Eugene Peterson was a man of God. And he transformed the way that I viewed the Bible. Once I read The Message paraphrase, my eyes were opened to the Bible in a way that I never thought possible. I was able to understand what God was saying through His written word. He authored many books, and recently I read Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and I wrote a review on the book that I want to share with you. I apologize for the length, but it had to be over 3,000 words. I hope you enjoy. Share with your friends. Comment below. And maybe even read the book for yourself.

A Critical (Analytical) Book Review of
Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work
By Eugene H. Peterson

Randi Marie Owens
October 13, 2018
BIBL 5543 Introduction to the Background and Theological Themes of the Old Testament
Dr. Steven Fettke

A Critical Review of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work
By Eugene H. Peterson

Eugene H. Peterson is a former professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia. As well as the former pastor of Christ our King Presbyterian Church. Peterson has written many books for pastors, which include: The Contemplative Pastor, Under the Unpredictable Plant, and Working the Angles. He has many other books that he has written, including the best selling contemporary Bible translation The Message; however, this review is focused on his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The purpose of this book is to turn pastors back to the Bible as the basis for pastoral ministry. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work was originally written in 1980 and has been reprinted several times since. This book provides a firm foundation for pastors and ministers to realize “the relevance of ancient wisdom, creatively adapting Jewish religious tradition to contemporary pastoral practice, and persuasively affirming a significant link between pastoral work and the act of corporate worship, this book opens up to pastors a wealth of valuable practical, theological insights.”[1]

As a former pastor, Peterson is writing from experience. The introduction to the book allows the reader to understand why Peterson puts an emphasis on the Bible and he explains that while there are pastors who speak from a biblical standpoint, it is not universally used. Peterson states, “Pastors coming to scripture in search of foundation stones for their work are somewhat like those ancient peoples, whose histories are reconstructed for us by archeologists, who returned to a village after it has been destroyed.”[2] This expresses so exquisitely the purpose Peterson wrote this book. It is more than understanding the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, but it is about understanding the importance of learning from the word of God that was given to us. Reading the Bible is more than opening up to a passage and reciting it before a sermon, the scriptures can be heard in worship and prayers as well. Worship should be more than an hour on Sundays, and the pastors that understands the importance of the Bible should especially understand the importance of worshipping throughout one’s entire life. The “five stones” in the title of Peterson’s book are the five books in the Old Testament that are referred to as The Megilloth, which are: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. These five books “pick up areas in which sin typically distorts, obscures, or avoids the gospel realities programmed in the act of worship and provides the correctives, disciplines, and insights that keep them personal and real.”[3] It is time to understand the importance of biblical truths and to allow the word of God to penetrate hearts and to change lives.

Critical Summary

The main portion of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work is broken down into the five separate books, but more than that, Peterson gives five different foundational stones for the reader to lay. These five topics are: The Pastoral Work of Prayer-Directing, The Pastoral Work of Story-Making, The Pastoral Work for Pain-Sharing, The Pastoral Work for Nay-Saying, and The Pastoral Work of Community-Building. Understanding how each book can help a pastor can be beneficial to his or her ministry. These five stones should be important aspects of each church’s focus. Seeing how each chapter lays out space for the next stone is beautiful to see in Peterson’s writing. Instead of picking and choosing a stone, each pastor needs to see that all five of the stones are needed.

