Eugene Peterson Chronicles Memories In 'Pastor'

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The Pastor

Eugene Peterson, the author of more than 30 books, including the best-seller The Message, is a poet, professor, scholar and pastor. But it's that last role that has defined and shaped his life in unimaginable ways, and it's the focus of his new book, The Pastor.

The book's subtitle is "Every step an arrival," and Peterson tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz the words are from a poem by Denise Levertov where she is talking about her vocation.

"She has a wonderful line in there about her dog going intently, haphazard from fire hydrant to bush to tree," Peterson says. "He knows where he's going. He couldn't articulate to you, but he knows he's got a nose for what he wants to do.

"When I read those lines, I though that's what I've been doing all my life. I never knew where I was headed and at some point I realized it was pastor."

In the book, Peterson described his introduction to congregations as a young apprentice working in his father's butcher shop in Montana. He recalls how his mother made him a white apron, just like his father's.

The Pastor
By Eugene Peterson
Hardcover, 336 pages
HarperOne
List Price: $25.99

Read An Excerpt

"I always thought of myself as Samuel wearing a priestly robe and my dad was a ... priestly kind of person," he says. "Everybody who came in that place was greeted by their first name. It was holy work for him."

Peterson says his father's demeanor made a great impression on him. He would treat prostitutes who came into his shop the same way he did everybody else: with respect.

"The brothel was just about two streets down from our shop. And there was always talk on the street about the whores," he says. "But when they came into our store, people knew their first name, they treated them with dignity.

"They were in a safe place. Later, that translated for me into a congregation. When you come into a sanctuary, it's a safe place."

Eugene H. Peterson is the author of more than 30 books, including The Message, a translation of the Bible into everyday vernacular. i

Eugene H. Peterson is the author of more than 30 books, including The Message, a translation of the Bible into everyday vernacular. HarperOne hide caption

itoggle caption HarperOne
Eugene H. Peterson is the author of more than 30 books, including The Message, a translation of the Bible into everyday vernacular.

Eugene H. Peterson is the author of more than 30 books, including The Message, a translation of the Bible into everyday vernacular.

HarperOne

Peterson, now 78, became famous with his book The Message, his translation of the Bible into modern language. The book has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and has been name-dropped by mega-pastors such as Rick Warren and even rock stars like Bono.

Peterson says he didn't set out to write his own version of the Bible. He was comfortable with biblical languages and had taught them in the seminary for three years. And he translated Galatians for his congregation. He recalls his efforts as "playful things for me."

"An editor called me up once and said, 'I've been reading Galatians for three years and I'm getting really tired of Galatians. And why don't you do the New Testament?'" Peterson tells Raz.

At first, he says, it was bad.

"But then I suddenly came to realize that I'm a pastor. This is a pastor's translation. I'm going to translate this the way I talk to my congregation. And when I really realized that: instead of trying to be a professor in the classroom, it became very easy. It just flowed."

Excerpt: 'The Pastor'

The Pastor
The Pastor
By Eugene Peterson
Hardcover, 336 pages
HarperOne
List Price: $25.99

"Pastor Pete! Pastor Pete! It's Pastor Pete!" The chorus of exclamations came from the mouths of half a dozen children, their faces pressed to the glass of our living room window. These voices — excited and clamorous — entered my gut with a feeling of poignant loss. I knew that I would never hear myself addressed that way again — "Pastor."

Jan and I had left our Maryland congregation a year previous to the children's chorus and had returned for a few days to complete arrangements to sell our house and move our belongings to another city across the continent. There I would be addressed as "Professor." Together we had been pastor to this congregation for nearly thirty years. We had said our goodbyes, many of them heart-wrenching. We didn't think we could handle any more emotion. Nobody knew we were back. We were trying to get in and out of town as inconspicuously as possible.

But we were discovered by the children. They were out trick-or-treating while we were at work in our living room getting ready for the arrival of the moving van in the morning. We had forgotten it was Halloween and had left our drapes open as we made our preparations. Masked and costumed, their noses pressed against the glass, they were unrecognizable as the children I had baptized, children of parents I had married, children whose grandparents I had buried over a span of three decades. But they recognized me: Pastor...Pastor Pete.

+++

I have no idea who started it, but many years before some of the young people in the congregation had begun calling me Pastor Pete. The usage soon filtered down to the children. Nobody had ever called me Pastor before. But as the years went on I became accustomed to it and found that I rather liked it. Pastor.

