Last week I learned that Eugene Peterson had passed away. Eugene Peterson’s writings have influenced me as a Christian and as a pastor more than almost anyone else’s. And that’s saying something, considering that I hardly ever use his Message translation.
I’m not one for penning tributes, but the news of his passing got me thinking about some of his words that have impacted me the most. I thought back especially to The Contemplative Pastor, the first book on pastoral ministry that I read after I (somewhat begrudgingly) accepted my call to ministry. I couldn’t have been assigned a better book to start my journey with. I read it again during my last year in seminary.
There are some deep truths about the pastor life in that book, truths that I have since learned are truths because I have witnessed them becoming reality in my own life. Some of these truths aren’t comforting, but they are nevertheless true, and I am thankful someone wrote them down so I would know that I’m not crazy and an abject failure at almost every aspect of this job… profession… craft… whatever it is. I think Peterson would call it a profession.
And so I’m reading The Contemplative Pastor a third time, because I need to be reminded ever so often why I’m here and what God asks me to be. In a chapter called Lashed to the Mast, Peterson wrote,
“The image aspects of pastoring, the parts that require meeting people’s expectations, can be faked. We can impersonate a pastor without being a pastor. The problem, though, is that while we can get by with it in our communities, often with applause, we can’t get by with it within ourselves.” (The Contemplative Pastor, pg 131)
I know now that this is true. I can fake my way through almost every pastoral duty, and no one is the wiser. And I can be happy doing this as long as I accept the world’s definition of what it means to be a pastor—“an encourager of the culture’s good will, the priest who will sprinkle holy water on the culture’s good intentions.” (pg 16)
If only I could be content with that! Life would be easier. But that isn’t the ministry God calls us to, is it? As Peterson says, culture’s definition renders pastors harmless. We become like the false prophets of the Old Testament who told the king what he wanted to hear. It makes me wonder if sometimes we are not guilty of being false pastors. This disconnect between who a pastor is supposed to be and what a pastor is expected to do is at the heart of The Contemplative Pastor.
To help us break free from what culture demands of us, Peterson offers three words that should describe pastors: unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic.
Pastors must be unbusy.
Peterson says that a busy pastor is a pastor who allows culture—even church culture—to dictate their schedule for them.
“If I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don’t have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called. How can I lead people into the quiet place beside still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?” (pg 19)
Peterson says there are only three things that every pastor must do—prayer, preaching, and listening. These are the things that are most likely to get lost in our rush to dothings and look busy, so we must schedule them into our lives.
It is easy to be like Martha. It is much harder to be like Mary. “One thing is necessary,” Jesus told Martha, and Mary chose the necessary thing. We must be with him before anything else. We must spend time in contemplation with God.
Peterson recommends literally scheduling that time with God into our calendars. He wrote of scheduling time with St. Paul and Dostoevsky, because it was good for his soul. I’ve scheduled time with Eugene Peterson this week for the same reason.
Pastors must be subversive.
We don’t have to be what our culture wants us to be, but we also don’t have to let them know we aren’t complying. In fact, it seems to work better if we are a bit sneaky. We must learn how to take those in our flock into the life of Jesus and away from their own without them realizing what is going on.
“If I’m not willing to help them become what they want to be, what am I doing taking their pay? I am being subversive. I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God. I am helping them to become what God wants them to be using the methods of subversion.
But isn’t that dishonest? Not exactly, for I’m not misrepresenting myself. I’m simply taking my words and acts at a level of seriousness that would throw them into a state of catatonic disbelief of they ever knew.” (pgs 28-29)
Jesus used subversion all the time. The parables are subversive. They sneak the Gospel into the heart in a story that sounds harmless enough on the surface. The Kingdom they describe—a mustard seed, a lump of yeast, a lost sheep—is subversive. Not many people took Jesus seriously, and he tried to hush up those that did. We know the rest of the story.
Pastors must be apocalyptic.
I’ll let Peterson explain this one in his own words:
“Pastors are the persons in the church communities who repeat and insist on these kingdom realities against the world appearances, and who therefore must be apocalyptic…
Is there any way I can live with these people and love them without being shaped by the golden-calf culture? How can I keep from settling into the salary and benefits of a checkout clerk in a store for religious consumers? How can I avoid a metamorphosis from the holy vocation of pastor into a promising career in religious sales?
Here is a way: submit my imagination to St. John’s apocalypse—the crisis of the End combined with the urgencies of God—and let the energies of the apocalyptic define and shape me as a pastor. When I do that, my life as a pastor simplifies into prayer, poetry, and patience.” (pg 41)
Over ten years since I first read this book, I’m still trying to learn to be unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic. I imagine that for the rest of my life I will be re-reading Eugene Peterson.