August 7, 2020

Sabbatical Journal 1/Peterson Seminar (Conclusion)

ep2.jpegI’m back home from sabbatical orientation and my three days with Eugene Peterson. Thank you Louisville Institute for your investment in my life and your incredible graciousness for these three days.

Last night, Peterson talked about his own sabbatical experiences, which took place 23 years into his pastorate. He took off an entire year, wrote 3.5 books and learned many important lessons for the rest of his ministry. This was a helpful talk for pastors, but I’m not going to comment on it very much here. (One interesting thing. For his sabbatical reading, he read the Septuagint, and said he was shocked at what a loose translation it was as compared to the original Hebrew. Much more like “The Message.” Says he can’t understand how the literalists in translation studies miss this.)

This morning, however, David Woods read us more from the “emerging” fifth book in Peterson’s current series, a book that is devoted to the church and to understanding the church by way of the book of Ephesians. After framing the direction for the talk, he introduced Eugene Peterson for his last talk. I took many pages of notes and I’ll share just a few of them here, including one-liners without context, so don’t blame Peterson if I leave the wrong impression.

The church as we have it in congregations is the ontological church, the church God means when he says “church.” Seeing only the functional church is a grave mistake. If your church is entirely invisible, you’re (unflattering term.) The same with the quest for the ideal church or the successful church. But the church that is obsessed with growth and function is infantile. The real church is deeply flawed. It is full of flawed people, even very bad, sinful, evil people at times. It can be so toxic you have to leave, but it’s simply not the church the Bible speaks of in reality unless there are many immature Christians in the process of growth into maturity. Being in that process is Peterson’s definition of holiness.

G.M. Hopkins (Jesuit poet) used a word- “inscape”- that seems to have no definition. Peterson says it is what is held together by what you can’t see. The church is a landscape, but also an “inscape.”

Everything you see and hear in the congregation is the church. The Holy Spirit does not “edit” the church. Everything fits into its story. Some of the most difficult people are church reformers who want to be the Holy Spirit’s editors. (It is a desecration to glamorize the church into something “air brushed.”)

Learn to respect your congregation. People in the church are like those mysterious words in Hopkins’ poems. They have meaning, but you have to keep reading over and over.

Three things he wants to leave with us:

A. The Holiness of Congregation: Pay attention to what is there.
B. Story: Acquire a sense of narrative, where everything has its relation to everything else. The church keeps telling the story over and over.
C. Prayer: The church’s cradle language.

Much talk about prayer is like reading books about sex as “plumbing.” It’s boring because it’s not real life.

Prayer is the ability to approach anything and everyone and see/respond to the face of God. It is living in God-responsiveness to the people around you. Prayer discerns the face of God in our Esaus; it sees the ladders to heaven in our Bethels.

Ministry is like raising children. You cannot MAKE your children become what you want. That is the error of so many pietistic movements.

A fine Peterson book on prayer is Answering God, but his book on Revelation is also a major exploration of prayer.


  1. Great points on the church! It seems like the overall sense is to “cease striving” in terms of marketing the church to the world. Our sinning should be bold, for it explains our hope.

  2. Thanks for relaying your experiences on sabbatical. Concerning Peterson’s comments on the Septuagint, in my advanced Greek class at Catholic University, almost every day (as well as on our mid-term and final) our professor would give us a verse in Hebrew and had us translate it into Greek to see how we do compared with the translators of the LXX. Granted the Hebrew text the translators of the Septuagint had to work with may have been slightly different, I am not sure if the differences are accounted for by an intentionally loose translation or because the translators, being fallible human beings, got it wrong on occasion.

    As for his other comments, Peterson has a lot to say about the pitfalls of the modern evangelical church. Many in the ministry would do well to listen.

  3. I absolutely love and needed to read that quote on prayer today. Thanks for sharing about what you learned. Any word on when book #4 in the current Peterson series will be released?

  4. What’s the “functional church”? Is it the same thing as the universal church?

  5. Ontological Church= That church in its being

    Functional Church= what the church does- actions, programs, buildings, numbers

  6. Peterson may be right about the Septuagint as a loose translation. But someone may make the case that he’s wrong, too. I believe that our oldest Septuagint manuscripts are in most cases much older than our oldest Hebrew manuscripts. From the little I know of the textual history, cases can be made for either being more reliable. And perhaps one manuscript may win for one part of the Old Testament and another may win for the other part. Even if someone can make a case that the Hebrew manuscripts are always better, that case must be made before we decide that the Septuagint translation is loose. Perhaps explanatory notes added to one Hebrew text were copied into the actual text of the next generation of copies.

  7. churches? sabbaticals? pastors? this is all fabrications of todays religious scene. in my books no need for organized religion with someone over me, calling the shots.the bible can be read and absorbed without anyones plethora of their particular interpretations. they spew forth anything from the pulpit, wrap a few scriptures around it and think that’s it. 2 people form a church and god can be in their midst. fabrications for wasting money such as sabbaticals ,ensure the demise of interest towards the church nowadays. incessant blithering of imposed teachings of tithing to the masses also promotes disinterest. people are not standing for religion and it’s traditions that are eons old and the #’s show it at the lobby.