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Are you really living up to the way of the Lord, as prepared by the prophets? A continuation of Peterson's Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and Eat This Book.
The Jesus Way — part of Eugene Peterson's meaty "conversations" on spiritual theology
A way of sacrifice. A way of failure. A way on the margins. A way of holiness. In The Jesus Way Eugene Peterson shows how the ways of those who came before Christ — Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Isaiah — revealed and prepared the "way of the Lord" that became incarnate and complete in Jesus. Further, Peterson calls into question common “ways” followed by the contemporary American church, showing in stark relief how what we have chosen to focus on — consumerism, celebrity, charisma, and so forth — obliterates what is unique in the Jesus way.
Are you really living up to the way of the Lord, as prepared by the prophets? A continuation of Peterson's Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and Eat This Book.
Jesus is the Way. In the sixth of his seven great "I Am" self-definitions in St. John's Gospel he said so: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." It is among his most memorable and frequently quoted statements. It is also among the most frequently dismissed in the present-day culture of North America. The fog of inattention that surrounds the statement is to be expected from those who do not follow this "way," but it is astonishing and distressing among the men and women who give guidance and direction in the ways and means of living in the community of Jesus and as leaven in the world.
"Follow me" is the third imperative spoken by Jesus in Mark's telling of the gospel story (Mark 1:17). It is preceded by "Repent" and "Believe" (1:15). The three imperatives are the first commands that Jesus speaks after his radical, inaugural announcement, "The kingdom of God is at hand" (1:15 RSV). As the story proceeds, it turns out that by using the term "kingdom," Jesus is defining reality comprehensively as God's reality (you can't get more comprehensive than "kingdom"). Kingdom is what Jesus reveals, patiently but insistently, word by word, act by act. Real life, the real world, is a vast theater of salvation, directed by our wise and totally involved God. The three imperatives are invitations to live precisely this reality, this kingdom, following Jesus.
The first imperative, "Repent," requires a decision to leave one way of life and set out on another. It commands a change of mind or heart that results in a change of direction. The second imperative, "Believe," requires a personal, trusting, relational involvement in this comprehensive reordering of reality. And the third imperative, "Follow," gets us moving obediently in a way of life that is visible and audible in Jesus, a way of speaking and thinking, imagining and praying, that is congruent with the present, immediate ("at hand") kingdom realities.
To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can't separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.
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When Jesus said "I am the way ..." he used a word to define himself that is rich in resonance. Two thousand years later, one of our canonical American poets, Robert Frost, used the same metaphor in a poem that became the defining creed among a few but, as it turned out, not many of his fellow citizens: "I took the [road] less traveled by...." The sentence is a Jesus classic: brief, punchy language that opens up wide vistas on reality.
Way: a simple noun designating a road that leads to a destination, but then opening up as a metaphor that ramifies into many and various "ways"-not only the way we go, as in the route we take, but the way we go on the way whether by foot or bike or automobile. The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat.... And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated "ways and means" that characterize our way of life.
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"Way" is a stock metaphor in both our Scriptures and the traditions that have developed from them. At the entrance to our prayer book, the Psalms, the opening meditation uses this metaphor to set two ways of life before us. Will you live a solid life of prayer, listening to and answering God, rooted in the soil of God's revelation, your life growing like God's Torah, a tree with fruit-laden branches? Or will you live an insubstantial life of chatter and gossip, using words without God-context, oblivious of God, your life reduced to a pile of incoherent syllables, leaves blown every which way by the wind? Choose your way.
The Psalms in their extensive exploration of a life lived attentively and responsibly before God are conspicuous in their use of the metaphor, employing it ninety-seven times (twenty-one of these uses in the elaborately intricate Psalm 119). But the Psalms are in no way unique in their use of the metaphor. "Way" is employed extensively in both the Hebrew and Greek testaments, providing an intricate web of associations that keeps us alert to the pervasive and unrelenting necessity of being involved in a discerningly participatory way in all truth (doctrine) and all action (obedience), the truth and the action all of one piece, quite as much as a traveler and the road are of one piece. Jesus repeats and develops the Psalm 1 imagery of the two ways in his Sermon on the Mount when he contrasts the popular and easy road to death with the demanding road to life (Matt. 7:13-14).
It is significant that the primary term for identifying the followers of Jesus in the early church was "the Way." Luke in writing the story of the first Christian community uses it six times (Acts 9:2; 19:8, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22), most famously, perhaps, recording Paul in his sermonic defense before Felix: "this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors ..." (24:14). "Christian," used in Antioch to refer to these people, is used only once (Acts 11:26).
