One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. This time has been divided roughly into thirds. For three weeks, my wife and I ventured through 8 states and many, many National Parks on a great RV adventure (chronicled in the June 2019 entries). I spent virtually all of July in Africa, learning about and experiencing partnership in mission (the July 2019 entries). In August the game plan changed once more – mostly time alone, and (mostly) 21 nights in the same bed – as I entered into a sanctuary known as Seneca Lake State Park in Eastern Ohio. While here, my focus will be mainly on the interior life: reading, thinking, praying, and so on…
I took a rather circuitous route to the Pastoral Vocation. As mentioned in the previous post, I spent many years specializing in “youth” ministry – it took me more than eight years to complete my Master’s Degree and satisfy my denomination’s requirements for ordination – a place I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go.
And yet in September, 1990, it happened. Not only had I jumped through all the hoops, dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s – lo and behold, there was a congregation that wanted me to serve as (Associate) Pastor! One of the first things I did as a pastor was to dip into my book allowance and buy a slim volume entitled Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity by Eugene Peterson. I’m sure that it was the best ten bucks the church ever spent on me. I recall sitting in my study, reading portions of it out loud to anyone who happened to have had the poor timing to be walking past or telephoning me at the moment. My takeaway from that book was that while the church really did want me (or someone like me) to take care of the business of being the religious institution that counted for respectability in the neighborhood, nobody in the congregation would really ever give a rat’s patootie about the three things that constitute the core of the Pastoral Vocation: prayer, studying scripture, and offering spiritual direction.
Peterson proved prophetic in many ways: I’ve often received memos for failing to account for some particular budget anomaly, and I’ve been reamed out more than once for choosing the wrong music, and I’ve been challenged on many occastions for being too political (or not political enough) from the pulpit. Sessions and Presbyteries and Assemblies care about results, about data, and about growth. Eugene pointed out to me early on that nobody was going to bug me about the most important stuff – the stuff that kept me alive, and that really mattered to people when they were calling from the ER or wondering what had happened to their marriage or how they might survive the loss of yet another child.
I grew to see Eugene Peterson as a guide in ministry, and I devoured his writing. And then about a dozen years ago: a great gift. I was facing a challenge in ministry for which, to my knowledge, neither he nor anyone else I trusted had written a book. And so I wrote a letter (on paper, through the snail mail!) to Eugene, then living in (semi) retirement in Montana. I asked if he might mentor me through this particular challenge, and after a few weeks I received an invitation from Eugene to call him at his home (on his land line!). We met several times in person and more frequently via telephone for the next eight months or so, and I was greatly blessed to be the recipient of his wisdom, his energy, his insight, and, most especially, his care. That time made me a better pastor and a better person.
In my previous post, I wrote about the joys of learning from someone younger than me. When I’d finished Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired, I went in the other direction and picked up the last book that Eugene published prior to his death. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God is a collection of 49 sermons (yes, there are seven units that contain seven messages each) that Eugene originally preached to the congregation of Christ Our King parish Bel Air, Maryland. What a joy it has been to hear these words in his deep and gravelly voice – words that bring me into consideration of The Word; words that ask important questions and point to great beauty and poke holes in easy answers.
For instance, in a sermon on Psalm 23 he writes, “Our lives are lived in the company of both the Shepherd and the shadow…Life in the desert for both Shepherd and sheep is no soft, sun-drenched idyll on a south sea island. It is menaced by the dark shadows of the beast-infested valley. The threats to life are all around, but the presence of the Shepherd guides and leads, dispersing the threats.” (pp. 101-102)
In his introduction to the sermons on prophecy, he writes, “Everyone more or less believes in God or gods. But most of us do our best to keep God on the margins of our lives, or, failing that, we refashion God to suit our convenience. Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call. And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be… The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, wehave to fit into God.” (pp. 115-116)
In reflecting on his growth in wisdom, he said, “Not everything I did or said took place behind the pulpit or in the sanctuary. Not everything I was learning about grace and holiness was coming out of the Bible. I was also being tutored by a woman recovering from a heart attack, by a family struggling in poverty, by young people finding words to express their newfound faith honestly and unpretentiously, or, in the words of our text, by hearing wisdom crying aloud in the street (Proverbs 1:20).” (p. 185)
In this, his final volume, I hear Eugene reminding me of truth I first encountered three decades ago: that the Christian life is all about congruence – it’s not about some extraordinary event or immersion or experience that we get once in a while, but then it’s business as usual; rather, faithful Christian living is done Monday – Sunday in workplaces and schools and hospitals and homes. Our calling as believers is to look for ways to participate in what God is doing in each of those places; my calling as a Pastor is to point to how that might happen and invite your consideration of that as it does its quiet work in your own heart.
I’ve been reading his work and drafting this appreciation seated at a picnic table overlooking a lake in Eastern Ohio. As I’ve been doing so, a number of hummingbirds have been flitting in and out, buzzing me, chasing each other, and sipping on the nectar in the feeder. This is not a gift I deserve nor one for which I could have planned, but at this season in my life and ministry, I am grateful for such reminders of grace and beauty and perseverance and delicacy and energy. My prayer for you today is that you have the presence of faithful mentors and guides who help you to see what really matters in the world and in your own life. Thanks be to God!