Readings in Spiritual Theology with Eugene Peterson [1]: ‘Christ Plays…,’ the country of the Trinity, and Lent

We found ourselves getting settled back in Abilene just in time for Lent. Before arriving in Abilene the first time three years ago to attend Logsdon Seminary I had barely heard of Lent. We arrived in January which meant that at our church, Crosspoint Fellowship, we became introduced to the liturgical church calendar and the season of Lent right away. I can not overstate how much the lectionary and the seasons of the church calendar have revolutionized my personal spiritual life and aided me in living into the story of Christ on a daily basis.

This year I am giving up Dr. Pepper for Lent. Yes, I know, its terribly unoriginal, and I’ve ‘been there and done that’ already in past years. Ok, you got me. But this year the fast from Dr. Pepper has a deeper feel than it has in the past. The time that’s past since last year’s Lent has been one of exhaustion for me … spiritually, emotionally, physically … you name it, in every way possible I have been depleted. I had begun to really feel this depletion during my last three months as a CPE resident/chaplain at the nation’s busiest level one trauma center. My experience here was more intense than I realized at the time, as was the level of full orbed exhaustion that I was feeling. When we arrived in Carlsbad, NM I secured employment with a mental health organization working daily with severely mentally ill persons – not a good job if one wants to rest up any at all. Additionally, with the fact that my rhythms were disrupted and our experience in Carlsbad exilic in nature I found that I was pretty much living on Diet Dr. Peppers to survive.

Lent for me this year is for repenting of my proclivity to rely on a soft drink (an empty diet version no less) to keep me up and going. My intention for Lent this year is to use it as a time of rest and recuperation from my exhaustion and depletion … a time to re-establish my rhythms. Giving up Dr. Pepper is just one part of this. The other part is choosing something to read during Lent. Before we left Carlsbad I had started reading Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture by Daniel Treier. For the time being I am going to set this aside and have decided to pick up Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places for my Lenten reading (besides the lectionary readings of course). His descriptions of spiritual theology and the “lived quality of God’s revelation among and in us” (xi) I believe will provide my Lenten journey and spirituality, in Peterson’s words, “with structure and coherence by working from a scriptural foundation and with a Trinitarian imagination” (xii) in which I am reconnected with my own limitedness, contingency, and mortality (remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return) and reminded that I can not live on Dr. Pepper alone. Below are some readings and reflections from the introduction to Christ Plays (pgs 1-9) .

Christ Plays…

Peterson draws the title of the book from a poem by Gerald Manly Hopkins in which the final lines read:

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

The ‘play’ of Christ is a mystery that involves us as participants in life, life, and more life. Peterson elaborates…

The message is that all this life gets played out in us, in our limbs and eyes, in our feet and speech, in the faces of the men and women we see all day long, every day, in the mirror and on the sidewalk, in classroom and kitchen, in workplaces and on playgrounds, in sanctuaries and committees. The central verb ‘play,’ catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived beyond necessity, beyond mere survival. ‘Play’ also suggests words and sounds and actions that are ‘played’ for another, intentional and meaningful renderings of beauty or truth or goodness Hopkins incorporates this sense of play with God as the ultimate ‘other’ (‘…to the Father’) – which is to say that all of life is, or can be, worship.

Hopkins sonnet is as good a presentation of what we are after in understanding life, the ‘end’ of life, as we are likely to find: the vigor and spontaneity, the God-revealing Christ getting us and everything around us in on it, the playful freedom and exuberance, the total rendering of our lives as play, as worship before God… It is the task of the Christian community to give witness and guidance in the living of life in a culture that is relentless in reducing, constricting, and enervating this life.

Peterson’s aim here is to draw the ‘play’ of “we who are the limbs and eyes and faces in and whom through Christ plays” even further into the ‘play’ of Christ, into life, more life, and real life.

This image reminds me that the Lenten journey towards the life of the play of Christ travels along what Peterson calls the ‘Christ-revealed’ way – the way of the cross – the way that is cruciform – the way that brings me face to face with my own mortality and contingency – the way that shows me that the play of my life depends on the play (the life, death, and resurrection) of my liberating King Jesus.