"Way" is a metaphor. Which is to say that it both is and is not what it names. Way is a road, a street, a path. It is formed by clearing out boulders and stumps, paving the ground with asphalt or concrete. Stop signs are provided and "No Passing" warnings posted, along with directions and mileage to the next city. But when Jesus tells us that he is the Way, he is obviously not saying anything like that. He is not something for us to walk on. He is covered with skin, not asphalt. He cannot be summarized by a numbered line on a map. To call Jesus a way is obviously nonsense.
But even though we know that it is nonsense we say the word anyway, with serious intent. None of us for a moment supposes that Jesus is something that we walk on after having cleared out the underbrush and deadfalls in the forest. Calling Jesus the Way (or any of its synonyms—street, sidewalk, avenue, highway, trail, and so on) doesn't cause even a moment's confusion in our minds.
For at the same time that we know it is nonsense we know it is not nonsense. Without hesitation we receive this word, "way," as an invitation to imagine the interconnectedness of the visible and invisible. We realize that there is more to Jesus, the Way, than we can see or hear, touch or taste. Our imaginations go to work, we try this, then that, we acquire an aptitude for dealing with all the interconnected visibles and invisibles inherent in reality.
We live in an intricate web of relationships that comprises the visible and the invisible, and so we need words that at one and the same time designate what is immediate to us via our senses and also immediate to us by faith. Ours is the world of dirt and stone, roads and houses, lilies and leopards, Saturn and San Diego, cradles and coffins, and simultaneously the world of sin and forgiveness, patience and persistence, holiness and evil, faith, hope, and love, of which the greatest is love. These are not two worlds that coexist: the two worlds are the same world. The two aspects are indivisible. Metaphor is language that in a single word conveys the indivisibility of visible and invisible, of seen and unseen, of heaven and earth.
The simple fact is that life is mostly invisible, inaudible, untouchable. Life may be ultimately inaccessible to our five senses, but without the evidence supplied by our five senses it would for the most part elude us. It turns out that the quickest and most available access to the invisible by means of language is through metaphor, a word that names the visible (or audible, or touchable). A metaphor is a word that carries us across the abyss separating the invisible from the visible. The contradiction involved in what the word denotes and what it connotes sets up a tension in our minds, and we are stimulated to an act of imagination in which we become participants in what is being spoken. Metaphor is our lexical witness to transcendence — to the more, the beyond, the within — to all that cannot be accounted for by our microscopes and telescopes, by our algebra and geometry, by pulse rate and blood pressure, by weights and measures ... a witness to all the operations of the Trinity.
The writers of Scripture are all masters of metaphor, language as a witness to the interconnectedness of all things visible and invisible. A metaphor takes a word that is commonly used to refer to a thing or action that we experience by means of our five senses and then uses it to refer to something that is beyond the reach of our immediate senses. Rock, for instance, refers to a hard mass of minerals that can be held and weighed, seen and painted. It designates what I stub my toe on, or throw through a window. There is no ambiguity in the word. It stays the same no matter what. And then one day Jesus looks at Simon and says, "You are a rock." What is that supposed to mean? By means of the miracle of metaphor, the word, taking the man with it, is launched into another realm of meaning altogether. Simon has been Rock (Peter, petros) ever since. We are still trying to come to grips with all the connections and implications set in motion by that metaphor.
At the simplest level, words identify things or actions. A word is a label. But when used as a metaphor, a word explodes, comes alive—it starts moving. I imagine myself entering a museum where every exhibit is identified by a word or words. The exhibits of animals and birds and artifacts are fascinating — there is so much to know! I observe and read and learn. Then suddenly, without warning, pterodactyls are flying; lions are running and growling and hunting for their supper; the women in the exhibits are trying on Egyptian gold necklaces and competing for attention, while the men grab Greek javelins and go into combat. The place is no longer a museum in which I can study or admire inert things; it is a world teeming with life and movement and action in which I am a participant—dodging the animals, admiring the women, avoiding the javelins — whether I want to or not.
Metaphor does that, makes me a participant in creating the meaning and entering into the action of the word. I can no longer understand the word by looking it up in the dictionary, for it is no longer just itself. It is alive and moving, inviting me to participate in the meaning. When the writers of Scripture use metaphor, we get involved with God, whether we want to or not, sometimes whether we know it or not.
When metaphor is banished and language is bullied into serving as mere information and definition, as happens so often in our computerized culture and cultural religion, the life goes out of the language. It also goes out of us. When this reduction happens in relation to God and all that pertains to God, we end up sitting around having study and discussion groups in religious museums. If we are lucky, one of the descendants of David or Hosea, Jonah or Habakkuk, shows up and with the simple expedient of a metaphor, said or sung, drags us outside into the open air where all the stuff we are studying is alive and moving and colliding with us. This certainly happens when Jesus shows up and says, "I am the way...."