In the first chapter, Peterson focuses on the book of Song of Songs. He starts the chapter by telling a story of a woman who had come to him for counseling. She assumed that he would want to know all about her sex life, but instead he says, “If that [her sex life] is what you want to talk about I’ll listen. What I would really be interested in finding out about, though, is your prayer life.”[4] Peterson understands the main point. While she was wanting to talk about her physical intimacy, he cared about her spiritual intimacy. Relationships are a part of life, it does not matter whether it is between a husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, employers, employees, acquaintances, or enemies. In the midst of these relationships, there is also God. We have both horizontal and vertical relationships—horizontal being between persons on earth, vertical is between God and man. Therefore, “when we develop and express our love to another person we are using the same words and actions and emotions that also are used to develop and express our love for God; and vice versa.”[5]

Through the gift of salvation, humans are rescued by their Savior from their sin. Peterson goes on to talk about the importance of salvation, and what it really means to Christ followers. In the Old Testament, the Israelites understood salvation in their mass exodus from Egypt. God was their savior, and they were saved from slavery to the Egyptians. Peterson says this about the exodus, “The even was the kerygmatic center to all of Hebrew life — a glad proclamation of the dynamic action by which it was now possible to live with meaning and in praise before a holy and living God.”[6]  At some point in history, the reading of the Song of Songs became the final part of Passover. “The son is the most inward, the most intimate, the most personal of all the biblical books (excepting, perhaps, The Psalms).”[7] Throughout the Song of Songs the lover and the woman sings back and forth to each other, in the most intimate song, similar to the way a person’s prayers should be with God. The Song shows the conversations to help pastors express to his or her congregation how intimate a person’s prayer life can be. Expressing to another person that you will pray for them, shows that you will be engaged in an intimate conversation with God on his or her behalf.[8] Peterson closes the chapter by saying, “Prayer is the pastoral work that is most suited for recognizing the compelling quality of God’s invitations and promises, and perpetuating it in others.”[9] Understanding the importance of prayer should be a priority in any pastor’s life.

The second chapter focuses on the book of Ruth. Peterson explains how a pastor’s job is not merely to speak an uplifting message to his congregation, but to also care and be there for each congregant when he or she is dealing with problems of life. Being able to express God’s promises and faithfulness to those who are hurting, is a vital part of a pastor. Peterson says this about the book of Ruth, “There are no outstanding, historically prominent figures in Ruth, no splendid kings, no charismatic judges, no fiery prophets; it is a plain story about two widows and a farmer whose lives are woven into the fabric of God’s salvation through the ordinary actions of common life.”[10] This is a story of a widow who was not born into a family, but was made a part of the family. It is a beautiful description of a Christ follower being brought into God’s family. The book of Ruth is a short story, it shows the reader how God’s will, my will, other’s wills can be completed by random people. There may be people who think he or she will not receive anything from what a pastor is saying on Sunday mornings, or he or she may think it is irrelevant to his or her situation, but by using short stories, a pastor can bring his or her message into a place of allowing his congregants to apply it to his or her own life.

Peterson goes on to discuss the difference between a pastor counseling and visiting his congregants. When a person asks for counseling it is the pastor’s responsibility to remove all distractions, but when a pastor is visiting a person it places that responsibility into the hands of the other person. Creating a space for congregants to feel safe will help them share his or her story with the pastor so that they are able to then be counseled. The pastor is there to help create the story; however, if the person is unwilling to help, the story will not be complete. In talking about story-making, Peterson says, “Storymaking is creative not only in its arranging of materials, not only in paying attention to the overlooked realities of the hidden ways of God, but, at the right time, speaking up on one’s own and asking for what we want.”[11] We were not created to only listen to stories, but to make our own story as well.

Chapter three brings us to The Pastoral Work of Pain-Sharing. This chapter focuses on the book of Lamentations. Peterson starts the chapter saying, “Among other things, pastoral work is a decision to deal, on the most personal and intimate terms, with suffering.”[12] The book of Lamentations shows us that God does not remove people from a life of suffering, but instead, He shows up in the midst of sufferings. When people are going through sufferings there needs to be a constant scriptural feedback. Peterson talks about the task of a pastor which is to “comfort without in any way avoiding the human realities of guilt or denying the divine realities of judgement.”[13] Reading the book of Lamentations helps a person to understand the importance of keeping his or her attention of God because of His love of His people. His love is there to help abolish guilt or shame.

