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.