Monday, September 29, 2014

Flies and a Side of Fries with Eugene Peterson - My Sabbath Week

The Tamarck Brewery was abuzz. Chatty patrons filled the dining room. The clatter of plates and forks and pints of beer resounded. Nineties music blared from the speakers. A hungry band of flies wandered from table to table seeking whom they might devour. Several swirled around Eugene Peterson's brow. He attracted more flies than the ordinary man.

Tamarack Brewery at Night

Eugene had chosen a table in the far corner of the restaurant. We may have sat outside, but the rain prevented us. As we looked through the menu, Micah informed Eugene he need not worry about covering the bill.

"This is not usually what happens," Eugene demurred. "Traditionally people come out to visit me and talk about how difficult ministry is. Then I buy them lunch."

"I hope you don't mind if we break tradition," I said. Eugene smiled.

Again, that lucky feeling swept over me. Not only was I about to break bread with one of my favorite authors, but his comment reassured me I was in the right vocation. To love pastoral ministry is a gift. To lead a church that inspires me rather than depletes me is a lucky aberration.

But my luck was about to change. Toward the end of our meal, I asked one bad question, and Eugene Peterson chided me. I was stunned. Silent. Convinced that Eugene Peterson preferred Micah's company to mine. (Surely the humble carpenter reminded him more of Jesus than the haughty clergyman.)

The waitress returned, and we placed our orders. Eugene requested a bowl of split pea soup and draft of Hat Trick IPA. "The drinks are named after hockey terms," Eugene said. We had to tell him what a hat trick was.

I ordered a turkey sandwich and Yard Sale Amber. None of us knew the connection between yard sales and hockey. Micah ordered a burger with seasoned fries. His gluten-free diet prohibited him from ordering a beer. It also kept him from the fries. Eugene and I helped ourselves.

The conversation returned to ministry burnout and the growing number of pastors leading large, high-octane churches whose ministries come to a crashing finale. Eugene did not cite moral failure as the common factor, but the restless pace and programming of the mega-church. At these venues,  Sunday mornings do not slowly advance in the same direction. They escalate. More emphatic sermon series, more emotive songs, more audacious outreach ministries -- higher and bolder churches become. Eventually, pastoral leaders fall off the cliff. People in the congregation are not far behind. The interior life of too many pastors, Eugene lamented, is vaporous.

Later in our conversation, we talked about ambition and fame. I explained an epiphany about my writing life. The pressure I used to place on myself to write regularly and with intentions to publish had created unnecessary guilt. Sermon preparation, lesson planning, lunch meetings, and church gatherings took the better part of my week, but I always felt like I should carve out time to write. Wake up early and write. Go to bed late because I wrote. Skip lunch to write. But I could never sustain the plan.

However, if I viewed the next ten to twenty years as a developmental stage, I was sure to have rich resources. Biblical study and insight, personal anecdotes and experiences, and countless interactions with God's people would abound. I would have plenty to draw from and expand upon in book form. Better yet, the plan was guilt-free and sustainable.

Eugene Peterson's writing career had followed a similar path. His books flowed from his pastoral opportunities and insights. His titles about pastoral leadership came out of years of conversations with other pastors. His series on spiritual theology addressed the questions and concerns he gathered from students, colleagues, and congregants. His poetry came from years of walking in the woods.

Micah asked Eugene about fame. "Are you well-known around here?"

Eugene glanced around the restaurant and said, "Nobody here knows me."

"Is that difficult?" I asked.

By way of analogy, he told us no. What cured him of his need to be known was a walking tour of Galilee. He bypassed the larger towns -- those stamped with Roman wealth -- and camped out in Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. These less populated cities marked Jesus' primary place of ministry. The Christ who "became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, the Message) was more obscure than we give him credit for. Obscurity was no concern for Eugene Peterson.
Our conversation continued to roll through lunch. And then I asked my fated question. "Perhaps this is a bad question, but would you consider yourself more of a 'This-is-the-day-that-the-Lord-has-made' or 'Come-Lord-Jesus' kind of Christian."
With no hesitation, Eugene replied, "This is the day."

The question was not too bad, but neither was it good. His quick and certain response provoked me to ask another. It was the next question that undid my luck.

"Do you think most Christians are of the 'Come-Lord-Jesus' kind?"

This time Eugene did hesitate. He pressed his lips together, concealing his smile in a serious gaze. After a long pause, he said, "I prefer not use stereotypes; I don't find them helpful."

I could feel my face get hot. I was rattled.

