I recently started reading Eugene H. Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Several colleagues recommended I read it when I was at seminary, and then once I entered the ministry some caring parishioners gave me a copy and encouraged me to read it, sooner than later. So I’m reading it and being blessed with each turn of the page. The wisdom within this book, especially for a new pastor learning to navigate the rhythm and boundaries of his new vocation, has so far proven to be extremely valuable.
As I was reading I found that there existed an unpredictable similarity between the author and myself. He was a pastor and I was a pastor. That was expected. In fact, that was why I was reading the book, to learn information from a more experienced pastor that would help me maintain a healthy ministry. What I didn’t expect was to read such wonderful thoughts regarding my activity as a writer.
As I read the following (in chapter two: Escaping the Storm) he began to not only speak to my vocational interest as a pastor, but also as an aspiring writer.
“Somewhere along the way, as I searched out my origins and realized how they were coming into expression vocationally, I saw that alongside and intertwined with being a pastor I was also a writer. My vocation was bipolar. I do not know how I knew this so certainly, for it was to be many years before I was published, but the conviction deepened in me that writer was parallel with pastor in my vocation. Not in competition with it, the writer and the pastor fighting for equal time. Not in submission to it, the writer being a servant to the pastor, writing down his message so that others could read it. But partners, writer and pastor as vocational twins — feeling, looking, and acting much alike, but operating out of different bodies and each with its own integrity.”
Peterson goes on to discuss how he came to find a vocational mentor in Fyodor Dostoevsky, reading the entire corpus of his work and learning greatly from his writing. In the words of Peterson, after reading the New Testament over and over again in a Siberian prison camp,
“Instead of pursuing the anarchist and socialist utopias that were all the rage, [Dostoevsky] dug deep to the roots of the cross of Christ with all its absurdities and suffering… instead of pouring himself into the atheistic and social engineering endeavors, he spent the rest of his life creating characters who enter society and change it by means of holiness. He chose the way Christ entered and inaugurated the kingdom for his pattern.”
What a beautiful critique of a writer’s work! To be able to create characters who enter society and change it by means of holiness, characters who reflect the cruciform love of Christ… Oh man!
Peterson goes on to say that:
“Being a writer and being a pastor are virtually the same thing for me — an entrance into chaos, the mess of things, an then the slow mysterious work of making something out of it, something good, something blessed: poem, prayer, conversation, sermon, a sighting of grace, a recognition of love, a shaping of virtue… Writing is not a literary act but spiritual. And pastoring is not managing a religious business but a spiritual quest.
This grand idea caused me to ponder my own writing process and how it related to my work in the ministry. Peterson was right. When I wrote The Gift and the Defender I molded the chaos in my mind into a readable tale that others could ingest and enjoy (I hope). Even composing this blog post is an example of such a process!
Having had originally gone the self-publishing route, I took Peterson’s thought one step further. Writing is not a task that one undergoes successfully by himself. Though the writing process involves a great deal of time sitting alone in front of the computer, it’s the interaction with people, experiencing life, and being inspired by others that brings about a good story. It’s the critique and suggestion from others (proof readers, editors, publishers, etc.) that builds the writer and his work up to produce a solid story worth reading.
Likewise, a pastor cannot successfully shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to him by isolating himself and the congregation in his care from others. Pastors can fall into the trap of thinking they can fulfill their responsibilities successfully apart from fellow pastors, mentors, the Church, even apart from God. This foolishness sets one up for failure.
Peterson then placed this brilliance into my brain bucket:
Prayer… is at the heart of both writing and pastoring. In writing, I am working with words; in pastoring, I am working with people. Not mere words or mere people, but words and people as carriers of spirit/Spirit. The moment words are used prayerlessly and people are treated prayerlessly, something essential begins to leak out of life.
Thinking about that statement in light of the incarnate Word, Jesus who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, blows my mind. If the rest of this post is gibberish it’s because I’m writing with a melted mind, reeling from profundity. Words and people, carriers of spirit and carriers of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit uses words to convey God’s Word to create faith in the hearts of people where He takes up residence. Words deliver the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word. Awesome! The prayerful use of words and interaction with people is essential to both vocations, indeed.
I haven’t finished reading Under the Unpredictable Plant. But even if the rest of the book is worthless, which I don’t imagine it will be, I value the idea that my vocation as a pastor runs parallel to my vocation as a writer. For the sake of my parishioners and for the sake of my readers I pray that the Lord will bless both.