“I’m making you as impregnable as a castle, Immovable as a steel post, solid as a concrete block wall.” Jeremiah 1:6page 47
You would not know from the title, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best, that this book is about the prophet, Jeremiah. You might think it is a self-help book and the author is going to fill you up with positive affirmations; or you might think it is about how to get on in business in order that you can succeed in the area of making lots of money. Yet, the title is not trying to deceive you in any way. In fact, the prophet, as all prophets do, will tell you how to live your life, and he will tell you how to succeed, but it is not exactly how we have been taught since we were born, and success has nothing to do with money or a big house.
If you have read Jeremiah you know that he is a high energy guy, an extreme prophet; like those horses on the cover of the book. Most prophets tell us things we do not want to hear, and all of them go against the grain in some way, but Jeremiah stands out as one who, once he takes up his calling, does it with all his might, as in Deuteronomy: 6:5: “Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Jeremiah does just that, he loves with all his heart, soul and body. He a gentle prophet, who quietly writes about God. He is more like a storm. The weight of his words can be felt when you read him.
I absolutely love Eugene Peterson’s reading of Jeremiah. Now Peterson was a gentle man; he had a small frame and a gentle demeanor, but he was no pushover, and like Jeremiah he had a fierce devotion to God. It is not surprising that when Jeremiah and Peterson come together they are like a wildfire. There are no extra words for adornment purposes. Each word is filled with meaning and directed right at the reader. Both Jeremiah and Peterson do not talk to hear themselves talk, and they are definitely not talking to make a whole lot of people like them. They are both going deep within the soul and bringing forth the bare naked truth. I imagine, many religious will choose to ignore much of what Eugene Peterson writes. For instance, he describes Jeremiah’s frustration with Josiah’s reforms, which are spectacular changes on the surface, in a way that is succinct but relatable to much of what we experience today:
“Just when Jeremiah expected the people, free from the corruption of Manasseh, to launch into a life of faith using their energy in love, venturing into justice and peace, he arrives at the temple, and what does he find? He finds the people stupidly pleased with themselves and repeating the reform slogan ‘God’s Temple, God’s Temple, God’s Temple.’ Jeremiah is irate.”page 66
While Peterson has stated over and over again that the Bible is metaphor and we need to approach it with metaphor in mind; he opts for simple analogies in order to get the reader thinking:
“Places are important — immensely important. Sites and buildings are places where we gather ourselves for fresh action and assemble ourselves for new endeavor. But standing in a church singing a hymn doesn’t make us holy any more than standing in a barn and neighing makes us a horse.page 66
I can hear the rhythm in these words; the repeating and modifying of “important” as being wrung out from the pulpit by a fiery preacher trying to drive home his or her point. But Peterson is gentle and when you imagine his voice delivering these words they are not condemnations from a finger wagging evangelical, but rather earnest insights from a man deeply interested in truth. And, the truth is we are all here to become as fully human as we can. But, we waste a lot of time, and tend to settle for the familiar shadows on the wall rather than live a three dimensional life.
“And words are important — immensely important. What we say and the way we say it expresses what is most personal and intimate in us. But mindlessly repeating holy words no more creates a relationship than saying ‘I love you’ twenty times a day makes us skilled lovers.”page 66
We have the words and the beautiful places, which make sense, but Jeremiah, and Eugene Peterson want to take us deeper. Peterson stresses that a life of faith is a lifelong commitment to work hard. He compares it to a marriage. The wedding is great, but the real work is after the ceremony.
“In marriages we develop the long and rich life of faithful love that the wedding announces. The event of the wedding without the life of marriage doesn’t amount to much.”page 69
What struck me throughout Run with the Horses is Peterson’s trust in the word of God. From those words and that trust he does not offer a lot of wiggle room for those of us who claim we are people of faith, but fall short when it comes to action.
If you are wondering what you are supposed to be doing with your life you will feel refreshed and excited by what should have been obvious but escapes most of us:
“God gives. He is generous. He is lavishly generous. Before Jeremiah ever got it together he was given away.
That is God’s way. He did it with his own son, Jesus. He gave him away. He gave him to the nations. He did not keep him on display. He did not preserve him in a museum. He did not show him off as a trophy. “page 43
We can probably all agree with what Eugene Peterson is saying about God. But then, well you know, we are supposed to be made in his image so what does it mean to us if God gives? Peterson continues:
“Some things we have a choice in, some we don’t. In this we don’t. It is the kind of world into which we are born. God created it. God sustains it. Giving is the style of the universe. Giving is woven into the fabric of existence. If we try to live by getting instead of giving, we are going against the grain.page 43
Give, that is what you are to do with your life. Giving puts a different spin on career and goals. What are going to give? So many think of giving as giving money, but the prophets did not give money, they gave their lives. They put their whole lives into living, as Peterson calls it, “the God life” in order to give of themselves. The earth gives, the animals give, and we too must give. We give of ourselves wherever we find ourselves.
What I like about Peterson’s insight on giving as what the universe does is that it is better than Joseph Campbell’s. I like Joseph Campbell and what has always interested me is how he expressed the workings of the world as very simply, life eats life. It is certainly true. Life eats life. Peterson essentially says that, but in a much less primitive way. He sees it as giving, and that makes a big difference. For one, “life eats life” can be used as an excuse to destroy your fellow man, why not? After all, “life eats life.” Also, it could be understood as Darwinian. The strongest life eats the weakest. Peterson sees God somehow interwoven in the laws of nature, which makes nature the had of God and thus “lavishly generous.” Giving does not give us room to justify our aggression by saying that aggression is a part of life because, after all, “life eats life.” Giving implies abundance.
Peterson also connects giving to loving. He quotes John: 3:16: Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Loving comes down to giving. And, if loving comes down to giving then you need to go out into the world and give, generously and lavishly — we are, after all, made in the image of God, ¿remember?
The other thing Peterson makes clear through his reading of Jeremiah is that we must live wholeheartedly wherever we happen to be. Peterson reminds us that Jeremiah’s advice to Israeli exiles living in Babylonia was to urge them to live where they are by building homes, marrying, having a family and cultivating their gardens (148-150).
Jeremiah’s advice to the Israeli exiles is, for Peterson, advice we could use. We need to live each day wholeheartedly even when we are living in exile — exile being real exile or used as the trope for loneliness, disconnectedness, fear, anxiety and feeling lost and in the dark. We must live from where we are, and most important, have trust.
Eugene Peterson brings Jeremiah into the modern world and gives his words to us. Once again we can hear Jeremiah’s frustration not only with the Iraeli exiles or officials, but with us too. From Jeremiah to Eugene Peterson, the message is to become fully human.