Words and Wonderment

With this post we move from lighthearted reflections on words to serious thoughts about these basic units of language, these principal carriers of meaning. Through an excerpt from his book “Under the Unpredictable Plant”, Eugene H. Peterson will serve as our spiritual director for this excursion.

Before we dive into these thoughts, a couple of preliminary comments are in order. First, we note that this book was written to help ministers recover “vocational holiness”. The story of Jonah is used as the framework for discussion, while Peterson’s personal observations and experiences supply the substance of the book. Of this book William H. Willimon says, “…with honest, biblical eloquence, Peterson talks about what’s needed to stay with pastoral ministry in ways that are both faithful and vital.”

Second, the portion of this book we will engage is near the end of the book. It follows Peterson’s presentation of a thoroughly developed and, in my opinion, a well-established need for a paradigm shift in pastoral ministry from program managers to spiritual directors. He states that “the spiritual-director pastor is shaped by the biblical mindset of Jesus: worship-orientation, a servant life, sacrifice.” (p. 176)

This is a bit longer than most posts you read here, but I believe the few minutes it will take to read these lines will be time well spent. With these thoughts in mind, let’s feast our eyes on Peterson’s reflections on words:

Pastoral spiritual direction cultivates an awareness of story, the vast subterranean interconnections in this person with whom in an unhurried hour we now have the leisure for recognizing the risen Christ present and speaking. It also cultivates attentiveness to words themselves. Words are the means by which the gospel is proclaimed and the stories told. But not all words tell stories or proclaim gospel. All our words have their origin in the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Word that was God, the Word that made all things (John 1:1-3), but not all words maintain that connection, not all words honor that origin and nurture their relationship with the Source Word, the Creator Word.

In a kind of rough-and-ready sorting out, most words can be set in one of two piles: words for communion and words for communication. Words for communion are used to tell stories, make love, nurture intimacies, develop trust. Words for communication are used to buy stocks, sell cauliflower, direct traffic, and teach algebra. Both piles of words are necessary, but words for communion are our specialty.

Jonah, at the moment we see him in angry argument with God at the edge of Nineveh, appears to be practiced only in communication. He told the Ninevites what to do, and now he is telling God what to do. But there is more to language than stating the score. There is story to be learned and told, the use of words that develops communion. If Jonah is going to get beyond his sulk and develop as a pastor in Nineveh, he is going to have to acquire the language of communion.

In spiritual direction the differences are immediately evident. If we approach people as masters of communication, we will find ourselves as out of place as a whore at a wedding. We are here not to sell intimacy but to be intimate. For that we use the words of communion.

When my daughter, Karen, was young, I often took her with me when I visited nursing homes. She was better than a Bible. The elderly in these homes brightened immediately when she entered the room, delighted in her smile, and asked her questions. They touched her skin, stroked her hair. On one such visit we were with Mrs. Herr, who was in an advanced stage of dementia. Talkative, she directed all her talk to Karen. She told her a story, an anecdote out of her own childhood that Karen’s presence must have triggered, and when she completed it, she immediately repeated it word for word, and then again, and again. After twenty minutes or so of this, I became anxious lest Karen become uncomfortable and confused with what was going on. I interrupted the flow of talk, anointed the woman with oil, laid hands on her and prayed, and left. In the car and driving home I commended Karen for her patience and attentiveness. She had listened to the repetitions of the story without showing any signs of restlessness or boredom. I said, “Karen, Mrs. Herr’s mind isn’t working the way ours are.” And Karen said, “Oh, I knew that, Daddy. She wasn’t trying to tell us any thing. She was telling us who she is.”

Nine years old, and she knew the difference, knew that Mrs. Herr was using words not for communication but for communion. It is a difference that our culture as a whole pays little attention to but that pastors must pay attention to. Our primary task, the pastor’s primary task, is not communication but communion.

There is an enormous communications industry in the world that is stamping out words like buttons. Words are transmitted by telephone and telegraph, by radio and television, by satellite and cable, by newspaper and magazine. But the words are not personal. Implicit in the enormous communications industry is an enormous lie—that if we improve communications we will improve life. It has not happened and will not happen. Often when we find out what a person “has to say,” we like them less, not more. Better communication has not improved international relations: we know more about each other as nations and religions than ever in history, and we like each other less. Counselors know that when spouses learn to communicate more clearly, it as often leads to divorce as to reconciliation. Words used as mere communication are debased words. The gift of words is for communion: a part of my self enters a part of your self. This requires the risk of revelation, the courage of involvement. At the center of communion there is sacrifice. Working at the center, we don’t use words to give something but to give up a piece of ourselves.

