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Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, by Eugene H. Peterson
Book Review by Laurel G. Coolbaugh, MDiv., Dmin.
As a Pastor and Spiritual Director, I am particularly intrigued by how God forms God’s people, both the integration of the individual into oneness with God, and the integration of the variety of individuals into oneness as the Church with God. Throughout his five-part book series about conversations on spiritual theology, Eugene Peterson has helped me ponder this process and given me language to better articulate it, which helps me communicate some of God’s work to my congregation and my directees. His fifth and final book in the series, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, has been even more spiritually invigorating on my second reading than when I first read it eight years ago.
Earlier books by Peterson (especially The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction) have clearly expressed his conviction that the vocation of Spiritual Director fits naturally with and is essential to the vocation of being a Pastor, if one is called into both. This is a refreshing perspective for spiritual directors, particularly those who have practiced their craft amidst a church environment of suspicion where the church leaders do not recognize and value the gift of spiritual direction/spiritual directors to the Church.
From the book’s introduction, the clearly expressed intent of the book is to “engage in an extended and serious conversation with my brother and sister Christians around the phrase ‘growing up in Christ’.” (pg. 8) This, of course, is the same kind of conversation a spiritual director has with a directee on a much more personal and typically ongoing basis. As the title of the book infers, “The resurrection of Jesus establishes the conditions in which we live and mature in the Christian life and carry on this conversation: Jesus alive and present. …We live our lives in the practice of what we do not originate and cannot anticipate. When we practice resurrection, we continuously enter into what is more than we are. When we practice resurrection, we keep company with Jesus, alive and present, who know where we are going better than we do, which is always ‘from glory unto glory.’” (pg. 8)
The concept of “practice[ing] resurrection” is a wonderful phrase to catch the Christ-follower off guard. Yes, Christ is living in His resurrected body right now at the right hand of the Father, and yes, Christ resurrected is right now living in the heart of each believer through the Holy Spirit, but I had never considered this truth in quite this terminology, that I am “practicing” living out the new resurrection life of the incarnated Christ. Maybe it is my years of being a musician and practicing in concert halls and small practice rooms, logging countless hours before a performance or recital that helped me to connect with this truth in a new way. Previously I had thought more in terms of living into the Kingdom of God and not the kingdom of this world and my flesh, although it is certainly the same “practice.” The phrase “practice resurrection” is just one example of the way Peterson gives me new language to articulate timeless truth, and those who are familiar with his Message paraphrase of the Bible might relate to my experience.
Another example of Peterson’s provocative language is when he comments on Paul’s “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8) Peterson describes this character formation in the Christ-follower as “acquired passivity” and describes how much this truth is counter-cultural and how much the American church in particular can promote a dangerous “mongrel spirituality” (pg. 93). Summing up the author’s discussion about “acquired passivity”, Peterson says, “It is not what we do; it is what we participate in [God’s grace]. But we cannot participate apart from a willed passivity, entering into and giving ourselves up to what is previous to us, the presence and action of God in Christ that is other than us. Such passivity does not come easy to us. It must be acquired.” (pg. 95)
One reason that I have always connected deeply with Eugene Peterson’s writings is because of his own study of and fascination with languages and how specifically God communicates some of God’s most power-packed insights through the original languages of the Bible. Chapter nine of Practice Resurrection discusses Paul’s intent in his writing of Ephesians 4:10-16. Ephesians 4:1-2 is a transition from Paul’s reminding this church of the extravagance of God in love and generosity to God’s people (chapters 1-3) to now encouraging the church to grow up into maturity in Christ. Peterson brings forth and connects the Greek words that lay the foundation for this maturation mystery. The Greek word kaleo “to call” is at the root of the Greek word for church, ekklesia, “called out ones”. Paul is trying to highlight to the Ephesian believers how they are to live as the Church in response to their exuberantly loving and generous God. The Greek word used to describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit, parakleta, also has at its root the Greek word kaleo, “called alongside”. Brilliantly, Peterson links these words together to underscore the paracaletic language that Paul is using to encourage and inspire the members of the Church unto the fullness of the stature of Christ. Paracaletic language is the language of companioning one another in this process of the character of Christ being formed in the Christ-follower. “Paraclesis is language used with men and women who already have received the word of preached salvation and have been instructed in the teaching of the law, but who are in need of comfort or encouragement or discernment in the muddled details of dailiness. This is a way of language commonly identified in the church’s life as ‘cure of souls’ and ‘spiritual direction.’” (pg. 173) How wonderful as a twenty first century spiritual director to see Paul the Apostle modeling for us this language of coming alongside in order to help each one to grow up into the fullness of Christ so that we might be more fully the Bride of Christ, the Church!
In spiritual direction, I frequently ask people where they find God. Despite their varied answers, what I often sense is that they feel God is distant, looking down from the heavens, elsewhere. That his kingdom is where we go after we die, to be experienced at some date in the future. I so wish they could get a sense that God, who is Love, is near and his kingdom is at hand. In “God Soaked LIfe,” Chris Webb says that God’s kingdom is not a far off, remote and future promise, but that it is here, now. That we live in a God soaked world, where his presence permeates our lives and activities. He writes with passion and joy about God’s delight in us and in Creation, which he calls “God’s great act of hospitality.” Webb invites us to let go of earthly notions of hierarchies and politics and reframe what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of heaven.” Through stories from his life and ministry, he invites us into honesty as the path to freedom, and paints a portrait of God’s intended purpose for us: to be drawn into deeper, more loving community with him and with others.
There is much about this book that is beautiful and appealing, but one chapter in particular has stayed with me, shocking me with the depth of both its caring and its daring. The chapter on honesty includes a story about a woman who came to Webb for counsel, wanting to simply talk to someone about a deep betrayal in her life. He listened deeply and heard her pain and the hatred she couldn’t let go of, and then did something I’d never conceived of: he encouraged her to pray her honest feelings through one of the most vindictive of the Psalms and to pray what she had just spoken about this man: “I wish he were dead.” She was taken aback, but agreed to speak to God about what was true for her. Amazingly, over the next few months, she found that God met her through that Psalm and brought healing and freedom. I was awed by his boldness and the way he listened and responded to both the woman and to the Spirit in their midst. I know I am sometimes tempted to move too quickly to talk of forgiveness, when the individual may not be ready. His story reminded me once again that each person, each situation is unique, and inspired me to pray for the boldness that’s required to be a sacred listener in each precious life that’s before me.
IVP calls the book “an invitation into the community of God’s people,... the daily experiences of God, and a new life of love and service in the broken world around us.” Indeed, the last chapter provokes deep thought about when and where to act and speak out against injustice, and encourages us to look for the broken and humble, for there we will find Christ. Each chapter includes an “Over to You” section with scripture readings and reflection questions, which makes it ideal for a small group discussion. I read and discussed it with my women’s group, and though we have been meeting for years, we found ourselves having new conversations around the topics of spiritual formation included in this book.
Reviewed by Leslea Linebarger.