It Needs to Get Inside of You: Eugene Peterson on the Spiritual Disciplines

peterson-square1One of my favorite authors is Eugene Peterson. Peterson is best known as the author behind the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. As a pastor, his works on pastoral ministry for our contemporary era, such as Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral IntegrityFive Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and Under the Unpredictable Plant, are unparalleled. In the midst of my ongoing exploration about spiritual practices for pursuing the deep life with God, I unexpectedly came across these reflections on the idea of spiritual disciplines that I wanted to share. This is taken from an interview with Image. Peterson gets it right here, I believe, because he cautions against over-ownership of our efforts in growth, even though he acknowledges the importance of spiritual practices in our transformation into Christlikeness.

Image: This may be an audacious question, but what spiritual disciplines do you observe?

Eugene Peterson: I read scripture slowly. I pray. I worship….

A caveat about the disciplines: I’m uneasy about the word discipline. It’s a useful word, which Richard Foster has brought back into the Protestant vocabulary. But in practice it often encourages people to take charge of their own spirituality. When you practice a discipline, you’re doing something. There’s not much relaxation. There’s not much letting go. Some people say to me, “You’re such a disciplined person.” I ran marathons for twenty years, but it wasn’t a discipline. I loved it. I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything. I have the same feeling about reading scripture, prayer, worship.

I was talking just this last week to a retired businessman. He led Bible studies for most of his life, but at some point he realized that he wasn’t getting it inside of him. He went to his pastor for advice, but his pastor couldn’t really help. So on his own, without any direction, he developed a system of lectio divina, almost exactly the way the books tell you how. He compiled huge notebooks of meditation and reflection on scripture. He told me he’d been doing this for ten years, that he’d wake up at five-thirty in the morning and he couldn’t wait to start. It wasn’t a discipline. It simply got inside of him.

Ten Ways Eugene Peterson Shaped My Pastoral Ministry

peterson-square1My first introduction to the work of Eugene Peterson was through one of my college roommates, who often read from Peterson’s paraphrase of Scripture, The Message. In his own idiosyncratic style, Peterson’s work with the words of Scripture helped me remember God’s word was a relational word to us here and now. Roughly five years later, one of my mentors, Dr. Lyle Dorsett, introduced me to Peterson’s works on pastoral ministry, often referred to as Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library. Those works helped me ponder pastoral ministry in a deeper way than I had before. Since that time, I have continued to read and interact with Peterson’s work in ways that have deeply shaped my approach to pastoral ministry.

When the family of Eugene Peterson announced that he passed away on Monday after entering into hospice care recently, I took time to reflect on how he shaped my own approach to vocation as a pastor. Although I never met him, Eugene Peterson significant impacted my life as a pastor. What I have tried to do below is share ten specific ways Eugene Peterson shaped my pastoral ministry.

