What I Learned from Eugene
"Is that the guy who wrote The Message?"
That's usually the question I get asked whenever I mention the name Eugene Peterson. Either that or the simple, "Who's that?" Peterson is one of Christianity's not-so-well-best-kept-secrets. Those who knew him or studied him loved him. Those loosely familiar are completely unaware of the massive influence he's had on Christian thought and ministry.
The first time I was ever exposed to Peterson was around the late nineties. My family was living at South Padre Island at the time and one of my mom's church friends gave her a 1994 Psalms translation by Peterson. I understand that term "translation" draws controversy, but I stand by it nevertheless. This particular book was one segment in a series spanning 1993-2002; a series that would later become known as The Message.
His name came and went in our household. The next time Peterson would come to my attention was when The Message was finally published as a complete work. My mother loved reading it and gifted me a copy for my 13th birthday, a copy I still have to this day. I read it...sparsely. At the time, it was just another Bible to me.
I moved throughout high school without really giving The Message, Peterson, or God, for that matter, my full attention. But all of that changed when I entered college and was called to ministry. I spent my first year at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor as a business major. Over the summer, however, I felt God's calling to the ministry, so I returned and switched majors. I would now become a Theology and Philosophy student.
And after my very first semester of theological studies I came down with a terrible disease.
I think you know the disease I'm talking about. The disease that develops, almost overnight, in every sophomore ministry student. The disease that ravishes ministry effectiveness and makes one deaf to that still small voice. That disease that has taken down even the best church leaders in the nation. The disease that, unfortunately, takes great doses of humiliation to finally exit your system.
I'm talking, of course, about the disease commonly called arrogance.
Every college-aged, ministry bound student must struggle with it. A student receives one or two semesters of education, and they suddenly transform into a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving spouting off his views on 'Merica. Arrogance is incredibly deceiving. It fools us into believing we have more answers than we actually do. It breeds elitism, making us believe we are smarter than we are. It stifles constructive conversation. The arrogant ministry student is ready to return to our home, schedule a meeting with our church's pastor and tell him how to do better. They can explain the Trinity, the dual-nature of Christ, the Incarnation, and the virgin birth, all in 30 minutes no less.
And I'm here to tell you, I was the greatest of them all.
My cockiness and confidence could surpass the best of them, because I read a PDF about the theology of Karl Barth. That 50-minute lecture yesterday in Introduction to Ministry had completely prepared me to take over at Saddleback, if Rick Warren would only return my emails. Verify with Amy, my girlfriend at the time who miraculously loved me enough to become my wife, I was unbearable.
Hating on Eugene Peterson was simply a symptom of the arrogance disease.
At some point, I became so convinced that The Message was "not a real translation" that I even began to view it as damaging to Christianity. I was downright hostile to anyone I saw reading it, including my own mother, which I am ashamed of. The memory of it pains me today.
What I would come to find out is that Peterson is one of the most incredible pastors and Christ followers to have ever graced this world.
I'm not writing today to defend The Message. I don't give two hoots about anyone's opinion on the matter. I'm writing about what Eugene Peterson has meant to me; how his words have shaped and molded the person I am today; how better of a pastor and Christ follower I am, because of him.
I remember a professor in my undergrad pleading with us to continue our education at seminary after we graduated because, in his words, our undergrad gave us just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to sustain us. I have come to think of that as some of the best advice I was ever given. If the arrogance disease is gained in undergrad, the cure is a full dosage of seminary. At least it was for me. I graduated from George W. Truett Seminary with an M.Div. and I can honestly say it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my life. Seminary not only helped me to think through what I absolutely know, but it also helped me realize how much I don't know. I came out of seminary learning one major thing:
I don't claim to know anything, except Christ and him crucified.
It was also at Truett that I first began to think that, maybe, I had gotten this Peterson guy all wrong. In a class called "Life and Work of the Pastor," I read my first Peterson book, "The Pastor." It was the story of his calling into pastoral ministry, starting from his early childhood, and how that sense of calling evolved and changed over the years, even well into his ministry. In fact, I don't think that Peterson ever stopped learning what it meant to be a pastor. There was never a time that he thought, "Oh, that's it. Got it." At every turn, challenge, or frustration, Peterson was learning and relearning what it meant to be pastor. I'm glad he imparted that journey to us, because it is a process I am currently undergoing.
