10 Lessons Learned From Eugene Peterson This Year About the Christian Life

I’ve been reading through his books this year. Sanity is what I looked for and sanity is what I found. You can also read the 10 Lessons Learned From Eugene Peterson This Year about Pastoral Work.

1. You can study the Bible without really reading it.

2. It’s OK to not know all the answers.

3. The material world is a gift, not a problem.

4. The Church is not a business with a CEO and investors.

5. Stories are important.

6. Gimmickry kills spirituality.

7. The people Isaiah preached to did not have to go to a Bible dictionary to understand what he was saying.

8. Most people try to be more spiritual than a man who was known as a drunk, glutton and blasphemer. (Spirituality does not always look ‘spiritual.’)

9. Words matter.

10. The first words of man as recorded in Holy Writ are rendered in poetic form.

Thoughts At Christmas For the Rest of the Year: Part 4, "The Haters"

Update: My friend Collin Hansen – talented author & editor – posted this on The Gospel Coalition Blog.

(This is a slightly reworked version of “Christmas Is For Haters” from last year. )

We are now very accustomed to hearing about how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his – ehem – problems with this season is no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe it always has been. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy.

Not too long ago, I heard from someone about how difficult Christmas would be because of some heartbreak in their family. There was utter hopelessness and devastation. Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of this pain. It’s been a story very hard to forget.

I get it. I mean, it makes sense on the level of Christmas being a time in which there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce or empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.

But allow me to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss, can easily enjoy the holidays. They have not gotten lost on the way because of the GPS they got last year. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen. We live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

But this is so damnably backwards. Christmas – the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer – is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshippers were not of the beautiful class. They were poor, ugly shepherds; beat down by life and labor. They had been looked down on over many a nose.

Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son, whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when the son wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for whores, adulterers and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of the family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for those who have squandered the family name and fortune – they want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray.

Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for sinners. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a Universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it the most.

10 Lessons Learned From Eugene Peterson This Year About Pastoral Work

eugene

(Update: For obvious reasons, this is a very popular post. So popular, I have become a Peterson reference for dozens and dozens of men, mostly pastors. Most want to know where to start with his works because they are exasperated with what they have been sold as pastoral work. I used to tell them to start with The Contemplative Pastor since it is the book in most direct opposition to everything other way of thinking about the pastorate that is popular today. It is a quiet manifesto of insurrection. But now it may be good to start with his memoir – The Pastor I still get emails thanking me for the review I posted on amazon. Usually, it’s because a pastor thought his was alone. Now he knows he is not.

A word to young pastors…Read Peterson now. Eventually you will most likely thirst for his sanity and long to get off the hamster-wheel. I know most of you will not do it, you are drunk on trends and excitement.)

I’ve been slowly reading through Eugene Peterson’s books this year. I’ve learned a lot about being a pastor that is in direct opposition to the way I naturally think…and most people think, I would hazard. The following are ten of those lessons.

1. Pastoral Work does not look “busy.”

2. The hard work of a pastor is done in the quiet of study and prayer.

3. Most pastors are pragmatists because they have never seen any other kind of pastoral work done.

4. You will never get the job of pastoral work down to a science.

5. Read novels as a part of your ministry.

6. How-to sermons are rarely – if ever –  helpful.

7. Don’t listen to the conventional wisdom.

8. It is so normal for bullies to fill our pulpits we can no longer recognize the problem.

9. Pastors should not seek to be part of the super-spiritual crowd but seek to be normal – only more so.

10. God and his work in Christ are our subject.

What Is Evil?

When I was at Covenant Seminary, everyone’s favorite professor was Jerram Barrs. His classes were always the furthest thing from boring and your head hurt from thinking by the time you left. The idea of having to sit through other thoughtful lectures after his was painful. I remember one class in particular – mainly because of one small discussion.

The context escapes me. But we were talking about ‘evil.’ He told us that most people could no longer recognize it any longer because we associate it with the extreme forms. He gave the example of Hannibal Lecter. He said that evil must now be so extreme for us to name it that we can no longer see it in ourselves or others.

He’s right, of course. It must now be murderous and bizarrely so. And adultery must now be coupled with something akin to insanity to be even considered cruel. Insanity. Maybe that;s the problem. We have now let the idea of evil drift into the realm of psychotherapists and now it is out of the arena of the pastors.

The Scriptures no longer give us the picture, instead it is drawn in hues of psychosis and abhorrent physical violence. If those two are absent, evil is not really identifiable any longer. Our problem is not that we call what is evil ‘good’. Our problem is that we call so few things ‘evil.’

It is really no kindness to ourselves or others. Though it does feel kind in some touchy-feely, super-spiritual, grace-misunderstanding way.

My wife and I like to watch Sherlock Holmes mysteries. One we watched last week involved a man who was blackmailing wealthy men and women with sins to hide. My first thought was to think it was not such a big deal to do such a thing. But Holmes thought it was detestable. And then it hit me. I was so conditioned to see the affair and the homosexuality as the height of evil that blackmail almost looked harmless when compared with it. But the blackmailer’s evil – though not as easy to see – was very horrific. He was using the sins of others as gain – preying off their fears and foibles. When justice was served in the end, it felt very satisfying from my couch even though I had not seen the extent of the evil in the beginning.

