“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?…A book must be like an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” So says Eugene Peterson, quoting a letter written by Franz Kafka, in The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperOne, 2011, p. 90). Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor, theologian, Bible translator and author, has written over 30 books, and is best known for his Bible translation entitled The Message (published by NavPress in a variety of formats). I began reading Peterson’s work when I began seminary in 1989. I have been reading it ever since.
My wife was perusing a book table and spotted this new release. Thumbing through it, she noticed that it had a chapter entitled, “Company of Pastors”, an area in which
I am doing some research right now. She bought it, thinking it would be valuable for my research.
To be sure, that chapter was valuable for my studies, but what made it even more valuable was that it whetted my appetite to read the entire book which I have now done – among the most voraciously read 320 pages I have ever ingested. These past couple of weeks have brought less sleep than usual, because this book has been hard to
put down. Indeed, this book has awakened me; it has served as an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside me. Not to put too fine a point on it, but reading this memoir has renewed my passion for the pastorate.
There’s something about reading the writing of Eugene Peterson – any of his writing – that puts one in a different place spiritually. If I can’t meet with my spiritual director, reading Peterson comes in a close second. This book traces the life of this spiritual giant among pastors from his earliest days growing up in Kalispell, Montana, through his discernment of a call to pastoral work in New York, to his near-thirty-year tenure serving the congregation he planted, to stints at teaching in Pittsburgh and Vancouver.
He tells many short stories, and a few long ones. His family plays a key role in the story of his life, especially his wife, Jan. She had wanted to be a pastor’s wife from her earliest days, and it is a vocation that she has lived out well. Her husband describes her role as “hanging around this intersection between heaven and earth and seeing what there is to be done” (p. 194). Both Peterson and his wife made the focus of their ministry drawing people into God’s story through relationship. As he describes his ministry, it would be easy to see how many would have loved having him for a pastor.
Peterson is big on the church, and big on God’s kingdom. He is not fond of mainstream American culture or its exposition in the contemporary church growth movement. Not everyone who reads this book is going to agree with every conclusion Peterson draws therein, but then, I doubt he would expect them to do so. I think the only
part of the book I found a bit difficult to swallow came near the end, when he described his appointment to Regent College in Vancouver to teach Spiritual Theology. The hostess at a bed-and-breakfast at which they initially stayed in Vancouver had greeted them with the words, “Welcome to godless Canada, this godforsaken desert” (p.
310). While that was just an opinion stated by one individual, I found that Peterson sufficiently entertained it through the chapter (as a motif) to the point that it left me feeling the need inside to defend the ongoing ministry of the gospel in Canada. I truly hope that Peterson was not left with the impression that Canadians are all godless
after his time here; I trust he met many Canadians who are ardent Christ-followers. He did admit, however, that he and Jan liked the company of the godless, because, in the words of Karl Barth, “only where graves are is there resurrection” (p. 313): an apt reminder that new life only emerges from where there is death.
Eugene Peterson has, through his lifetime of ministry and writing, been used of God to bring new life to many who were wallowing in the dust of death. He has also been used of God to bring renewed hope to pastors caught up in the whirlwind of busyness and the tyranny of the urgent.
Thank you, brother Eugene, for sharing your story, and for sharing yourself.