Peterson on Spiritual Theology…

Spiritual theology is a pair of words that that hold together what is so often ‘sawn asunder.’ It represents the attention that the church gives to keeping what we think about God (theology) in organic connection with the way we live with God (spirituality).

The meteoric ascendency of interest in spirituality in recent decades is largely fueled by a profound dissatisfaction with approaches to life that are either aridly rationalistic, consisting of definitions, explanations, diagrams, and instructions (whether by psychologists, pastors, theologians, or strategic planners), or impersonally functional, consisting of slogans, goal, incentives, and programs (whether by advertisers, coaches, motivational consultants, church leaders, or evangelists). There comes a time for most of us when we discover a deep desire within us to live from the heart what we already know in our heads and do with our hands. But ‘to whom shall we go?’

Because of the spiritual poverty all around, this lack of interest in dealing with what matters most to us – a lack encountered in our schools, our jobs and vocations, and our places of worship alike – ‘spirituality’ to use the generic term for it, has escaped institutional structures and is now more or less free-floating… The difficulty is that everyone is more or less invited to make up a spirituality that suits herself or himself.

Because of this it seems preferable to use the term ‘spiritual theology’ to refer to the specifically Christian attempt to address the lived experience revealed in our Holy Scriptures and the rich understandings and practices of our ancestors as we work this experience out in our contemporary world of diffused and unfocused ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.’

The two terms, ‘spiritual’ and ‘theology,’ keep good company with one another. ‘Theology’ is the attention that we give to God, the effort we give to knowing God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and in Jesus Christ. ‘Spiritual’ is the insistence that everything that God reveals of himself and his works is capable of being lived in ordinary men and women in their homes and workplaces. ‘Spiritual’ keeps ‘theology’ from degenerating into merely thinking and talking and writing about God at a distance. ‘Theology’ keeps ‘spiritual’ from becoming merely thinking and talking and writing about the feelings and thoughts one has about God. The two words need each other, for we know how easy it is for us to let our study of God (theology) get separated from the way we live; we also know how easy it is to let our desires to live whole and satisfying lives (spiritual lives) get disconnected from who God actually is and the ways he works among us.

Spiritual theology is the attention we give to lived theology – prayed and lived, for if it is not prayed sooner or later it will not be lived from the inside out and in continuity with the Lord of life.

Peterson’s image of spiritual theology reminds me that the Lenten journey is not merely about breaking bad habits, developing better habits, or self-help techniques. A Lenten spiritual journey is a training ground for a prayed and lived theology in which I, again, come up close and personal with my own contingency and mortality on the distinctly cross shaped, cruciform Christ-revealed way. This is the only path to the real life Peterson speaks of … resurrection life.

Peterson on the ‘country of the Trinity’…

‘Trinity’ is the theological formulation that most adequately provides a structure for keeping conversations on the Christian life coherent, focused, and personal. Early on the Christian community realized that everything about us – our worshiping and learning, conversing and listening, teaching and preaching, obeying and deciding, working and playing, eating and sleeping – takes place in the ‘country’ of the Trinity, that is, in the presence and among the operations of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If God’s presence and work are not understood to define who we are and what we are doing, nothing we come up with will be understood properly.

I am reminded here that for us our move to Abilene and rejoining our Crosspoint family only makes sense within the concept of the missio Dei – what Peterson intimates as the ‘country of the Trinity.’ This place and these people form the context, community, and country in which the triune presence and work of God define who we are and what we do. In this Trinity, narrative, and mission are lived out … missio Dei becomes missio Trinitas.

Peterson continues…

Trinity is a conceptual attempt to provide coherence to God as God is revealed variously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our Scriptures: God is emphatically personal; God is only and exclusively God in relationship. Trinity is not an attempt to explain or define God by means of abstractions (although there is some of that, too), but a witness that God reveals himself as personal and in personal relations. The down-to-earth consequence of this is that God is rescued from the speculations of the metaphysicians and brought boldly into a community of men, women, and children who are called to enter into his communal life of love, of emphatically personal life where they experience themselves in personal terms of love and forgiveness, of hope and desire. Under the image of the Trinity we discover that we do not know God by defining him but by being loved by him and loving in return.

