Thursday, 25 October 2018

Eugene Peterson - His Legacy and VEV

So many tributes and words have already been offered for the late Eugene Peterson, beloved author, teacher, and pastor, who passed away earlier this week, having completed his “long obedience in the same direction,”[1] that I feel I don't have much to add. Yet, I must also briefly offer this tribute on his unique contribution to me and our congregation here at VEV. As far as I know, Eugene Peterson never attended our church, or spoke here. Yet, he may as well have, not just because of his wonderful and lively paraphrase of the Bible, The Message[2], which has often been quoted and referenced in our gatherings, but also because his influence and ministry has shaped who we are as a church, and helped make VEV the beautiful expression of the Bride of Christ that it is. 


One of my highlights during my 21 year sojourn at Regent College (yes, you read that right, 1992-2013), was taking one of Peterson’s courses directly from him during Weekend School for a term on the subject of “Ministry and Spirituality,” in the mid-1990’s. It was one of the most formative courses I have ever taken. So many paradigms on pastoral ministry shifted for me over those four months. I learned what it meant to be a “contemplative pastor.” In summary, this meant a shift from trying to achieve ministry “success,” (whatever that means), to simply learning to notice God at work and joining God in that work. It fit well with my Vineyard ministry culture which highly values “doing what the Father is doing,”[3] but roots of performance, comparison, and drivenness run deep.  Peterson provided a theological and philosophical framework to confront the distorted ministry values that had so influenced me and led to a bad ministry burnout. He pulled me out of the emotional quicksand created by these distorted values. It put me on a trajectory towards the practice of spiritual direction, which is now one of the most fulfilling and fruitful aspects of my pastoral work.

The course was such a timely and crucial introduction into my “second half of life,” to use Richard Rohr’s language.[4] What I mean by that is that I was still recovering from a devastating ministry burnout that had nearly killed me, spiritually and physically. I was seeking to gather the fragments of my broken life into some form of meaningful ministry again after all seemed lost. I had just begun pastoring again and was working on my Master’s degree at Regent at the same time – such wonderful mutually informing endeavors! 


Peterson’s class provided insight on what had gone wrong in my “first half of life.” Ministry is one of the greatest ways we as humans find ourselves “sinning” because its godly “veneer” or “exterior” gives it a certain legitimacy that provides a cover for the worse kinds of pride, ambition, and drivenness. His teaching and writings began to make sense of the horrific circumstances of burnout that had befallen me. This particularly came through his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant,[5] a course reading requirement - one of three in a “pastoral trilogy”[6] that Peterson had written. It is a commentary on idolatry in pastoral vocation, based on the book of Jonah. Here he coined the phrase, “ecclesiastical pornography,” a term which I have never forgotten. It provides a vivid reminder to be wary of the temptation to wander from the “ordinary” of parish life, coveting an airbrushed and ideal ministry situation elsewhere, rather than being faithful to reverence the sacred “stuff at hand,” in my own congregation, as ordinary as it may seem sometimes.  

I decided to do my term paper for him on this topic, outlining the story of my life in correspondence with the structure of his book. I was so blessed to get a thoughtful and heart-felt response from him. OK,  it was nice to get a good mark too (still working on that identity thing), but I was just as blessed by his comments that my reflections on the book in light of my ministry burnout validated him and his message. Wow! I was deeply touched by the remarkable humility that he exhibited in those comments, and what an honor it was for me to receive these words from him.  


So how has this worked itself out in my life? One recent story I can think of is the other day, I was in the Hastings Sunrise area of East Vancouver where I live, and I walked by a man who had been panhandling, but he was now slumped over and he seemed unconscious, with his head resting on one knee. Mindful of the overdose crisis in our city, I turned around and went back to him, and gently placed my hand on his shoulder, asking him if he was OK and if he needed me to call an ambulance. He straightened up and with his eyes now wide open, looked right at me, gave me a fist pump handshake, and said that, no, he didn’t need to me to call an ambulance, he was fine, and then he thanked me very much for caring. I gave him the thumbs up and he called after me again as I was walking away, saying in a loud voice several times, “Thank you so much for caring.” I’ve had many ministry moments in my life that many would perhaps assess as more “significant,” but nothing matches moments like these,  simple yet profound encounters with people, known and unknown, connecting with our common humanity and the sacred image that we share.

This is the gift that Eugene Peterson gave me, the capacity to be on the lookout in order to see and to notice God at work in the most profound of ways in the midst of the most ordinary circumstances and especially in the most broken places. For that, dear Eugene Peterson, I am so grateful.

[1] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson, IVP, 2000.

[2] The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene Peterson, NavPress, 1993.

[3] John 5:19

[4] Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr, Josey-Bass, 2011.

[5] Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1994.

[6] Peterson’s other books in the trilogy on pastoral ministry were Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, and Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Ministry, then later, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.  All are essential reading for any pastor and Christian leader, as well as his recent pastoral memoire, The Pastor, (2011).  

Thursday, 30 August 2018


Ok, I know it’s the last thing we want to hear with our province on fire over the past two months. Within our own Canadian Vineyard family, we’ve experienced an “earthquake” of another kind that has knocked the wind out of us, leaving us numb and reeling, spiritually and emotionally. To add to all this, I received a message at our church Facebook site a few weeks ago from someone in Kansas, predicting a major earthquake in this region near the end of summer. I was struck by the person’s certainty combined with humility. 