Communion is not as much interested in using words to define meaning as to deepen mystery, to enter into the ambiguities, push past the safely known into the risky unknown. The Christian Eucharist uses the simplest of words—this is my body, this is my blood—to plunge us into the depths of love, to venture into what is not tied down, into love, into faith. These words do not describe; they reveal, they point, they reach.

Every time we enter the room of the ill, the lonely, or the dying it becomes obvious after a few minutes that the only words that matter are words of communion. Almost as often, we find that we are the only ones skilled in using words this way on these occasions. Not the least of the trials of the sick, the lonely, and the dying is the endless stream of clichés and platitudes to which they have to listen. Doctors enter these rooms to communicate the diagnosis. Family members enter these rooms and communicate (too often) their own anxieties. Friends enter these rooms and communicate the gossip of the day. Not all of them, of course, and not always. But the sad reality is that there is not a great deal of communion that goes on in these places, with these ill and lonely and dying men and women. What is forced on our awareness in these extreme situations is no less valid in the more casual meetings on street corners and in family rooms, in offices and workplaces, in the church parking lot and committee meeting. This makes it urgent that the pastor at least be a specialist in the words of communion.

Authentic spiritual direction flows out of the act of worship. It is God with whom we have to do, always. The deliberate and ordered coming before God as listeners and believers, as singers and pray-ers, as receivers and followers that is common worship continues in our ordinary lives. But it is easy to interrupt the continuity.

Without organ, pews, cross, pulpit, table, font, and congregation to define the occasion, it is easy to talk and act as if God were background, and rather remote background at that. Awareness of the Temple and its Holy of Holies, so prominent when Jonah was praying in the fish’s belly, seems to have totally disappeared on the outskirts of Nineveh (the site of ministry) as he is preoccupied with himself and his congregation. Human need is always more apparent than God’s presence for the same reason that the earth always looks flat. The human need is very visible in the sickness, the loneliness, the boredom, and the busyness, while all the signs and symbols of God’s word and presence are several miles away in the church sanctuary. That is why so many of us perform like psychological therapists than Christian priests when we are out of the pulpit. Our awareness of human need crowds out and then takes precedence over our attentiveness of God’s presence. (pg. 190-194)
— — — — —

Well, what do you think? What has been your experience with respect to these two piles of words? How have you seen the wonderment of words present in your life, your ministry?

Blessings to all,
-bill

About a fellow sojourner

a sojourner in life, trying to follow in the steps of Jesus.
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3 Responses to Words and Wonderment

  1. Nicole says:

    Although I do not agree with the suggestion that Jonah was a “pastor” in any sense of the word, there are a couple of wonderful pieces of profundity in this passage.
    “Authentic spiritual direction flows out of the act of worship. It is God with whom we have to do, always. The deliberate and ordered coming before God as listeners and believers, as singers and pray-ers, as receivers and followers that is common worship continues in our ordinary lives. But it is easy to interrupt the continuity.”
    “he is preoccupied with himself . . . ” The damages of this self-centered focus are far-reaching in the (general) church of today. If a pastor is preoccupied with himself, he has little to give his congregation. And if he is warned and schooled against getting “too close” to that congregation, he sacrifices any hope of true “communion” with the people. If he’s charming and charismatic, he is in danger of becoming an idol to those who haven’t learned to value their relationship with Jesus Christ above all else.

    Thanks for your input, Nicole. I think that what Peterson is doing with the Jonah framework is helping pastors to realize the forces at work shaping their ministries. This helps all people to understand the depth of the struggle which many ministers have with respect to these forces. A full explanation is more involved than I’ll attempt to develop here. But I will say that what Peterson says really resonates with me personally and fits well with experiences I’ve gone through during 25+ years in pastoral ministry. The emphasis is not so much on Jonah’s function, but what seems to be happening as he struggles to come to grips with and to live into God’s grand plan for his life.

  2. Jim Martin says:

    Bill,
    A very good post. Thanks! I am always blessed when I read anything Peterson has written.

    Appreciate you stopping by, Jim! BTW, Jim has a great post on the subject of “Fear” over at A Place For the God-Hungry. If you have a moment, I’d recommend that you check it out.

  3. Kathy says:

    Fascinating excerpt from Peterson. He has proven his understanding of these two means of using words in his writings and paraphrasing, The Message of course, comes to mind.

    Hopefully, any of us that counsel with the hurting and needy, can and do differentiate between these “two piles of words.” I believe the situation itself brings us to decide which pile we use, maybe not even by conscience decision.

    The excerpt itself is a wonderful example of balanced mixture of the two piles of words, as you put it.

    Beautiful post, Bill, just beautiful!

    Thanks, Kathy. Even though you are far away, you bring joy and good cheer to my life each day!

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