By his own admission it was an unpremeditated comment that abruptly stopped the conversation among a group of young seminarians; at least momentarily until Peterson could elaborate with a story. That pattern of mentioning, almost offhandedly, a startling image or phrase followed by a meandering, insightful story is how this memoir unfolds. In fact, it is how Peterson’s life unfolds: meandering from his beloved birthplace in Montana with his father, the town butcher, and his mother, the wise Pentecostal preacher-storyteller, to the depths of doctoral work in biblical studies at Johns Hopkins, on to his enduring vocation as pastor, writer and spiritual mentor. Over the course of this meandering life, Peterson has influenced a generation of pastors mostly with his prolific writing about the pastoral vocation that emerges from close attention to scripture. That influence has extended further with his hugely popular translation of the bible into contemporary language — “street language” — The Message. All of which makes his candid confessions in this memoir astonishing, and enormously encouraging for other pastors trying to make sense of “the mess.”
In a reflective letter to a young pastor, Peterson writes candidly that after fifty years in this vocation, ‘it strikes me as curious that I have almost no sense of achievement. Doesn’t that seem odd?” Indeed it does. In that same letter Peterson returns to the theme of messiness. “What I remember most is lot of stumbling around, fumbling the ball, losing my way, and then finding it again. It is amazing that anything came of it.” One might wonder if this is false humility given to encourage a young pastor. But this memoir actually reveals how deeply Peterson struggled to find his own pastoral vision from the unlikely beginning when the newly minted Presbyterian pastor and his wife started a congregation in the suburbs of Baltimore. That was followed by a long stretch of formative years they called “The Badlands”, which every pastor will recognize.
This memoir offers glimpses into Peterson’s personal and family life that will be of interest to readers, particularly the role that his wife, Jan, has played in his pastoral work. In the fledgling suburb congregation meeting in their home, she became the beacon of hospitality, always complementing the contemplative, quiet pastor, intent on biblical studies, prayer and worship. Some might wonder about such a pastor-spouse model, but there is no indication of anything other than a genuinely shared ministry growing from strong marital companionship. In the end he remarks that “worship and family” preserved the uniqueness of the pastoral vocation.
While these personal glimpses are interesting, Peterson has firmly tethered his memoir to the larger purpose of closely examining the use of language that he believes is the heart of the pastoral vocation, especially the use of story to form community. No one tells stories quite like Eugene Peterson. This memoir is like a long conversation listening to stories of a seasoned pastor who revels in mystery and is old enough to tell the truth about the messiness of his vocation, all the while praising the God who has guided his meandering path.
Roy W. Howard is pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Md., and Outlook book editor.