  1. The Pastor works with the word. Both through his work on The Message and his approach to writing other books that I read Eugene Peterson taught me that pastoral ministry is primarily about working with the word of God. Looking through Peterson’s works, you will quickly realize that most of his efforts are direct treatments of books of the Bible, whether Jeremiah, the Psalms, or Ephesians. “Scripture is at hand for those who will use it, foundation stones upon which a better pastoral work can be constructed” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work 11).
  2. The Pastor is shaped by the word. Unfortunately, sometimes as we work with the word, we fail to let the word work on us. Peterson knew this, so he made it clear that the pastor must be shaped by the word personally and deeply. In his outstanding book, Eat This Book, Peterson outlines the simple yet profound truth that the we must not only read Scripture informationally but engage more deeply by “reading the Scripture formatively, reading in order to live” (xi).
  3. The Pastor prays. Of all the things that a pastor could be about, prayer seems essential. Still, it is the unfortunate testimony of too many pastors that prayer falls to the wayside in the midst of meetings, strategies, committees, and writing sermons. In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Peterson writes: “The inner action of prayer takes precedence over the outer action of proclamation. The implication of this for pastoral work is plain: it begins in prayer” (40).
  4. The Pastor preaches. In one of his last books, a collection of sermons entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Peterson reveals that early in his twenty-nine-year pastorate at Bel Air Presbyterian, he quickly realized that he did not know how to preach. Citing the influence of a lecture by Paul Tournier and a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Peterson writes: “I finally started to get it: preaching is the weekly verbal witness to this essential congruence of what Christ is with his work that ‘plays’ in us….Not ideas, not goals, not principles, nothing abstract or disembodied, but the good news of the ‘Word . . . made flesh’ (John 1:14)” (xix).
  5. The Pastor reads. One of my favorite books by Peterson, though perhaps not as well-known as others, is Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List. This book is Peterson’s personal annotated bibliography of recommended reading on topics from prayer to commentaries, poetry to history. You cannot read Peterson’s work without understanding he read widely, and it informed the way he approached ministry, understood the world, and interacted with people. Pastoral ministry is fueled by reading, but not just reading alone. It is fueled by thoughtful and well-chosen reading.
  6. The Pastor as spiritual director. Peterson was the first who helped me step outside of the realm of counseling to recover the lost art of spiritual direction for pastoral ministry. “Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” (Working the Angles 150). As a spiritual director, the pastor helps another person pay attention to the everyday areas of their life, listening for God’s word to them, with a discernment that derives “out of a life immersed in the pursuit of holiness” (160). The pastor is less concerned with helping someone find the answer they want, and is more concerned with helping them find the God they need.
  7. The pastor as poet. In one of his lesser known works, Holy Luck, Eugene Peterson assembles a small collection of his own poetry. These had leaked out in other works before, but it was a glimpse at the connection between poetic work with words and pastoral work with words. As he wrote elsewhere: “In subtle ways, being a pastor subjects our word to corruption. That is why it is important to frequent the company of a poet friend . . . a person who cares about words and is honest with them, who respects and honors their sheer overwhelming power” (The Contemplative Pastor 156). Like a good poet, pastors take care with their words.
  8. The pastor as theologian. I love the way Peterson describes his recommendation to read Calvin’s Institutes: “Spirituality includes the mind—the thinking mind, attempting to follow and respond to the mind of God as well as his heart. Calvin’s heart was on fire, but his mind was clear. This is some of the keenest theology ever written, but written, every word of it, by a pastor in the middle of a parish of rather unruly sinner-Christians” (Take and Read 5). The pastor must be a clear thinker to bring the heart and mind of God into the lives of everyday people in their unruly, workaday lives.
  9. The pastor whose imagination is on fire. In two different works, Reversed Thunder and The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson links together St. John’s visions in Revelation with the dynamics of pastoral ministry. “How can I avoid metamorphosis from the holy vocation of pastor into a promising career in religious sales? Here is a way: submit my imagination to St. John’s apocalypse—the crisis of the End combined with the urgencies of God—and let the energies of the apocalyptic define and shape me as a pastor” (The Contemplative Pastor 41-42). The pastor without an imagination is a pastor without creativity and likely one who cannot minister well to another. The pastor must let God split our heads open wide that we might see anew with apocalyptic eyes and hear the world with apocalyptic ears.
  10. The pastor who perseveres. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is still probably my favorite book by Eugene Peterson. Stealing his title from nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Peterson baptizes the reader into a pilgrim faith through the water of the Psalms of Ascent. “It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel,” he writes, “it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest” (16).

And so, the pilgrim pastor, who shepherded so many of us under-shepherds, has now passed through the valley of death’s shadow and entered into the green pastures and still waters found in our Heavenly Father’s presence. May God be so gracious as to help us pastors still here to sustain our own pilgrim faith until we join Eugene Peterson in the presence of God ourselves.

The Weekend Wanderer: 20 October 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

Oscar Romero“A ‘Voice For The Voiceless’: Sainthood For El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero” – This past Sunday, the Vatican elevated Archbishop Óscar Romero and Pope Paul VI to sainthood, along with five other “lesser-known” saints. “Known to his followers as Monseñor (Monsignor), Romero was a champion of human rights at a time when El Salvador was on the brink of civil war. His tireless fight for civil rights ranks him among figures like Martin Luther King Jr. His devout following filled San Salvador’s towering cathedral each Mass.”


peterson-square1“Eugene Peterson Enters Hospice Care” – Eugene Peterson has been one of the most significant influences upon my life as a pastor. His outstanding writing on the work of pastoral ministry, spiritual theology, and memoir of life in ministry have helped keep me on track as a pastor in the North American culture that tends to fashion church celebrities. Given all this, I was sad to hear this past week that Peterson entered hospice care as he nears the end of his earthly life. Christianity Today shares a wealth of the articles and resources that Peterson has written in the pages of their publications.


Image“The State of Theology: What Do People Really Believe in 2018?” – Ligonier Ministries partnered with LifeWay Research in their third biennial study on religious beliefs in the United States. “This year’s survey both confirmed previous findings and brought some unexpected results. Year after year, we are seeing the increasing grip of relativism on our culture and deep confusion among evangelicals. For example: 91 percent of evangelicals affirm that people are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, but 51 percent of evangelicals also believe that God accepts the worship of all religions. How can this be? What do Americans—and people in the pew—really believe?” [Thanks to Jim Bohn for sharing this link.]


_103887398_kievworshipgetty14oct“Orthodox Church split: Five reasons why it matters” – “The Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with the Church leadership in Istanbul, the Constantinople Patriarchate traditionally regarded as the Orthodox faith’s headquarters. The Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church has at least 150 million followers – more than half the total of Orthodox Christians. The dispute centres on Constantinople’s decision last week to recognise the independence of Ukrainian Orthodox worshippers. Just another arcane theological dispute, you might think. Well, there is more to it than that.”


Walker Percy“Walker Percy: The Hopeful Dystopian” – Walker Percy is one of my favorite novelists, because his work opens up the unique insanities of culture, the depravity of humanity, and the unexpected places that hope rises up. All that being said, Percy’s work is not for the faint of heart.  Daniel Ritchie reviews Brian A Smith’s Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer (a steeply-priced book published by an academic press) for Christianity Today, and gives the reader some helpful insights both into Percy in general and the value of Smith’s book.


