The Pastor; A Memoir

The Pastor; A Memoir (Eugene H. Peterson; ©2011 by HarperCollins Publishers)

Many of us have enjoyed Eugene Peterson's translation (paraphrase) of the Bible into what he describes as contemporary, vernacular American English. It is titled "The Message" -- and the two or three of you who don't yet own a copy really ought to pick one up. I'm sure it will help you hear the stories and sayings of the Bible with fresh ears.

I received a copy of "The Pastor" as a Christmas gift, and saved it for my Sabbatical leave. It was a good read. Containing anecdotes from Peterson's years in ministry, he describes how he grew to become "a pastor." I enjoyed reading about his development as a pastor, and identified with more than a few of the stories he told.

Among my favorite passages in the book are these:

The only hour of the week that had any predictable, uninterrupted order to it was Sunday morning, when the story of creation and covenant was told and the prayers of confession and praise were said and sung. I was learning that for a pastor, the rest of the week was spent getting that story and those prayers heard and prayed in the personal and unique particulars of these people. (page 22)

I share Pastor Peterson's belief that ministry is centered around what takes place on Sunday morning. All that we do leads us towards Sunday, and follows from it. The messages we prepare, the prayers we offer, the relationships we build, the programs we put in place, the vision we cast... when it is done well, all of this prepares us to experience the presence of God at worship -- and sets us up to carry the "presence and promise" of God with us into the week that follows.

Knowledge wasn't just storing up information in a mental warehouse. It was the disciplined practice of thinking, imagining, formulating, testing for the truth. And teaching wasn't just getting information or data into students' minds. There was something deeply dialogical involved, as words sparked into meaning and started truth fires that blazed with comprehension. (page 64)

In this paragraph, Pastor Peterson describes his years at Johns Hopkins University, where he was doing graduate work in Semitic studies, and working under renowned biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright. It was an experience that excited him about a lifetime of learning -- and he imagined living in this world for the rest of his life. This is what learning ought to be like in the church: not dumping information into minds, but enthusing students to test for truth, and lighting fires of comprehension.

The experience was not merely academic. The passion and patience that permeated that classroom instilled in me an inductive imagination: fiercely attentive to everything that is there and only what is there, alert to relationships both literary and personal, habitually aware of context -- the entire world of creation and salvation that is being revealed in this Bible. And always accompanied by the insistence that I do this firsthand, not first filtered through the hearsay of others or the findings of experts. (page 85)

Peterson studied with Professor Robert Traina at New York Theological Seminary. He writes that this experience "penetrated my mind and spirit in a way that shaped everything I would do and am still doing as a pastor, professor, and writer." This paragraph describes how one ought to approach the scriptures: attentive to everything that is there (and only what is there). How often do we read our own meaning into the Scriptures? Serious Bible study focuses on "the text and nothing but the text..."

By the time I arrived on the scene as a pastor, the American church had reinterpreted the worship of God as an activity for religious consumers. Entertainment, cheerleading, and manipulation were conspicuous in high places. American worship was conceived as a public-relations campaign for Jesus and the angels. Worship had been cheapened into a commodity marketed by using tried-and-true advertising techniques. If so-called worshippers didn't "get anything out of it," there had been no worship worth coming back for. Instead of calling people to worship God, pastors all over the country were inviting people to "have a worship experience." Worship was evaluated on the "consumer satisfaction scale" of one to ten. It struck me as a violation of the holy, a secularization of the sacred. Taking the Lord's name in vain. (page 254)

There has been much written about the "worship wars" of the 1990s and 2000s. For Peterson, worship is an active verb -- something God's people are called to do as best they can. Worship is not where we show up to find the inspiration we need to get through the coming week. Worship is where we gather in the shadow of the sacred, and offer our prayer, praise and thanksgiving to the God who has so powerfully touched our lives. There is much we can do to make it possible for God's people to worship well. But the character of worship is more dependent on what the worshipper brings to the time together, than what is there awaiting him or her.

Roger Bannister, the first four-minute miler, wrote his autobiography in which he described life following his  high-profile athletic celebrity. He wasn't breaking records anymore. He compensated by working harder and harder. He described himself as a carpenter who "made up for his lack of skill by using a lot of nails." That was me. I had tried to slow down. I had tried to relax. But I was afraid of failing. I couldn't help myself. (page 277)

Pastor Peterson was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Baltimore (he served there for thirty years). After leading his congregation through the process of building their first church facility, he found himself uncertain about what should happen next. A malaise set in, once the congregation had completed its primary goal of building a home for their ministries. He responded to that malaise by working frantically, but the more he worked, the more disconnected from his people, and from God's presence in his life, he became. The answer for him would lie in stepping away from the frenetic activity, and spending more time with God, and with God's people. Not a bad model for congregational ministry.

When a person or family left our congregation, the last Sunday they worshipped with us we had a service of dismissal just before the benediction, prayed a blessing, and presented them with a framed photograph of the church sanctuary that had been taken by one of our artist photographers. (page 287)

What a great idea! We have used the "Farewell and Godspeed" service from time to time with members who were leaving us. But wouldn't it be nice to do that on a more regular basis, and honor the contribution these members have made to our community, and the love we have for them? And the added touch of sending them off with a gift seems wise. Anyone at Saint Peter interested to take on that project?

Jan and I were visiting a Benedictine monastery, Christ in the Desert, in new Mexico. One of the brothers was leading us on a path from prayers in the chapel to the refectory where we would have lunch. The path led through the cemetery. We passed an open grave. Jan said, "Oh, did one of the brothers just die?" "No, that is for the next one." Three times a day, on their way from praying together to eating together, the monks are reminded that one of them will be "the next one." And I was reminded that there is a long tradition in the church's life that the pastoral vocation consists in preparing people for "a good death." (page 289)

Our world is preoccupied with life and living (and the denial of death). But our faith teaches us that only through death, do we experience true life. Luther described death as the completion of the baptismal journey. As we experience death (at the very end of life, or as we experience the painful "little deaths" that assail us along the way), we are opened up to experience resurrection. A resurrection faith is unafraid of death, and finds it  unnecessary to delude ourselves into thinking that death is not a natural part of the journey of life.