Lamentations is not a book that is only full of feelings, there are facts to back the feelings. Peterson says, “Each feeling is riveted to a fact, which means that the suffering at no time is allowed to become mere feeling. The anguish is never given an independent existence.”[14] Even though children of God are not meant to live in his or her suffering, it is important for a pastor to “enter into the pain and to share the suffering” with his or her congregants.[15] Many times a person may feel that the suffering will be there forever, but even the Fall of Jerusalem was only took place in a single year. However, pastors need to understand that is is not his or her job to interfere or manipulate another person’s sorrow. “Suffering is an event in which we are particularly vulnerable to grace, able to recognize dimensions in God and depths in the self. To treat it as a ‘problem’ is to demean the person.”[16] People do not lose God in the midst of suffering, people find God.

Chapter 4 brings the reader to the book of Ecclesiastes through The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying. Oftentimes people look to the pastor to fulfill his or her expectations that he or she has of God. Peterson says it like this, “Pastoral work takes place in a context in which very kind of spiritual expectation is directed to the pastor (which is encouraging): it is also, though, a context in which other answers are being offered by better-budgeted competitors, skilled in the arts of bedazzlement, who elbow their way in and get a hearing (which is frustrating).”[17] The books of Ecclesiastes is not meant to feed a person, but rather cleanse a person. People cannot expect a pastor to provide that cleansing, but each person needs to depend on God and ask God to cleanse him or herself. Reading on, Peterson explains that Amen in Hebrew means Yes, and goes on to explain that “It is right and allusive in meaning. It indicates firmness, solidity. It describes what is nailed down. God is ‘Amen’ (Isa. 65:16) — sure, faithful, affirmative… We are taught to say yes to the God who says he’s to us in Christ and so be connected in an affirmative way with the God who has redeemed us.”[18] People of God are not meant to be nay-sayers.

The biblical yes, Amen, is always used in relation to God. People use the word to answer a call from God, in prayer and praise, in response to an individual call from God, and it was a favorite word of Jesus.[19] So instead of a world of nay-saying people, there is a world of yes-saying people. With a pastoral voice, Ecclesiastes is indispensable. To explain further, Peterson says:

For the pastor has the responsibility to nurture the affirmative without encouraging the gullible; to keep people alert and prepared to say yes to every yes of God in every part of existence without at the same time being a patsy for every confidence game in town; to train people in robust acceptance of what God brings to us and not to passively submit to the trashy merchandising of religious salespeople.[20]

Turning to God for help and saying Amen to Him should be what each person chooses to do. Ecclesiastes is the ‘empty tomb’ in the Old Testament. It shows humanity what it cannot do. It is not anyone’s job to take care of God or His body, but instead, He takes care of His people. So often people take the wrong expectations to the gospel, and he or she may miss the real message of the gospel. In the same way, people tend to miss the real message of Ecclesiastes: to abolish the voice in a person’s head saying No and to hear a resounding Yes and Amen instead.

In the final chapter, The Pastoral Work of Community-Building: Esther, Peterson explains that the pastor is set in a community and is supposed to build that community.[21] The American culture makes community building difficult. Americans typically work as individuals, so in a group is aggregate instead of a company, a “multiplication of individuals rather than an organic body.”[22] In the Bible, Christians did not perceive individuality to be reduced when the group was working as one body. America’s church body needs to understand the importance of working together as one body, instead of focusing solely on him or herself. Whether it is an individual thinking of him or herself, or a church thinking of itself, instead of the whole body of Christ. Peterson says, “The plain face is that the community of faith, the church, is a highly specialized community.”[23] So, while each church is functioning as its specific part of the body, each church needs to work together to create the community to allow all parts of the body to work together.

