Sixty years ago I found myself distracted. I was being tossed about by “every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14), except it was not winds of doctrines that were distracting me but the winds of the times. It was the ’60s, and there was a lot going on: charismatic personalities like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights revolution in the South, Timothy Leary and the drug culture, Earth Day and the flower children, Vietnam . . . There was so much going on — in the world, in the culture, in the church — so many important things to do, urgent voices telling me what had to be done. There was no one thing needful. There were many things needful, all clamoring for my attention.
I was living in a small town 20 miles from Baltimore, a sleepy colonial town that was fast becoming a suburb. I had been assigned by my denomination to gather and organize a congregation. I started out with a fair amount of confidence and much energy. I was well supported organizationally and financially. The personal encouragement was strong. The mission I had been called to lead was clearly articulated.
But as time went on, I found myself increasingly at odds with my advisors on matters of means, the methods proposed for ensuring the numerical and financial viability of the congregation but without even a footnote regarding the nurturing of souls. I was given books to read on demographics and sociology. I was sent to seminars on programming strategies for appealing to the secular suburban mind-set. Leadership was interpreted almost entirely from business and consumer models.
It wasn’t long before I was in crisis: A chasm had developed between the way I was preaching from the pulpit and my deepest convictions on what it meant to be a pastor. I sensed my attitude toward the men and women I was gathering into a congregation was silently shaped by how I was planning to use them to succeed as a pastor developing a new congregation with little thought to serving these souls with the bread of life. I found myself thinking competitively about other churches in town, calculating ways in which I could beat them in the numbers game.
Then three things happened about the same time that brought me to the realization I didn’t know what I was doing. It began in my pulpit. I realized I didn’t know how to preach. I was not a preacher. What I was doing from the pulpit each Sunday was not preaching; in fact, it had nothing to do with preaching. I was whipping up enthusiasm. I was explaining the nature of what we had to do, while arbitrarily fitting Bible texts into key places. I was using the place of worship as a bully pulpit. I had become very American in all matters of ways and means. I never wavered in my theological convictions, but I had a job to do — get a congregation up and running — and I was ready to use any means at hand to do it: appeal to the consumer instincts of people, use abstract principles to unify enthusiasm, shape goals by using catchy slogans, create publicity images that provided ego enhancement.
And then, almost at the same time, two more things happened: I heard a lecture and read a poem. The combination of lecture and poem changed everything. The two events taught me what I needed to know to become a pastor of the gospel. The lecture was given in person by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician; the poem was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, long dead.
Paul Tournier in midlife had shifted the location of his medical practice from a consulting room, with its examining table and supporting laboratories and surgeries, to his living room, before a fireplace, with him holding a pipe in his hand instead of hanging a stethoscope from his neck. For the rest of his life he used words — listened to and spoken — in a setting of personal relationship as the primary means for carrying out his healing vocation. He left a way of medical practice that was primarily focused on the body and embraced a medical practice that dealt primarily with the whole person, an integrated being of body, soul, and spirit. He wrote many books and I read them all.
Driving the 20 miles home from Johns Hopkins Hospital, the site of the lecture, my wife and I commented appreciatively on Tournier’s words, in the course of which she said, “Wasn’t that translator great?” And I said, “What translator? There wasn’t any translator.” To which she said, “Eugene, he was lecturing in French. You don’t know 20 words of French. Of course there was a translator.” And then I remembered her: a woman about his age, standing to the side and a little behind him, translating his French into English. She was so unobtrusive, so self-effacing, so modest in what she was doing that I forgot she was there, and ten minutes after the lecture, I didn’t even remember she had been there.
But there was something else: Paul Tournier himself. During the lecture I had the growing feeling that who he was and what he was saying were completely congruent. He had been living for a long time in Switzerland. Precisely the way he lived and what he was now saying in Baltimore came across as an accurate and mature expression of all he had been living and writing. Just as the translator assimilated to the lecturer, her English words carrying not just the meaning but also the spirit of his French words, so his words were one with his life — not just what he knew and what he had done, but who he was.
It was a memorable experience, the transparency of that man. No dissonance between word and spirit, no pretense. And the corresponding transparency of the woman. No ego, no self-consciousness in either one of them. Later I remembered T.S. Eliot’s comments on Charles Williams:
“Some men are less than their works, some are more. Charles Williams cannot be placed in either class. To have known the man would have been enough; to know his books is enough. . . . [He was] the same man in his life and in his writings.”
That’s the sense I had that day about Paul Tournier: He wrote what he lived and he lived what he wrote. In the lecture that day in Baltimore, he was the same man as in his books written in Switzerland. A life of congruence, with no slippage between what he was saying and the way he was living. Congruence. It is the best word I can come up with to designate what I realized I needed in my pastoral work. I recalled Herman Melville’s comment: “Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.” The prow and the ship, not two different things but the same thing.
And then, not two weeks later, this poem:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Christ.
