Writings by Cole Huffman

Thank You, Eugene Peterson

“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:15)

I consider Eugene H. Peterson a father in Christ. I’ve never met him, and will not this side of Heaven. As I write this, he is in hospice care. 

Many have contributed to my pastoral formation, but from him I learned to be a literary pastor. That’s not one who writes scholarly or reads widely, though Peterson blessed both for me. It’s not habitually communicating at “a cut above pew level,” as Peterson once put it. What it is can be illustrated by drawing a difference between literary fiction and popular fiction. 

Popular fiction is driven by plot. It is more or less just a story. Don’t ask questions of it. It’s the book equivalent of comfort food. Call it light/vacation/mindless reading. 

Literary fiction probes the reader. It will examine the character of the people involved in the story. As Bret Lott puts it in Letters and Life, “Literary fiction confronts us with who we are and makes us look deeply at the human condition.”

Peterson was a literary pastor. He concerned himself with the character of pastoral ministry. Before The Message,his famed Bible translation, pastors knew Peterson as a fellow pastor writing to us about pastoral ministry in North America. He made us look deeper at our calling. 

I’ve been asked if it’s okay to read The Message. In my experience under the interdenominational big tent, questions like that have the ring of fundamentalist influence, which Peterson left behind him as a young man. I thought I had too, but I still find it in my default settings. Just recently I second-guessed blessing someone’s steady diet of The Messagein their Bible reading. Shouldn’t I have recommended a more hearty alphabet soup (ESV, NAS, NIV)?

That’s why I’ve needed Peterson all these years. I’m not the ecumenist he was, nor do I desire to be. But in his writing my tribalism was confronted. I came up in churches where the accent was always on Jesus’ will. From Peterson I got the complement of Jesus’ way. In this I was like the lady he remembers from his youth, who puttered around her spacious house with the shades always drawn. He wanted to throw the windows open for her. 

He did the pastoral equivalent of that for me. Peterson called any pastor who would listen away from the gospel according to America. He stuck a pin in every aspiration to climb the ladder or find greener grass everywhere but where God sent me. He called our bluff in this because pastors, like Jonah, head for Tarshish way too easily. 

But he did it by engaging our imagination, not railing at us. Peterson called repentance “the first word in Christian immigration, [that] sets us on the way to traveling in the light. It is a rejection that is also an acceptance, a leaving that develops into an arriving, a no to the world that is a yes to God.” He called worship “the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God.”

Worship and repentance pace “a long obedience in the same direction.” Peterson is credited with originating that phrase, but he baptized it out of Friedrich Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is…that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” 

Peterson kept a lot of us from becoming practical Nietzcheans—hating the church for its weakness and hypocrisies while making our living from it. It’s an occupational hazard for professional Christians. I would go to a Peterson book when I thought I wanted out of the church. He’d send me back in every time. And not just back in, but back in wanting to be a truer servant, never a user, of the Lord’s people. From Peterson I learned that the church, every church, is “equal parts mystery and mess.”

I’ve had many guides in Christ but not many fathers, so I take this space to pay homage to one. The next verse in 1 Corinthians 4, Paul says, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” (The Message: “I’m not, you know, asking you to do anything I’m not already doing myself.”) For almost three decades in ministry now, I’ve been a poor imitation of the literary pastor I found in Peterson.

But there are many of us in pastoral ministry today with five smooth stones for the work. Many of us are practicing resurrection. We’re leaping over walls, working the angles, and running with the horses because God used Eugene H. Peterson’s honest writing to vocationally form us. It is no overstatement to say I don’t think I would be an evangelical pastor today if not for him.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 1:43 PM
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