Editor's note:

As a young pas­tor, Eric Peter­son felt over­whelmed and incom­pe­tent. So he reached out for help from his father and favorite pas­tor, Eugene Peter­son. Their cor­re­spon­dence is cap­tured in the book Let­ters to a Young Pas­tor. Eugene wrote the let­ter below to Eric dur­ing the Fourth Week in Lent, 5 April 2000

—Renovaré Team

Dear Eric,

I spent last Sat­ur­day evening at Gig Har­bor. I found myself immersed in Eric Ter­ri­to­ry.” It seemed like every oth­er per­son I met men­tioned you. I liked it.

The evening also plunged me into a kind of ten­sion or polar­i­ty that I nev­er get used to, the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the world of loss and lim­it and pain and rejec­tion and suf­fer­ing (the world that Search is attend­ing to)1, and the world of order and pros­per­i­ty and suc­cess and reward and secu­ri­ty and achieve­ment (the world that Mitchell, pas­tor of the church at Gig Har­bor, seems to epit­o­mize, almost to the point of par­o­dy). The pas­toral task, it seems to me, is to live in both worlds at the same time, amphibi­ous­ly. But it sure isn’t easy. One seems to exclude the oth­er, and I feel I have to choose. It’s tempt­ing to throw your lot in on one side or the oth­er — and that is cer­tain­ly right for some peo­ple. But it nev­er was for me, and I sense that you are not lean­ing that way either. I don’t want to hog the term pas­tor for the def­i­n­i­tions I put into it, but my sense is that pas­tor in the gener­ic sense is this amphibi­ous crea­ture, learn­ing how to become at home in both worlds, not only the bib­li­cal and con­tem­po­rary but the var­i­ous worlds” that peo­ple inhab­it eco­nom­i­cal­ly and social­ly and culturally.

I’ve liked the way you keep com­ing back to bap­tism as pro­vid­ing the rock-bot­tom def­i­n­i­tion of the peo­ple you are deal­ing with. I’ve heard you bring the term up sev­er­al times in the last cou­ple of years in dif­fer­ent con­texts, and it always sounds so right. It pre­vents us from tak­ing on reduc­tive soci­o­log­i­cal and demo­graph­ic and psy­cho­log­i­cal labels for peo­ple. It keeps us mind­ful that we are deal­ing with souls, not con­sumers or achiev­ers or vic­tims or whatever.

Some of this reflec­tion was fed by our trip back to Christ Our King in Feb­ru­ary. I didn’t real­ly know what to expect, but what hap­pened was very good. Some of this I know I’ve told you before, but let me go over some old ground again. When we went to Bel Air, I had nev­er lived in a sub­urb. Small town (Kalispell) and cities (Seat­tle, New York, Bal­ti­more) had been my homes. I was ini­tial­ly excit­ed and ener­gized by the chance to be in on the devel­op­ment of a new con­gre­ga­tion, but after a few months, I began to be appalled by the way of life of these peo­ple — they all seemed so atro­phied, so secu­ri­ty con­scious, so blend­ed into a stereo­type. There were no sharp edges, no engag­ing con­ver­sa­tions, no dif­fer­ences — all the hous­es were being built to the same basic blue­print, but also the con­ver­sa­tions and the social activ­i­ties. They seemed to have set­tled for so lit­tle. And here I was preaching/​teaching the King­dom of God, which seemed to me a rad­i­cal piece of good news, some­thing large. But they trans­lat­ed it back imme­di­ate­ly into the world in which they were hop­ing to be com­fort­able and retire in secu­ri­ty. I didn’t know if I could last very long. It seemed impos­si­ble to get a hear­ing for the gospel in that context.

I was read­ing a lot of John Hen­ry New­man those days. After his con­ver­sion to Rome at about age forty, he decid­ed to estab­lish an Ora­to­ry, a foun­da­tion of a few men who would work in the city. He chose Birm­ing­ham, an indus­tri­al, blue-col­lar place. All his friends object­ed — he was the most promi­nent Chris­t­ian intel­lec­tu­al in Eng­land, the best writer, the best preach­er — vir­tu­al­ly the best every­thing. And here he was going into the obscu­ri­ty and dull­ness and cultural/​intellectual waste of Birm­ing­ham, giv­ing his life to these unpromis­ing peo­ple. In a let­ter to one of these objec­tors, he wrote, Birm­ing­ham peo­ple also have souls.”2 That hit me hard. Yes, Bel Air sub­ur­ban­ites also have souls. It was a lit­tle mini­con­ver­sion, and I start­ed redefin­ing every one of these peo­ple as a soul.” It had the same effect on me as your insis­tence on see­ing each per­son as baptized.