…these conversations in spiritual theology are set in this Trinity-mapped country in which we know and believe in and serve God: the Father and creation, the Son and history, and the Spirit and community.

There is far more to Trinity than getting a theological dogma straight; the country of the Trinity comprehends creation (the world in which we live), history (all that happens to around us), and community (the ways we personally participate in daily living in the company of all the others in the neighborhood). Trinity isn’t something imposed on us, it is a witness to the co-inherence of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and the co-inherence of our lives in the image of God (where we are, what is happening, and who we are as we speak and act and engage in personal relations with one another).

Trinity maps the country in which we know and receive and obey God.

I am reminded by the image of the ‘country of the Trinity’ that in my Lenten journey the contingency and mortality of my humanity occurs within the context of the triune presence and work. Trinity, the activity and communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, maps the ‘Christ-revealed’ country in which God is known … received … obeyed. In this a Lenten spirituality is about more than behavior modification … it is about union with the divine triune story, economy, life, and communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

May the shalom of our liberating King Jesus be with you.

Thoughts on ‘Operating Without a Net’

Look Ma, No Net

God told Abram [later called Abraham]: “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1, emphasis mine)

I wonder if Abraham, leaving for a land that God was yet to show him, felt like he was operating without a net.

You know what I talking about, right? Have you ever been there … without a net I mean?

Like in the movies when the bad guys are chasing the good guys and the good guys come to a scary looking chasm too wide to jump over with either a raging river or jagged rocks below (or both). There’s a rope bridge linking the sides of the chasm. Either the good guys get halfway over and are met by more bad guys on the other side (you know, like in Indiana Jones) or the rope bridge is old and in disrepair and won’t hold the weight of people trying to cross. Either way someone usually ends up hanging precipitously over that raging river or jagged rocks … and there’s no net.

You know what I’m talking about now, right? This has been normal for Christie and I for some years now. Abraham, Indiana, and us on that rope bridge with no net. Now, just to clarify, I’m not complaining. Actually, I’m not sure that Christie and I ever really realized we were supposed to operate with a net. The major evidence of this is that I can think of at least five major moves/transitions we’ve made without having a source of income waiting for us – stepping out on faith, without a net.

This is how we went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth. At SWBTS I first had the ‘Southern Baptist system’ explained to me by the guy in charge of the placement office there. He said there are three tiers of students. The fortunate get hired by larger churches in some capacity … maybe even senior pastor. The less fortunate get taken by smaller churches … maybe even as pastor. The third tier end up working bi-vocationally. The ‘system’ I was then told was designed so that once you’re in you had the chance to work your way up the tiers and hierarchies. Youth and education ministers could become senior pastors and pastors at smaller churches could work their way to larger churches. I was told the system serves as a ‘safety net.’

To me though, the system and the language used to describe the system seemed more like the Southern Baptist version of the corporate ladder. We learned again, and have learned many times over since then – that the traditional ‘system’ for staffing churches, designed to support and maintain traditional structures, does not fit us and we do not fit it. So, we opted out of the system. There was a Southern Baptist system for planting churches too. But it seemed too much like the traditional Southern Baptist system to me – just with a more ‘contemporary’ feel. Before we left SWBTS I took a church planting class and I was offered a chance to go to one of three very large yet to be determined cities. They had no interests in doing anything in a small town – but Christie and I felt called to go back to Plainview, TX … so we went.

