What We are Made For

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

Eschatology is the category we use to deal with matters concerning the end.  The future is that aspect of time that is of most concern to human beings.  What we are made for is of more significance to the way we live our lives than that out of which we are made.

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A Sense of God

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

Our culture presents us with forms of prayer that are mostly self-expression – pouring ourselves out before God or lifting our gratitude to God as we feel the need and have the occasion.  Such prayer is dominated by a sense of self.  But prayer, mature prayer, is dominated by a sense of God.  Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God.

Show Them How to Live

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

A story about author and rabbi Chaim Potok…

He returned home for vacation, and his mother got him off alone.  “Chaim I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.”  Chaim replied, “No, mama.  I want to be a writer.”

This conversation was repeated every vacation break, every summer, every meeting: “Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.”  Each time Chaim replied, “No, mama.  I want to be a writer.”

The exchanges accumulated.  The pressure intensified.  Finally there was an explosion.  “Chaim, you’re wasting your time.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.”  The explosion detonated a counter-explosion: “Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live!”

A Psalm of Praise

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:7-9

The commonest form of prayer in the Psalms is the lament.  It is what we would expect, since it is our commonest condition.  We are in trouble a lot, so we pray in the lament form a lot.  A graduate of the Psalms School of Prayer would know this form best of all, by sheer force of repetition.

Jonah in the belly of the fish was in the worst trouble imaginable.  We naturally expect him to pray a lament.  What we get, though, is its opposite, a psalm of praise, in the standard thanksgiving form.

Circumstances dictated “lament.”  But prayer, while influenced by circumstances, is not determined by them.  Jonah, creative in his praying, chose to pray in the form “praise.”

A School of Prayer

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[1] Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, [2] saying,

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
[3] For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
[4] Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
[5] The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
[6] at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:1-9

That Jonah prayed is not remarkable; we commonly pray when we are in desperate circumstances.  But there is something very remarkable about the way Jonah prayed.  He prayed a “set” prayer.  Jonah’s prayer is not spontaneously original self-expression.  It is totally derivative.  Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught.  His school was the Psalms.

JOnah-620x335Line by line Jonah’s prayer is furnished with the stock vocabulary of the Psalms:

  • “my distress” from 18:6 and 120:1
  • “Sheol” from 18:4-5
  • “all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” from 42:7
  • “from thy presence” from 139:7
  • “upon thy holy temple” from 5:7
  • “the waters closed in over me” from 69:2
  • “my life from the Pit” from 30:3
  • “my soul fainted within me” from 142:3
  • “into thy holy temple” from 18:6
  • “deliverance belongs to the Lord” from 3:8

And more.  Not a word in the prayer is original.  Jonah got every word – lock, stock, and barrel – out of his Psalms book.

But it is not only a matter of vocabulary, having words at hand for prayer.  The form is also derivative.  For the last hundred years scholars have given careful attention to the particular form that the psalms take (form criticism) and have arranged them in two large categories, laments and thanksgivings.  The categories correspond to the two large conditions in which we humans find ourselves, distress and well-being.  Depending on circumstance and the state of our soul, we cry out in pain or burst forth with praise.  The categories have subdivisions, each form identifiable by its stock opening, middle, and ending.  The rhythms are set.  The vocabulary is assigned.

This is amazing.  Prayer, which we often suppose is truest when most spontaneous – the raw expression of our human condition without contrivance or artifice – shows up in Jonah when he is in the rarest condition imaginable as learned.  Our surprise lessens when we consider language itself: we begin with inarticulate cries and coos, but after years of learning we become capable of crafting sonnets.  Are infant sounds more honest than Shakespeare’s sonnets?  They are both honest, but the sonnets have far more experience in them.  Honesty is essential in prayer, but we are after more.  We are after as much of life as possible – all of life if possible – brought to expression in answering God.  That means learning a form of prayer adequate to the complexity of our lives.

A Desire for Him

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[3] So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. [4] And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” [5] When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” [6] And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

– Exodus 32:3-6

Self is sovereign.  The catechetical instruction we grow up with has most of the questions couched in the first person: “How can I make it?  How can I maximize my potential?  How can I develop my gifts?  How can I overcome my handicaps?  How can I cut my losses?  How can I increase my longevity and live happily ever after, preferably all the way into eternity?”  Most of the answers to these questions include the suggestion that a little religion along the way wouldn’t be a bad idea.

There are a thousand ways of being religious without submitting to Christ’s lordship, and people are practiced in most of them.  We live in golden calf country.  Religious feeling runs high but in ways far removed from what was said on Sinai and done on Calvary.  While everyone has a hunger for God, deep and insatiable, none of us has any great desire for him.  What we really want is to be our own gods and to have whatever other gods that are around to help us in this work.