Responding to a word like this can be tricky, and maybe even more so if you’re a pastor. On one hand, I don’t want to spread fear and panic. I am mindful that we are on a major fault line and seismologists, geologists and other scientists have been predicting the “big one” for some time - that it isn’t a matter of “if,” but “when.” Yet, it's impossible to predict the timing, so no one knows this except God.


I grew up with a lot of doom and gloom, as part of the preaching "diet." Predictions that the world would end soon were characteristic of that time. I remember as a child hearing predictions of a Soviet nuclear attack on North America by 1972, and that the great tribulation of Revelation, with all the apocalyptic horror and worst nightmares that any young Pentecostal kid could imagine, was imminent! At ten years of age, I heard a sermon by a well-known evangelist who predicted that a giant meteor would strike the earth within 15 years, ending life on earth as we know it. I remember exactly where I was, sitting on the front row of the church, taking this all in, and being physically doubled over in sheer terror, feeling icy tentacles of anxiety in my stomach, contemplating the fact as a 10 year old that I would never be able to enjoy an adult life, (which included being able to marry any girl I happened to have a crush on at the time)! Then, who of us can forget Y2K (unless you’re under 20!) We were all preparing for the end of the world as we knew it  - again! Some people made a lot of money off that! 

In addition, predictions of earthquakes hitting the west coast have come to us before. I recall attending  some of the more Charismatic Vancouver Pastor's prayer gatherings where we would weigh words like this, discerning together in community and for the most part, disregarding them as "not accurate." So, forgive me if I take any predictions of earthquakes with a grain of salt and caution. I know what fear did to me as a child, and how it negatively impacted my worldview and my spirituality. It kept me from pacing myself well for a “long obedience in the same direction,” which ended up in a catastrophic ministry burnout by the time I was 30! Now that was a real catastrophe!

Yet, for all these disclaimers, I don’t want to dismiss what might be a genuine warning from God, and if it is, what do we do with it? Summer travels have not helped, including the capacity to co-discern with colleagues and to check references for the messenger, but I decided in July to go on a few weeks of my own “Ignatian discernment,” that is, seeking to process the message, being present to God and paying attention to things I noticed that would indicate further action or response. I also prayed and discussed with a few trusted prophetic people, peers, and intercessors in my life.  Most did not sense that the word was to be taken literally, as an exact date was given and there does not seem to be scriptural precedent for this. Some felt the message was metaphorical of the spiritual “earthquakes” that have been happening in our BC region as well as our national Vineyard family. I note for example that David Ruis’ opening address at our Montreal gathering was about a great shaking coming, “so the things that cannot be shaken will remain.”[1] Earthquake or not, all strongly exhorted against fear, as fear is not from God. 

So, what shall we then do? Is there a third way between dismissing the message on one hand, and spreading fear on the other? Well, let’s imagine that we knew for sure that the big one was imminent (and we don’t). How would we behave or respond?  Well, hopefully not much different than what we are doing, but here are some thoughts: 

1.       Be reminded that God is in control. One of the first things that came strongly to me during my discernment process was this Scripture: “When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm.[2] Jesus predicted an abundance of earthquakes in his apocalyptic “Mount of Olives” sermon, but he almost mentions them in passing, that they are a backdrop to the real drama of the inevitable advance of the kingdom of God. We have the assurance that God is holding the pillars of the earth, and he has a solid grip on the foundations of our lives and our city: we are in good hands! 

2.       Take the message as an invitation to pray. Earthquake or not, our culture desperately needs to wake up from our sleep, and we as the church need to humble ourselves and pray for our city. We need mercy and most of all, we need to pray that the Kingdom of God, of justice and righteousness would come, and that our nation would turn to God as our Source and our Refuge. It's highly timely that the 24/7 prayer room is engaged in a week of non-stop prayer for our city this very week – you can drop in any time at 605 East Cordova Street!  

3.       Further to point 2, it is noteworthy that prophetic messages are not necessary a prediction – they are an invitation to pray so that what was predicted does not occur! This is the mystery of our partnership with God. I remember listening to the elderly and grace-filled Agnes Sanford speak at Charismatic conferences at Melodyland when I was a teen in the late 1970’s, and was so impacted by her courage in deliberately buying a house on the San Andreas fault in Southern California, just so she could pray against the earthquakes! Every time she felt a tremor, she would set herself to prayer, and actually deliberately spoke directly to the earth and the tremors, commanding them to calm down! And they did! We can do the same.[3]  

4.       This can be another reminder to take the prescribed precautions of those who inhabit an earthquake zone. This includes being “seismically mindful” of where you are at all times, with an action or escape plan in your home, workplace, school, etc. It also means having a 3 day emergency preparation plan as outlined by the City of Vancouver’s NEPP (Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Plan). This link takes you to great advice and resources. Their advice includes having a relational network and a communication plan – with family, neighbours, friends, home group, etc.

Is the big one imminent? I don't know. Seismologists say it could be today, or, it could be another 100 years. What I do know is that God is in control and God says, "Fear not. Trust and obey.... Continue seeking first the kingdom of God...” Earthquake or not, our lives are in God’s hands. We are in good hands! In the words of Lady Julian of Norwich, "All will be well... all manner of things will be well in the Lord." Selah! 

[1] Hebrews 12:26-27.
[2] Psalm 75:3
[3] See for example, Romans 8:19-21