Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Pastor: A Memoir - Eugene Peterson

There are a few books I would make compulsory reading for aspiring pastors. Some are linked to particular aspects of pastoral ministry such as counselling, preaching, conducting services, etc. Others are instructive in terms of the pastoral vocation itself. Among this latter group would be those books written by experienced pastors reflecting on a lifetime of ministry and speak to the experience of pastoring itself and the ways in which one's vocation emerged in the context of place and practice. Eugene Peterson's latest book The Pastor is one such book and having just finished reading it, I would be inclined to rank it near the top in terms of its value to pastors at any stage of their ministry but especially to those who are just starting out.

Eugene Peterson, the scholar-pastor, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC,  has written many books which reflect his perspectives on pastoral ministry. There are the insightful meditations on the Ascent Psalms under the title of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, on Jeremiah called Run With the Horses, on Revelation called Reversed Thunder and on the Davidic accounts of Samuel and Kings gathered together in Leap Over a Wall. There are the various books directed to pastors in pastoral ministry such as Working the Angles and his imaginative reading of Jonah under the rubric of "vocational holiness" entitled Under the Unpredictable Plant. There is his magnum opus, a five-volume series of "conversations" on the Christian life, which is rich in suggestion, always interesting, and most importantly, developed out of an imagination shaped by Scripture and fertilized by a wide and attentive reading to many different texts. Finally there is of course The Message, Peterson's paraphrase of the Bible, perhaps Peterson's most famous work.  The unifying feature of his work is its Scriptural base. Everything Peterson writes either exposits or meditates on the biblical text.  His imaginative and faithful readings of Scripture are rich and fruitful in preparing sermons. But the most delightful and perhaps the most important book for me is his most recent one, The Pastor: A Memoir.

In The Pastor, Peterson describes the winding route his call into pastoral ministry took and how, in some ways, it was a complete surprise and in other ways, a natural development from the soil of his family and upbringing. Having recognized and responded to the call, he then found that pastoral ministry, in order to be faithful, must be shaped much differently than the models seen from the vantage point of modern American (and Canadian) Christian culture. The danger as he saw it was that the Church is susceptible to becoming co-opted by culture. In North America, culture masquerades as Christian faith and practice. Christians are frequently unable to recognize the difference. Like Karl Barth, one of Peterson's great theological champions, Peterson argues that the pastor must be grounded in and speak out of Scripture. For Peterson, Scripture provides the narrative structure for the Christian life. The pastor is given the sacred trust to articulate and enact the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the congregation and thereby lead them along the way of Jesus to not only the cross but ultimately to the resurrection life.

There are wonderful vignettes of Peterson's early years in Montana, of the gradual realization of his pastoral vocation, and of his partner in life, Jan, and the crucial place she occupied in their shared ministry. The story of his church in Baltimore, the growth of his pastoral vision and finally the development of his writing as part of his pastoral work feature prominently in the book. But for me the most significant aspect of Peterson's memoir is the description of his refusal to follow the path of least resistance and "just do the job." Being a pastor is a mystery; what do pastors do anyway? They occupy a place somewhere between work and contemplation and prayer. They are charged with leading a congregation in its commitment to follow Jesus and yet there is no blueprint on how to do that. Every congregation is different. Peterson's book is an account of how one pastor has wrestled with these questions, been challenged by Scripture and his cultural context, and then brought a coherence and imagination to ministry which is relevant for our time and our place.

Pastors and church leaders should read this book. They would be better for it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thank You Bruce!

Music has helped to give shape to my life. Songs, artists, genres, even seasons have been important at different times to define, colour, and give texture to my life's experience. One of the most important figures musically in my life has been Bruce Cockburn. I saw my first Cockburn concert in 1977 when he released the album In the Falling Dark. Songs like "Lord of the Starfields", "Vagabondage", "Little Seahorse" and "Gavin's Woodpile" provided my first introduction to the possibility of a Christian theology of creation, a Christian passion for justice and the beginning of "wanderlust" - the joy of travel, experience, and adventure. Subsequent albums such as The Further Adventures Of, Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, and Inner City Front showed different and more complex sides of Cockburn and later when he became quite outspoken in his societal critique, I too saw the urgency and passion of his vision and identified closely with him and his music. For example, I still love the lines from "Laughter" which go "

Let's hear a laugh for the man of the world
Who thinks he can make things work
Tried to build the New Jerusalem
And ended up with New York
Ha Ha Ha..."

Yesterday I went with Elaine and a couple of friends to the Small Source of Comfort concert in  Winnipeg. Cockburn didn't disappoint. There were a lot of great songs from the past: "Wondering Where the Lions Are", "Last Night of the World", "Lovers in a Dangerous Time", "All the Diamonds", "Tie Me at the Crossroads", etc. There were songs from the new album of which "Five Fifty-one", "Call Me Rose", "Each One Lost", and "Lois On the Autobahn" especially caught my attention. Jenny Scheinman and Gary Craig accompanied Cockburn with elegance and understatement although Scheinman's violin  accompaniments sometimes left me breathless with their evocative artistry.

I left the concert with a sense that Cockburn is in a good place, content but still not ready to quit. I did have the feeling, however, that he is not nearly as ambitious as he once was, and that the passion and anger in his social critique has morphed into sadness and sorrow for a world so disjointed and conflicted. Perhaps that is a sign of age; one no longer has the strength to take on another cause. On the other hand, it may be a sign that bearing witness is what the artist does best. Looking, pointing, calling, challenging. Prophets are uisually without honor in their own country. I'm glad that Cockburn has received many honours for his great body of work. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to listen to him and to weave his songs into the soundtrack of my life.