Under the Unpredictable Plant

Under the Unpredictable Plant - Book Cover

Summary of Eugene Peterson’s book, “Under the Unpredictable Plant”

“Vocational holiness, in deliberate opposition to career idolatry, is my subject. Personal holiness, the lifelong process by which our hearts and minds and bodies are conformed to Christ, is more often addressed. But it is both possible and common to develop personal pieties that coexist alongside vocational idolatries without anyone noticing anything amiss. If the pastor is devout, it is assume that the work is also devout. The assumption is unwarranted.” (p. 4)

“Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of a holy vocation, but in our working lives we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality.” (p. 5)

Jonah is the story of choice for Eugene Peterson to convey this calling of vocational holiness.

Great Quote – “I take it as a given that all of us would prefer to be our own gods than to worship God. The Eden story is reenacted daily, not only generally in the homes and workplaces of our parishioners but quite particularly in the sanctuaries and offices, studies and meeting rooms in which we do our work.”

“…parable and prayer obliquely slip past these facades and expose the truth. Parable and prayer are subversive. The Jonah story is subversive.”

Jonah Disobedient
The first aspect of the story that Eugene Peterson takes up in Chapter One is “Jonah Disobedient”.

“Everyone is tempted thus, more or less, but pastors have the temptation compounded vocationally. We are not liable to this temptation at first. We begin our vocation delighting in the presence of the Lord. Jonah certainly did. He would not be a prophet otherwise.” (p. 13)

“If the pose (as if I am the one speaking, not God) is reinforced by the admiring credulity of the people around me, and benefits of power and adulation begin to accrue, I will most certainly continue to flee the presence of the Lord, for that is the one place  where I am sure to be exposed as a pretender.” (p. 13)

“The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personally visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin.” (p. 16)

“On close examination, though, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations. Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs who go flat – and worse. Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.” (p. 17)

“(The congregation) is the place in which we develop virtue, learn to love, advance in hope – become what we preach. At the same time we proclaim a holy gospel, we develop a holy life. We dar not separate what we do from who we are. St. Paul substantiates this necessary congruence between election and vocations when he places “the work of ministry” alongside “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).” (p. 21)

Jonah Obedient
The second portion of Chapter One is “Jonah Obedient”. This moves over to the point where Jonah is obediently walking to Nineveh.

In the end, the point that Eugene Peterson makes is that God still uses us in spite of the reality of who we are. God still moved in Nineveh even though Jonah was a rather sorry messenger. He didn’t even like the people. And yet, God still saved them! That’s reassuring to the best and worst of us! 

From page 38-41 are the key pages and the “throw me into the sea” moment for Eugene Peterson and the book. It was at this point that Eugene came to his church and resigned, only to be challenged by the congregation to go and do what it was he wanted to do – to no longer run the business of the church and religious careerism and to be a pastor, studying the Word and shepherding the people.