Most of Life Is Not Lived at a Subspiritual Level: A Quote from Eugene Peterson
Yesterday morning, after a long obedience in the same direction, Eugene Peterson went home to be with our Lord. He was 85.
Peterson is best known, perhaps, for his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. I often turn to The Message when I am preparing sermons to see what insights come alive in his fresh retelling. Peterson authored many books, some written to help the wider Christian audience and others to help his fellow pastors.
Russell Moore, wrote a kind piece yesterday about the way Peterson only preached one sermon, despite his many sermons and many books. “[Peterson] had many things to say to us, and he said them in a wide spectrum of ways,” Moore writes. “But, really, he was just pointing our imaginations away from ourselves and toward awe and wonder—in the Bible, in the universe, in the local congregation, but all of it really pointed to awe in the presence of the One who holds it all together, a Jesus who loves us and is, in ways we can’t adequately piece together now, calling us homeward.” Well said.
Below is an extended excerpt from Peterson’s book The Contemplative Pastor. In it, Peterson reminds us that the small things should matter to pastors because it’s in the small things that most of our lives are lived unto God.
My pastor, during my adolescent years, came often to our home. After a brief an awkward interval, he always said, “And how are things in your SOUL today?” (He always pronounced “soul” in capital letters.)
I never said much. I was too intimidated. The thoughts and experiences that filled my life in those years seems small potatoes after that question. I knew, of course, that if I ever wanted to discuss matters of SOUL, I could go to him. But for everything else, I would probably do better with someone who wouldn’t brush aside as worldly vanity what it felt like to get cut from the basketball varsity, someone who wouldn’t pronounce with scary intimations of hellfire on the thoughts I was having about Marnie Schmidt, the new girl from California.
Pastoral work, I learned later, is that aspect of Christian ministry that specializes in the ordinary. It is the nature of pastoral life to be attentive to, immersed in, and appreciative of the everyday texture of people’s lives—the buying and selling, the visiting and meeting, the going and coming. There are also crisis events to be met: birth and death, conversion and commitment, baptism and Eucharist, despair and celebration. These also occur in people’s lives and, therefore, in pastoral work. But not as everyday items.
Most people, most of the time, are not in crisis. If pastoral work is to represent the gospel and develop a life of faith in the actual circumstances of life, it must learn to be at home in what novelist William Golding has termed the “ordinary universe”—the everyday things in people’s lives—getting kids off to school, deciding what to have for dinner, dealing with the daily droning complaints of work associates, watching the nightly news on TV, making small talk at coffee break.
Small talk: the way we talk when we not are talking about anything in particular, and we don’t have to think logically, or decide sensibly, or understand accurately. The reassuring conversational noises that make no demands, inflict no stress. The sounds that take the pressure off. The meandering talk to simply express what is going on at the time. My old pastor‘s refusal (or inability) to engage in that kind of talk implied, in effect, that most of my life has been lived at a subspiritual level. Vast tracts of my experience were “worldly,” with occasional moments qualifying as “spiritual.” I never question the practice until I became a pastor myself and found that such an approach left me uninvolved with most of what was happening in people’s lives and without a conversational context for the actual undramatic work of living by faith in the fog and the drizzle. (Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, 112–13)