I’ll be honest, I’ll admit that I didn’t know that Eugene H. Peterson wrote books… I knew about The Message (a Biblical translation into what Peterson calls “American”), but that was all I was aware of. I also didn’t know he was a pastor. I don’t usually read memoirs. It seemed like this book and I weren’t destined to meet given the circumstances, but through the course of reading some blogs I stumbled upon it. I’m so glad that I did! It was beyond amazing! It was the perfect book for this season of my life. Literally, it as a Godsend. It was like Jesus himself handed it to me and said, “I think you need to hear this.” Yep, it was that awesome.
Peterson shares his development as a pastor and what it looked like serve in a church culture that was rapidly changing and shifting its priorities. He writes with such passion about what is at the core of the church and what it really should be. It almost made we want to go back to an earlier time in church history, before megachurchs and numbers and programs. When churches were in communities and pastors gave their whole lives to one or two churches. It’s not about moving on to the next bigger or better thing, it’s about staying power, it’s about setting roots. It’s about living life with people. As he could say, it’s about a long obedience in the same direction.
More than his passion for the church, I love how Peterson described pastoring and his own development as a pastor. He learned that it wasn’t a job, it was a vocation. No matter what the church expected of him in job performance, he was a pastor. A piece of paper didn’t make that happen, it just is who he was. He was very bold in his decisions to help him maintain longevity in ministry. He knew all too well the dangers that come with the ministry and how it can burn you out and leave you bitter. He guarded his heart and his life so that way the job didn’t disqualify the vocation. What I needed to hear from this book what no matter what a piece of paper says when you’re a pastor, you’re a pastor. You can’t just shut it off and pretend like it’s not there. No matter what you’re paid to do, when you are pastor by vocation, it isn’t your job, it’s who you are. As I read, I kept thinking, I’m a pastor. I know I’m a pastor. It was an affirmation for me of who I am, who I am becoming. Regardless of what the world tells me, my church, my denomination, my friends, my family – I know that I’m a pastor. That has been solidified between me and God. I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to lose. I know who I am.
Peterson writes about a stage in his life where things at the church began to slow down and the people just weren’t at the place where they once had been. He calls these years the “badlands” after the landscape in South Dakota. As hard as the badlands were, there was nothing he could do to get out of them. He had to learn to embrace the conditions he was in and engage the people right where they were at. If he kept trying to push forward and get of this badlands season, it would actually be a determent to his ministry. This was encouraging to me because I often feel like when I find myself in desert places, there must be something I can do get myself out. I often think if I’m strategic enough I can move ahead. There comes a time when you can decided to fight with the conditions or serve within the conditions. We all have badlands seasons. For me, I realized that it isn’t my fight to get out of the badlands. The conditions are what they are. I can fight and lose out on the moment or I can surrender and just accept the badlands for what they. The results lead down drastically different paths.
One of my highlights of the book was when he talked about the monthly paperwork he had to fill out for his denomination. The first page was statistics and then rest were personal reflection of the ministry. He started to think that they never looked at anything he wrote beyond the first page, so he decided to have fun with them. He first wrote about how he felt he was losing his calling to ministry and was sinking into depression. Could they help him? No reply. The next month he said that he developed a drinking problem and one Sunday it affected his sermon and he had to have an elder finish preaching for him. He asked if he should get treatment? No reply. The next month he wrote about how he had an affair with a lady in the church. They were discovered in the pews by the ladies that came to arrange the flowers. He was concerned about what his congregation would think, but they were all in favor of the relationship and attendance had doubled the next Sunday. The final tale was about how his wife had baked hallucinogens into the communion bread as a why to liven up their worship experience. He reported that the whole thing was dazzling, but that he wanted to make sure that it didn’t compromise their by-laws. Still no reply. In a meeting he later had at the end of the year, he asked if anyone actually read the pages beyond the numbers and of course, they all said yes and that they took them very seriously. He then explained his stories and they went into a round of blaming various people for the mishap. When explained that it has all been a joke, they were less than amused Seriously, I was laughing so hard. I wish I had the guts to do something like that!
There are a lot of deep moments in this book. It’s really rooted in what it means to follow Christ and be a pastor. Peterson has so much imagination and never once he is portrayal of pastoral life seem dull or boring. I loved reading his story. It encouraged me in my own story. I don’t know how mine is going to end.. in fact, I’m really not sure what my future holds, but the one thing I did take away from this book is I am a pastor. I will keep being a pastor. Thanks, Eugene, for living your life in a way that it makes my story a little clearer. This book was like light in my soul. It opened me up in a way I never expected. That, my friends, is the tell tale sign of a good book!