And this has been our mode of operation ever since … largely opting out of the traditional way of doing church (and life), opting out of Southern Baptist systems and structures (we landed in more moderate BGCT waters), and operating without a net. It grieves me that some feel this is because we hate traditional churches. This could not be further from the truth. We deeply love the churches that have given us roots, the Texas Baptist schools in which we have been educated, and the Texas Baptist churches that support and fund these schools. Christie and I have gone without a net, not because we are against traditional churches but because this is the direction God showed us and we are all about following wherever the missio Dei takes us. It has been a long journey. Despite the challenges and hardships, along the way I have sought to live…

A life that makes no sense if the God we Christians name and worship as Trinity does not exist…

A life that is intelligible apart from the life, kingdom, and mission of Father, Son, and Spirit…

A life of worship and faithful presence that quietly subverts the consumerism, individualism, and deistic secularism of our western culture…

I think that we have tried to live out this kind of life as consistently as we could. Little did we know that this would lead us into two periods of exile. The first was when we were living in Portales, NM and found ourselves suddenly without employment. We were forced to accept the community and hospitality offered to us by our church and we lived in an RV for six months – a time of refinement. The second, most recently, is when we moved to Carlsbad, NM to live with Christie’s parents – a time of discontent as well as discernment.

The Blessings of Exile

The discontent that I have felt since we arrived here I have made no secret of and have detailed in three full posts. However, there has also been blessing in exile through a further discernment and formation of a pastoral and theological identity and imagination. The fact that one opts out of the ‘system’ and goes without a net doesn’t mean that one has everything figured out where vocation is concerned. In fact the exact opposite may be the case. As we neared the end of our chaplaincy residencies I sensed that the process of vocational discernment begun as a resident would be continued in the following season. When we got to Carlsbad I knew that I had work to do. I went about this work by reading two memoirs: one by a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, called Hannah’s Child and the other called The Pastor by Eugene Peterson. In the accounts of their own vocational formation, they equipped me with formative narratives and stories that helped me make sense of my own story … they gave me the gift of their lives (I should probably say more about this sense of ‘given-ness’ and ‘giftedness’ in the future).

The shape of my vocational formation became even more apparent through my employment at a mental health center by being placed in a context in which I did not fit. I had already experienced a pastoral and theological disconnect during the CPE portion of my chaplaincy residency. Much of the time (but not all) I felt that we were being trained to be more junior therapists than pastors that provide spiritual direction and care to the suffering. Knowing the tensions that I had felt with the therapeutic I wondered just what working for a secular mental health organization would be like. Mental health professionals do an important job and I want to be fair. However, as one who has studied postmodern philosophy and theology I have deep tensions with the entrenched modernistic assumptions behind the bulk of behavioral health.

I have never worked someplace or in a system that so readily defines persons by their problems, or reduces them to a diagnosis, and is so thoroughly un-holistic in that it reduces the spiritual aspect of care to a question on an intake form. Furthermore, it is my observation and opinion that the mental health system takes with the left what the right hand gives (ie, the system is designed to give the appearance that we are helping people with funds on the front end but then does all it can to deny payment for services with those same funds on the back end). I have found that these are pronounced tensions for me. Additionally, my specific formation as a pastor and theologian has made it hard for me to do the work of a ‘Community Support Worker’ or ‘Psycho-Social Rehabilitation (PSR) Specialist’. I’ve felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.

I’m learning by experience what my theological instincts told me – that pastoring is not simply another one of the ‘helping’ professions. We really do need good social workers and therapists, I sincerely believe that. Their work is vitally important, and we especially need social workers and therapists committed to the missio Dei. But I also believe pastors betray their unique vocation if they allow themselves to become amateur social workers or junior psychologists. Still, I’m grateful for my time as a CPE/chaplain resident and at the mental health center because the tensions I experienced in these places have been the occasions to further integrate my theological and pastoral sides. The patients and clients I’ve had the privilege to give my presence too have been my greatest teachers. Since arriving at Logsdon Seminary in January of 2007 I have learned so much about the intersection of the theological and pastoral and how the two should not be torn asunder. This experience of exile has been the occasion for the further discovery and integration of my pastoral and theological vocations. This is a journey that I look forward to continuing.

