If you had the chance to sit and listen to an 80 year old former pastor share his reflections and wisdom from all those years of loving and leading and equipping people, you would jump at the chance, too, wouldn’t you? Especially if he happened also to be a personal hero, a compassionate and Scripture-driven author, and the translator of this bible version called the Message.
Back in February, I had the chance to sit and listen to Eugene Peterson do just that during a Q Practices conversation in Manhattan. Big thanks to Gabe Lyons and crew for the opportunity to be a part of this.
I understand that you don’t get the context of what Eugene and his wife shared here, but here a few notable quotes and a few of my own reflections (marked by “my thought”).
Hope you will enjoy them and be challenged by them and need two months to reflect on them before you blog about them, too :)
:: a definition
shut up and show up.
:: don’t try to be like a god
It does not start with understanding sabbath but with looking at and understanding God from the beginning…when we don’t keep the sabbath, we are trying to be like gods.
:: when we started keeping a sabbath as a family
We didn’t start out doing sabbath in Maryland. However, I wasn’t working out of obedience but out of fear. Then, we would get away for a month as a family somewhere and just be together.
By the time I started working out of obedience rather than fear, we structured our sabbath for every Monday. I made lunch since Jan did the rest of the week. She prayed since I tended to the rest of the week. The kids would be in school. Jan would read a Psalm and we would be quiet and walk. Then we would come back and just debrief. Kids would come home from school and take part, too. First thing we noticed was the kids loved it because no one had to do work that day. We would do nothing we HAD to do.
I wrote our congregation a letter every year “why your pastor keeps a sabbath” in order to invite them to help us keep it. You can’t keep the sabbath alone. People took it seriously. And after 10 years or so, many of them began to keep one, too. And we helped each other. The most important thing we did was asking our congregation to help us keep it.
:: not just a cessation of work
Sabbath is not a cessation of work, but rather a contemplation of work. Non-sabbath keeping is a desecration of work, not honoring the real gift that our work is. When we do this, the work of man has inflated importance, rather than the work of God being honored most.
Living in a rhythm of sabbath allows for restful living rather than guilty, busy, driven living.
:: evangelism may not be the primary work of the church…
I think evangelism may not be the primary work of the church, but rather sabbath-keeping. Because it puts us in the rhythm of stopping to listen to God and then responding and doing what he says. We try to do so much without being in this sabbath rhythm. Without it, how can we evangelize?
:: praying without ceasing
Praying – when I leave my study and close my Bible and go throughout my day, that is when I am especially praying. I do it when I don’t know I’m doing it, like breath.
Ambition is an enemy of simplicity. The need to acquire is an enemy of simplicity.
Receptivity is a key to simplicity. Not citing what you need but receiving what is there. Stay where you are. Quit wanting to go more and get more and be more. Receive from those with whom you walk deeply. I was weened from emotional sensuality with God after a growing up in extreme emotional spiritual experiences. Learning the contemplative life is reducing expectations and receiving the gifts from the people that are there and the surroundings that are there and the needs that are there.
It is possible to live a life at peace. But u have to be content with who and where you are. And there has to be a constant purging. This is not just a “peace” word, though. It is a wholeness and connective word.
:: the movement of God toward us
Prayer has its origin in the movement of God toward us.
:: the trinity
The trinity is not just some metaphysical, theological talk. It is God relational, personal, near. It is Father and Son and Spirit dancing a rhythm faster and faster until they are three a blur of one, and all of a sudden a hand stretches out from the circle and pulls us into it to now be a participant. Prayer is one of the rhythms with which we dance with God. It is breath, understood that we are doing it at times, not even realizing that we are doing it most of the time.
:: prayer together
We have typically emphasized the individuality of prayer, when we might consider how important it is to learn prayer in the context of the people of prayer, His church – people praying for and with you. Prioritizing prayer as an individual event only puts all of the burden on you.
:: prayer length
Prayers don’t need to be long.
:: helping people pray
We need to resist as pastors church as programs and worship as entertainment. We need to teach people how to pray and how to be a worshiper. Even provide them with prayers, like from the psalms, rewritten to be meaningful in their situation.
The human incarnation of God must remain central to what we are doing. It is the devil’s work to distract us from the human (what God actually intended for the human).
:: technology – Gabe Lyons who interviewed Peterson spoke about this…
In the book Veneer, it says that because of technology today, we are no longer able to distinguish when we are alone or together because of social media. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine has a blog called “Cool Tools.” In his blog, he said we MUST learn how to limit technology.
