Eugene Peterson is a pastor and author that I respect greatly, and whose words and spirituality have impacted me immensely—through his mentorship of my own mentor as well as books like Subversive Spirituality, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Where Your Treasure Is, Leap Over A Wall and Living the Resurrection. So it was with great eagerness that I bought his latest book, simply entitled The Pastor: A Memoir; I was very excited to learn from the life and experiences of a man who had influenced mine so much. My experience of vocational discernment very much mirrors Peterson’s, from the lessons I grew up with as a kid, to the experiences I had that—at least on the surface—had no business in the formation of a pastor, to the stumbling, fumbling journey into pastorhood: “Seemingly unconnected, haphazard events and people turned out to be organic to who I am” (25). Peterson described this journey as, “all the while becoming, without my knowing it, a pastor”(11).
As I take my own baby steps as a pastor, the lessons of someone who has faithfully walked the path that I seek to walk, and who has both the humility and the spiritual awareness to be attentive to what God is doing at every step, are especially valuable to me. I know I will make mistakes and I know I will never be done learning, but I also know—Peterson has taught me this over the last decade—that if I’m looking, I will see God at work in any and every situation; it is often—though not always—a matter of perspective.
A different perspective is something I often come away from Peterson’s writings with: a new insight, a better understanding, a fuller way of seeing something. This book is no different as, for instance, he describes the church as “a place where dignity is confirmed” (40), “a community of stories” (106), and, on a more cosmic level, “a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God” (110).
And through the stories that he shares in the book of his own experiences and his reflections on them, I begin to understand a little more what it means to be a pastor—some of the joys and challenges I have already faced as well as some of the joys and challenges that I can look forward to.
I have already begun to see the truth to the words of George Arthur Buttrick that Peterson quotes, that the most important thing to do in preparing to preach each week is to meet with the people of the church: “There is no way that I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about” (87). And I have already seen my tendency to deal with people as problems to be fixed; and Peterson also faced this temptation, but came to understand that “my work is not to fix people. It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them in living a holy life” (137).
The quiet, settled rooted spirituality that Peterson has written of, espoused, and lived out over decades is one that I have sought to emulate and become familiar with, and I look forward to continuing to grow in it. There’s a “kind of relaxed leisureliness that flows from a person who knows what he’s about, who knows where he’s going and what he’s doing. No need for hurry if you’re confident in who you are” (29). Especially for someone like myself, who has activist (read: busy!) tendencies, a spirituality that slows down, that brings peace, that provides deep roots, is especially necessary.
Perhaps most encouragingly, in reflecting on The Pastor, I have already seen the work that God has done and continues to do in my life in preparing me to be a pastor. I have had great friends and family who have walked before me on this road whose example I look up to: Clem, Gabe, John-Paul, Aaron, and more. And though I have never met him, Eugene Peterson is one whom I count as a spiritual father, who has a way of not just articulating experiences that I too have, but also of casting a vision for who I want to be:
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I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so that I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your presence. I can’t do that on the run. It takes a lot of time. I started out doing that with you, but now I feel too crowded.
I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we are up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can’t do this just by trying harder.
I want to be a pastor who has the time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversation so that I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ–your doubts and your difficulties, your desires and your delights. I can’t do that when I am running scared.
I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship, a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a ‘mere’ layperson.
I want to be an unbusy pastor. (278)