Tag Archives: books

Listening in Community

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Western culture places great emphasis on the individual. In sports we call out and praise individual performance, giving little more than lip service to how well a team plays. (Just look at baseball: nine players on the field, but only the pitcher is said to have won or lost the game.)

In school, each student is given a grade the she alone has worked for. Team projects are the exception, and a dreaded one at that.

Even in the Christian faith we stress the individual’s responsibility to accept or reject Jesus Christ. (I’ve written about this twice before, based on my first experience in Ethiopia. You can read those posts from 2015 and from 2008 if you want.)

But there is power in community, especially when it comes to making decisions. I recall a scene in a documentary from many years ago: the elders of an African tribe sitting in a circle discussing the appropriate marriage dowry for one of the girls in the tribe. Even as I write that i struggle with how wrong everything about it sounds – but only because it is foreign to me; I also see great wisdom.

Imagine if we were to harness the power and wisdom of collected minds for such things as job changes and career moves; for engagements (or divorces!); for discerning God’s call on our lives.

My parents recently gave me a number of books they’ve read over the years; the one at the top of this post among the titles. I just started reading it but wish I’d read it six months ago. Or three years ago. or twenty years ago. Listening Hearts: Discerning God’s Call in Community provides sound biblical and practical wisdom for a community of Christ-followers to listen for and to God’s call. The authors and a team of researchers combed through centuries of Christian literature to learn how previous generations and various traditions defined and discerned God’s call – for the community and for individuals within the community. Here are just a few tidbits that have stuck out to me:

Call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle. (p. 7)

We often find our calls in the facts, circumstances, and concrete experiences of life. … A call may not be so much a call to “do” as to “be.” (p. 9)

Discernment requires our willingness to act in faith on our sense of what God wants us to do. (p. 27)

If you are wondering what you should be doing; if you are facing a decision about a career change or a cross-country move or whether God is calling you to be in full-time ministry, then I want you to do this: read this book, get a small community of people around you (who should also read it), then listen together for to discern God’s call.

What I’m Reading: Under the Unpredictable Plant

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Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, by Eugene Peterson, is the third in a series of three books on the work of pastors in North America. (The other two titles are Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity and Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, which sit on my bookshelf waiting to be read.)

If I had to choose a pastor after whom to model my ministry, it would be Eugene Peterson. He seems so much more concerned about his congregation’s toward maturity in Christ than about its growth in size. His writing is theological, sometimes philosophical, often eminently practical. Best of all, he offers no programs to sell, no models to follow; only sound, Biblical counsel.

In Under the Unpredictable Plant, Peterson uses the story of Jonah to help clarify the pastoral vocation in the midst of a culture that calls (and tempts) pastors to “religious careerism.” He uses Tarshish, Jonah’s destination of choice, as representing an exotic and far-away city where Jonah dreamed of doing big things for God (just not in God’s presence). Pastors today are similarly tempted by the culture to run to the next big, exciting church where they might do great things for God…and then get invited to speak at a conference or two. Ninevah, on the other hand, represents the heart of what God calls pastors to do: faithfully proclaim His message of love and grace to messy people.

Throughout his books, Peterson weaves pieces of his own story: growing up in a home with a Pentecostal preacher mother and a butcher father; childhood encounters with rough-edged farmers; struggling to make the language of the Bible real for an adult Sunday School class (the genesis—no pun intended—of his contemporary-English Bible translation, The Message). These personal stories bring Peterson’s philosophy and theology to life.

I would love to meet Eugene Peterson. I am almost jealous of a pastor friend who, with his wife, got to spend several days in Peterson’s home as a gift from his church! In fact, when looking into seminaries several years ago, Regent University in British Columbia was high on my list, precisely because that’s where Peterson was serving at the time. For now, though, I am content to be mentored vicariously through his books.