Eugene Peterson had a stated purpose to “change the pastoral imagination of pastors today,” to urge them “to slow down and to be present to their lives” so that they could help their congregations do the same. Eugene died this week.
There are some people I would love to have met. He is definitely one of them. Quite probably I would have been reduced to embarrassed mumbling and shamefaced excuses, because Eugene Peterson had a way of getting to the heart of big issues. That encounter would have exposed my shortcomings and excuses. Alongside that dread, I get the strong impression he would have been gracious and understanding: and would have done his best to help and encourage me. Peterson knew God and His ways: and he would have blessed me as I know he blessed many who did encounter him directly. He lived to bring Christ to many. His books helped me.
I first read his book “Contemplative Pastor” at a time when the crazy pressures of ministry were burning out my soul. Complex problems needed solutions I couldn’t find, and rushing from A to B to X was grinding my heart to dust.
It wasn’t about losing faith, and there were blessings around in plenty. But… there was just too much of everything, and I needed help. Christian ministry is a calling that draws on the deepest part of the heart, and if we are not wise we can find that we are drying up on the inside. Preaching in the name of Jesus is a joy and a heavy responsibility. Pastoring people is a huge privilege and challenge. You get to share the whole gamut of human experience.
The emotional and spiritual cost of pouring yourself into the blender where real life mixes with heavenly Truth, and then trying to distil precious living words so others may draw closer to the Lord, is terribly high. Faced with the expectations of the congregation, the community, yourself, and what you think God expects- the spirit reels in shock and dread. I needed to learn that God is more gentle and patient than expected. He is also utterly Holy, amazingly gracious, and awesome beyond words.
There is a very unfunny “joke” about ministers only working one day a week. If people only knew how much that “joke” makes pastors want to throttle the jester! It is an act of grace to smile gently and refrain from applying the “right knee of fellowship.” (Let the reader understand!)
Most ministers I know work too long, too often, and too hard. It’s because we know that our words can be life or death. We don’t want to let anyone down. God called us, and we said “Yes.” It demands commitment of a high order.
“Slow down.” Recover the heart of your calling. Seek God for Himself; seek God because of love given and received. Seek God, because apart from Him we can do nothing.
Jesus took time out to be with his Heavenly Father. Jesus went into the wild places, the mountains, the lakeside. When He came back to the disciples and the crowds He knew His Father’s will- and obeyed it totally.
Reading “Contemplative Pastor” was refreshing if challenging. It was a lifeline to a weary soul because it put my hand back into the hand of Jesus. My mind was opened again to the dynamic rhythm of the Psalms and the Gospels. I re-learned the importance of retreat, of quiet, of silence and solitude. I discovered that there is a loving Father awaiting the “prodigal pastors” who run off to do God’s work for Him… and then find out they can’t and weren’t intended to. (I realise I have to be careful here- please don’t think I intended to draw a parallel between pastoring a church and tending the pigs!!!)
Eugene’s life work taught many of us to slow down, not to be caught up in the folly of rushing, competing, or manipulating. He pointed me to Jesus again. Through Jesus, the Open Gate, I was able to come into the Presence of Holy Almighty God, Father, Son and Spirit.
One day I hope to thank Eugene Peterson. It will be a long queue! Thank God for this fellow-servant, this deep well of Spirit-filled wisdom, and for the writings that still point to Jesus.
Oh yes- this advice to “slow down” doesn’t just apply to pastors. How is your rush-ometer doing? Seek God. Here is Eugene’s paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 (Message)
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Slowing down… sounds good to me!