Book Review: Under the Unpredictable Plant

Thanks to Mark Stevens for this book by Eugene Peterson on vocational pastoral ministry called Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992).    I won the book when he was giving it away as a way to promote his blog.

petersonPeterson’s work, Under the Unpredictable Plant, explores the various meanings and aspects of the pastoral ministry in light of the biblical story of Jonah in the Old Testament.  In a sense he sees the story of Jonah as a kind of allegory for pastoral work and sees Jonah as a kind of pastor.  Even more so, it is really a personal reflection on his own pastoral ministry over the last 30+ years and the things he’s learned about being a pastor.  In his introduction he writes:

In my thirtieth year and four years into my ordination, an abyss opened up before me, a gaping crevasse it was…. Then this chasm opened up, this split between personal faith and pastoral vocation.  I was stopped in my tracks.  I looked around for a bridge, a rope, a tree to lay across the crevasse…. Gradually it dawned on me that the crevasse was not before me but within me…. I was a pastor vocationally; I was a Christianpersonally.  I had always assumed that the two, “pastor” and “Christian,” were essentially the same thing and naturally congruent.  Now I was finding that they were not.  Being a Christian, more often than not seemed to get in the way of working as a pastor.  Working as a pastor, with surprising frequency, seemed to put me at odds with living as a Christian…. exploring this territory and praying this prayer, I looked for a spirituality adequate to my vocation (pgs, 1-2).

This book then, is meant to give witness to this exploration and the prayer and is designed to help those many many pastors who are presently finding themselves standing at the edge of a similar abyss where Peterson once found himself standing.  I have not yet found myself standing at the edge of this abyss, but I am glad to have the warning so I can act in such a way as minimize my chances of finding myself in a similar predicament.

So how then does the story of Jonah fit into understanding the nuances of the pastoral vocation?  Well, Peterson in doing a lot of reading and searching for answers, one day came upon the book of Jonah and it grabbed him as being tremendously useful in bringing clarity to his understanding of the pastoral vocation and the pursuit of vocational holiness (which, I think, means doing what you are supposed to be doing as a pastor (i.e., providing spiritual direction to and for a congregation) and not something else, like managing an organization). 

Peterson believes the story of Jonah issharply evocative of the vocational experience of pastor” (6).  In this account we see a story which closely resembles that of what many who are called to the pastorate do: they hear the call of God to pastor a particular church or to plant one in a particular area; they are not sure they like that call (or that place), it looks too hard; they run from that call, either to the business world or in some direction opposite of where God is leading them (they get on a ship and head to Tarshish); they get caught up in the storm of God’s discipline; they then repent and change their attitude (they get thrown off the ship, or they jump ship); they go to that place God has directed them and pastor the church with passionate vocational holiness, whether they like the results or not (they go to Ninevah and pastor).   Like the abrupt ending of Jonah, Peterson’s book also ends abruptly leaving it open to each pastor as to how they will carry on the story.

Through reading this work I learned alot about what it means to be a pastor and how to live that out vocationally (though I am still very much in process).   It is a book I will have to read many times over in the coming years.  I learned from Peterson himself what it is to pastor and the things required to do good pastoral work: contemplative prayer, Scripture reading, and faithful obedience to the call of God to care for a congregation spiritually, among other things.  It means getting involved in people’s lives, listening to and hearing their stories; respecting them as people and fellow Christians and servants of the Lord; it means caring for them like a farmer cares for his field (a comparison Peterson makes).

As in the story of Jonah, Tarshish represents the ideal situation because in the eyes of Jonah, Nineveh is not an ideal situation.  Much like Jonah, pastors all too often run to Tarshish in hopes of living in and working in the ideal situation.  However, the simple fact of the matter is, pastoral work is not always ideal work, in fact it is often hard work and can lead many to long for the shores of Tarshish.  Sadly, many end up giving in and getting those tickets to exchange the hard work of pastoral ministry for a supposed better and more idealized situation usually involving better financial security.  Or, it is a longing for pastoral advancement so one can get out of the trenches and get on with “real” ministry.   It’s basically giving into the notion that “the grass is always greener on the other side” and believing it and going after it, only to find it isn’t there.

How does one escape the storm and jump ship, how do we get back on trackGod and passion.  For Peterson, God and passion are the essentials for living and the essentials for a healthy pursuit of vocational holiness.  God and passion involves making every effort to live in the presence of God, to live with passion – and to gather others into the presence of God, introducing them to the possibilities of a passionate life in God (45).  It involves showing people how to live.  Making God and passion the center of one’s existence allows for and facilitates pastoral integrity.  Without it, vocational holiness will be impossible.

Just as Jonah’s being caught up by the fish and then praying a prayer – so too should prayer be at the center of one’s pastoral vocation, be it a prayer of repentance or prayers for God’s direction and help to do his will and purpose.   In particular the prayers of the Pslams are especially useful for helping one make prayer the center.  The Psalms are where we learn to pray and can live out our pastoral vocation for the Psalms, according to Peterson, are “the graduate school of prayer.”

Pastoring, then, in Nineveh, has to do with a focus on geography and eschatology.  Peterson argues that all theology is rooted in geography, that is, the place where you pastor, and that true and authentic pastoral work is eschatological to the core in that it helps the congregation know and understand the goal and purpose of the Christian life, that it is, well, eschatological!  In regards to the geographical, Peterson urges us to understand that where you pastor is as important as who you pastor; they are interrelated.  Pastoring a church in So. California will likely be quite different than pastoring a church in South or Northeast and so on.  The people, the culture, and the locale are all going to be related and have an effect on how we pastor them.  Jonah going to Tarshish was indeed a vast contrast to his going to Nineveh.  It’s much the same with eschatology – it is the tool we use to keep our spiritual lives and the the spiritual life of the congregation fresh and open to the coming of the Lord both in our present lives and in the future consummation of all things.  It helps us teach our congregations how to live. 

So, I highly recommend this book if you are a pastor, whether you’ve been pastoring along time or only a few months or years – it will give you much to think about and be aware of.  For some it has turned around their ministries as they stood at the edge of that crevasse and for others it has helped them avoid it all together.


5 responses to “Book Review: Under the Unpredictable Plant

  1. What? No comments? No wonder the church is in dire straits!

    In my opinion this is a must read book for everyone. I know that sounds arrogant but it is such an important book. Peterson is the one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”


  2. if it is not expressly centered on biblical studies or is a hot button topic – it draws few comments…. is the review okay otherwise? i may need to rewrite parts, it isn’t a compelling review as is. people probably aren’t going to run right out and buy this book as a result of my review, yet. thanks mark for being my lone commenter so far.

  3. Sorry, I should have clarified by ‘everyone’ I meant all pastors and those training for ministry.

    Great review. I think i get more out of it every time I read it. I know a few guys like myself who read it once a year. Perhaps not all of the way through but most of it.

  4. I am a Peterson fan as reading his books has fed my life more than any other single author. It’s one of those books I return to periodically for a fresh allignment of my life with Gods kingdom. If my previous reading was upwards on 2-5 years prior I inevitably get more out of the next reading. Peterson calls it “training in humility” something our current climate and culture seems to have become disorietnted about. Their is a strong reformed theology of sin underlying the substrata assumptions that frame the message of the book, something Peterson seems to be insightful about across all his works and more specifically as a proffessor of Spriritual Theology. We tend to give too little recognition to the ways that sin effects our lives and this book calls us back from our versions of “fleeing the presence of the Lord while continuing to be actively involved in Kingdom/church life.

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