He continued, "I'm often surprised by the spiritual depth that people show. I find that most people wrestle with God and the real issues of life."

He said no more. Nor did I. Eugene Peterson had just chided me, and I was not sure why. Perhaps I had come across arrogant. Perhaps I had tried to create a special category of super saints, in which Eugene Peterson and I could co-reign.  Perhaps this was a demon he had fought for decades. Perhaps I had touched on a fear he had about other people, and after fifty years of pastoral ministry was afraid to admit defeat. Perhaps it was just a bad question.

At that moment, I was relieved to have my buddy Micah with me. I reached for one of his fries. I waited for him to resurrect our dialogue. He let me pick at his plate and regain my composure. I heard Runaway Train playing in the background; I wanted to board. I counted flies around Eugene Peterson's head; I noticed the glow was gone. Perhaps it was never there.

I eventually returned to the conversation. I don't remember much toward the end. As promised, Micah paid the bill. As promised, Eugene gifted us each a book of poetry and a copy of The Message for my aunts.

We parted in the parking lot. Eugene headed south; Micah and I turned toward the mountains. We had some climbing to do. And I was longing for a mountaintop experience.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Lucky Conversation with Eugene Peterson - My Sabbath Week

Our time at the Eugene Peterson's home was remarkably ordinary. We talked and laughed and smiled and answered questions. There were pauses and tangents and stories of note. At one point I asked permission to use the restroom. At another point Gene slipped away to discuss something with his wife Jan. But for the better part of an hour and a half, we enjoyed a conversation. Micah and I were lucky strangers in Eugene Peterson's humble home.

He had helped build the modest house with his father. It had walls and windows, family photos and handmade furniture, Christian books and artwork, a fireplace, a sofa, and several chairs. Silver and gold were not on display. He lived simply, quelling my fear that the man behind The Message, The Jesus Way, and The Pastor might dwell like a king.

We exchanged greetings at the door. I told him my name and shook his hand. Micah followed suit. Then our host welcomed us inside. I watched his feet shuffle as he ushered us into the living room. I listened to his voice crackle as he talked. He appeared fragile. The years had been kind to the eighty-two year old pastor/author, but even kindness has a mortality rate.

"You'll have to remind me. Where are you from?" he asked after we took our seats.

"We're from Indiana," we said.

"I don't know anyone from Indiana," Eugene said, smiling as if he had discovered treasure. The glow from the window behind him created a halo around his head.

I felt the stakes rise. Not only did I want Saint Eugene to like me, but I also wanted him to remember me as the God's ambassador from Indiana.

"What brings you to see me?" he asked.

I replayed the story of my wife's birthday gift, my love for his writing, my appreciation for his view of God's word and our world, and my shared frustration with pop evangelicalism. "Your respect for people, and love for story and language - each of these emphases resonate with me in my pastoral ministry."

"Well, I thought we could sit here for an hour or so and get acquainted. Then we can continue our conversation over lunch at the Tamarack Brewery."

Micah and I consented to the plan. We began to share about our lives: family, career, faith. Eugene gave us a brief biography, spanning from doctoral studies to church planting to scholar-in-residence to academia to translation of The Message and various other writing projects. His latest work was a book of poetry entitled Holy Luck.

The word lucky played a special part in Peterson's career. When he first endeavored to translate the whole New Testament into common English, he began with Matthew. (He had already paraphrased Galatians for his church, which provoked a publisher to inquire about the rest of the Bible.)

"The first four chapters of Matthew were wooden, difficult. I hadn't found my voice. I was ready to quit," he recounted. "One Sunday I was at church and a woman who was new to church life came up to me and said, 'I feel so lucky that I get to be here.' She said the same thing week after week. 'I feel so lucky. I feel so lucky.' Then I knew I could translate the Sermon on the Mount. I went to my basement and started on the beatitudes. I wrote, 'Lucky are the...'"

Although the editor discouraged the translation (for luck was the devil's business, God dealt in certainties), Eugene had found his voice in simple exclamation of a woman in his congregation.

I told Eugene that I felt lucky. "I love my church. I love the people. I love to preach and teach God's word. I hope to be there for a long time. I feel so lucky." Micah shared the sentiment. He loved working in beautiful homes, putting up fine trim. He loved his wife and kids and neighborhood. We were two lucky friends.

Eugene shook his head. "I can't tell you how encouraging it is to hear that you both like your jobs and your place in life. The majority of people who come to see me are depressed, burned out, or looking for an escape."

"How often do people come to see you?" I asked.

"Two or three times a week. Some come for a short visit like you. Some stay over night."

