Eugene H. Peterson was once asked by a young woman in his Church, “What do you like best about being a pastor?” Now you must know, Eugene Peterson, 83, has written books. Many books. And he had won the Gold Medallion Book Award for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. He has a degree in Philosophy and several honorary doctoral degrees under his belt. In 1962, he was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland, and he served for 29 years before retiring in 1991. So, what was his reply to that question: “What do you like best about being a pastor?”
He said, “The mess.”
Yes, after all those decades, written all those books and even translated the whole Bible to layman language, not to mentioned pastoring a Church for nearly 30 years, Eugene Peterson’s reply about the mess was rather surprising – to put it mildly. One would have thought that he would at the very least replied with some confidence that he understood more over the years, maybe became wiser. Or he could say that he has seen many lives grow from the altar call to spiritual rebellion and to life-transforming repentance after a series of stumbles and then to a life of unwavering submission to God and nothing therefore surprises him anymore. But he didn’t. He didn’t reduced it all to a self-assured response of I’ve-seen-it-all-and-know-the-answer.
He simply mentioned “the mess”. He wrote that his reply was “unpremeditated”. In other words, it was spontaneous, uncontrived, unplanned. In fact, Pastor Peterson later felt the need to clarify his reply and he wrote: “Well, not exactly a mess, but coming upon something unexpected that I don’t know how to handle, where I feel inadequate. Another name for it is miracle that doesn’t look like a miracle but the exact opposite of miracle. A slow recognition of life, God’s life, taking form in a person and context, in words and action that takes me off-guard. Theologian Karl Rahner was once asked if he believed in miracles. His reply? “I live on miracles – I couldn’t make it through a day without them.” Still another name for it is mystery. Pastors have ringside seats to this kind of thing. Maybe everyone does, but I often feel that pastors get invited into intimacies that elude a more functional and performance way of life.”
I guess the mysteries unraveled in each life by His grace take a lifetime to understand, and to deal with, because each of us are different and we are different because God created it that way. Just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two souls are alike too. And Eugene Peterson was well aware of this intricate mystery when he wrote, “I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls – immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions – place and time – that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries…I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truth. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention. Be ready…Repent. Believe.”
This weekend I completed the memoir of Eugene Peterson entitled The Pastor (320 pages) and I was delightedly disappointed by the vast and humbling experiences (and knowledge) of a pastor who knows both his congregation and the Word of the Lord intimately. Let me explain why I used the word “delightedly disappointed”.
There is in fact no pretenses to Eugene Peterson as a fellow human being and a pastor. You can sit him down to chat him up and eagerly expect to find concrete solutions to church leadership and growth only to be disappointed by his answers. He boasts of none in fact. And that is deeply comforting to me. Unlike mega-church pastors, who can tell by first sight what ails you with a certainty that is out-of-this-world, Eugene Peterson readily admits that each life he encountered had ministered to him as deeply as he had ministered to them. To him, the learning never stops and he has no cut-and-dried answers to them. And the people he meet can sometimes leave him speechless.
In one encounter, he met an artist who had survived the Nazi occupation. But he hated the Church to the core as his pastor then was a fervent Nazi. His pastor even embraced Hitler as a prophet. To him, the Church was sleeping with the Devil. On one occasion, he invited Eugene Peterson to his house for a free portrait to be painted by him and this was how Eugene Peterson described the finished work, “He had painted me in a black pulpit robe, seated with a red Bible on my lap, my hands folded over it. The face was gaunt and grim, the eyes flat and without expression…he had painted me a sick man.” Accompanying the ominous portrait was this forewarning, “Eugene, the church is an evil place. No matter how good you are and how good your intentions, the church will suck the soul out of you. I’m your friend. Please, don’t be a pastor.” Thankfully, he did not take heed of that advice.
In his memoir, he wrote this about being a pastor: “But once we leave the sanctuary and are no longer calling the shots, we are functionally invisible. Our Sunday visibility no longer defines us. We live in a messed-up world, and the people to whom we are pastor are involved in the mess. We become witnesses to what cannot be seen or heard by a people whose senses are blunted by secularity, by oughtness, by a job description.”
Eugene Peterson spent decades painstakingly ministering to the mess in the level and context where they occurred and he fully understood that each journey he took with the life of his congregant cannot be pigeonholed into a stereotypical category and then remedied with a toss of a few scriptures, parables and quotes here and there with a Benediction-like prayer of well-being to complete the spiritual prescription. A life and his/her struggles are just far too complex than what the world would have us think. And Eugene Peterson’s devotion to each life notwithstanding its uncertainty is what endears me to his humbling pastoral experiences and deep knowledge.
The world’s system and philosophy would tolerate no ambiguity and uncertainty. They are purely functional in nature (performance-based) and efficiency (that is, “doing things right”) has always been the touchstone of material success. If you look at the pastors of the mega-churches today, the one thing that distinguishes them from pastors like Eugene Peterson is that they – by the subtlest of deliberateness – seem to project the image that they have arrived, that is, they have the answers. Their one-size-fits-all pulpit messages (and books) are what draw the crowd by hypnotic droves. Every human problem to them can be resolved in the name of efficiency. You will never catch them by the tail of their ignorance. They operate vicariously with the certainty of the divine sovereign.
