As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Eugene H. Peterson. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017.
Summary: A collection of 49 of Peterson’s sermons grouped into seven sections, focused on lives congruent with the teaching of scripture.
I’ve been a follower of the writing of Eugene Peterson since I heard him speak on the parables of Jesus after a very successful conference, where he warned us of the dangers that may come with success. He is a person who repeatedly has challenged me to look beyond the obvious, the “glittering images,” to the bedrock realities of keeping company with Jesus.
This is a kind of valedictory book, that Peterson has described as his last book, bringing together preaching over the course of his pastoral work into a collection of 49 of his sermons. He groups these is seven groups of seven organized around “preaching in the company of…Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos.” Each section is preceded by a brief introduction about the one being kept company with in that part.
A theme which ties this collection together in his mind is congruence, particularly between our faith as articulated in Holy Scripture, and the ways we live out that faith. Peterson explains this further in introducing the collection:
“The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence–congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh.”
I find it almost impossible to summarize all the good I found in this collection without writing a very long review. What is compelling in these sermons is the joining of thoughtful engagement with the biblical text, thoughtful reflection on life, and unforced connections between the two. One sermon that caught my attention was “Train Up a Child” from Proverbs 22:6. After observing that the word we translate as “train” literally means “to rub the gums of a newborn child with oil before it begins to suck its mother’s breast” (scripture is so earthy!), he discusses the implications of this warm, intimate act of helping a child get started right in life. He writes,
“Some people have a box labeled ‘Sunday school,’ where training takes place for an hour every week. There is another box labeled for parents that is consulted occasionally when there is misbehavior. One of the most visible boxes these days is child psychology, which is fairly expensive, but at least you know the person working out of that box knows a lot more than you do, which relieves you of some of the responsibility.
“All these boxes are useful from time to time, but they have little to do with what is involved in the biblical proverb. The proverb doesn’t come from a box but out of a life lived. It has little to do with advice giving, counseling, or analyzing. Rather it is initiated through personal example and caring. It means that every time you engage in an act of faith in Christ, you are training another person. Every time you love another in obedience to Christ’s command, you are educating someone else. Every time you forgive someone because Christ forgave you, you are assisting materially in the Christian growth of that person. Every time you hope because Christ has promised his help, you are opening up new possibilities of growth in another person.”
Each sermon probably takes ten to fifteen minutes to read, but gives you plenty to reflect on for the next half hour, the next day, even the next week. Peterson writes at the beginning of the book his attempts to fit into his denominations expectations of him to motivate people to grow their church, to cast vision, and how this just didn’t fit his sense of pastoral calling. What we are given instead is transcripts of addresses of a pastor bringing out in plain language the meaning of texts, and considerations of what it means to live them out in everyday life. We are also given examples of how this may be done from Genesis to Revelation, from Moses to John of Patmos. These 49 sermons cover much of canonical scripture and begin to help us see how the Word of God written may become indeed, the Word of God for us.
This book has been caught up in controversy. At the time of its publication, Peterson gave what was meant to be a kind of “valedictory” interview, during which the interviewer, with his own agenda, pursued a line of questioning about Peterson’s views and pastoral practice around LGBT issues. After the article came out, Peterson, facing bookstores pulling his books, issued a “clarification.” In the end, no one was particularly happy. I question the interviewer’s judgment of pursuing his line of questioning in what was a kind of valedictory interview. I wish Peterson had responded differently or not at all, particularly because his answers and later clarifications might have discouraged people from discovering a treasure. I think it better that this book serve as his “valedictory address.” For me, it not only summed up his life and ministry, but modeled the skillful work of the diligent pastor in preaching week by week. We need more models like this.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.