Eugene Peterson - His Legacy and VEV

So many tributes and words have already been offered for the late Eugene Peterson, beloved author, teacher, and pastor, who passed away earlier this week, having completed his “long obedience in the same direction,”[1] that I feel I don't have much to add. Yet, I must also briefly offer this tribute on his unique contribution to me and our congregation here at VEV. As far as I know, Eugene Peterson never attended our church, or spoke here. Yet, he may as well have, not just because of his wonderful and lively paraphrase of the Bible, The Message[2], which has often been quoted and referenced in our gatherings, but also because his influence and ministry has shaped who we are as a church, and helped make VEV the beautiful expression of the Bride of Christ that it is. 


One of my highlights during my 21 year sojourn at Regent College (yes, you read that right, 1992-2013), was taking one of Peterson’s courses directly from him during Weekend School for a term on the subject of “Ministry and Spirituality,” in the mid-1990’s. It was one of the most formative courses I have ever taken. So many paradigms on pastoral ministry shifted for me over those four months. I learned what it meant to be a “contemplative pastor.” In summary, this meant a shift from trying to achieve ministry “success,” (whatever that means), to simply learning to notice God at work and joining God in that work. It fit well with my Vineyard ministry culture which highly values “doing what the Father is doing,”[3] but roots of performance, comparison, and drivenness run deep.  Peterson provided a theological and philosophical framework to confront the distorted ministry values that had so influenced me and led to a bad ministry burnout. He pulled me out of the emotional quicksand created by these distorted values. It put me on a trajectory towards the practice of spiritual direction, which is now one of the most fulfilling and fruitful aspects of my pastoral work.

The course was such a timely and crucial introduction into my “second half of life,” to use Richard Rohr’s language.[4] What I mean by that is that I was still recovering from a devastating ministry burnout that had nearly killed me, spiritually and physically. I was seeking to gather the fragments of my broken life into some form of meaningful ministry again after all seemed lost. I had just begun pastoring again and was working on my Master’s degree at Regent at the same time – such wonderful mutually informing endeavors! 


Peterson’s class provided insight on what had gone wrong in my “first half of life.” Ministry is one of the greatest ways we as humans find ourselves “sinning” because its godly “veneer” or “exterior” gives it a certain legitimacy that provides a cover for the worse kinds of pride, ambition, and drivenness. His teaching and writings began to make sense of the horrific circumstances of burnout that had befallen me. This particularly came through his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant,[5] a course reading requirement - one of three in a “pastoral trilogy”[6] that Peterson had written. It is a commentary on idolatry in pastoral vocation, based on the book of Jonah. Here he coined the phrase, “ecclesiastical pornography,” a term which I have never forgotten. It provides a vivid reminder to be wary of the temptation to wander from the “ordinary” of parish life, coveting an airbrushed and ideal ministry situation elsewhere, rather than being faithful to reverence the sacred “stuff at hand,” in my own congregation, as ordinary as it may seem sometimes.  

I decided to do my term paper for him on this topic, outlining the story of my life in correspondence with the structure of his book. I was so blessed to get a thoughtful and heart-felt response from him. OK,  it was nice to get a good mark too (still working on that identity thing), but I was just as blessed by his comments that my reflections on the book in light of my ministry burnout validated him and his message. Wow! I was deeply touched by the remarkable humility that he exhibited in those comments, and what an honor it was for me to receive these words from him.  


So how has this worked itself out in my life? One recent story I can think of is the other day, I was in the Hastings Sunrise area of East Vancouver where I live, and I walked by a man who had been panhandling, but he was now slumped over and he seemed unconscious, with his head resting on one knee. Mindful of the overdose crisis in our city, I turned around and went back to him, and gently placed my hand on his shoulder, asking him if he was OK and if he needed me to call an ambulance. He straightened up and with his eyes now wide open, looked right at me, gave me a fist pump handshake, and said that, no, he didn’t need to me to call an ambulance, he was fine, and then he thanked me very much for caring. I gave him the thumbs up and he called after me again as I was walking away, saying in a loud voice several times, “Thank you so much for caring.” I’ve had many ministry moments in my life that many would perhaps assess as more “significant,” but nothing matches moments like these,  simple yet profound encounters with people, known and unknown, connecting with our common humanity and the sacred image that we share.

This is the gift that Eugene Peterson gave me, the capacity to be on the lookout in order to see and to notice God at work in the most profound of ways in the midst of the most ordinary circumstances and especially in the most broken places. For that, dear Eugene Peterson, I am so grateful.

[1] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson, IVP, 2000.

[2] The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene Peterson, NavPress, 1993.

[3] John 5:19

[4] Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr, Josey-Bass, 2011.

[5] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1994.

[6] Peterson’s other books in the trilogy on pastoral ministry were Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, and Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Ministry, then later, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.  All are essential reading for any pastor and Christian leader, as well as his recent pastoral memoire, The Pastor, (2011).