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
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.
It is what we admire in an athlete whose body is accurately and gracefully responsive and totally submissive to the conditions of the event: Michael Jordan at one with the court, the game, the basketball, and his fellow players. Or a musical performance in which Mozart, a Stradivarius, and Itzhak Perlman fuse and are indistinguishable from one another in the music. Congruence also occurs often enough in more modest venues: a child unself-consciously at play; a conversation in which words become as movements in a ballet, revealing all manner of beauty and truth and goodness; a meal bringing friends into a quiet awareness of affection and celebration in a mingling of senses and spirits that provides something like a Eucharistic dimension to the evening.
And congruence is what we participate in as we read “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” the sonnet that gave me metaphors to identify the distinctive heart of pastoral work. Hopkins piles up a dazzling assemblage of images to fix our attention on this sense of rightness, of wholeness, that comes together when we realize the utter congruence between what a thing is and what it does: kingfisher and dragonfly catching and reflecting sun brightness, a stone tumbling over the rim of a well, a plucked violin string, the clapper of a bell sounding. What happens and the way it happens are seamless. Hopkins then proceeds to the congruence of “each mortal thing” bodying forth who and what we are. But what kingfishers and falling stones and chiming bells do without effort requires development on our part, a formation into who we truly are, a becoming in which the means by which we live are congruent with the ends for which we live. But Hopkins’s final image is not of us finally achieving what the dragonfly and plucked string do simply because they are determined by biology and physics. His final image is Christ, who lives and acts in us in such ways that our lives express the congruence of inside and outside, this congruence of ends and means, Christ as both the means and the end playing through our limbs and eyes to the Father through the features of our faces so that we find ourselves living, almost in spite of ourselves, the Christ life in the Christ way.
With Tournier’s witness and Hopkins’s metaphors working together, I finally started to get it: Preaching is the weekly verbal witness to this essential congruence of what Christ is with his work that “plays” in us. Not just the preaching but prayers at a hospital bed, conversations with the elderly, small talk on a street corner — all the circumstances and relationships that make up the pastor’s life. Not ideas, not goals, not principles, nothing abstract or disembodied, but the good news of the “Word . . . made flesh” (John 1:14, KJV) becoming our flesh, our limbs and eyes. I still had a long way to go, but at least now I was being a pastor and not staying awake at night laying out a strategy or “casting a vision.”
One of the unintended consequences of this (I noticed it only in retrospect) was that I was beginning to treat my congregation with far more dignity than I had been treating them. Impatience began to diminish; condescension slowly faded out. I was learning to embrace the congregation just as they were, not how I wanted them to be. They became an integral part of the sermon. Preaching became a corporate act. Common worship was the context: singing and praying, baptisms and Eucharist, silence and blessings. But I soon realized our common worship on Sundays was also developing tendrils that reached into homes and workplaces, casual conversations and chance meetings on the street.
I was discovering an imagination for developing a sense of narrative that kept our lives relationally together in something deeper and wider than anything we were individually. I began to weed out the depersonalizing stereotypes that identified the souls in my care as either problems to be fixed or resources to be exploited. I developed conversations that grew into stories that in turn developed into something akin to a novel in which all these people who were worshiping together were involved with one another, whether they knew it or not or even wanted to be. Congregation was not a collection of individuals but something more like a body with distinctive parts, but all the parts working organically with Christ as the head.
The sermons gathered here document this collaboration of pastor and congregation in acts of worship and a life together for 29 years (1962–91) at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA) in Harford County, Maryland. They are not selected because of any merit as my “best” sermons but because I have come to think of them as three decades of representative collaboration with my congregation.
A friend who had been a student of Karl Barth told me that Barth often spoke of the impossibility of conveying with accuracy in a book what was proclaimed from a pulpit, like attempting to sketch a kingfisher in flight or to describe a lightning strike when all we have to go on is what is left after the storm. Sermons copied into a book are like that. Much, maybe most, of what is involved in a sermon is left out of the book: the voice of the preacher, the congregation listening to the sermon, the worship in song and prayer and silence, the architecture of the sanctuary. That is why I am naming what is written here “kingfisher sermons.” But maybe a prayerful imagination in the reading can supply at least some of what is lost in the book.
I have organized the sermons in seven groupings under the names of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos. Each name identifies a distinctive approach that needs to be included in the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) that I wanted my congregation to be on familiar terms with. To give added emphasis to the “whole” counsel, I placed seven sermons in each group: seven sermons in each of the seven groupings, 49 sermons in all.
I wanted to enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When I prepare and preach a sermon, I need constant reminding that I am part of a company that has a rich and varied genealogy. I do not start from scratch. I do not make up something new. I want to develop a coherent and connected biblical imagination with my congregation, not live out of a suitcase full of cast-off items from various yard sales and secondhand stores.
This preface is excerpted from As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God, Formed by the Words of God. Copyright © 2017 by Eugene H. Peterson. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.