Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Message Bible, recently passed away at the age of 85. He was a very significant influence in shaping my understanding of the calling to be a parish pastor. I discovered Peterson in the mid–80’s when I was shaking off stereo types of being a Lutheran pastor as being primarily concerned with doctrine and practice, while forgetting soul care. In those days soulfulness was thought of as being too narrow, emotionally charged and focused on navel-gazing. I learned from Peterson that the role of pastor was simply “practicing the presence of Jesus” among the people. That concept was liberating in my ministry. I determined from that time on to be a simple, loving follower of Jesus.
While being aware of my own soul life, as a feeling, intuitive guy, I had difficulty justifying my awareness in a tradition that put the priority on “head knowledge” verse the compliment of “heart knowledge.” In my first 10 years of ministry I felt misunderstood and not able to conform to the institutional norm for pastors. Inner transformation and character formation were concepts that I had not heard of in my pastoral and theological training. Peterson was the first contemporary protestant pastor who gave me the framework and the words to see the pastor as a “spiritual director” and the ministry of “soul care” as the primarily concern of a pastor.
I can’t express how much I owe Peterson. He showed me that the pastoral vocation was a call to be personal. It meant being a good listener; having concern to the inner life of others. Preaching was visualizing persons with hungry souls, not simply a listening audience. It meant loving people and not using them. The pastor was to be a person of prayer and devotion. It was out of his own personal relationship with God that he was able to shepherd his flock. Peterson maintained that our core identity, “comes out as persons-in-relationship.” “‘Soul’ is our word for this,” observes Peterson. “It is the most personal term we have for who we are. The term ‘soul’ is an assertion of wholeness, the totality of what it means to be a human being.”
I never forgot his response when asked why he enjoyed being a pastor of a local congregation. He said, “I like to mess.” This was liberating for me when times got difficult and when I felt spiritually dry. He helped me to see that in the midst of brokenness of the people of God, the Spirit of Jesus was present bring forth life. Jesus was holding all things together.
Col 1:16-17 in the Message says this so well. “We look at his Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank of angels – everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and hold it all together right up to this moment.”
For me at this moment in my journey, my wife and I happen to be looking for a new church home. We left our lake home and are living in a senior apartment complex in Brainerd, Mn. We are now seeking a place where we sense God is present, doing his hidden work of bringing life to folks we desire to follow him. We long to see God at work in “the mess.” We know God will bring us to a church in which we will see the hidden work of Jesus bringing all things together through the work of his Spirit.