:: the importance of a meal (from Eugene’s wife Jan)
The MEAL seems to me to be one of the most significant opportunities to embody so much of who God intended us to be and who we are together as humanity. Open up the table and be together much.
:: be relational
Pastors are to be local and personal and relational. Don’t get hijacked by the glamour and the power of being known and the intoxication of technology connecting us farther.
:: my thought on embodiment
Have we become so deceived that the “church” is to be grown and attractive and impressive that we have dismissed the significance of embodying “God with us” in the everyday relationships and rhythms of our lives? Could it be that walking in love and to give love with a few other families is what needs to be grown and is attractive and is actually impressive? Are we willing to let this be enough?
:: communicator or conversationalist???
Today, pastor seems to mean “communicator.” In my opinion, though, pastor needs to mean “conversationalist.” Pray. Relate. Discover. Live. Be transformed.
:: maybe the most significant statement of the two days came from Eugene’s wife as a compliment about his being relational, even to his own family…
Eugene is not known because of what he could have sold his soul to, but rather because he is true and real and cares about what matters. And through all of this he has been a good husband.
:: entering into it
I was reading Psalms and thinking I wasn’t getting it. As I processed it, I realized how significant metaphor was in all of Scripture. I had to enter into the world of the words.
:: speaking a foreign language?
I treated my congregation for the first three years like a classroom, applying all I had studied in graduate and doctoral work in languages. I finally realized that they did not understand Ugaritic and learned their language – American.
:: the art of translation
I studied Homer and the Iliad and how they were translated and realized they were not literal in their translation to English, but rather were moved and shaped to be understood by English speakers without changing the story of the book. Translation is an art in that way. It is true for any interpreter of languages.
:: meant to be
I felt everything in me had been put in me to do The Message, like I was born to do it. It was a twelve year process. The last thing I did was Judges.
:: imagine why…
The Bible is not intended to be a legislative fact book but a revelation. And we are free to imagine through it why God did actually reveal Himself.
:: on the criticism he has taken for the Message
A 19th Century archaeological discovery in Egypt of ancient texts brought to light that the New Testament was written in everyday street language. Moffitt from Scotland picked up on that but it wasn’t popular because of how Scotland is so conservative. Phillips from England then picked it up. I actually read his translation as a teen. He was so criticized that he struggled thru deep depression and never finished the entire Scriptures like he hoped. Even got death threats. So there has been much critique but those guys took the brunt of it.
:: on the Bible being literal
I am not discouraged by the words infallible and inerrant, as long as we understand language. No language can be translated literally from one to another. Things will always be lost unless nuances are translated as well. Every linguist understands that. Language can be translated truly, although not literally. It simply is not possible. Infallible and inerrant I am fine with. Fights over the Bible being literal is our bugaboo.
:: a question was asked – How did you discern when a text was cultural and when it was normative?
Well, it helped that I had spent much time in the culture of the Bible and was taught by a world-class teacher. And I was also by the time I did the message saturated in American culture. Prayer went into that discernment as I tried to get the world of the Bible into the world of America. Every preacher is a translator in that way. Every witness is a translator in that way.
:: helping a biblically illiterate culture
David Kinnaman with the Barna group says that less than 25% of 20 somethings say that they were ever taught well how the Bible even matters and applies in their daily lives.
The struggle in countering that is that we try to teach the Bible and the Gospel in such a black and white kind of way. But they are not black and white. This is a big story, and understanding one section of the Bible can only be possible by understanding the big story of the Bible, like a novel, and we have to help people see how their complex lives can mesh in with the complex but beautiful story of the Bible.
We must get the Biblical story into people’s stories and help people see their story in the Biblical story, as well.
:: the importance of reading the Bible together
We need to tell people that they cannot read the Bible by themselves. This is a conversation with God. With each other. It is a living Word to know and see alive, not words just to be dissected.
:: why he dislikes the chapters and verses
When that monk in the 600s or so added the verse and chapter numbers to the text, it made the living Word a reference book. People tell me that without those numbers and reference points they get lost and don’t know where they are. I tell them to stay there, they will become unlost. They are in the weeds but will find the trail again.
:: on the Bible to the individual as opposed to in community
Reading, literacy, has caused a huge cultural shift. When people began to carry their own copy of the Bible, community gathering began to diminish. When this happens the reading gets separated from the voice, from community where it is lived. We must not let reading destroy our lives and our community, although it certainly is a good thing and important.
:: MY THOUGHT _ isn’t the Internet and podcasting and accessibility of information doing the same thing to the beauty and nearness of the local church today?
