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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Eugene Peterson

Book me for your next retreat.

Ben Goshow

Did I seriously just say that? "Book me for your next retreat?" Next thing you know, I'll be opening the trunk of my car and asking you to buy the book I've just written. Yes, there are joys of writing a book. I'm thinking of the quiet, contemplative hours stretching as long as the questions. (And if you believe that. . . .)

There are also joys of promoting a book. I'm thinking of blog posts entitled, "Book me for your next retreat." (And if you believe that. . . .)

Nevertheless: when God asks you to obey, don't offer up your apologies. Own your reluctance, and ante up. Play the fool if need be.

I have honestly been thinking the desire is a wonderful retreat topic. It begs the telling of our stories, and stories are best indulged in community. A retreat - away from life's bustle, gathered in community - is just the place to share our stories and learn to live, a little better, into God's.

I have been asked to speak at a retreat in January, and as I've been preparing, I thought to share the ideas for the sessions here. Maybe because you'll want to book me for your next retreat. Maybe because you'll want to buy my book. Or maybe because you'll be reminded that our Father's desire is for us, and it is not difficult. (This, the prophetic word spoken over me nearly two years ago.)

* * * * *

Teach Us to Want: Leaning into a life of holy desire

Session One: Receive Goodness

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, concluded this after his tenure in ministry: “In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense about the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace - a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. The prevailing North American culture . . . is. . . a context of persistent denial of grace.”[1]

Peterson understands that we are each bred with a common resistance to grace—even the God of grace. We often live by our “wits,” rather than the abiding sense that God is for us (cf. Rom. 8:31). But grace is foundational to being formed into faith, which purposes to work itself out as obedient trust (cf. Heb. 11:6).

Holy desire begins with holy trust. God, our Father, is good and does good (cf. Psalm 119:68), and this is our bold invitation to want. We can ask, seek, and find because He who did not spare His son delights to give (cf. Rom. 8:32). Yet generosity can be hardest to believe about God. When our lives collide with unexpected disappointment and loss, does God remain good?

Our invitation of holy desire is to receive everything from God’s hand as goodness—and to live as God’s beloved.

Session Two: Risk Desire

 Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes in An Altar in the World about a perplexing season of praying for vocational guidance. What do I do, Lord? Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me. “At one level, that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted. I could be a priest or a circus worker. God really did not care. At another level, I was so relieved that I sledded down the stairs that night. Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered. God had suggested an overall purpose, but not going to supply the particulars for me. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.”[2]

Do what pleases you. In other words, follow your desire. But it’s exactly this kind of counsel that makes us visibly nervous. We imagine it blindly leading men and women into the clutches of selfish self-interest. What role can desire have in the life of faith? Aren’t we expected to obey, even if we haven’t wanted to?

Yet holy desire is critical to our lives of faith. It inspires our petitions and plans (cf. Ps. 20:4, 5). In fact, the renovation of our heart’s desires is exactly what God purposes to do in His children, and we might even say that our most God-glorifying obedience is that which we offer willingly (cf. 2 Cor. 9:7).

Grace moves us into the courage to want. Our invitation of holy desire is to learn to belong—and to risk as God’s beloved.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 96.

[2] An Altar in the World (New York: Harper One, 2009), 110.

Book Blurb: Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

I’ve finished my first Anne Tyler novel – Saint Maybe - and I’ve been mulling over it the last couple of days. (Well, that would make it sound like I’ve been thinking hard about something other than organizing closets, measuring rooms, and pricing new couches, which wouldn’t exactly be true.) To be honest, I thought that I would like this novel more. I couldn’t remember exactly who had recommended it to me, but after I finished it, I was totally underwhelmed. Because I had been reading it on my iPad and had lost any real sense of where I was in the novel, when I came to the final scene and turned the final page, I was shocked. It was an ending with so little fanfare.

In fact, the novel is itself a work of understatement. It wasn’t until I realized this that I realized I had almost missed what Tyler was doing very, very deliberately.

