With the news of Eugene Peterson going on ahead of us, I began to reflect on his influence on me as a pastor and as a believer in the gospel. I thought about the postcard he sent to tell me that Jan and he were enjoying my book. I thought about the sermons and interviews I listened to and read. But most of all I thought about his books.
His books are always close. Close in the sense that I am always thinking about them. They opened up in me a redemptive imagination for which I will always be thankful. They helped me see the way this world is charged with the presence of God. They helped me see others with an imagination riddled with kingdom implications. His books helped me see that the most important things in the world are things I cannot see with my eyes.
But also his books are close in proximity. As I write this, his books are not far from me. Inches away, even. They sit on my desk in my office where I teach. They sit there as beacons, standards of a kingdom of thought so foreign to what is on the screens.
It is a strange version of grieving to mourn the loss of a man with whom I have never even sat in a room. When I told my wife he was entering hospice care, I could barely get the words out. It’s a strange grief, and writing about it made sense.
I love all of his books. And I have been recommending them to anyone who will listen to me — pastors and lay people. When they do listen, they will sometimes ask where to start. “Start with The Pastor, his memoir. It’s the one I’ve read the most.” The publisher told me I could get a copy before it was released, if I would write a review for my blog and post it to Amazon. The following is what I wrote in 2011 just before it was released:
I don’t even know how to write a review of this book. A review is what you write when it isn’t personal. A review is what you do for books. The Pastor is far more than a book. You need to understand Eugene Peterson saved my vocational soul just over a year ago. And since that time I have been pointing people – especially pastors – to his books. Especially young pastors.
So how about a non-review?
Maybe the evangelical world has been a circus for a long time. But I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice all the center rings, high-trapeze acts and dancing bears. And the unspeakable horror of then realizing you not only paid for a ticket but got paid to take part. You walk out of the arena with sticky soles under you, past the sideshows and into clean air but you have no idea if you should go back in. Who will help you now? Is the insanity the only choice? Is there a voice of sanity in this wilderness?
I remember lying in my bed. The weight of being a pastor was on me and I wanted it off. I knew I needed some help. Maybe “circus” is the wrong way to describe what is happening in America. I was surrounded … hemmed in by managers and CEOs, shopkeepers and PR men and women. Marketing analysts and door-to-door salesmen of religious goods were everywhere. But I needed a pastor. Lying there, I would’ve said, “I need a wise old sage.” The need was for sanity…Spirit-given sobriety in a religious subculture drunk on the cause célèbre. I needed gray hairs, wrinkles, and the experience of someone outside the world I had found myself in. The need was not for all the right answers but good questions. I needed the wisdom of “a long obedience in the same direction.”
And then, like gifts, memories. Memories of a professor assigning one of Peterson’s books for pastors – which I never really “read.” A friend – a fellow pastor – recommending another. The frozen scene of someone else reading Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, that title burned in my memory.
So I began reading his books, swallowing them whole sometimes and sipping from them at others. Each was a well-written refuge from the chaos. Every thesis leaving its mark.
So when I found out he was releasing his memoirs, I was elated. Do you remember when you were a kid and you kept going back to the same page in the toy section of the Sears Wish Book over and over, reading the description, looking at that toy, the one you wanted more than any other. That is how it was with the description page for The Pastor. And then I got my copy from the publisher late one afternoon. Too late to start, I waited till the morning. A few days later I was finished. My wife asked me if I was sad. “No, I will begin again tomorrow morning.”
Reading a memoir of Eugene Peterson is as reading in another world. A world bereft of “how?” but full to bursting of “what?”’ A world without pretension, devoid of formulas. A tome of sober reflection. No romantic vistas of pastoral success. No cheerleading.
Peterson’s vision of the pastorate, as dictated by the Scriptures, stands athwart the ideal American pastor. Patience over results. The ordinary over the celebrated. People over programs. Dignity over function. Leisurely spiritual direction over ministerial busyness. Prayer over a PR campaign. The even-keeled over the events. It really would be impossible to document how differently he thinks than the current zeitgeist on the definition of pastoral integrity.
Almost everyone knows him as the author of The Message. For this he is loved and hated. But Peterson was a church-planter before it was cool to be so. He was thinking and living through methodology and theology and those inevitable emotionally lean years long before most of today’s church planters were born. He was thinking about the dangers of a consumer-driven religious atmosphere raising the banner of relevance before we had a category for such things.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a cheerful book. It’s just not full of the saccharine sentimentality or the gritty (edgy?) cynicism we have come to expect from so many famous ministry leaders. Smiles stretch across the pages. Contented belief pervades every chapter. Bound together by the common thread of the work of Christ for sinners — the message once delivered for all the saints sits fixed like an anchor between the covers.
Chronology holds no sway over Peterson’s account of his life as a pastor. Poetry does. He moves like a poet through his experiences and insights. His love of words and their sanctity —not just utility — is witnessed in how every word counts. He has no interest in just relating stories for us to learn from. He, as the pastor, is glorying in them as memories enlivened through words.
But there is a lot to learn.