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.

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