The problem with this ultimately is not just the blindness but the now almost imperceptible inability to now say, “This is evil.” If evil is only the extreme sins of our culture as defined by the cop and lawyer shows on network TV, then we will have a hard time convincing the good people of our culture of their need for Christ’s work. If the evil we must deal with is defined by what is on our list of wrongs, it will be hard for us to see our own need for Christ. I guess that is especially true if we wrote the list. If deception for the sake of pride is not ‘damnable’ in the eyes of our people, it will not seem to those having it, there is a need to rejoice that it is covered…or for others, that it needs to be covered.

Random Thoughts for Wednesday

1. Why do we pick the one time out of the whole year when people are shopping for others to harp on materialism?

2. When people turn out their Christmas lights and deflate the decorations before they leave their house, they might as well say, “Hey, no one is home…sooo, if you are a burglar we will not bother you if you are quick enough.”

3. I like Cracker Barrel’s coffee more than any coffee shop’s.

4. Dadgum, my wife can cook.

5. Our family is united in our affection on a few things: The Beatles, The Jesus Storybook Bible, our house and pizza.

6. This + this = awesome. Girly but awesome.

7.  Repentance, by definition, lays down defensive weapons and takes up humility.

8. Could it be that young evangelicals are moved by movements and trends more than God, himself?

9. I just realized I’ve always thought all the other innkeepers – you know, the ones with no rooms available – were mean people. But that isn’t is very fair to them.

10.  I vote for lights hung up all year long.

Thoughts At Christmas For the Rest of the Year: Part 3, "The Unlikely"

Part 1, “The Waiting”
Part 2, “The Impossible”

When I asked my wife to marry me, I did so at a park not far from where we live now. She had no idea it was coming…especially since the conversation started with how I was in financial straits because of a car wreck a few weeks earlier. She was understanding and understandably disappointed. She wanted me to ask her in that very place.

So, when I asked her to be my wife, she was so excited she shouted out across the water, “I just got engaged!” Another couple across the lake from us shouted back, “Congratulations!”

I’m about to tell you something very weird – I think about that couple all the time. Well, not every second. But fairly often. I never think about us telling our parents or anyone else. And really, we had to tell the story over and over and over.  But that unknown couple who has no significance outside of that memorable event, I think about their unlikely sharing of our joy a lot. They are part of it. They were the first to hear.

The Bible never tells us why the birth of Jesus was announced first to the shepherds. And I have no idea why God sent angels to to them and did so before anyone else. No one really knows. I hope you have always been skeptical when some pastor says, “God sent angels to the shepherds first because…” If the Bible does not tell us, we are only left to guess and wonder why such unlikely men were chosen.

It does fit a pattern though. Mary and Joseph were pretty unlikely because of where they from and the Mary being a virgin thing makes her pretty unlikely. There is a lot of this “unlikely” going on. David was the unlikely king, young and forgotten among warrior brothers. Moses growing up in Egyptian palaces only to virtually ransack them later. And of course there is Joseph, the braggart turned savior. Who would’ve thunk? This is pretty normal behavior for God.

What I do know is that when I think about that couple across the lake, I do not think about them so much as the event itself…the announcement. It was the announcement that made them memorable. My wife and I do not discuss their ‘congrats’ because they were so great but because the announcement was so great. They were the first to respond to the announcement and their unknown identities and shadowed shapes in the dark add to the significance of that night I cannot explain. Maybe they are part of the dark velvet on which the glow of a diamond ring shines.

Maybe the same is true of the shepherds – those unlikely first recipients of that good news. We miss something if we celebrate them. They were not told so that we would know that God loves the lowly. This is true, of course. But maybe he chose the lowly shepherds because he wanted the vent to shine brightly like a star in the night sky above the fields of flocks they tended. Maybe he chose the unlikely to show his glory clearly in a way that announcing to kings could never have done. The Shepherds don’t make the announcement of Jesus’ birth any more wondrous than it would have been otherwise but it does add to the drama…maybe it helps us see the glory better.

This should encourage all who want to be used for God’s glory but look in the mirror and say, “unlikely.” God trades in wares which are the opposite of likelihood. He does not only take circumstances and do the impossible but he also takes unlikely people such as shepherds and makes them part of events, cataclysmic occurrences and glory-filled announcements.

Random Thoughts From The Weekend

1. The only problem with putting up Xmas lights is the putting them up.

2. Dear Magic 96 FM, There are more Christmas songs not by Wham, Mariah Carey and Annie Lennox than are.

3. I may or may not have eaten a peanut butter, cheese and bacon sandwich this weekend.

4. Dear young pastors, Read Eugene Peterson’s books for pastors. (See comments for list.)

5. OK, I admit it – I was wrong to think Auburn was crazy to hire Chizik.

6. Auburn fan or not, the saddest part about Cam Newton’s father trying to sell Cam to the highest bidder is that he is a pastor.