Ours was an informal congregation, and except for the children and youth most of the people in it were older than I and addressed me by my given name, Eugene. Which was just fine by me. Somewhere along the way while growing up I developed a rather severe case of anti-clericalism. I had little liking for professionalism in matters of religion. If I detected even a whiff of pomposity, I walked away. But "Pastor," unlike "Reverend" or "Doctor" or "Minister," especially when used by the youth and children, wasn't tainted with professionalism, at least to my ear,. Pastor sounded more relational than functional, more affectionate than authoritarian.

+++

This book is the story of my formation as a pastor, and how the vocation of pastor formed me. I had never planned to be a pastor, never was aware of any inclination to be a pastor, never "knew what I was going to be when I grew up." And then—at the time it seemed to arrive abruptly—there it was: Pastor.

I can't imagine now not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor; I just never had a name for it. Once the name arrived, all kinds of things, seemingly random experiences and memories, gradually began to take a form that was congruent with who I was becoming, like finding a glove that fit my hand perfectly — a calling, a fusion of all the pieces of my life, a vocation: Pastor.

But it took a while.

I grew up in a Christian family and embraced the way of Jesus at an early age. "Christian" was a term that seemed as natural to me as my own name. Pastors were part of the landscape but never a significant part of it. In the small-town Montana world in which I was reared they always seemed marginal to the actual business of living. The one pastor I respected in my growing up years arrived too late to overcome the accumulation of indifference that in effect placed pastors on the margins of my life. I didn't take them seriously.

I took Scripture seriously. I took Jesus seriously. I took church seriously. I took prayer seriously. But not pastors. For the most part pastors seemed tangential to all that. In our congregation we had preachers and reverends, brothers and sisters, deeper-life teachers and evangelists, missionaries and revivalists and faith healers. But no "pastors. " By the time I entered adolescence, putting together fragments of overheard conversations among the adults, I concluded that they basically came to kill elk with their Winchester 30.06 rifles and catch rainbow trout on dry flies. They came and went regularly from our church. Two years was the usual tenure — three at most. They arrived and left like migrating geese. Some headed north to Canada in the spring where the conditions for breeding were congenial, others south to Mexico in the fall for the winter warmth solace of sun and sand. Nearly everything of what they talked, preached, and taught had happened someplace else. And it was always glamorous — remarkable miracles and visions. And conversions. As an adolescent I envied the people who could tell stories of their dramatic conversions from lives of drink and drugs and assorted debaucheries. They were so much more interesting. I grew up in a church culture that made an art form of Damascus Road stories. Whenever I heard the stories — and I heard them frequently — I felt so ordinary, so left out. But that didn't last long. After a while all the stories started sounding alike and took on a patina of banality.

They were good storytellers and accomplished publicists for the gospel. But they weren't pastors. Mostly I liked them. But I never respected them. Outside of the morning our family spent with them each Sunday, none — there was one significant exception — seemed particularly interested in God. And I was beginning to get interested in God. It never occurred to me to become a pastor.

As my world widened, nothing that I observed and experienced in pastors caused me to rethink my adolescent assessment. If anything, it confirmed it: being a pastor is not serious work. Within congregations the work of pastor seemed like a grab bag of religious miscellany. Among outsiders the general attitude I picked up on was, at best, condescension, at worst, outright disrepute.

Later as a young adult, still attending church most Sundays, I found my way into a more congenial, at least to me, church culture. It wasn't as emotionally interesting as the one I had grown up in. I missed the melodrama. There was considerably less spontaneity and a much deeper sense of responsibility. Instead of emotional pleas for special offerings, supported by desperate stories of suffering and need, they had carefully prepared budgets to which people pledged their annual support. Spontaneity was elbowed to the sidelines by responsibility. The men and women in these pulpits were called doctor, head of staff, and minister. There was considerably less vagrancy. But still nothing that I would later identify as pastor.

I came across a poem by Denise Levertov in which she uses the phrase "every step an arrival. " She was giving an account of her development as a poet. I recognized in her phrase a metaphor for my own formation as a pastor: every step along the way — becoming the pastor I didn't know I was becoming and the person I now am, an essential component that was silently and slowly being integrated into a coherent life and vocation — an arrival.

Excerpted from The Pastor: A Memoir. Copyright 2011 by Eugene H. Peterson. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a Division of HarperCollins Publishers.

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