With the possible exceptions of certain rock musicians who are very popular now in up-beat worship services, it’s difficult to think of a single person who has had a greater impact in American worship over the past 20 years than Eugene H. Peterson—the man who gave us The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. It’s true that, today, there are dozens of English translations of the Bible, each one claiming it’s more accurate or easier to understand than the others. Peterson doesn’t make either claim—well not exactly. His Message serves a somewhat different purpose. As both a scholar of ancient languages and a long-time pastor, Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible is designed to convey the original force, the raw emotion, the shock, the drama, the beauty and the earthy humor when these texts first were heard thousands of years ago.
Peterson’s masterwork, The Message, sprang directly from a pastor’s immediate response to men and women in his congregation. When they were wrestling with gut-wrenching situations in their lives, Peterson wanted them to grapple with the original power of these sacred texts to meet those tough but common experiences of human life. He was so good at writing these paraphrases that word spread—and he eventually retired from his role as a pastor to complete the entire Bible.
Now, Peterson has stepped back with his entire paraphrase of the Bible complete—and is telling us the background story of how a pastor met needs in his local community in a way that wound up changing the world. His new book is called simply The Pastor: A Memoir—and it’s an eye-opener for anyone who cares about the future of congregations! THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is honored to welcome Eugene Peterson for our weekly interview—coming on Wednesday.
TODAY, we’re sharing a brief excerpt of The Pastor: A Memoir, which you can order from Amazon.
EXCERPT OF “THE PASTOR: A MEMOIR”
NEW FROM EUGENE H. PETERSON
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. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistent. We are a generation that feels as if it is having to start out from scratch to figure out a way to represent and nurture this richly nuanced and all-involving life of Christ in a country that “knew not Joseph.”
I love being an American. I love this place in which I have been placed—its language, its history its energy. But I don’t love “the American way,” its culture and values. I don’t love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed. I don’t love the dehumanizing ways that turn men, women and children into impersonal roles and causes and statistics. I don’t love the competitive spirit that treats others as rivals and even as enemies. The cultural conditions in which I am immersed require, at least for me, a kind of fierce vigilance to guard my vocation from those cultural pollutants so dangerously toxic to persons who want to follow Jesus in the way that he is Jesus. I wanted my life, both my personal and working life, to be shaped by God and the scriptures and prayer.
In the process of realizing my vocational identity as pastor, I couldn’t help observing that there was a great deal of confusion and dissatisfaction all around me with pastoral identity. Many pastors, disappointed or disillusioned with their congregations, defect after a few years and find more congenial work. And many congregations, disappointed or disillusioned with their pastors, dismiss them and look for pastors more to their liking. In the 50 years that I have lived the vocation of pastor, these defections and dismissals have reached epidemic proportions in every branch and form of the church.
I wonder if at the root of the defection is a cultural assumption that all leaders are people who “get things done,” and “make things happen.” That is certainly true of the primary leadership models that seep into our awareness form the culture—politicians, businessmen, advertisers, publicists, celebrities and athletes. But while being a pastor certainly has some of those components, the pervasive element in our 2,000-year pastoral tradition is not someone who “gets things done” but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to “what is going on right now” between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful “without ceasing.”
I want to give witness to this way of understanding pastor, a way that can’t be measured or counted, and often isn’t even noticed. I didn’t notice for a long time. I would like to provide dignity to this essentially modest and often obscure way of life in the kingdom of God. Along the way, I want to insist that there is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in an actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives—these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful.
COME BACK WEDNESDAY, when Peterson talks about these provocative ideas—and shares some valuable insights for anyone who cares about healthy congregations.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)