Lessons Learned

Eugene Peterson passed away in October. Some of you will recognize Peterson as the author of The Message, a contemporary and interpretive translation of the Bible. Some of you may not recognize the name at all but Peterson is well-known to many pastors and other church leaders. He is beloved for his contemplative approach to ministry and his unwavering encouragement to ministers. I have always found Peterson’s work helpful. In his honor, I want to share a few lessons I have learned from him.

Lesson #1: The Bible is an invitation to engage the Living Word of God.
I can’t imagine how Peterson came to the decision to offer his own translation of the Scriptures.  These are typically done by large committees of scholars who take years to accomplish the work. It is perhaps the most daunting task biblical scholars can undertake. The decision to take up the call is perhaps the greatest illustration of both Peterson’s ideas about and engagement with the Bible. As Peterson wrote in Eat This Book, the Word of God is something to be consumed to the point it becomes a part of us. It is the entry point into a conversation with the Living Word of God. As such, all of us are tasked with re-imagining what it has to say to us in our present day and time. We need to search for new metaphors and find the words in our common parlance to express the eternal truth of Scripture.  Peterson devoted much of his life to doing just that in his work on The Message.

Lesson #2:  The most important thing we ever do is pray.
Peterson often referred to prayer as “keeping company with God.”  This is an everyday, all day, all times and all places kind of thing. Prayer is entering into the presence of God and staying there. Paul said we are to pray without ceasing. Everything can be done in a prayerful manner.  For Peterson, the act of ministry (and I would expand that to include all acts of discipleship) is rooted in contemplation. To act without prayer is to live without God’s presence. Peterson was an emphatic proponent of praying the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, as a way to center us on God’s presence with us.
Lesson #3: Discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction.

Peterson borrowed the words of Nietzsche of all people to define discipleship in this simple phrase, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Peterson wrote a book by that title on the Psalms of Ascent. Some of you will remember a series in worship on this book from a few years ago. He argues in that book that, as disciples, we are pilgrims in this world. We are passing through on our way to somewhere. On our journey, grace and gratitude are our constant companions.  Discipleship is the daily practice of following obediently where God is leading consistently over time.

These are simple lessons on their face. Granted, I have reduced them significantly for the space available here.  In fact, they are profoundly fundamental to the living of our faith. They certainly have been for me.