Unfortunately, we are hardwired psychologically to eschew uncertainty and anything that guarantees a solution (however incredulous or far-fetched) would have the alchemistic attraction equivalent to the offering of the elixir of everlasting youth. The crowd like lemmings will therefore come by the thousands. We are helpless suckers for the spam of certainty and this is why anyone who boasts to have found the key to unlocking the mysteries of life in God’s name has the ears of the masses (and their money too).
Eugene Peterson however avoids all that. After all the years of pastoring and authorship, he still stands in awe of the miracles and mysteries that God is unfolding to him. The process is never-ending. The journey is ongoing. And the learning is both daunting but rewarding. His is the humility of a subservient will and that is why the ministry of pastors like Eugene Petersen will always be a broken mirror that deflects all glory to his Maker and not like a prism that hordes it, manipulates it from within, and then converts it into a rainbow of many delights to charm its listeners.
In his own words, he wrote: “The pastoral identity I began with was clear enough: I knew that this is not a religious job; it is who I am vocationally…I knew that I did not want to be a pastor who took on the responsibility of “running this damn church.” I didn’t want to be a religious professional whose identity was institutionalized. I didn’t want to be a pastor whose sense of worth (was) derived from whether people affirmed or ignored me. In short, I didn’t want to be a pastor in the ways that were more in evidence and most rewarded in the American consumerist and celebrity culture.”
Personally, for those whose ministry is set up to elevate a prism-like leadership instead of a leadership of broken mirror, the glory that belongs exclusively to the Object of their worship soon becomes a shared property with the lead worshipper/pastor. It would then reach a stage whereby the two (the Savior’s glory and the charisma of one’s personality) become interchangeable and indistinguishable. The danger of this is that the celebrity-like preacher then becomes inseparable with (even indispensable to) the growth and identity of the Church. Take him away and the Church limps and gropes her way forward. Truly, the cult of personality is inevitably the personality of a cult.
Let me end with a metaphor the good pastor used in the book. He spent most of his youth in his father’s butcher shop and he learned how to deal with people by watching how his father cut his meat. Here is what he wrote about the art of meat carving: “I also learned that a beef carcass has a will of its own – it is not just an inert mass of meat and gristle and bone but has character and joints, texture and grain. Carving a quarter of beef into roasts and steaks was not a matter of imposing my knife-fortified will on dumb matter but respectfully and reverently entering into the reality of the material. “Hackers” was my father’s contemptuous label for butchers who ignorantly imposed their wills on the meat. They didn’t take into account the subtle differences between pork and beef. They used knifes and cleavers inappropriately and didn’t keep them sharp. They were bullies forcing their wills on slabs of bacon and hindquarters of beef. The results were unattractive and uneconomical. They commonly left a mess behind that the rest of us had to clean up.”
If you substitute the meat in this metaphor for the life of a soul and the art of meat carving for pastoral leadership, you will realize that the theme that Eugene Peterson keeps returning to is to treat every soul differently with respect, dedication and patience. He also warns leaders not to be “hackers” who impose their will on the masses and insist that they are the final fount of authority on the interpretation of the Word. (Recently, I even heard a local mega-church pastor appealing to his congregation to grow in wisdom by equating his teachings with the Word of God).
More relevantly, Eugene Petersen urges leaders to take the time to minister to a life and avoid turning oneself into a blunt pastoral instrument that prescribes touch-and-go advice to problems that have far deeper spiritual roots and take far longer time to resolve.
In a Letter to a Young Pastor (in the Afterword of the memoir), he wrote this: “Here’s a Psalm phrase that has given me some helpful clarity in the midst of the murkiness: “Blessed is the man who makes Yahweh his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.” (Ps. 40:4). The “proud” for me in this context are those pastors who look like they “know what they’re doing” – who are competent and recognized as such, who have an honored position in society and among their colleagues. And going “astray after false gods” amounts to living in response to something manageable, turning my vocation into a depersonalized job that I can get good at. I’m probably reading more into this text than it warrants, but it has given me a couple of images (“proud” and “astray”) that set off little alarm signals when I have sensed that I was betraying or avoiding the uniqueness of pastor.”
My takeaway in all this is, there can never be a one-size-fits-all solution thrown indiscriminately at the masses. A mature pastor knows that it invariably takes time to guide a soul to full personal growth and a mega-church of thousands that predominantly relies on the charisma of one or two lead pastors runs the risk of turning growth into a frantic rush to fill the seat in the sanctuary instead of an enduring call to feed the sheep in the spirit.
Sooner or later, in order to keep up with the numbers, the lead pastor will be compelled to shore up his sermons or teachings with pulpit materials of dubious sources. I guess the prosperity gospel is but one of its many manifestations. And the eagerness to over-promise (or over-entice) his congregation with a life immune from sickness, poverty and hardship is but another. Over time, he will gradually shed his role as a humble shepherd guiding the people along the narrow way to becoming a prima donna on stage who bedazzles the people with more of what they want to hear and less of what they need to hear.
In his memoir, Eugene Peterson quoted Truman Capote who remarked with disdain the work of a popular novelist: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” Maybe he would have accorded pastors who sought to wow the congregation with feel-good and controversial sermons with the same disdain. And an appropriately tweaked Capote’s remark reserved for such pastors would be this: “That’s not preaching, he’s just being charming.” Alas, the peril of such charm dispensed blindly to a wide audience is in the deepening of the mass delusion at the expense of authentic growth and maturity. Cheerz.