It also helped when I remembered that it was Eugene Peterson who had suggested I read it. (No, no, I haven’t managed a personal face-to-face yet with my favorite American pastor, but I do have a copy of his Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List.)

Here’s was Peterson says about Saint Maybe: “Each new novel by Tyler is a fresh exercise in seeing behind the labels and clichés that stereotype people and prevent us from seeing the “image of God” that is there. She creates characters in her novels that are always just a little quirky, not quite fitting into what we think a human being ought to be. Most of us are so used to fitting into the categories supplied for us by hospitals, schools, shopping malls, and social services that we raise no objections when we are treated similarly by other Christians, and especially by Christian leaders. But insofar as we acquiesce, we lost the capacity to realize what God is most interested in working in us: sanctity, which means becoming more our created/redeemed selves, not less, not being reduced to what will fit into a religious program, not being depersonalized in the cause of ecclesiastical efficiency.”

Though this really gives you no specifics about the actual novel, Peterson is explaining the redemptive thread that is woven so beautifully and painfully in this novel: holiness.

Do we believe that is really what God is after?

And what is holiness? Is it keeping all of the rules? Keeping our religious ducks in a row?

Or is holiness love?

Ian, who is the novel’s protagonist, is a man who grows into holiness. At least I think. Because the novel’s prose is so common, because Ian is such a commoner, holiness doesn’t bedazzle you as a reader. There really aren’t explosive moments of insight for Ian. There is just this steady narrative drumbeat, and Ian plods forward.

You hardly admire him. At times, you may even pity him.

- until you put the novel down, take a few days away from it, (read a better, more insightful review), and realize you almost missed it.

Holiness can even be this: feeling exhausted and perplexed, sometimes feeling trapped, sometimes wondering why God feels so distant, often wondering if you’re on the right road - but keeping at the work God has given you.

“For the first time it occurred to him that there was something steely and inhuman to this religious business.”

Ian is one the road to finding forgiveness, and he’s missing it for a good part of the novel. He’s thinking that forgiveness is earned.

But along the way, Ian learns to pray. He is like us: so human, so frail, but growing in his capacity to see and receive God.

“To steady himself, he bowed himself and prayed. He prayed as he almost always did, not forming actual words but picturing instead this spinning green planet safe in the hands of God, with the children and his parents and Ian himself small trusting dots among all the other dots. And the room around him seemed to rustle with prayers for years and years past: Let them get well and Make her love me and Forgive what I have done.


Participation in The Holy: Eugene Peterson on Calling

Eugene Peterson should be writing this blog. The first chance I have to meet him, I'll suggest it. But until then, you're stuck with me - or, on better days, me quoting Eugene Peterson. I found myself re-reading The Jesus Way this past weekend. It's probably my favorite of his spiritual theology series. He writes two chapters on the book of Isaiah, which is an unfamiliar book for most of us. The One Year Bible took me back to Isaiah recently, and I'm loving it. It's a book full of imagery and forces a confrontation with God's holiness.

I went back to The Jesus Way, wanting to revisit Peterson's reflections on this prophet and prophecy. And what do you know? I also found some really appropriate quotes on calling, especially as Peterson reflects on Isaiah 6, which pictures Isaiah transfixed in a vision of God. Isaiah encounters God seated on a throne. The angels' chorus overhead sounds, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" The foundations of the temple shake, and Isaiah is undone by a sense of guilt. "Woe is me! I am lost ; I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!" The angel purifies his lips with a coal taken from the altar of burnt offering, and God then asks, "Whom shall we send? Who will go for us?" Immediately, Isaiah answers: "Here I am: send me."

There may be no better passage to examine the nature of calling.

First, Peterson notes the characteristic of God's calling: "God speaks vocationally; there is work to be done." I've tried to say many times here that we have to root our calling in the finished work of Christ. We add nothing to this. But certainly, it is also true that calling is an obedient response to God and an expressed willingness to be used by God. There is work involved in our calling. God does not need us, true. But God has chosen to use us, the church. We are the hands and feet of Christ. And I think that's what Peterson is saying here. We have a certainty that God speaks when we are moved into service.

