My Reading Universe, Pt. 1: Eugene Peterson

The other night at church, someone asked, “Hey Eric, what are you reading?” This is always a very complicated question for me to answer, because I’m using churning through 6 or 7 books at a time, but I thought I’d take a few minutes here and outline the major “pillars” of my reading universe. These are the people that simultaneously, form, shake, and enhance my ministry, my world view, and my creative spirit. There are numerous other authors, of course, but these are my “mainstays”.

So over the next few days/weeks, I’ll outline who these folks are — to me, at least — and why they matter. In short, they are:

  • Eugene Peterson
  • NT Wright
  • Brennan Manning
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Cormac McCarthy

Let’s start with Eugene Peterson. He’s the guy who wrote The Message. When I began my vocational ministry “career” someone — quite randomly — threw his book called Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Ministry at me, and I through myself into the book with the enthusiasm of someone who’d thought they had the whole world figured out (I was soon to find otherwise). I suppose the next thing I read by him was his translation/paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, then after that I devoured 5 or 6 more of his, including Five Smooth Stones and Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

I’ll be honest: sometimes, I have no idea what Peterson is trying to say, and even when I do “get” him, the result can at times be a bit, “meh.” But what sings through, much of the time, is the voice of a poet and pastor, who at times just nails the balance of rigorous intellectual pursuit with the gentle voice of an artist-pastor. Peterson was the guy who showed me that you did not have to be a “Type A”, CEO-type in order to be a leader in the contemporary USAmerican church. He also reminds me that “pastoring” comes from a long tradition, with deep wells. We don’t need to “invent” discipleship for people. In so many ways, the same words and disciplines that worked for people in the 13th century still work today.

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Chicago Drifts Slowly Away

Opened up a Eugene Peterson book tonight, looking for some words to share with my musical worship team, and out popped an Intelligentsia “Buy 9 Drinks, Get the 10th Free” card. It was ironic. I remembered getting that card with a friend of mine almost three years ago when we were at a Willow Creek conference together. At the time, I thought it would just be a matter of time ’til I’d “need” that card again.

Little did I know.

Now, indeed, as the lyrics to the Maida Vale song go, “Chicago drifts slowly away…”

I struggle to embrace my life without sidewalks, without Autumn (I mean, really: you can’t call this Autumn), without the long walks through four neighborhoods, getting the chance to observe lives in microcosm.

I am beginning to doubt my timely return to “home”, and again wonder what to do in exile. Maybe I should take my own advice by way of God and Jeremiah: “Seek the shalom of the city you live in. Settle down; have a family.”

Okay sure, but was Babylon filled with crazy rednecks who were obsessed with college football??!!??

Just kidding. Kind of.

In my darkest moments, I don’t know why I’m here. Nothing “fits” with me here. But this is where I am, and my faith says clearly, “This is not about you. God writes his story everywhere, and your choice is whether or not to be a part of it.”

“Blue”

Girl, I know you’re in need of a hero
But the glory’s never called my name
I huddle at night,
And shy from the light
While Chicago drifts slowly away

And down here on the avenue
Where lovers have waited for years
To come when you call
Put a hand out when you fall
Hiding in phone books that are cloudy with tears

And is your heart blue?
Are you crying?
Girl I’m lonely too
Is your heart blue?

Well you sang your song to the darkness
And the silence just called back your name
Now that lonely song
Holds back the dawn
That can rise up and usher in your day

And girl you know I’m looking for you, girl
Thought I might find you downtown
And your wedding dress
Is stained and torn to shreds
From running ’round with your “other man”

And is your heart blue
Are you lonely
From all the bad times you been through
Is your heart blue

I’ll be your flame
In cold December
You will remain
You will remember our love

Is your heart blue?
Is your heart blue?
Girl I’m lonely too
Is your heart blue…

No One Stands Alone

“No One Stands Alone”

The church where my faith initially took root and began to grow legs had a motto, “No One Stands Alone.” I wasn’t a part of its development; I don’t know who came up with it, or what debates may have surrounded its selection. What I do know, however, is that it spoke to a deep need of me and my friends: to know and to be known. That slogan has remained with me as sort of a DNA-like implant on my soul: a church should be a place where no one stands alone, whether at a party or in the darkest hour of need.

Yet, still, this is much more easily said then done. We naturally gravitate towards folks we know, folks who have common passions, interests, and hobbies. In isolation, there’s really nothing wrong with this. But the people of God should somehow be different; there should be a constant “intentionality”, or focus, to practically everything we do. Whenever we gather, the radical expression of hospitality should be right there with us as a subtext. There is always an opportunity to be the voice of welcome, the face of hospitality: all you have to do is too look for those who are standing—or sitting—alone. Welcome them into your conversations; find out what their story is, and tell your own.

I am a self-confessed introvert; one of my favorite off-handed comments is basically, “Yeah, but everyone knows that I don’t like people.” This is obviously meant to be humorous, but I know that this is brokenness and sin in my life — I intensely guard “my time”, and am reluctant to engage “the stranger” in hospitality. At the same time, I burn with indignation and conviction when I see people standing alone, staring at the backs of groups of strangers who are engaging in the well-practiced art of exclusion. The church has become much to adept at this, and we need to stop.

In the same spirit of John’s 1st letter (“We love because he first loved us”), we should welcome others because we were first welcomed by God. We have come from being radical outsiders to the very people of God, and now it’s our turn to look with the eyes of the welcoming Savior to find those who are waiting to know us, and to be also known. What if the next time you attended a worship gathering or event at “church”, you took a moment to pray to God, asking him to give you eyes that would recognize the outsider, the lonely? What if you invited those who were sitting by themselves to join your friends? Your family? I think it would start a quiet, radical revolution of love and invitation in our communities.