“Story is a way of language in which everything and everyone is organically related,” writes Eugene Peterson in his most recent The Pastor, A Memoir “Every step an arrival”. Story is exactly how Peterson finds his voice in relating to any and all of us, whether on pastoral call or congregational laity.
Reading Peterson’s The Pastor this summer on sabbatical in Panama, I am moved to the heart of what it means to be pastor as call and pastoral as witness. Peterson fills this volume with classic style and prose reflecting The Message, as only he can do, while retelling stories of his childhood joys & conflicts, his mother as itinerant preacher and pastor, his father as butcher, relationships to aunts and uncles, his college years, various jobs, getting married, planting a church, starting a young family, receiving a call to pastoral ministry and the various lessons learned in the community of his congregation.
Apart from well crafted and elaborate story telling Peterson’s memoirs is filled with honesty, openly made mistakes and, as he puts it, “finding my way as a pastor.” He admits, “As I look back on a lifetime in the pastoral vocation what I remember most is a kind of messiness: a lot of stumbling around, fumbling the ball, losing my way, and then finding it again. It is amazing now that anything came of it.” His stories are mixed with emotional recollections, interesting characters in his congregation, conversations we can all relate to, grief, sorrows, lessons learned by helping the addicted and even learning to accept his pastoral call. His stories include a bit of messiness in the lessons he learned. He openly stumbles his way through his 30 plus years of pastoral vocation along the journey.
Peterson is real, yet, in his vulnerable recall of pastoral work, he lays a foundation for ministry as vocation, which works as a tutorial primer for anyone willing to listen. He guides the reader into how to humbly serve in the church, rather than seek popularity, desire a larger congregation “somewhere else”, or lose focus on our pastoral responsibility. He encourages a “long obedience in the same direction”, a humble work of grace, and learning to enjoy the messiness of ministry between Sundays. His stories teach us how to bridge the working culture together with Christ, the church and community with a simple focus on worship, family, baptism, Eucharist and community. I thoroughly enjoyed Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor, and recommend it as a reminder of God’s calling.
One of the most compelling chapters, for me, is late in the book. Peterson writes of visiting a Benedictine Monastery with his wife once in New Mexico. Upon walking through the cemetery on the way to the chapel, they noticed an open grave site prepared for a casket. They asked the hosting monk what the site was prepared for, “Did a brother die?” The monk replied, “No, this grave site is for the next one.” They remind themselves that they are already dead. Peterson finishes this chapter with a reminder that the pastor’s role is to learn to not draw meaningless attention to oneself, rather than keep the focus of the church on the Lord. I am learning to die everyday here on sabbatical in Panama, and pray that this “learning to die” is a way for me to continue a life well lived into the next ministry calling that the Lord will place me.
I am fully God’s child, and learning to be dead to this world, only to be fully alive in Christ.