It seems that every few weeks since I've been at Trinity I have had this experience. "Oh. This is what it means." Again and again. So here I go again, attempting to define and redefine what it means to be pastor. Here is just a sampling of things Eugene Peterson gifted to me.
I. Do not use churches as stepping stones to bigger churches. There will be many times that I am tempted to leave for bigger or better. In "The Pastor" Peterson writes, "In general terms it is the devil's temptation to Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple." It's a fact we often learn the hard way: Bigger is not always better. In fact, Peterson suggests that bigger may be worse. "Largeness is an impediment, not a help," he writes. I refuse to treat any church as a stepping stone to a larger church, as if my calling can be reduced to climbing a hierarchical ladder to bigger and bigger churches.
II. Avoid making American values synonymous with Kingdom values. That may sound odd to anyone who hasn't been exposed to Peterson before, but it is a theme running throughout all of his books. What he refers to the most are materialism and consumerism. In "Under the Unpredictable Plant" he writes, "North American religion is basically a consumer religion. Americans see God as a product that will help them to live well, or to live better." He advises his readers to refuse to play that game. Refuse to be a pastor who acts more like a C.E.O. trying to grow a corporation and be more like a prophet in the wilderness calling for repentance and faithfulness. It's an awful temptation and I am always amazed at how innate Americanism is in my actions. I am in humble solidarity with Peterson when he says, "I [have] become very American in all matters of ways and means." It may be difficult to grasp, but the two value systems are not the same. Even more than that, they are often at odds with one another.
III. Manage my expectations of my congregation. Also in "Under the Unpredictable Plant," Peterson writes about the reality of ministry in the local church. Utilizing a story from 1 Samuel 22, 27, and 30, he writes, "Ziklag was the biblical identification of what I looked over on Sunday mornings. I got the people who didn't fit into already established congregations, the misfits and malcontents. I had to revise my imagination: these were the people whom I was to pastor. They were not the ones I would have chosen, but they were what I had been given."
If we could choose our church members, like in an imaginary church draft, who might we select? Would we choose someone with the ability to preach like Spurgeon or evangelize like Paul? Wouldn't it be nice to select our members in a draft? But we know that's impossible. More than that, it's ridiculous. We don't choose our congregants, they are entrusted to us.
We are given struggling people barely holding on to their faith and grumpy people holding onto the past. We expect Paul, but are given Thomas. And that unregulated expectation can lead to disillusion and burnout. But if I can learn to manage my expectations, maybe I can learn to love these people right where they are at and not where I would have them. In "Working the Angles" Peterson reminds me, "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."
IV. I, even I, can be a pastor. This is probably the greatest gift Eugene Peterson gave me. He helped me redefine my pastoral imagination. At some point I realized that the pastors I had witnessed growing up and the pastors I idealized were nothing like me. If I had to describe them in animal terms, they were like sharks or eagles or lions. I'm more like a cross between a sloth and an owl. After a while, I began to doubt my calling. Could I, even I, really be a pastor? In Peterson I found a model and example of pastor that I had not imagined before; a way I had never heard of before. Not exactly a better way. I would never say that my pastoral paradigm is better, but it is more truer to myself. It is also, in my humble opinion, more faithful to the biblical image of pastor as shepherd.
I wish I had the opportunity to express my gratitude to Eugene Peterson in person, but until we met again in the new heaven and new earth, this will have to suffice:
You have meant so much to so many, more than you realize. I am simply one of the thousand faceless pastors and Christians that you never knew or met who has been deeply impacted by your wisdom. Thank you for your faithfulness to the call, for teaching us a better way, for being a prophetic voice in a religious landscape that desperately needs it, and for the courage to speak truth, even when unpopular. Thank you for teaching me how to be pastor. I'll do the best I can to be faithful to it. I have lashed myself to the mast, just like you taught me.