The statistics of pastoral burnout have always surprised me. Across the country, churches close daily. Pastors quit, get fired, or transfer to churches where they suppose a fresh start will revive their spirits. Most of Eugene Peterson's conversations take place with unlucky pastors. I simultaneously felt burdened and blessed.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Gay Old Time - My Sabbath Week

I had a gay old time traversing the country with my pal Micah - the two of us tucked away neatly in a blue Prius. We drove with smiles plastered to our faces, giddy for the gas mileage, unfettered from the worries of daily life.

However, there was one worry that continued to crop up at many a fuel stop, camp site, and scenic detour: I feared people took us for a gay couple. Two guys grinning in a Prius is all the evidence our world needs to presume homosexuality. It didn't help our case that I packed my sleeping bag in a pink, Disney princess sack.
The modern age has trained us to think gay. Television series and episodes cannot seem to air without a gay character, couple, or plot line. Celebrities and athletes boost their endorsements by confessing their homosexual orientation. Gay marriage has gained traction nationally. The marketing strategy of the LGBT has been so effective, many teenagers today wrestle with their own sexual identity. While decades ago teens simply struggled to understand their raging hormones, they now must filter their sexual impulses through what appears to be three possibilities: straight, gay, bisexual.

It's no secret that sex sells in our culture. We are sexual beings. But the menu for sexuality has changed dramatically in recent decades. Homosexuality used to show up as a seasonal dish; now it's a main course.

Micah and I joked about how people might perceive us. I made an effort when talking to strangers to mention our wives and kids. Micah restrained himself from holding my hand. We only posed together for two pictures. We only shared a bed once and not in the Honeymoon Sweet at the Overlook Bed and Breakfast. There were ordered separate mattresses and ignored the sign telling us to bathe with a friend.

Ironically, one of the richest parts of our gay old time was a visit with my aunt and her partner in Big Fork, Montana. We stayed with Aunt Ann and Melissa the night before our meeting with Eugene Peterson. I informed Micah of their living arrangements. While their lesbian lifestyle was never mentioned aloud during my upbringing, it was no secret that Aunt Ann and Melissa were a couple. In my conservative family, they were described as "special friends."

The town of Big Fork is situated on the north eastern corner of Flathead Lake. The area is flamboyantly conservative: Tea Party representatives, Ten Commandments signs, and independent evangelical churches abound.  My gay aunt and her partner routinely drive past religious billboards and icons, confronted on every street corner by pop evangelicalism. They've grown convinced that Christians in their area are insecure, but they only know them from a distance.

Micah and I talked with my Aunt Ann and Melissa over dinner. They asked about Eugene Peterson. They had Googled him, but were more interested in my intrigue with the man. I praised his writing, his ability to draw connections from the biblical world to ours, and his opus: The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language.

"Eugene did not want people to view the Bible as if God spoke in exalted, spiritual language," I explained. "The Message shows God speaks to the common person in a common tongue."

We continued to discuss spiritual matters with my aunts (as I came to call them, my love for them as people outgrowing my dislike for homosexuality as a practice). We defined what a Christian is, and Ten Commandment billboards did not make the essentials list. Rather, Jesus is central: His forgiveness, sacrifice, resurrection, and invitation to follow Him. "I mess up all the time," Micah said, admitting his orientation toward sin and failure. "But I know God forgives me and accepts me because of Jesus."

We discussed the true meaning of "born again," pointing to Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). I stressed the need for God's intervention in our lives; self-help projects do not merit eternal life. Nor do certain labels for certain types of Christians. 
And we listened to criticisms about hypocrisy in the church. My aunt told us her departure from Methodism came after realizing the people attended for social purposes, not spiritual ones.

The conversation ensued the following day. My aunt asked if I thought there were any gay people in my church. "I've only known of one in seven years," I said. "But I would not be surprised if others struggled with homosexual tendencies."

"Would we be accepted in your church?" she asked.

"Probably not," I replied. "As a church we do not believe homosexuality is God's design or desire. We don't bring it up all the time, but you would probably feel that belief at our church."

It grieved me to tell my aunt the truth, but I had no choice. She asked me to speak for my church, and I did. Sadly, the line between loving people and endorsing a practice gets fuzzier at the institutional level. I would invite my aunts to a family dinner without reservation. However, I could not reserve them a seat at my church's Love Feast. Some aspects of life remain exclusive.

I made sure to tell my aunt that when issues like this become personal, folks tend to show love. Individuals are better at showing love than institutions. Churches are institutions. Christians are people.

