My beach reading this year has departed from the usual fare. No Robert Ludlum thriller or Patricia Cornwell mystery this time, but something far more riveting and real: Eugene Peterson's masterful memoir, The Pastor.
For the uninitiated, Peterson is the seminal mind behind the folksy, provocative paraphrase of the Bible known as The Message. While groomed and poised to become a professor, Peterson chose the gritty, grace-filled world of the pastor. He spent 30 years as the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. Along the way, Peterson authored over 30 books, but always from a deep pastoral center. For Peterson, as for me, I trust, a pastor is not just what he does; a pastor is who he is: someone who lives at the intersection of God's Word, the life of a particular people, and the yawning, aching need of the world.
Peterson grew up as a Pentecostal but while attending seminary, fell under the spell of a world-class preacher: George Buttrick, famed pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. Peterson grew up on preaching "that was a mixture of cheerleading and entertainment with a lot of scripture verses thrown in at random. I was rarely bored, but I was also aware it was pretty thin soup." But in Buttrick, Peterson heard an authenticity and depth, both in the selfhood of the preacher and in his exploration of the biblical text and contemporary life, that was refreshing and true and so very much like Jesus.
As the best memoirs do, Peterson's spiritual autobiography has prodded me to examine more closely the fabric and texture of my own life. Like him, I grew up on preaching that was long on theater and short on substance. But I was blessed to find teachers and mentors along the way who introduced me, in the Apostle's unforgettable phrase, to "a more excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:31): a way in which spiritual vitality is measured not only in emotive energy (the yearning of the heart), but also in the depth of understanding (the life of the mind) and the actual Kingdom work in the world (the work of the hands).
It is this integration of the head, the heart, and the hands in service of God and neighbor that marks an authentically Christian community. Thankfully, I recognize a bit of myself in Peterson's memoir but see a whole lot more of you who are God's people at the top of Poplar. For it is you who have taught and loved me into being a better person and pastor than I could ever be without you. Indeed, of all the mentors and models required by a pastor-in-the-making, a church like the First Baptist Church of Christ is what he or she needs most. That's why I am always mindful of the immense privilege of being called "Pastor" by you.