Eugene Peterson: A Pastor's Journey
On a recent trip to England, I sat beside a young man who, when he learned I am a preacher, started asking questions with a noticeable amount of energy. He wanted to know if my church allowed me to marry and whether I thought women could preach. He asked how I get paid and what I do when I'm not preaching. This persisted for over an hour. Having grown up in a post-Christian culture, this fellow had a vague notion of what a pastor is but clearly had never talked to one.
In American culture, being a pastor is not enough of an oddity to start an hour-long conversation with a stranger. (More often than not, telling your airplane seatmate that you're a pastor is enough to ensure an awkward silence for the remainder of the flight.) Still, if you spend any time with pastors, even around here, it is clear our vocation is facing something of a crisis. Many pastors aren't sure how to describe their calling or explain why it matters to the rest of the world.
In the introduction to his new book, The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperOne), Eugene H. Peterson addresses this crisis head-on: "North American culture does not offer congenial conditions in which to live vocationally as a pastor. Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins."
Though the rhythms of his voice are familiar to admirers of The Message, this is not Paul or Moses or Jesus speaking in Peterson's contemporary American idiom. It is, instead, Peterson himself, attending to the text of his life—mining it, even, for some understanding of what it has meant to be a pastor. Unless you're traveling in Europe, the book probably won't leave any airline companions in a state of puzzlement. But it is a gift to anyone who has tried answering the call to pastor, and to a church that needs true pastors, whether we know it or not.
The Pastor as Pilgrim
Peterson's own story is rooted in the American West, where he was born and to which he returned throughout his pastorate in a restorative rhythm of annual Sabbath. Since leaving his pulpit at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, and his professorship at Regent College, Peterson has retired to his native Montana. In many ways, this is a book he could only have written from home. But the strong sense of place that grounds his narrative does not negate the pilgrimage that took Peterson to New York City as a seminary student or to Baltimore's suburbs as a young pastor.
Indeed, his journey bears witness to a true pilgrimage—not just a tourist's jaunt—because it has been conditioned by an attention to place and an eye for what is happening on the ground. If I were pressed to pull one definition of pastor from this story, it'd have to be this: "the person placed in the community to pay attention to 'what is going on right now' between men and women, with each other and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful 'without ceasing.'?" This is what Peterson grew out of Montana's soil to become.