Near the beginning of his pastorate, Eugene H. Peterson found himself tossed about by “the winds of the times.” The 1960s were a tumultuous decade, and many voices — Civil Rights! Vietnam! Flower Power! — clamored for his attention. On top of that, he felt “increasingly at odds” with his denominational advisors, whose ideas of leadership came “almost entirely from business and consumer models.”
Then three things happened. First, he realized he didn’t know how to preach. What he was doing on Sunday morning was “whipping up enthusiasm” for the church’s programs, not preaching for the “nurturing of souls.”
Second, he heard a lecture by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician, who treated patients not from a “consulting room” but from his “living room,” using “words…in a setting of personal relationship.” In his lecture, Tournier exhibited what Peterson calls a “life of congruence, with no slippage between what he was saying and the way he was living.”
Third, he came across a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” whose last stanza reads:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
In Hopkins’ poetic vision, it is Jesus Christ who “lives and acts in us in such ways that our lives express the congruence of inside and outside, this congruence of ends and means.” These three things — pulpit, lecture, poem — came together and shaped Peterson’s understanding and practice of ministry, first as a pastor, then as a writer and professor.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons Peterson first preached at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church during nearly thirty years of ministry there (1962–1991). The sermons are divided into seven groups, each grouped together with the formula, “Preaching in the Company of _____,” where the fill-in-the-blank is Moses (the Law), David (Psalms), Isaiah (the Prophets), Solomon (Wisdom literature), Peter (the Gospels), Paul (the Epistles), and John (the Johannine literature). Throughout, Peterson strives to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
The result is a master class in what Scripture says about the pastoral care of souls. Peterson eschews the notions that spirituality can be pursued apart from everyday life or that it can be sought without the company of others. Instead, as he writes in a characteristic passage:
It is somewhat common among people who get interested in religion or God to get proportionately disinterested in their jobs and families, their communities and their colleagues. The more of God, the less of the human. But that is not the way God intends it. Wisdom [literature] counters this tendency by giving witness to the precious nature of human experience in all its forms, whether or not it feels or appears “spiritual” (emphasis in original).
This isn’t to deny that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, and corporate worship are vital. But, Peterson is saying, unless those disciplines make us better workers, family members, neighbors and friends, we haven’t yet achieved the congruence of life to which Scripture bears witness: persons who act in God’s eye what in God’s eye we are, that is, “Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:20).
This is not a book I would recommend to some pastors. For example, if you’re looking for a book that gives you a fool-proof three-step process to ______ (whatever it is that you’re trying to do), skip this one. Or if you’re looking on Saturday night for a three-point sermon you can preach the next morning, don’t read this. Peterson’s sermons are ongoing conversations, not plug-and-play outlines.
However, if you’re tossed about by the winds of the times or you’re tired of slapping Bible verses on business principles or if your ministry lacks congruence between the means of discipleship and the ends of Christlikeness, please read this book. It will feed your soul, and through you, the souls of your congregation.
Then read it again.
Eugene H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Way of God Formed by the Word of God (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2017).
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P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.