It took Jan and me awhile, but slow­ly, we learned to set aside our bore­dom and crit­i­cism and dis­taste for the kind of lives they were liv­ing and deal with souls. I real­ized that sub­ur­bia may be the most god­less seg­ment of pop­u­la­tion in the whole world — the most press­ing mis­sion­ary field — and set­tled in to mak­ing it my lifework.

All this came flood­ing back to me as we returned to Christ Our King. It was like we had nev­er been gone — the recon­nec­tion was imme­di­ate. All these so ordi­nary peo­ple, but each one inter­est­ing, with a his­to­ry of suf­fer­ing and strug­gle and wor­ship and sin and sal­va­tion that turned out to be absolute­ly unique. Now, after the sep­a­ra­tion of nine years, I could see some­thing of what hap­pened as these peo­ple were treat­ed through those years for what they real­ly were, not what the cul­ture did to them or what they thought of them­selves but as souls. They weren’t used to that, and when we came back to them, they were respond­ing, I think, to that expe­ri­ence, that rela­tion­ship. They weren’t used to being treat­ed with the dig­ni­ty of souls” — they were used to being treat­ed as con­sumers or as vic­tims, exploit­ed and/​or con­de­scend­ed to.

The sense of com­mu­ni­ty that returned almost imme­di­ate­ly sur­prised both of us, for none of these peo­ple meant much to us per­son­al­ly as friends. We didn’t miss them when we left. And com­ing back, I didn’t sense any sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty in them, that they had been pin­ing for us or felt bereft of us. No, it was this inti­ma­cy that was a result of being treat­ed as souls, and it was sim­ply there, as strong as ever. It was as if we had walked back into a com­pa­ny of peo­ple with no sense of break or inter­rup­tion. The lit­tle kids had grown up, every­one was gray­er, and the old peo­ple had shrunk con­sid­er­ably. A sur­pris­ing num­ber had got­ten fat, which has some­thing to do, I think, with being blessed — the weight of glo­ry.” But noth­ing else had changed — it was like being plunged into a sea of inti­ma­cy and gratitude.

And I’ve thought about that since. I won­der if one of the great­est things that a pas­tor can do (after the basics are in place — the preach­ing and pray­ing and teach­ing; stay­ing true to God and fol­low­ing Jesus) is to treat men and women with sim­ple dig­ni­ty. That act in itself per­haps does all that needs to be done to bridge the worlds of need and afflu­ence, rejec­tion and accep­tance, suf­fer­ing and pros­per­i­ty, fail­ure and achieve­ment. We aren’t devis­ing strate­gies on com­mu­ni­ty or evan­ge­lism or mis­sion, but on some­thing far more basic — baptism/​image of God/​souls. The dig­ni­ty of souls cre­at­ed by God. Vir­tu­al­ly nobody in our cul­ture does that, whether in or out of the church; they are reduced to con­sumers and resources” and vic­tims — defined by their prob­lems or their sta­tus or their func­tion. We pas­tors at least have the con­text and vocab­u­lary in which we can treat them with the dig­ni­ty of souls.

It does dis­tress me when I hear pas­tors refer­ring to their parish­ioners in func­tion­al and imper­son­al terms. And I hear it a lot, and you do, too; it’s endem­ic to the cler­gy culture.

Com­bin­ing the Gig Har­bor vis­it and the Christ Our King vis­it, that’s what I’ve been think­ing of: the unique pas­toral posi­tion of hav­ing an entire King­dom con­text and vocab­u­lary for meet­ing and deal­ing with peo­ple in this per­son­al, hon­or­ing, wel­com­ing, dig­ni­ty-con­fer­ring way, regard­less of who they are or how they are used to see­ing them­selves or being treated.

The sun is shin­ing today — or at least it was up until a half hour ago — and I’m head­ed up to my work­shop to work on a toy for Anna for her birth­day in a cou­ple of weeks.

You’ll be thrilled to know that I am now trans­lat­ing Leviti­cus. I know you are antic­i­pat­ing that, and you no doubt have your whole con­gre­ga­tion wait­ing in antic­i­pa­tion. If you want to plan your next series of ser­mons on Leviti­cus, I’ll pre­pare a spe­cial pre-pub­li­ca­tion pack­age for you to work on.

I love you a lot, Eric, and I trea­sure these times to have pas­tor talk with you.

Related Podcast

[1] By Search,” Eugene is per­haps refer­ring to the Cen­ter for Orga­ni­za­tion­al Reform (COR), a min­istry (now defunct) that helped indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions pur­sue health and resilience. Both Eugene and I did work for COR over the years.

[2] Eugene revis­its this sto­ry of John Hen­ry New­man in his mem­oir The Pas­tor (page 225).

Excerpt­ed from Let­ters to a Young Pas­tor: Tim­o­thy Con­ver­sa­tions Between Father and Son. © 2020 Eric E. Peter­son. Pub­lished by Nav­Press. Used with permission.

Originally published June 2020

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