***Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.***
Eugene Peterson is most famous for his translation of the Bible called The Message. In addition to that magnum opus he has written many other books. What has been less emphasized about him, however, is that he was the pastor at the same church in Bel Air, Maryland for 29 years. As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 of his sermons during those years at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church that serves to give readers a glimpse of his preaching life and the life of his congregation.
Peterson introduces each of the seven sections with a brief, candid explanation for the inclusion of certain sermons and what it means to be “preaching in the company of” the featured person of each of the seven sections. The seven people he preaches in the company of are Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John. His stated goal in the book, which he also says was a goal in his pastoral work, was to show his congregation what living a life of congruence means. It means all aspects of life artfully coming together into a sense of wholeness. The seven introductions should be read carefully and intentionally, as they explain the significance of each person’s “company” in the Christian life, as well as providing motive for the inclusion of various sermons.
In this collection, one will find what is expected of good preaching: solid exegetical work, beautiful and clear illustrations, and “take home” points. Peterson exegetes in order to “say this word of God to [the congregation] so it retains its accuracy in this present moment of [their] life together,” (283). He takes time to explain the fuller meaning of various words, connecting them with their context in meaningful ways, ensuring that the significance of the text is not lost upon them.
Peterson does not overly rely upon illustration, but when he does, it is masterfully done. To name one instance of his illustrations bringing life to a text, I turn to one of the last sermons in the book. Peterson beautifully illustrated what Jesus said in John 13-17 with a story of building a cradle for a soon-to-be-born grandchild. When he first found out he was going to have his first grandchild, he wasn’t excited. His wife told him that it was because he had never been pregnant. To feel that excitement, she suggested, he needed to build a cradle. With great detail, he talks about selecting the wood, sanding the crib and applying finishing oil to it. He says “I got “pregnant” by week after week shaping that cradle…imagining the baby that would soon be swaddled in that cradle, praying my gratitude and anticipation for the life in Lynn’s swelling womb. By the time the cradle was ready, I was ready, prepared to receive the gift of new life,” (349). When he finishes the illustration, Peterson asks his congregation to think of the deliberate acts of Jesus in John 13-17 as cradle-building to prepare for the Holy Spirit.
Finally, Peterson raises concern multiple times about ensuring the congregation recognizes the Christian Scriptures as words from God, not just words about God. He prompts them to “eat this book” just as Ezekiel and John did, helping them to recognize their obedience is like a farmer’s: a long and even-paced obedience. There is simply too much work to try to do it all in a hurry.
I came away from the book feeling like I knew the congregation of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church. I knew their struggles and their successes, their griefs and their joys. I also feel like I got to know the heart of Eugene Peterson better, especially through some of his stories about his coming-of-age in Montana. Since this collection represents 29 years of sermons, there were even a few giggles to be had when Peterson talked about Palm Pilots and other now-outdated technologies. Reading this collection has given me great encouragement and prompted me to consider what congruence looks like in my own life.
For all the aforementioned reasons, I recommend this book as devotional literature. Since the collection is divided into sections with 7 sermons in each section, one could spend 7 weeks reading a sermon a day, reading in the company of Peterson.
Rory Jones is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and a co-editor at Words About God. He enjoys cooking with his wife, Elise, and playing board games.