If the measure of a man’s greatness is not the amount of money in his account when he dies, but the number of lives he has touched, Eugene Peterson, who died on Oct 22 at 85, was a great man. The moment it was known that he had passed on, social media exploded with stories and testimonies from people and institutions who had been impacted by his teaching, writing and personal pastoral care.
I only met him once and heard him live once, at an event in University Presbyterian Church, Seattle. I asked him if he would consider making a ministry visit to Singapore/Malaysia. I said that it would really be an encouragement to the saints in this part of the world. But he said “no” straight away. He was not interested in “enlarging his tents” or enhancing his reputation by personally ministering in new territory. His approach to ministry is totally counter cultural in a modern evangelical-charismatic Christianity driven by the need to be relevant and to be seen as relevant in as large a geographical area as possible.
Even in his passing, Eugene Peterson ministered to me. In response to his passing, a dear friend sent me a link to this article written by Peterson in 1981. In that article Peterson talks about why it is critical that pastors should not be imprisoned by busyness. This was an article I needed as I thought about how to repent from a life that is overloaded with commitments. The whole article is excellent and should be read by all pastors and all in church leadership. What particularly struck me was his analysis of why most pastors are so busy. He says that most of us are busy because of two reasons.
First, it is because we are vain.
I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself—and to all who will notice—that I am important.
Ouch. This is a particularly insidious temptation. After all we are in ministry to help people. Shouldn’t we help as many as we can? And the fact that we are busy often means that we cannot step back far enough to see the signs. But they are there. I feel disappointed when no one tells me what a great job I have done after I have preached or taught. I secretly wonder why when a plan to invite me to teach outside Singapore/Malaysia falls through. I get miffed when an opinion I express doesn’t seem to be taken seriously or, worse, is ignored altogether. So — how much of my busyness is fuelled by vanity?
Second, Peterson says we are busy because, wait for it, we are lazy.
The other reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. . . .
By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.
Ouch again. Our life and work ought to be God-driven not need-driven. Our starting point must be God. We are to hear and obey Him. This takes time and commitment. It is so much easier to just respond to the many invitations that come through email/sms/WhatsApp/Facebook messenger/etc., etc. We will always be doomed to respond to the many voices if we do not first stop and listen to the Voice.
So thank you, again, Eugene Peterson. God spoke to me through this article. I am clear what I need to do if I am to be liberated from the oppressive busyness that has marked my life for much of this year. As always, most of our struggles are resolved when we turn back to God. If my self-worth is rooted in God, I don’t need to continue to do more and more to prove to others and to myself that I am important. And if my life and work is God-directed, I can rest in a life where, led by the Lord, I can say “yes” and “no” to the many demands that come my way.
Ok, I have made similar resolutions many times in my life. I will need help if I am to make any real progress. I need the help of the Holy Spirit, I need the help of my family, and I need the help of my spiritual friends. Following Christ in community, well that is also a lesson from Eugene Peterson. May we all learn and continue to learn from our dear brother, how to live well, and how to end well.