7. Conviction over consensus.

8.  Tired of waiting for the new U2 album.

9. The problem with our comedian culture is now you can say anything and it’s alright as long as you are funny.

10. After a while we finally made fun of all the cheesy marketing of Christian virtues (God’s Gym, A Crumb and A Fish, etc.) of the 80’s and 90’s. Now how long will it take for us to do that with all the UFC allusions?

Thoughts At Christmas For the Rest of the Year: Part 2, "The Impossible"

Part 1, “The Waiting”

Stories have a way of telling us things we could not have heard any other way. Eugene Peterson calls it “telling it slant” (using Emily Dickinson’s words). We are not always happy to see things about ourselves when told outright. But stories reveal our heart’s motives – sometimes through the heroes and often times through the villainous. They show us the sins we hold dear. And stories can reveal the virtues we lack. Reading the story of Mary, the soon-to-be-mother of Jesus, did this to me.

I started running recently. A few months ago – all to lose weight and get in shape. When I started I was not happy to be doing so with the wrong gear. For one, my shoes are at least six years old, I bought them from the LL Bean “clearance store” back in 2004 and have been cutting grass in them for a number of years. Also, I really wanted one of those cool Under Armour shirts. In Blue. It felt impossible that I could get to my initial goal of losing twenty pounds and running 5K with such pitiful gear.

But I did.

Twenty-five pounds lost later and now able to run more than 5K and thinking about a half marathon this Spring, I now laugh at my thoughts of what was possible. I looked at my circumstances and my problems and thought, “impossible.”

Mary started out thinking the same thing. I mean, it was a good question, “I know you are saying all these great things about what my son will be and do, but there is one little problem… ummmm, how do I put this lightly? (Whispers) I’m a virgin. Sooooo, how could this be possible?” But God, not put off by such circumstances and problems answers through Gabriel, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

When you look at Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ real close, you start thinking God is doing some incredible stuff through what looks like an impossible situation. Through the scandal of a pregnant unmarried teenager, “all the nations will be blessed.” Through an event sure to draw judgment from gossipers “he provides mercy from generation to generation.” Through a backwoods town, Nazareth, “he shows strength with his arm.” Through the poverty of Galilean peasants “he scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Through a baby “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Through a child who depends on his mother’s milk “he has filled the hungry with good things.” Through a virgin he will make a baby and fulfill the promises he made to his people.

It’s pretty incredible. But we don’t really believe he can do this kind of thing. Most of the time. Most of the time we think everything must be just right in our lives and and in our churches. Belief is not enough to change us as individuals and the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is not enough for our churches.

Our spiritual lives need super-spiritual crazy experiences and our churches need audio and visual excellence. We think we need lots of extra stuff, you know, to help out the Sovereign God of the Universe. Who created everything. Out of nothing. We think we need something else and we need to remove everything that looks like a problem – for God to work. We think we need the best preaching and the nicest worship space. We think we need new songs or old songs. And lots of resources.

God began the most significant act in history through what looked like an impossible situation and we think we need more gear.

We are not like Mary, at least the Mary after the Angel reminded her what God was capable of. Maybe we need a reminder. You know, God has been doing this for awhile. A huge family making up a nation from two really old lovebirds. Armies defeated by lamps and jars. Marching around a wall and taking out a city. Five smooth stones. More clay jars.

And it did not stop with Mary. The Disciples had to have thought, ‘impossible’ while Jesus’ limp and bloodied body hung with shame upon a Roman cross. The circumstances were bleak. The problem stood before them in painful stark relief. Their hopes – dashed against a rock that looked like a dead man’s skull. And yet through this, far more was accomplished than they could have ever imagined during the three years while they were dreaming of him vanquishing the foes of God’s people.

Through what looked impossible the One, Who, by the way, makes all things possible, did the unimaginable. He rescued not only those who had followed him. But all who had rebelled against him and looked to him for salvation. And even now those who look at their own black hearts and think ‘impossible’ can be rescued when they with Mary believe, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Random Thoughts for Thursday

1. OK, I admit it, I like to read Ann Coulter and Annie Dillard.

2. The downside to losing more than 25 lbs is so little of my clothing fits. So no, that is not a pirate shirt or MC Hammer pants I am wearing.

3. Breathing in the cold Birmingham night air is free.

4. Even a thread of hope was enough to get me through the past week. Good to know.

5. Anyone else think we sometimes use spiritual language (‘for the gospel’, ‘to the glory of God’, etc.) to cut off honest discussion and to back off from making hard decisions?

6. We Reformed theological types may have much of the doctrine of Calvin but we have all the methodology of the Arminian. Which means we need more of the former so as to have none of the latter.

7. This and this are linked.

8. Have you ever realized you have a knack for something after years and years of being able to do it without realizing it? Because of a love of words, I can remember precise words and word usage and I notice subtle differences in sentence construction. For the most part it is a useless skill. And I just realized I have it.

9. This.

10. Is it OK to not want to be a part of a movement you think is good?