Here We Go Again

As our journey continues, we again find ourselves once again keeping good company with Abraham and Indiana Jones … operating without a net. The difference though between ourselves and Abraham is that God has shown us where we are to go – Abilene, TX. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that as we have shared the news that we are going back to Abilene, back home, at how many people express a similar affinity for A-town. Abilene seems to have its fair share of admirers. We are looking forward to the opportunity to re-invest our lives in this place called Abilene and among the people of Hardin Simmons University/Logsdon Seminary and Crosspoint Fellowship. With our move to Abilene there are some inevitable questions that come up. I list here three (there are probably more)…

Does this means that we were wrong to go off to Houston for chaplaincy residencies? I don’t think so. Like I said, we have always tried to follow the missio Dei wherever it leads – and this is where it led. I can’t begin to describe the valuable (if not exhausting and at times almost debilitating) pastoral experience we gained and that changed who we both are. Our decision to go was confirmed by God and our community – I think it would be unwise to second guess that now. This exile we have found ourselves in now did not last forever and has had its purpose – and so did our residencies. Within the experience as chaplains, and within the experience of being in ministry together in such an intense manner, are embedded pastoral formation, integration, and skills we will need in the future. We need to be patient even if we don’t know where these experiences ‘fit’ right now (I will most likely need to be reminded that I said this later, so feel free).

What of my plans to get a PhD and my vocation as a theologian? Well, I still plan on getting one. I just no longer have the desire to move to California or North Carolina to do one. Its nothing against the schools in these places for they are top notch. I simply feel the need for my research to be situated in our common life together with our Crosspoint and Logsdon families. I can’t describe it much more than that right now … it just doesn’t ‘make sense’ anywhere else. The good news is there are distance programs I can do. But then there is also the question of where I will teach? I would relish the opportunity to teach at Logsdon more than I can put in words (this shouldn’t be surprising to those that know me).

I think we are going to see the numbers of students opting out of the traditional denominational paths and systems (much like we I did which and how we ended up at Logsdon in the first place) increase greatly. More and more, I think, are going to go without the traditional nets. These students will need profs who can relate and help shepherd them, which is something I believe my experience base equips me very well to do. But I make no presumptions. Whatever happens I want to be doing the work of theology (in some form or fashion) in a particular context whatever job I may have. Is there any other way to be a theologian than in a particular ‘place’?

What about my pastoral vocation and how does it mix with my theological vocation? I also get asked often, “Don’t you see yourself pastoring your own church at some point?” The answer is frankly “No, not really.” Unless God surprises me, I do not feel called to be a paid solo or senior pastor at a ‘traditional’ church (in fact, I have become uncomfortable with the whole idea of a solo or senior pastor). This is not a statement against traditional churches per se, just a statement of my own theological/pastoral convictions and where I feel called vocationally. I also feel the need to be attentive to finding the place where my vocation and Christie’s vocation come together and mutually compliment each other. Neither of us can leave the other behind, we are in this together (and we make a good team I think).

If I had my wishes I would feel vocationally at home working at HSU (staff of some sort, theology prof perhaps when the time is right?) and using my pastoral/theological gifts at Crosspoint. I would envision myself as a pastoral theologian, an ecclesial theologian with the responsibility…

1) to develop a storied imagination which emplots us into the biblical narrative and story of Christ,

2) to develop a theological imagination which draws us into the life and activity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and

3) to develop a liturgical imagination through ecclesial practices which form us into a missional community.

Again, I have no presumptions, but I can’t think of much else, twenty five years down the road, that would be more missionally or vocationally fulfilling than to have been ‘placed’ in this manner and with these people.

There are other questions I’m sure. There are always questions that don’t always need answers right now. The important thing is that, here we go again, setting off in a week without a net to the place God has shown us – relying on the provision God provides in community with others. The amazing thing is that in this period of exile I have been able to dream again. This move feels like a new chapter … like a beginning. I don’t yet know what I will doing for a job once we get to Abilene (hence the metaphor of going without a net). I interviewed with Hardin Simmons for a position, and this would be a major source of divine provision. I really want the job, but haven’t heard yet either way as of yet. As we prepare to set off on this new chapter and beginning in our story, we covet your prayers and are thankful for your expressions of gospel shaped community and hospitality.

May the shalom our liberating King be with you all.