A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I am not an expert on Eugene Peterson—don’t know him personally, haven’t read all of his many writings. But I’d be hard pressed to think of many people who have more shaped my thinking over the years, who have more consistently drawn my eyes to the glory of Christ. Peterson strikes me as a meteor, brilliant, but only for a moment, an extraordinary flash across a dark sky. Because you have seen it, you look up, you see the vast canopy of Milky Way, you catch your breath. You see a black velvet curtain, pinpricked a million times, and behind it, a glory you can only imagine.

What a mind! What a gift! And now the news that he is going Home.

How many writers have the ability to make us see, to leave us really amazed? “Wonder,” he writes, “is the only adequate launching pad for exploring a spirituality of creation, keeping us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.”

I think this wonder-transfer blooms from Peterson’s pen because he thinks like an artist about Christ, as One who “plays in ten thousand places.” He draws out the beauty, as well as the wisdom, of Scripture, points out the artistry of Creator God, Jesus the Word, and Spirit. He speaks of a story-telling God, who breathed the world into being with a poem, who told parables to let us see truth “slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it. He read widely, and loved writers from many varying traditions. I think it was Peterson who first introduced me to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Luci Shaw, Anne Lamott, and, I believe, Wendell Berry. While he was probably criticized for this eclecticism, he shone with humility and grace. I suppose, believing that all truth is God’s truth, he wasn’t too picky where the good nuggets came from, as long as they gave us a window to see Jesus.

When I was in college, I copied a quote of Peterson’s into my favorite Bible, a Bible I used for years, and therefore frequently re-read: 

The Bible isn’t interested in whether we believe in God or not. It assumes that everyone more or less does. What it is interested in is the response we have to him: Will we let God be as he is, majestic and holy, vast and wondrous, or will we always be trying to whittle him down to the size of our small minds, insist on confining him within the boundaries we are comfortable with, refuse to think of him other than in images that are convenient to our lifestyle?

The quote is from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, a title that is in itself a challenge. That one thought has challenged, convicted, inspired, and changed me for twenty-odd years. Who is God, really? Why do I try to remake Him in my terms? What if I saw Him for who He really is? Soon Mr. Peterson will meet Him face to face, and he will not be disappointed. 

In my last blog, I wrote, “I have been thinking lately of the different disciplines of theology and poetry—one starts wide, with all the facts, and studies, studies to find truth, pure and clear, the narrow gate, the one best thing. The other starts small, just an image or a moment, and opens up to see with imagination and vision. They are opposite-leaning disciplines, and as one who loves both, it is hard to hold them each simultaneously in my head.” Somehow Peterson lived in that tension, and refused to uphold one value at the expense of the other.

But here was a man who didn’t live in an ivory tower; above all, he was a pastor. He showed by example how to persevere, how humility is paramount, that “soul work” is slow work. “The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at the …moment.” How to live by faith? Right now, right here, one day at a time.

Peterson’s reflections on ministry have helped us not just to work harder, but to pause, to trust, to be. He has not been (contrary to our culture), a whirlwind of trendsetting activity, striving to influence by drawing big crowds, celebrating all things flashy and new. He cautions against the vainglory, the idolatry, of work. And he unabashedly took time off to rest, to enjoy nature, to spend time with his wife, giving many of us in ministry permission—even exhortation—to do the same. As he wrote,

If there is no Sabbath — no regular and commanded not-working, not-talking — we soon become totally absorbed in what we are doing and saying, and God’s work is either forgotten or marginalized. When we work we are most god-like, which means that it is in our work that it is easiest to develop god-pretensions. Un-sabbathed, our work becomes the entire context in which we define our lives. We lose God-consciousness, God-awareness, sightings of resurrection. We lose the capacity to sing ‘This is my Father’s world’ and end up chirping little self-centered ditties about what we are doing and feeling.

Mr. Peterson’s story is drawing to a close. But I think he would resist any attempt to make that story about Eugene. “The Bible makes it clear,” he wrote, “that every time that there is a story of faith, it is completely original. God’s creative genius is endless.” Once again we are losing a giant of faith, who nevertheless insists that the story of his life is not a story about himself at all. He is, after all, just one more paint chip in the mosaic Body of Christ, an image-bearer who helped us to see the Lord a little better by his life. 

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