Several paragraphs later, Peterson continues:

"Participation in The Holy is complex business; but these elements in various orders and proportions, seem to be normative (and here, he excerpts from Isaiah's vision in chapter 6):

The abolition of self-sufficiency ("Woe to me, for I am lost")

The experience of merciful forgiveness (The live coal: "Your guilt is taken away")

God's invitation to servant work ("Whom shall I send?")

The human response of becoming present to God in faith and obedience ("Here am I, send me!").

I can think of no exceptions in Scripture or church in which these elements are not present, whether explicitly or implicitly."

Peterson is formulating the typical architecture of God's call. And while I (and he, I'm sure) would grant that God uniquely speaks to each individual person, the stories of divine encounter share common materials. And you notice how the whole house would topple if one element were eliminated.

If, for example, we were volunteering for service to God without the abolition of self-sufficiency,  we would learn soon enough that every job God gives is too big and we are too inadequate. When that happens later rather than sooner in calling, it can be a source of despair. When it happens at the outset, it casts us upon God's grace to work in and through us.

If, for example, we did not continually live mindful of God's mercies granted to us, we would suffer from the perpetual shame and self-recrimination that our inadequacies force upon us. But if, however, we remember that in Christ, sin is forgiven and guilt abolished, we have new courage for calling. It does not root itself in our performance but in Christ's.

If we never hear God's invitation to servant work, we can easily be lulled into believing that God means to give us the good life. There's certainly no reason then for shouldering any responsibility for the brokenness of the present world.

And if we have a sense of inadequacy, if we have received forgiveness, even if we have heard God calling for volunteers but have never signed up for service, we are sitting on the sidelines when we should be in the game.

As always, I'm grateful for Eugene Peterson's faithfulness to Scripture and clear thinking. And here are four questions we might ask ourselves in reflecting on the four dimensions of calling:

1. Have I confronted the reality of my own personal sinfulness and inadequacy?

2. Do I continually receive the forgiveness of God offered to me freely through Christ?

3. Am I aware of God's invitation to join Him in His work?

4. Have I expressed willingness to participate in the kingdom?

Autumn Days

The leaf sacheted and fluttered without a sound. Yellow brilliance, twirling and spinning and falling. A thing of beauty, this solitary leaf in its descent. The twins and I take our routine walk around the block after lunch, and we pick leaves. Andrew hands me a fistful of brown. Consider the lilies of the field. . .the birds of the air. . the falling leaves, these lessons scripted in the winds and the fields and the trees. Fall's leaves - fiery reds, the golden yellows -they are the radiant dying. Fall in all its glory is the prelude to winter's death.

I consider all that has been dying in the autumn days that silently chilled into my winter.

Fear. Perfectionism. Hurry. Ambition. Leaves falling soundlessly, imperceptibly, until it's as if the Maker Himself has shaken the tree and hurled His weight against its branches. Shedding. Forfeiting. Relinquishing. Letting Go.

Eugene Peterson describes this in his book, The Jesus Way. Speaking of Abraham, Peterson writes, "Habits of relinquishment became deeply ingrained in [him]. They become deeply ingrained in us as we read. Leaving Ur and Haran, leaving Shechem and Bethel, leaving Egypt and Gerar, leaving Beersheba. Leaving, leaving, leaving. But every leaving was also a lightening of self, a further cleansing of the toxins of acquisition. A life of getting was slowly but surely replaced by a life of receiving - receiving the promises, receiving the covenants, receiving the three strangers, receiving Isaac, receiving circumcision, receiving the three strangers, receiving Isaac, receiving circumcision, receiving a lamb in the thicket - being transformed into a life that abandons self-sovereignty and embraces God-sovereignty. . .In the process of leaving behind, Abraham became more, gradually but certainly realizing that relinquishment is prerequisite to fulfillment, that letting go of a cramped self-will opened up to an expansive God-willed life. Faith."

Relinquish.  Autumn's mandate. Wait. Winter's Test. Receive. Spring's promise.