying Passage to Tarshish," "Escaping the Storm," "In the Belly of the Fish," "Finding the Road to Nineveh," and "Quarreling with God under the Unpredictable Plant."
As he leads us through Jonah's story, we realize it is our story as well. By the end of the book, we feel quite in league with the reluctant prophet.
"Buying Passage to Tarshish," for example, is about our perverse attraction to places other than where God has called us.
"It is necessary from time to time," writes Peterson, "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. . . . What I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie."
Whereas we are convinced the grass is greener in Tarshish, our churches are a lot like Nineveh.
"Nineveh was an ancient site with layer after layer of ruined and unhappy history," Peterson writes. "Going to Nineveh to preach was not a coveted assignment for a Hebrew prophet with good references. But Tarshish was something else. Tarshish was exotic. Tarshish was adventure … a distant paradise. Shangri-la."
Chapter 2, "Escaping the Storm," contains my favorite Peterson story, which reveals a great deal about the man. It's the story of his mother, the Pentecostal revival preacher, and his forays with her as a child, as she held gospel meetings in the mining and logging camps of northwestern Montana in the late 1930s and early '40s: "She led her small congregations in country gospel songs, religious folk ballads, and old hymns-'Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad,' 'That Great Speckled Bird,' 'When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.' The lumberjacks and miners in their clomping boots, bib overalls, and flannel shirts loved it. She sang the sentimental old songs and they wept, honking into their red bandanas, wiping their tears without embarrassment."
You see, Eugene Peterson, biblical scholar and Presbyterian minister, is really a revivalist preacher. Make no mistake: he is preaching with all his might, with no uncertain urgency, for the revival of pastoral ministry in our day. I felt called again and again, in every story he told, to recommit my life to a ministry that is nothing but following Jesus Christ.
"In the Belly of the Fish" was the most helpful chapter.
The belly of the fish is where Jonah prays. Peterson reveals Jonah to be a great student of prayer. The principle metaphor here is askesis, a Greek word for discipline and training. But this isn't a chapter about prayer as aerobics for the soul. He uses askesis to describe the necessity of confinement, like the belly of the fish, for all spirituality and creativity. The askesis for us in ministry is our church setting and the discipline of prayer we exercise in our daily work.
"Finding the Road to Nineveh" recalls Jonah's faithfulness. In order to fulfill the Lord's call upon his life, Jonah had to embrace the particular place to which God called him and the particular message God gave him to deliver. Peterson calls these two aspects of ministry geography and eschatology.
We need geography: "Jonah abandons his religious careerism, decides to be a true pastor, embraces an askesis, enters into a life of prayer, and goes to Nineveh. There we find him walking the streets of the city, doing what he was called to do: the work of a pastor."
We need eschatology: Jonah preached an eschatological message of extreme urgency-"Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown." Without it we are powerless.
"Pastoral work devoid of eschatology," declares Peterson, "declines into a court chaplaincy-sprinkling holy water on consumerist complacency and religious gratification."
The final chapter, "Quarreling with God under the Unpredictable Plant," is about Jonah's quizzical anger and argument with God. Jonah gets angry; we get angry. Why?
"Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool," says Peterson. "When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that something is wrong. . . . What anger fails to do, though, is tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us-our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry. . . . But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us-wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart."
Peterson names a pastoral life of prayer what it really is: "Careercide." To be praying pastors, we must put our career aside. We must give up our career paths, our ladder-climbing, our management-for-success, our big plans for Tarshish.
If you put your career aside once in a while for a leisurely conversation with a veteran pastor like Eugene Peterson, you may forget where you left it.
The Illusion of Control
False Intimacy by Harry W. Schaumburg, NavPress, $10.00
Reviewed by Greg Asimakoupoulos, pastor, Crossroads Covenant Church, Concord, California.
Every month or so, it seems, I hear of yet another pastor (friend or hero) who has sunk in the quicksand of sexual sin.
Since I began serving my congregation ten years ago, six pastors in our community alone have left the ministry on charges of immorality. Each time I hear of another, two involuntary movements take place: my mouth drops open in disbelief, and I scratch my head wondering why.
This book attempts to explain why.
False Intimacy exposes the land mines of sexual addiction dismembering individuals, families, and churches. High-profiled sightings of sexual addiction in the church, believes Harry Schaumburg, a Christian marriage and family counselor in Colorado Springs, are but the tip of the iceberg: "There are more addicts with sex secrets than we care to imagine."
The case studies Schaumburg intersperses throughout substantiate his claim and illustrate the crippling effects of pornography, masturbation, voyeurism, sex for hire, and adultery in the lives of both pastors and parishioners.
Stories of the iceberg left me chilled.
Reactions like mine, says the author, have left the church impotent to deal with sexual sin. Discomfort and lack of knowledge have resulted in congregations being "unresponsive to the needs of addicted people causing them to feel neglected and condemned. Many believers have experienced more love and compassion in a recovery group than in the 'fellowship of believers.'"
Schaumburg is convinced, though, that secular recovery programs cannot offer the degree of healing the church can. His critique of the 12-step movement is evident throughout the volume. Even though he acknowledges the benefits sex addicts experience through recovery groups, he sees such benefits as primarily cosmetic.
