Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses

It was good to read the previous post about Eugene Peterson's The Jesus Way. I have been nourished by another of his books called Run with the Horses. It is much older, written in 1983 but, along with much of his work, has a sense of timelessness about it. I first read this book when I was doing a correspondence course on the prophet Jeremiah about 9 years ago. The insight Peterson gives combines theological and pastoral commentary. He delves into the interior life of this notable Old Testament prophet and lets his ministry speak into the heart of contemporary ministry today.

What I particularly found nourishing was the way he wove the themes of exile, hope and imagination into his interpretation of Jeremiah's life. I will briefly mention three sections of his book under these three headings.

Exile (based on Jeremiah 29:4-14)

Peterson comments 'Exile is traumatic and terrifying. Our sense of who we are is very much determined by the place we are in and the people we are with. When that changes, violently and abruptly, who are we?... We don't fit anywhere... We are extra baggage... Israel was taken into exile in 587BC... leaving home, temple and hills' (p147).

But Peterson draws out the benefits of exile, highlighting the spiritual growth that it offers. Jeremiah told the exiles to stay rooted in exile, to make their home there, to get their hands into the Babylonian soil, to settle down and marry and seek the city's welfare. Peterson says 'The result was that this became the most creative period in the entire sweep of Hebrew history. They did not lose their identity, they discovered it' (p154). He ends this chapter by saying 'Exile is the worst that reveals the best' (p156).

Hope (based on Jeremiah 32:9-10, 15-17, 24-27, 42-44)

This is the story of the prophet buying the field at Anathoth, a thoroughly practical act. Peterson makes the point that his action was also intensely prophetic. Buying a plot of land at the very moment the invading armies were camping on it does have the mark of folly about it and exposes Jeremiah to ridicule. Theologically and practically, it was an investment in God's future. "Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land" (Jer 32:14-15). Living lives of hope in God's future may look incomprehensible but is a mark of buying into what we believe. Peterson concludes 'It takes courage to act in hope. But it is the only practical action, for it is the only action that survives the decay of the moment and escapes the scrapheap of yesterday's fashion' (p178).

Imagination (based on Jeremiah 18:1-4)

When Jeremiah visits the potter's house he is exercising his God-given imagination. I love the concept of imagination as a gift from God. It's so easy to think that God is only interested in our reasoning-power and intellect, but it is often imagination that fires us forwards to new creative initiatives in God's kingdom and saves us from a cerebral faith. Peterson believes Jeremiah had an artistic imagination which served his vocation well. He says 'The great masters of the imagination do not make things up out of thin air; they direct our attention to what is right before our eyes. They then train us to see it whole - not in fragments but in context, with all the connections. They connect the visible with the invisible...' (p75). Jeremiah was able to see God as the divine potter, making a people for his glory. He concludes 'Being a Christian is very much a matter of the flesh - of space and time and things. It means being thrown on the potter's wheel and shaped, our entire selves, into something useful and beautiful. And when we are not useful or beautiful we are re-shaped. Painful, but worth it' (p81).

(Andy Scott)

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