In Esther’s story, God’s people were being threatened; however, they were not destroyed because they came together as a community. This is a beautiful model that salvation is not only individual, but that it is corporate as well.[24] In the same way, joy should not be a private emotion, but an emotion that is shared in community with one another. If joy is not combined with a community, it is a mere sensation. Pastors need to help bring the community into a place of seeing the church as a community, instead of being individuals working toward a similar goal. When faced with problems from the enemy, a church should not question who did what, but instead understand that “wherever there is a people go God that there are enemies of God.”[25] Pastors need to understand that it is not his or her job to do everything that is needed at a church. Each pastor needs to realize that “what is required is modesty, the willingness to work within the terms of pastoral call, and faith that trusts the Lord of the battle to deploy his servant where and when he wills.”[26] The most important thing a pastor can do is to praise no matter what.

Interaction

Peterson is a well of wisdom and knowledge. He eloquently shares about The Megilloth in a way to allow the reader to have a better understanding of each of the five books. There are so many different aspects of this book that is thought provoking and beneficial, not just to pastors, but to believers at large. This book is not outdated, but carries on the truths from the past, and will continue to carry on for generations to come. Bringing the stories of the Old Testament to life in a way to make sense in the 21st Century is needed. So many people have forgotten the importance of understanding that the Bible functions as an entire book, instead of pieces individually. Even though Peterson wrote this specifically for Pastors, the leaders in a church, such as the elders, would benefit from reading it because it would allow each person to have a better understanding of the role of a pastor. 

As stated above, the primary use of this book will be for Pastors. This is a resources to not only understand Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther in a deeper way, but it can also help a pastor to better understand his role in leading a church. A church is not meant to be lead by one man, or woman, but rather a group of people who are coming together to create the body and then each person can experience the community of believers. Pastors need to have a firm foundation, and with these five stones they will be able to help create a strong, firm foundation to stand on, with God being his or her Cornerstone.

For the church, this book should be used to understand what the role of the pastor is, and to be able to help the pastor set his foundation, which also helps to lay each individual’s foundation as well. Once the foundation is build, each person will be able to use his or her gifts in the most effective way, because the community that has been built will be there to help each individual join the community to work together in a Godly way. This book can help people to understand his or her individual role in the community of believers. 

In the opinion of the writer, Peterson’s book could have been stronger if he would have given more examples from the present. While he had a few different examples, it would be helpful to understand on a deeper level how one is to apply these truths to a person’s life. Reading a book that is full of foundational tools is beneficial, but if the reader is unable to put these tools into practice, then the book has lost the full benefit that the reader should gain. Reading this book can not only change a pastor’s life, but a congregation as well; however, it may be more difficult for some since there are not practical steps to implement these important truths.

Conclusion

Overall, Peterson wrote a book that should be read by anyone who claims to be a Christ follower. To be able to understand these five books of the Bible with a greater depth can reignite a love and passion for the Old Testament. There are people who are waiting for pastors to step up to his or her real calling and to build that community of believers. Each person needs to remember the importance of praying, ‘writing’ his or her own story, sharing each other’s pain, saying yes, and building a community. If the church as a whole could understand these five truths, then the body would be able to reach more people for God. Peterson’s words can change a person’s view of the Bible if each person reads this book with an open mind and heart.

Bibliography

Peterson, Eugene H. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B.
Eerdmans, 1992.

Footnotes

  1. Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), back cover.
  2. Peterson, 11.
  3. Ibid., 20.
  4. Ibid., 24.
  5. Ibid., 25.
  6. Ibid., 27.
  7. Ibid., 30.
  8. Ibid., 61.
  9. Ibid., 71.
  10. Ibid., 77.
  11. Ibid., 102.
  12. Ibid., 113.
  13. Ibid., 117.
  14. Ibid., 125.
  15. Ibid., 126.
  16. Ibid., 139.
  17. Ibid., 151-152.
  18. Ibid., 159.
  19. Ibid., 160-161.
  20. Ibid., 163-164..
  21. Ibid., 192.
  22. Ibid., 195.
  23. Ibid., 198.
  24. Ibid., 200.
  25. Ibid., 219.
  26. Ibid., 220.

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