Influenced by Christian psychologist Larry Crabb, author of Inside Out, Schaumburg believes the heart of the addict's problem is a bad "heart," not bad behavior. Compulsive sexual behavior is nothing more than the fruit of a universal human dilemma called sin. And Christians are not exempt.
"The fall. . . created a distortion and an agonizing disruption of intimacy," writes Schaumburg. "Each of us longs to break through the limitations of our existence into a blissful, unending intimacy with others. Such a dream cannot, however, be fulfilled. So we desensitize our hunger and thirst for the pre-fallen state by preoccupying ourselves with career, family, food, sex, leisure, and other distractions."
When I phoned Schaumburg, he condensed the essence of his book to one sentence: "Unable to accept life as it is, we create an illusion of predictable security."
This propensity to maintain control and minimize pain in our relationships results in what the author calls "false intimacy." Unable to face the pain of intimate companionship in an imperfect world, individuals seek short cuts, and, to detour around disappointments, invent their own intimacy.
Sexual fantasy, for example, is an especially convenient short cut for Christian leaders concerned with their public image: "[Sexual fantasy] can be done anywhere. [It] can include a gracious, imaginary partner-the perfect love who responds to one's every desire without complaint."
True intimacy, in contrast, consists of disappointment, pain, and suffering. Through the tragic death of a newborn daughter, the author recognized firsthand that life is not controllable or predictable. When faced with such unpredictability, then, we have two choices: either trust God's character and accept the pain of living in a fallen world, or escape suffering by creating a fail-safe system of intoxicating control.
Three valuable appendixes at the back are worth the price of the book. They include a listing of indicators of sexual abuse (both physical and behavioral), a bibliography of current books on sexual addiction, and a compilation of professional treatment programs and centers to which addicts can be referred.
Although Schaumburg's solutions seem a bit "too spiritual" at times and his criticism of recovery groups too general, I'd recommend this book for every church library. Since reading it, I'm not scratching my head as often (and my receding hairline is grateful).
Future Edge by Joel Arthur Barker, William Morrow and Company, $25.00
Reviewed by Dave Wilkinson, pastor, Moorpark Presbyterian Church, Moorpark, California.
Future Edge is not a Christian book. It is not designed to be a Christian book. It is a book about winning in business in the twenty-first century.
So why should church leaders care what management consultant Joel Arthur Barker has to say? What possible connection is there between the failure of Swiss watch makers and the future of the church?
Future Edge isn't just about business; it's about thinking. The applications are for anyone charged with taking an organization into the future.
The core of Future Edge is the discussion of paradigms. Barker, consultant to many leaders among Fortune 500 companies, defines a paradigm as a "set of rules and regulations (written and unwritten) that does two things: (1) it establishes or defines boundaries; and (2) it tells you how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful."
The goal of Future Edge is to help people stand outside their paradigms in order to anticipate the future. The Swiss watch industry illustrates the need.
The Swiss dominated the manufacture of fine watches until the early 1970s. They made the best ball bearings, mainsprings, and balance wheels in the world. But by 1980, the Swiss market share had collapsed to 10 percent from 65 percent. The market shifted from Switzerland to Japan. The reason: the advent of a new paradigm of watch making-quartz technology.
The kicker is that quartz technology was discovered by the Swiss! But they disregarded it; it didn't fit their watch-making paradigm-a paradigm made up of ball bearings, main springs, and balance wheels. The paradigm for success shifted, and they didn't shift with it. (Future Edge is worth a read just for the great sermon illustrations. Barker can preach!)
Barker describes a leader's role in embracing a paradigm shift. His definition of a leader is worth the price of the book (or the time reading this interview): "a person you will follow to a place you wouldn't go yourself."
Barker suggests that paradigm shifts come from two places. First, they come from newcomers to a field who sometimes solve insolvable problems simply because they don't know it can't be done. Second, they come from people outside the field who apply their way of looking to the problems in the field.
"If you want to improve your ability to anticipate the future," says Barker, "don't wait for the trends to develop. Instead, watch for people messing with the rules because that's the first sign of significant change."
How does this apply to the church?
One good example is Lyle Schaller, who applied his background in systematic city planning to the life of the church. The result has been a paradigm shift. Barker suggests asking this question: "Who, outside my field, would be interested in my problems?"
While Future Edge is not a Christian book, it carries a message about work and creativity that is certainly in harmony with Scripture. In the chapter on Japanese business systems (which were learned from an American named W. Edward Deming), Barker says, "The quickest way to kill the human spirit is to ask someone to do mediocre work."
He continues, "[T]he quest for excellence is a way, without a compromise, to bring the spirit of God back into the workplace. . . . You can now live up to your religious beliefs even as you are fulfilling your daily work."
Barker can preach. But does he practice what he preaches? The note on the dust jacket from the publisher reads: "If you don't agree that Joel Arthur Barker delivered on his exciting promise in Future Edge, we'll be happy to refund the full purchase price of the book."
Well, I'm keeping my copy.
Copyright © 1993 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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