As a Christian, I hope I showed my aunt love. Both of them. I think I did.

I believe Micah did, too.

Even Eugene Peterson, the consummate pastor, reached out to my aunts. He inscribed two copies of The Message, one for each of them. He handed me the books and said, "Tell them I wrote The Message for people like them." The cast of "common people" comprises gay and straight, male and female, Jew and Gentile, sinner and saint.

My Aunt Ann and Melissa received Eugene's gift with gratitude. I pray they will receive God's gift of grace in time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leaving Traces on the Long Road Ahead - My Sabbath Week

My friend Micah had never been out West. His family traveled often when he was a kid, but Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park never made it on their itinerary. When Micah agreed to drive across the country to meet Eugene Peterson with me, he hoped to see these points of interest on the Long Road Ahead.

We had sights to see. We had selfies to take.

The trip commenced after our Sunday morning service ended. Our wives and children were the last to clear out of the church building. We exchanged hugs, kisses, and farewell prayers. Then we rode.

The line from Leesburg, Indiana to Mt. Rushmore comprises nearly sixteen hours of driving. We stopped overnight in the town of Mitchell, South Dakota, made famous by the notorious Thunderbird Inn. It was the only hotel in the area shouting Vacancy in neon lights. There was a reason. The beds were concave, likely hollowed out by bugs. The air reeked of disinfectant, suppressing the trace of urine coming from the carpet.

The next day, Micah and I arrived at Mt. Rushmore close to lunch time. We posed for a few shots, trying to align our faces with George and Company. Micah's image became an instant success on Facebook. He made it his new profile picture, soliciting likes and comments from his virtual friends and biological family.
Micah Nightingale

My picture featured a Grace in the Burg tee-shirt: I wanted to leave traces of my church at a second major landmark in less than sixty days. In July I attended the FellowShift Conference in Washington D.C. and stood in front of the White House for a candid moment. Having my church represented at the White House inspired me to take my church to other notable places. (In fact, I challenged people from our body to take pictures wearing their Grace in the Burg shirts all across America. I think I recently saw an image from a congregant at Wal-Mart in Warsaw (IN), which is not exactly what I had in mind.)

After we finished capturing the moment, Micah and I sat on a bench and made lunch.  We ate turkey sandwiches beneath the watchful eyes of dead presidents and constant clicks of cell phone cameras.
And I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the human impulse to freeze time. We enlarge our history in stone monuments. We compress our past in digital photographs. We all long to leave a trace.

Throughout the remainder of the Long Road Ahead, Micah and I stuffed our phones with video footage and still images. We recorded bison ambling through Yellowstone, waterfalls rushing to the river below, high mountains peaking through stratus clouds, campfires blazing at twilight, and friends enjoying God's expansive creation, even if it made their joints ache and muscles sore.

There was only one part of the trip I did not exploit with my camera. There is no photographic trace of my conversation with Eugene Peterson. Some moments should not be interrupted for a pose.

Part Two of Five in My Sabbath Week

Monday, September 8, 2014

Eugene Peterson or Bust - My Sabbath Week

My wife gave me the perfect birthday gift. Earlier in the year, she noticed my vital signs were languishing. A few families had left our church. I had stopped delegating and began to organize, execute, and run too many programs by myself. And a sermon series in the book of Hebrews dragged me into a world of rich, canonical observations that did not translate into rich, transformative applications.

Meanwhile, every ministerial meeting I attended with fellow pastors centered on big church programs made bigger by making passive men into godly leaders. All the churches around me were getting more spiritually lean by means of push-ups, Proverbs, and pornography purges. The slow and humble task of shepherding people seemed lost in the ruckus of chest bumps and self-help rallies.

My wife noticed my struggle to keep pace with the losses in our church and gains in other bodies. So she wrote a letter. Her addressee was Euguene Peterson, author of The Message and numerous books on spiritual formation and pastoral ministry. She asked if I could visit him. But if a face-to-face coversation were impossible, she requested a handwritten birthday greeting.

Eugene Peterson sent me a card. He wished me a birthday blessing a month in advance of the actual date. He spoiled the surprise, but redeemed himself by inviting me to Montana. "We should have a conversation about our shared vocation in pastoral ministry." 

Weeks later, I contacted him to make traveling plans. The first week of September, I was invited to his residence. My friend Micah would join me for the journey, a Sabbath week to drive across the country, hike across some mountains, and hold counsel with a seasoned Christian pilgrim whose writings had shaped my pastoral imagination.

Eugene Peterson or Bust. I was ecstatic.