Starry Night on the Prairie (10.7.14)

Personal Journal Entry — October 7, 2014 I’ve had a profound and illuminating two nights away at my dad’s cabin in Starbuck, MN. I can hardly put into the words all of the insights and energizing thought-time I’ve had. I have spent another reassuring retreat with the pastoral teaching and wisdom of Eugene Peterson. (Three years ago I spent another life-changing weekend with Peterson’s writings – read about that here.) I spent much time in the car listening to interviews with him on the nature of pastoral work. Then I discovered videos of a series of lectures he gave back in 1991 called the “Journey with Jonah: A Vocational Spirituality” at Acadia College in Canada. He uses the book of Jonah as a controlling narrative for his convictions about the life of a pastor — its true nature and common pitfalls. I believe these lectures became his book called “Beneath the Unpredictable Plant” or something like that. These lectures, in my opinion, should be required viewing by all seminarians and church leadership boards. Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.47.36 AMThey have been just what I needed to hear for the place I am at in my own pastoral journey. Peterson is giving pastors permission to get off the “ship to Tarshish” — which is his image for the rat race pastors find themselves playing, building their religious career, trying to feed consumer Christianity, increase attendance, advance exciting programs and use people (instead of serving them) to further our well-intended ministry agendas. Tarshish is that elusive, grand vision for ministry, success, limitless horizons of pastoral importance, growing a large church, mobilizing people to do many things for Christ, etc. His interviews and lectures all share his crisis moment when he realized early on after he had successfully started a new church and completed a building project, that he was unfulfilled as a pastor, spending all his time trying to “run this damned church” (organizational leadership, administration, committees, meetings, programs, etc.) when he really just wanted to be freed up to be a simple pastor spending his time studying Scripture, praying, preaching, shaping a worshiping community and getting to know his people intimately by visiting with them, doing life with them. He warns against pastors adopting leadership models and values from the secular world, and calls pastors to a much less glamorous vocation that is local and context specific, inviting pastors to patiently settle in for the long haul, not moving around but committing to a people in good times and bad. Again, to use the phrases from his other book I’ve been preaching on, he invites pastors to pursue “a long obedience in the same direction.”

I drove to Alexandria twice this weekend, largely for an excuse to listen to more Peterson in the car, and partly in search of a good non-ministry fiction novel to read. Peterson shares my disdain for practical leadership books so popular in ministry circles these days, and urges pastors to read good fiction novels about faithful pastors. He recommends both The Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos (1937) and Giliad by Marilynne Robinson (2004) for starters. I found Giliad at the small corner bookstore and am enjoying it so far. van-gogh-starry-night-3d-posterThe other major discovery this retreat was the life and art of Vincent van Gogh via the book I’m reading by Skye Jethani called The Divine Commodity (2009). The book is a creative critique of consumer Christianity and the need to reclaim the imagination at the heart of our faith. Jethani creatively engages the life and paintings of van Gogh in his look at the commodification of Christianity in America (and the West) today. Van Gogh is a fascinating and tragic figure to study. He was in awe of God and Christ but grew disenfranchised with the institutional forms of church. Starry Night, his most famous work, is a picture of the town where the majesty and mystery of the divine, the infinite is captured in the night sky with swirling blues (his color for the infinite, the mysterious, the divine) and the yellows of the stars (his color for divine presence, warmth, love). Yet, his disdain for the church is shown by the fact that while all the houses in the village are illuminated with the presence of divine warmth (yellow windows), the church remains completely dark, seemingly abandoned by God — a cold, heartless place in Van Gogh’s mind and experience. Van Gogh once said, “When I have a desire for, shall I say the word, religion, I go outside and paint the stars.” I love that. Coincidentally, I recently acquired a framed poster of Starry Night at the Great Giveaway and hung it in my church study as a conversation piece. Last year I hung another piece from the Great Giveaway as an object lesson and spiritual conversation starter — Boulevard of Broken Dreams. A number of streams of thought and personal inspiration have come crashing together this weekend and can be represented by Van Gogh’s other famous work The Sower based on Jesus’ parable in Mark 4. These streams of thought include:

  • The pastoral life being the unglamorous work of sowing seeds and trusting God for results (not administrative skills and tactics).
  • My family origins get me back to a people of the land — simple farmers working the fields — evoked by the scenery at the cabin.
  • Peterson, Jethani and Van Gogh’s invitation to use recover Jesus’ art of engaging the imagination as a vehicle for discipleship and spiritual formation rather than adopting a corporate model for church and getting too busy doing church activities.

The Sower (van Gogh)These thoughts and conversations with Mike Fox the first night at the cabin about the role of imagination in preaching, have inspired me to look into buying a print of van Gogh’s The Sower as the centerpiece above my fireplace at home. I’ve been looking for the right piece to hang there, and this may be it. The parable of the sower has always been perhaps my favorite of Jesus’ (if that’s fair to have). However, Keri may not appreciate the art as much as I do. I came away from this weekend brimful of sermon series ideas and a greater awareness of the interior work God is doing inside my own soul. I think I’ll be getting away more often… You don’t need to get away to be blessed by Peterson’s wisdom. Start with this interview here.

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