:: on the word translated as “saved”
The Greek word for “saved” mostly is a healing word. Jesus saves. There are other synonyms. But “saves” is not just a word about our souls. That has become our cliche use. It is really a word about a healing and restoring of our lives, our imaginations, our everything.
:: on parables
Parables – “parabole” – a word that means to throw it down, like throw it down and look at it and wonder, “What is that doing there?” Jesus used it in that way – to throw something in the conversation to keep the conversation going. Parables are for participation. We only get them by participation. When we only ask, “What does that mean,” we destroy it. We must participate to see it.
:: what translation does Peterson read?
The RSV because it is what I grew up as a kid reading and memorizing. Occasionally I will pick up the Message, but I also read in Greek and Hebrew.
:: Peterson’s favorite book(s) of the Bible?
:: on inviting people on a journey to learn the Bible
Like Zaccheus, there are those who are like outsiders but are simply up a tree, and with the proper invitation to dinner might come down and join us.
:: can you create it?
I’m skeptical that you can create community. I think you can become community, but unsure you can create it. Community forms when we work together, serve together, sacrifice together.
:: us and them?
The lines between saved and unsaved began to blur as we were learning what real community was.
:: most impactful thing in your walk?
The 27 year journey of starting and walking with Christ Our King Church. They made a pastor out of me. Or God used them to make a pastor out of me.
:: on cultivating for community at home, too, as a husband and dad?
First three years of Christ the King, very bad. Entering the “badlands” (a dry season), I realized the importance of Jan and the kids. We changed our time and vacation and sabbath and dating and created new habits. We were poor, but we would go out and spend the money on dates because it was cheaper than a psychiatrist. :)
:: a definition
a colony of resurrection in the country of death.
:: the Kingdom of God
The Kingdom of God is here. Jesus inaugurated this. The church is a colony of resurrection in this Kingdom of God to give witness to it and give reference to it. We must not be making walls between what we call “church” and the rest of the world when the world is the Kingdom of God.
:: the church is more about what God is doing…
I’ve tried to reinterpret the church ontologically. The church is what God does, not what we do. We didn’t create it nor do we sustain it. We are not in charge of renewing or forming the church but simply being the church. Church is not what we do. It is what God is doing with and for and through us.
:: learning church together
I have to know the congregation to be their pastor. And they had to know me. We knew what each other was doing and then learned together what it meant to be a congregation. I gave them the dignity that we could learn it together, and they gave me the respect and trust that we could learn it together.
:: sacred and secular?
I think the Kingdom of God is the activity of the trinity everywhere and in everyone. Some realize it. Others never realize it. Some are disobedient to it. We struggle with this concept because we want to label everything church or not church, Christian or not Christian. We have to believe that God is doing His work even when we don’t see it. People who are oblivious to God are important to His Kingdom, too. And we hope to help them become aware of it.
:: is denominationalism good or bad?
I think God uses whatever we give Him. We give Him a mess, He works with a mess. I need to develop a comprehensive understanding of how God works and with whom He works. I think schism is the worst thing the church can ever do. We need to take our issues to the John 17 prayer room and let Jesus pray over us through these issues. Schism is the devil’s work. We need to remember what the Bible says about what we should do to our supposed enemies.
:: is big church bad?
I don’t have any interest in giving grades to the church and the various operations of it. I do care much about the small church and the importance of it. And I don’t like the way people bully the pastors of small churches to try to be different because those people think bigger is better. In helping people, a pastor better serves people in the sanctity (details) of their lives by listening to them, praying with them, encouraging what they begin to think and dream about, not just preach to them.
:: what were your daily rhythms?
I didn’t work as hard as you might think I did. I am a very structured person. Pretty protective of solitude. Very deliberate about my time and spending time with people. I did a lot of leisure. And we have not had a TV for 50 years. We worked with what we had in a small place on a small scale.
In closing, Gabe Lyons of Q asked Peterson to “encourage these folks as we close toward a ‘long obedience,’” referencing his classic book. Peterson replied:
A long obedience doesn’t just mean gutting it out. This is not discipline. Fall in love with Jesus. With His Scriptures. I did not stick with this congregation for 30 years out of determination. It took six or seven years, but I fell in love with them. Don’t respect me for something I didn’t do. Find some people to do this with and stick with it.
I was so grateful for the chance to hear from Peterson personally. I will treasure that memory and what I am still processing and learning from that time.
Lord, may I lead with the same relational intention and patient endurance that Eugene Peterson did. And more importantly, may my wife one day say of me what she said of him. And may we all follow You on this long obedience in the same direction.