Smith-headshot-243x300-circleIn other news at the junction of Christianity and the arts, Image magazine announced James K. A. Smith as their new editor in chief. This is welcome news, as Jamie is an amazing thinker and writer on issues of faith and culture. I look forward to the leadership he will bring in pulling together an editorial team for this important journal on faith, art, and mystery.


U“Floating pipe set to start massive ocean cleanup process” – “A 2,000 foot-long floating pipe nicknamed Wilson is about to start its mission to collect all the plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Last month, the Ocean Cleanup foundation launched the world’s first ocean cleanup system out of San Francisco to take on the notorious “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a giant floating trash pile between San Francisco and Hawaii that is twice the size of Texas. It’s the largest of five ocean trash piles on Earth.”


1380“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world” – This latest article from Harriet Griffey in The Guardian is just the latest in a stream of conversation around the destruction of our ability to concentrate in a distracted, digital world. “This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate.” I am currently working on a series of messages for a retreat with students in the winter connecting this theme with the plea for “an undivided heart” found in Psalm 86:11.


Reader Come Home.jpg“What we lose by reading 100,000 words every day” – Jennifer Howard reviews Maryanne Wolf’s new book, Reader, Come Home. “Wolf wants to understand what’s happening to our reading brains at this historic juncture between the old ways and the new. A lifelong book lover who turned her fascination with reading into a career as a cognitive neuroscientist, she continues to explore how humans learned to do such an astonishing thing as read in the first place….While neuroplasticity allowed humans to develop our ‘deep-reading circuit,’ she explains, it also makes us vulnerable to constant streams of digital input. Clutching cellphones, scrolling through Instagram feeds, browsing websites all day, ‘we inhabit a world of distraction,’ she writes.” [Thanks to David Taylor for sharing this article.]


winners-to-be-announced-668x1024Book Awards – And since we are on the topic of books, at the end of last week the finalists for the National Book Award were announced. You can access the entire list here with the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, as well as a new category of translated literature. The winner will be announced on November 14. The winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction, whose short list I shared in September, was also announced this past week with Anna Burns taking home the prize for her third full-length novel, Milkman.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Listening in order to Speak

Eugene Peterson is the pastor-preacher-professor who translated the Bible into the highly popular paraphrase, The Message. One of the most striking aspects of The Message is how Peterson used everyday language in it. The ‘everyday’-ness of the wording is sometimes strange because we are used to using one set of words for our religious life and another set of words for our ‘secular’ life.

You can see this most clearly in pastors who teach up front. It does not take long for a preacher to completely disconnect from his listeners through word choice and a lofty vocal inflection that is completely foreign to the vocabulary and conversation of our daily lives. At times, this only heightens the sense that God is irrelevant to our ordinary lives.

Eugene Peterson has something powerful to say about that. As communicators of God’s message, we must ‘enter into the conversation’ of people’s everyday lives. Speaking of how his preaching led him to the idea of The Message, he says: “I’d been listening to Scripture all my, but I hadn’t been listening to people….so I started listening to them; entering into their conversation…their world.”

Whether you use the word ‘relevance’ or not, we cannot communicate the message of God without two-way listening. We must listen to God in Scripture. We must take the time necessary to faithfully ‘hear’ what God is speaking as we study, dig into the original languages, consult commentators, and mull over the Scripture text.

But we also must not fail to listen to those we will speak to. We must also take time to hear what they are speaking as we engage with their real lives, struggles, joys, relationships, and more.

We must listen in order to speak.

Take a look at this brief video about preaching and how pastors need to “enter the conversation” with the people around them in everyday life.

Bono and Eugene Peterson

It’s no secret to anyone that I love U2 and that I love reading the works of Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message. Some folks may know that on recent U2 tours when Bono quotes from Scripture he has generally quoted from The Message paraphrase. In fact, at a celebration of the completion of The Message in 2002, Bono videoed in some words of appreciation to Peterson:

Hi Mr. Peterson, Eugene. My name is Bono. I’m a singer with the group U2. I wanted to sort of video message you my thanks, and our thanks in the band, for this remarkable work you’ve done translating the Scriptures. Really, really a remarkable work. As a songwriter, it was very clear to me that you were a poet as well as a scholar. You brought the musicality to God’s Word that I’m sure was there, was always there in intention. There have been some great translations, some very literary translations, but no translations that I’ve read that speaks to me in my own language. So I want to thank you for that. And it’s been ten years, that’s a long time, so take a rest now, won’t you? Bye.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting article in which Eugene Peterson is interviewed about U2 and their stance as a prophetic voice in the world today. For instance, when asked what he would say in response to Bono’s words about The Message, Peterson says:

“Thank you for preaching to all the people who will never listen to me or read anything that I write! And for doing it with such integrity.” I think that’s what I feel, I just feel grateful to them for being obedient to the gifts that God has given them.

Take a read, if you have an interest in this sort of thing.