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Eugene H Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work

Eugene H Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1992 [1980])

Reviewed by Darren Cronshaw

I have loved reading Peterson over the years. He is an inspiration as a pastor and reflective practitioner. He is often very counter-cultural both to contemporary society and contemporary expressions of church life and its tendency towards managerial/ programmatic leadership. I’m reading and rereading through all his books. My motivation is to get some fresh inspiration for ministry and leadership, but also capture something of the heart and life of the bloke. He’s an inspiration to me as a long-serving pastor, deeply reflective writer and an academic on the side.

Five Smooth Stones is the first book in a favourite series on pastoral ministry. It is classic Peterson in calling for an enthusiastic return to the Bible as a source for pastoral inspiration and models. He explores basic elements of pastoral work, learning from five books of ancient Hebrew Wisdom, and shows how and where these books and ministry that is inspired by them interacts with worship:

· Song of Songs for the pastoral work of prayer-directing

Peterson has a high view of sexuality and the body, as well as spirituality and prayer. In fact he sees sexuality and prayer as interconnected. Salvation frees us to relate in open, loving relationships with God and people. In Jewish tradition, Song of Songs has been allocated for reading at Passover. It helps remind God’s people that salvation that works on a cosmic and national scale is also outworkable in ordinary domestic settings. ‘Pastoral work is a commitment to the everyday: it is an act of faith that the great truths of salvation are workable in the “ordinary universe.”’ (p.33)

· Ruth for story-telling

Leading worship is relatively straightforward and contained inside church walls. From the front door of church and into the world, however, it gets messier. Ruth’s story is a helpful model because it is a complex story, and an amazing story of God working in the lives in common people, who otherwise could easily have been overlooked. Ruth is traditionally read at Pentecost, celebrating Sinai, showing Israel where they fit in the larger story. We need to be storytellers too, and like a doctor takes a patient’s history, put our conversational stethoscope to the heart of people’s lives and hear what makes them tick. Peterson has a high view of visitation as an opportunity to listen in to where God’s story is engaging people’s stories. Rather than a PR agent for the latest church program, the pastor collaborates in discerning the story God is weaving: ‘God’s spy searching out ways of grace’ (p.96).

· Lamentations for pain-sharing

Lamentations is a sensitive and earthy companion for being a companion with people through suffering. It reminds us that God recognises the breadth of suffering, from A to Z, but that it also has its boundaries. It invites us to express fully all our ugly painful emotions, and not to hide from but to face suffering and any elements of God’s anger, and to do so in community with the people of God. Ministry often shares the experience of suffering. It invites us to grapple with pain and plead with God to show us its meaning if possible: ‘Suffering in Lamentations is not an ominous disaster to be avoided but a difficult, healing operation to be accepted.’ (147)

· Ecclesiastes for nay-saying

Peterson continues to unravel biblical resources for ministry with Ecclesiastes. People often direct their expectation of God to a pastor for miracles and answers. God is omnipotent and omniscient, so it’s easy to expect God will do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and tell us what we can’t figure out for ourselves. Ecclesiastes affirms the enjoyment of life but urges us to seek God not primarily for God’s blessings. It was read at the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated God’s bounty and blessing, to remind the people of God not to separate God’s blessings from the God of blessing. It says ‘No’ to things that distract us from seeking God and that distort the gospel. In the 21st century we need this just as much as people in 4thCenturyBC – our context is similarly complacent with our prosperity. And we similarly look for attractive and fulfilling worship for what we can ‘get out of it’. But we have to say ‘No’ to turning a religion that promises to fulfil our needs into one that manipulates God to satisfy all our wants.

· Esther for community building at Purim

Peterson has a high view of community and critiques the individualism that undermines it. Esther celebrates the eternal survival of the people of God. In a context of hostility, in Esther’s time or our own, the story which is celebrated at Purim reminds us that God is committed to persevering with and maintaining the people of God. Part of ministry is nurturing community – not being driven by chasing numbers and drumming up enthusiasm, but nurturing the people of God through Bible-reading, prayer and empowering people in their gifts. It is urgent to narrowly define what ministry is about, so it doesn’t turn into a consumeristic public-relations exercise. It is easy to fall into the trap of having to justify yourself in ministry, but the better grace-filled approach is to celebrate what God has done and is doing. Ultimately we are in community together as church not because of our choice or work but because of God: ‘The pastor must not fail to understand the congregation just as it is, as a historical community brought into being, warts and all, by God; and must not fail to be grateful for it, just as it is, warts and all, to God.’ (236)

Peterson relates how pastoral work originates in worship but extends into all of life – what we sing and confess we then seek to live out between Sundays. Pastors don’t just send people out and look for them next Sunday, but accompany them in the ordinary and everyday activities of life and illness, struggle and celebration, ambiguity and blessing. Peterson earths and elevates the calling of pastoral ministry and the importance of aspects of a pastors’ craft including pastoral prayer, sound exegesis, attending to God, and recognising God at work in ‘ordinary’ matters.

Darren is BUV’s Coordinator of Leadership Training and is hosting a Eugene Peterson lunchtime reading group starting with discussing Five Smooth Stones at Malvern Vale Hotel 1:30-3:30pm on Thursday 10 September (and others on 8 October & 12 November).


Darren Cronshaw

Coordinator of Leadership Training

Baptist Union of Victoria


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