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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Remembering Eugene H. Peterson

This past week, the American church has lost one of her Gandalfs among pastors, Eugene H. Peterson. As a young man, still grappling with what it means to be called to the pastorate, his words have served as a guide and comfort. Many Christians might best remember him for his paraphrase, The Message, but for me, it will always be his writings on what it means to be a pastor. While the reluctance I experienced at my initial call has not dissipated, the excitement I now have to pursue the pastoral vocation, I owe in large part to Eugene Peterson.

I first encountered Peterson's pastoral writings during my second semester of seminary in a class with an obscenely long name: Theological Education as Ministry Formation. We were assigned his book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, the second in a series of four books on pastoring. Before reading it, my many images of pastoring, both from my own pastors and from the pastors in my family, I thought the job of a pastor was something like this: get people excited in a sermon, meet a hundred new people a day, organize big events, always have the right answers to every question, correct everyone else's doctrine, and manipulate individuals into giving a little more money and showing up a little more often. The pastor was always on, doing everything imaginable, always performing, and never getting more hours of sleep than there are fingers on his/her right hand.

All that changed when I read Working the Angles. In it, Peterson boiled the pastorate to three primary acts: "praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction" [1]. For the first time, I had a job description, no, better yet, a vocational description of the pastorate that matched this contemplative musician's desires in life and hopes in faith. For the first time, I heard the description of the kind of pastor I wanted to be, the kind of pastor I felt called to be. Instead of serving as a "shopkeeper" who "package the goods" of faith and "keep the customers happy" [2].

Nearly a year after reading this description, I found myself in need of Peterson's wisdom yet again. Commuting weekly to Philly, working 7 days a week between interning, substitute teaching, and my seminary studies, I did not have the energy to deal with the countless needs I encountered in the homeless ministry I served with. So I turned to the first book in Peterson's series, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. In it, Peterson draws on the five scrolls (Megilloth) of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther to provide five tools for pastors to use in their vocation. I desperately needed these tools as my personal ministry wells were running dry.

The first stone is that of prayer-directing. "Prayer is the pastoral work that is most suited for recognizing the compelling quality of God's invitations and promises, and perpetuating it in others" [3]. Peterson calls the second stone "story-making". "Pastoral work, after collaborating with persons in the making of their stories, leads them back to the vicinity of Pulpit, and Table, and Font, where they discover their faith lineage....The Christian faith matures only when it is comprehended in the longer perspectives. there is a great deal more to the Gospel than individual fulfillment and satisfaction-there is the vast enterprise of the Cross. Back in the sanctuary, while everything continues to be personal, nothing is confined with the limitations of any one person's circumstances" [4]. The third stone is pain-sharing. "Through the racking anarchic sobs of the kinah meter the kerygmatic sentences are whispered (or trumpeted!). The chaos and darkness of suffering become first-day light" [5]. "Nay-saying" serves as the fourth stone. "His work is simply to clear away what is mistaking for religion so that we are free to hear the Word of God" [6]. The final stone is community-building. "The pastor must not fail to understand the congregation just as it is, as a historical community brought into being, warts and all, by God; and must not fail to be grateful for it, just as it is, warts and all, to God" [7].

These five smooth stones are not radical. They are not new techniques from the world of psychology or marketing. They are a pastor's opportunity to step into the quiet acts God is doing and has been doing since time began. Learning to find these spaces and act with God in them slowly replenished my well for ministry.

It was not long before I would encounter Peterson again. This time, the staff at Liberti Center City and Main Line, where I was interning, together read through his memoirs, The Pastor. The scene that most struck me, that stood out the most when compared to the other pastors I had encountered, was his recollection of working in his father's butcher shop as a boy. "I internalized a respect for the material at hand. The material can be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, or a soul, but when the work is done well, there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand" [8]. I could add to his list a piece of music Most of the pastors I had known, even the ones I had loved, did not understand this. Too many imposed their own wills on others, their desires for congregants to give more money, more time, get to the "spiritual level" the pastor thought they should be at rather than submit to the conditions at hand. Pastoral work takes time and patience. We do not have the luxury of imposing our own timetables on the Holy Spirit.

Eugene Peterson is remembered for many things, but to me, he will always be the one who gave me this vision of the pastorate: "It is, then, a strategic necessity that pastors deliberately ally themselves with the quiet, poised harpooners, and not leap, frenzied to the oars....It is far more biblical to learn quietness and attentiveness before God" [9]. As he was passing away, I was reading these profound words: "Prayer emerges as the single act that has to do with God. Our vocations are God-called, God-shaped lifework. The moment we drift away from dealing with God primarily..., we are no longer living vocationally, no longer living in conscious, willing, participatory relation with the bast reality that constitutes our lives and the entire world around us" [10].

Eugene Peterson has been a great gift to me as I uncover what it means to be called into pastoral ministry. May God provide more pastors like him for His Church.

[1] Peterson, Eugene H. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987. p. 3

[2] Ibid. p. 2.

[3] Peterson, Eugene H. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. W.B. Eerdmans, 1980. p. 71.

[4] Ibid. p. 110.

[5] Ibid. p. 148.

[6] Ibid. p. 189.

[7] Ibid. p. 236.

[8] Peterson, Eugene H. The Pastor: A Memoir. HarperOne, 2012.p. 37

[9] Peterson, Eugene H. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. William B. Eerdmans, 1989. p. 25.

[10] Peterson, Eugene H. Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. W.B. Eerdmans, 1992. p. 72.

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