Eugene Peterson was (and still is) a pastor to this pastor.
Hearing of his passing just now had me wanting to drop some things – on the way to saying “thanks” and “Godspeed”.
As much as any other, Peterson sent me on (or invited me into) the trajectory of my present life: retirement from parish ministry so that I could focus on my passion for spiritual formation as a crucial foundation for personal and parish renewal. Yes, it took some time for me to fully accept this invitation. Still, there is not doubt he cast some important seeds.
His books line my shelves. But, the one that pops out is Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Its first chapter alone (indeed, its first paragraphs) are worth the price of admission – bemoaning a shopkeeping mentality that has hijacked too many pastors, ministries, and churches. When I first read his words (back at Chapelwood UMC in Lake Jackson… in the late 90s), I knew I was guilty:
American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. they are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connects with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries…
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it’s still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping. to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs…
The biblical fact is 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. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.
–Peterson, Working the Angles, pp. 1-2
From there, he points to the “basic” and “critical” and “quiet” tasks that shape and inform (or should shape and inform) everything else the pastor does: praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Here are the fundamental instruments and skills of the craft which is spiritual formation – a craft which I, again, am convinced is at the heart of the Church’s renewal and vitality.
Peterson’s words gave (and give) me direction. And his example gave (and gives) me courage.
He now joins a Communion which I am happy to approach and invoke on a regular basis: C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton,…
It’s a strange sadness I feel at his passing. I possess no less of him than I did before. I am sensing that it’s the sadness of being grateful – extremely grateful – and having lost the opportunity to say so.
I can only pray that, in the mystery of the Communion of the Saints and my ongoing life and living, God will receive my thanks and share it –- giving rest and joy and healing to one who lived a “long obedience in the same [and right] direction.”