Which, of course, is why metaphors are so prominent in our Scriptures. And why "way" is used by these writers who are intent on getting us involved in the action of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "Way" gathers into itself everything that has to do with "ways and means." "Way" has a literal denotation of road, path, highway, street, and so on. But it simultaneously expands with connotations ranging broadly and comprehensively into the way we talk (boldly or hesitantly, kindly or sarcastically, lovingly or angrily, smoothly or roughly, reverently or blasphemously), the way we walk (leisurely or hastily, confidently or confusedly, strongly or weakly), the way we appear (groomed or slovenly), the way we behave (uprightly or criminally, straightforwardly or deviously, openly or slyly, generously or stingily, courteously or rudely).
The relation between ends (where we are going) and means (how we get there) is a basic distinction in science, technology, philosophy, morality, and spirituality. Fitting the right means to the desired ends is required in virtually everything we do, from things as simple as getting across the street and frying an egg to the complexities involved in a mission to the moon or writing a novel. But here's the thing: the means have to be both adequate to and congruent with the end. Means have to fit ends. Otherwise everything falls apart.
It is far easier to decide on a desired end, a goal, than it is to acquire adequate means. "What do you want to do [or be] when you grow up?" evokes a kaleidoscope of answers for the first twenty or so years of our lives. Setting the goal requires little effort, no commitment, and no skill. But finding the means for reaching the goal, achieving that identity, is a matter of diligent concentration, responsible perseverance, and keen discernment.
Discernment of means adequate for living to the glory of God and congruent with our identity as baptized Christians has always been demanding, which is why the biblical writers use the metaphor of way so frequently. But with the unprecedented proliferation of technology, discernment makes demands on us in a way not anticipated by our biblical writers. For us, technology has taken over the business of means. Technology has a monopoly, at least in the minds of most, on answering questions regarding means. But technology for the most part restricts the term to matters visible: the means for making cars, getting to London, amassing a fortune, winning a game, killing the enemy. It is a very impressive monopoly. In our awed admiration we hardly notice that there is little skill or wisdom or concern given to the way we actually live. A technologized world knows how to make things, knows how to get places, but is not conspicuous for living well.
My concern is that the prominence of the way in our Scriptures and traditions, showing us how to glorify God and realize our baptismal identity, has been transferred in contemporary life into ways of getting money, getting jobs, and getting power. The authority of Scripture and Jesus in discerning and employing means has been taken over by technology, the god Technology. And this proliferation of technology obscures the vital organic connections between means and ends in everything that permeates our ordinary living. When technology calls the shots in matters of means, "standard of living" has nothing to do with how well we live, only with how much money we spend annually.
The way in which Jesus is the Way is not a matter of style or expedience. Nor is it a generality, a vague pointing in an upward direction. Prayerfully and scripturally attentive, Jesus deliberately chose the way he would live. If we choose to follow him, we must be just as prayerful, scripturally attentive, and deliberate. The other ways are no ways.
Before they launch us into the story of the way of Jesus, our first three Gospel writers (in Matt. 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13) provide us with an arresting bold-print clarification on the way in which Jesus is the way — and the ways in which he is not.
After a few introductory matters, each writer places John the Baptist prominently before us. John is the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets, prophets who from the time of Abraham have been preparing the "way of the Lord." John baptizes Jesus. The Spirit, like a dove, descends and alights on Jesus — a validation from heaven. The baptism is then endorsed by the voice from heaven, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Jesus' lifework as Messiah—revealing God to us, leading us to God — is launched.
A glorious beginning. A great start. The baptism, the descent of the dove-Spirit, the voice from heaven. Yes. Momentum is up. Jesus is on his way. And we who are ready to follow Jesus are also on his way. And then our canonical friends stop us in our tracks: "Hold on. Not so fast. Don't be in such a hurry. Pay attention to this." We are eager to get going but now we sit back—reluctantly, impatient with the interruption. We listen to the story of Jesus tempted by the devil.
"Immediately" (Mark's word) the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. Necessity is underlined. This has to take place before the story can continue. The word peirazo can also be translated "test" as it is in Genesis 22:1, when God brought Abraham to the time of testing on Mount Moriah. Apparently there are wrong ways to be on "the way of the Lord." The wilderness provides the place and time to clarify what is involved. We necessarily (this is not an option) have to pay close attention to the way we are on the way of the Lord, how we do this. Jesus had to do it; we have to do it.
The temptation clarified at the very outset the ways in which Jesus would do his work as Messiah. Who he was needed no letters of reference: the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him was verification enough. His qualifications needed no further endorsement: "This is my beloved Son ..." is definitive in that department. But how would he go about this messianic work, this comprehensive reconciliation of all things, "whether on earth or in heaven" (Col. 1:20), this salvation? This needs to be looked at closely, carefully considered, examined, rigorously tested. The stakes are high, eternally high.
Excerpted from The Jesus Way by Eugene H. Peterson Copyright © 2007 by Eugene H. Peterson. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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