January 23, 2019

Eugene Peterson and Me

Newfane Church, Newfane VT

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.

• Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity

• • •

I can’t recall exactly when I first began reading Eugene Peterson, but it must have been either at the end of my first pastoral assignment or at the beginning of seminary. This was the early 1980s. All I know is that once I began reading his articles in Leadership Journal, the Christianity Today publication designed for the continuing education of evangelical pastors, or his early pastoral theology books like The Contemplative Pastor, I was hooked. Here was a voice that gave content to my calling. This — what he was writing about — was what I was meant to be and do.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard him tell the story of his own awakening to the meaning of genuine pastoral ministry. A friend made the offhand remark that Peterson “ran a church.” The phrase so caught his attention and offended him that he determined from that point on to prove the description wrong.

And so he taught me, from his own experience, about the importance of being “un-busy.” Citing Moby Dick, Peterson encouraged pastors to remember that the harpooner strikes truest when acting from a place of inaction, stillness, inner peace and watchfulness. The hard work of being a pastor, as our friend Matt B. Redmond said yesterday, is in the quiet work of study and prayer.

But I also learned from Eugene Peterson that the work “between Sundays” in the world, in the midst of the “traffic” of real life, is integral to the pastor’s work. Being with people locally, personally, conversationally is of the essence. He called it “the cure of souls,” and defined it as “the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane. It is a determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential.”

Unfortunately, although I responded enthusiastically to this portrayal of the pastoral life, I did not have the wisdom, the creativity or discipline, the maturity, or the support to make it happen in my own ministry as I would have liked. So I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I just couldn’t grasp how to be that kind of pastor in a church world that required me to be a small business owner, a CEO, a community organizer, and a program director. Churches wanted “leaders,” and by that they meant builders of successful organizations and high-powered motivators. I admire people who can do that. I’m not one of them, and I’m not convinced that “pastor” is the correct title to give to such talented folks.

When I stopped being a congregational pastor and became a chaplain, I finally found the opportunity to put my Eugene Peterson learning into practice. Freed up from “management,” I could be the “clinician” that I was called to be. Balancing solitude with visiting people. Caring for souls. Enjoying true teamwork and mutual respect with colleagues who bring complementary gifts, talents, and skills.

I still have no idea how to bring this to what we call “the church” today. That’s why I find myself outside the gates of the ecclesiastical world in so many ways.

I guess I blame — or, more accurately — give thanks to Eugene Peterson for that.

Comments

  1. Burro (Mule) says:

    Father Herman, the 19th century Russian Orthodox missionary sent out from the Valaam monastery by that great churchwoman Catherine the Great , settled on the inhospitable Spruce Island, an inhospitable spit of land off the coast of Alaska. He grew vegetables there, a lot of vegetables. Indeed, the humble monk grew so many vegetables in his little garden that he was able to feed the 170 or so inhabitants of his little island during the long winter months when fishing was difficult or impossible.

    After his passing (1837), the vegetables in his garden withered and died. Despite the best efforts of his folllowers and disciples, the vegetables refused to grow in such a difficult climate. It was hypothesized therefore, that the Uncreated Light in which Saint Herman lived and moved and had his being gave off enough energy in his immediate vecinity to provoke photosynthesis in his vegetable garden.

    Of course, skeptics will doubt this. I doubted it myself, and began devising a light detection test to ‘prove’ whether sanctity could be ‘depended upon’ as an alternate source of energy. I ran into the same problem physicists encounter when they attempt to use instruments composed of electrons to measure electrons; how can you trust a created object to measure the Uncreated?

    I’ve only read one book by Rev Peterson; A Long Obedience In The Same Direction. Any Evangelical pastor who titles his book with a quotation from that stalwart believer Friedrich Nietzsche deserves your undivided attention. I don’t remember too much of it today. I read it 35 years ago, but I took one thing away from it; spiritual progress is not rapid, nor certain, nor linear, nor inexpensive. It is mostly the result of doing the same thing over and over again and being bored with it. I also remember him being the first I ever read who championed what sice presented itself to me as an exercise in the obvious; your pastor ought to know Christ intimately, and it is his responsibility to bring you closer. This involves a lot of what I have come to call ‘shamanism’, wielding the Uncreated Energies on the behalf of their flocks.

    If Saint Herman had such an effect on vegetables, it is no wonder that as a pastor, he had an outsized impact on human beings.

    Rev Peterson, may you rest in peace. Enjoy your reward. If you are given that privilege, pray for me, a sinner.

  2. Thanks for your take on Eugene Peterson and the pastoral “call,” CM.

    –> “When I stopped being a congregational pastor and became a chaplain, I finally found the opportunity to put my Eugene Peterson learning into practice. Freed up from “management,” I could be the “clinician” that I was called to be. Balancing solitude with visiting people. Caring for souls. Enjoying true teamwork and mutual respect with colleagues who bring complementary gifts, talents, and skills.”

    I wonder how many current pastors long for the kind of release (and relief) you found.