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.