We are surrounded by a way of life in which betterment is understood as expansion, as acquisition, as fame. Everyone wants to get more – to be on top – no matter what it is the top of that’s admired. There’s nothing recent about the temptation. It’s the oldest sin in the book. The one that got Adam tossed out of the garden and Lucifer tossed out of heaven. What is new about it is the general admiration and approval it receives.
~ Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience
Last week, I spent a couple of days listening to Eugene Peterson share stories and precious wisdom from his 80 years on this little blue planet.
It was a blessing of unparalleled riches to sit at Peterson’s feet (literally — I was in the front row and he was on a stage that put me at eye level with his black tassel loafers) and learn.
For the uninitiated, Peterson is a retired Presbyterian pastor and prolific author perhaps best known for The Message, his para-translation of the Bible and titles such as Practice Resurrection and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
A native of Western Montana, Peterson and his wife of more than 50 years, Jan, returned to Big Sky Country several years ago to the home his father built on the shores of Flathead Lake when Eugene was a child.
Undoubtedly, it will take me many months — or years — to digest all that Peterson shared with a smallish group of youngish Christian leaders at the Q Practices gathering in New York City. But I can say I was most indelibly struck by how at ease — content, yes, but more than that — Peterson is in his own skin. Fully present. Mellow but absolutely alert, energized, fascinated by the world and the people around him.
Relaxed — that’s it.
Surely eight decades (and counting) in this mortal coil has contributed to Peterson’s deeply chill vibe. And yet I am convinced it’s more than simply a matter of age.
The Petersons have cultivated, with great intention, a simple life. They live in a place that is natural, beautiful, majestic. They eat locally, cook their own food, and regularly ask friends to join them for meals where conversations linger for hours. They read good books by writers and poets whom they find inspiring. They keep their life (and their calendar) uncluttered. They pray. They keep a Sabbath. They walk in the woods and they listen. To the rustle of the leaves, the cry of a hawk, the wind, and the still small voice of God. To the silence. Eugene Peterson was a pastor for 30 years and for a good part of that time, he was not content, relaxed, or mellow. He had to learn how to let go and recalibrate his life to what he calls the “rhythms of grace.”
“Competitiveness is in my DNA,” he told confessed. As a young pastor, “I worked hard: Get a lot of things going, set the goals, meet the goals … It was energizing. Money to raise, a sanctuary to build,” he said. “Then, when we were finished, people quit coming to church.” An advisor in his Presbytery told Peterson that congregations needed a challenge, a goal to work toward, something to achieve to keep them engaged in the life of the church. Start another building fund, the man said, even if you don’t intend to build a building.
Peterson was flummoxed. The competitor in him wanted to do something to change the situation. But he recognized that to do so would be to enter a never-ending cycle that would be unhealthy for him, his congregation, and the faith of everyone involved.
So he stopped. He did nothing. He slowed down, simplified things, and waited.
“By doing ‘nothing,’ I think I was slowly being cured,” Peterson told us. “It took a while. But by refusing to do anything…I learned to live a life that was contemplative, not competitive.” In New York City, Peterson’s audience of 99 included about 90 pastors — many of them in the early or middle years of their ordained ministry. They wanted to know how to have a successful pastorate (in myriad ways), how to live an intentional life in an era of epic distractions, how to love mercy and walk humbly with their God and their congregations. I was a bit of a square peg among the pastor-set, but as Peterson told his stories (he’s a marvelous storyteller, the kind you want to lean in closer to listen to — a Norwegian Presbyterian Yoda patiently guiding the would-be Jedi toward a fuller understanding of The Force), I quickly realized that his wisdom wasn’t just for pastors; it was for all of us.
“One of the things the monks used to say: ‘Stay in your cell. The cell will teach you everything,’” Peterson told us in a conversation about simplicity. “I took that personally in terms of my congregation. ‘Stay in your congregation. Your congregation will teach you everything.’ I was always thinking about projects, but I kept coming back to that until I was content to be just with these people. Receive from them. Not always thinking up ways to make their lives more interesting, or godly, or whatever.”
I took Peterson’s translation of monastic slogan and reimagined it again as, “Stay in your life. Your life will teach you everything.” Stop looking for the next adventure, challenge, hurdle, drama, or excitement. Be present. Be here now. Stop trying to change people. Stop trying to do anything. Just be. Be in your life. Your life will teach you everything.
“Pay attention to what’s there, not what isn’t there,” Peterson said. Go about the journey of faith — the Christian life, the Way — relaxed, he said, “not feeling so guilty, not having to prove yourself all the time.”
Providence has a great sense of timing — one that’s oriented by kairos not chronos. My time with Peterson fell during the first full week of Lent.
Before Ash Wednesday I already had determined not to do the usual thing — give something tangible up: chocolate, caffeine, wine, fried food, etc. I decided instead to forgo saying negative things about my appearance out loud. I thought that would be healthy, helpful, a meaningful practice to honor God’s creation (me) and the Creator.
It lasted about 36 hours. I determined to start again. And again and again and again, if necessary.
After listening to Peterson, I stopped trying. I stopped, full stop. For Lent, I am doing nothing. I am just going to be.
Feel the rhythms of grace and let God do the doing.
Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology, Regent College. BA (Seattle Pacific), STB (New York Theological Seminary), MA (Johns Hopkins), DHL (Hon.) (Seattle Pacific)
Eugene Peterson was for many years James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. He also served as founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. A prolific author, he is probably most well known for The Message, his translation of the Bible in the language of today. Now retired from full-time teaching, Eugene and his wife Jan live in the Big Sky Country of rural Montana.