When Eugene Peterson, the great contemplative pastor, died last Autumn, I found as many interview videos of him as I could, and watched them all. What impressed me about his latest interviews was this:
Whether he was asked about his life, his ministry, about the counsel he would give young people in ministry, his response was always a variation on the utterly simple but elusive quest to just be yourself.
One can tell through these videos that the joy in which Peterson reveled in his old age was precisely this: the increasing pleasure of merely being himself. For Peterson, this second coming-of-age was not a growing disregard for sources of personal and moral formation outside of himself. Nor was it a quest to discover some hidden “self” within himself. It was rather a gradual—though quicker than for most!—and at last triumphant loosening of the fetters that bound his soul to what we might call juvenile ambition.
I have tended to go on spurts of great ambition myself. And to champion ambition against its naysayers. And I would still defend it today, if what we mean by ambition is intentionality, deliberateness, zeal, and even something so crude-sounding as goal-setting. No one thinks of novelist and writer Annie Dillard as a paragon of American “Ambition,” but she nevertheless has grabbed hold of thousands of wandering attentions with her sage counsel: “A schedule is a net for catching days.” And “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
My instinct is that Peterson learned to catch days. Not by pursuing “achievement” or “progress” in the American industrial sense of those words. Rather, I think he learned to shut out the world in order to hear particular people. When asked about his magnificent paraphrase of the entire Bible, he said that he spent the first years of the project simply pastoring his congregation, learning how they used their English language, and recognizing that plain folk, normal folk who aren’t pastor-scholar-nerds, speak the English language much more plainly, effectively, naturally, and with greater feeling than academic lexicographers do.
Peterson was, as the Christian approach to culture is too infrequently summarized, against the world for the world. In order to contribute, he had to shun “achievement.” In order to speak through and beyond the noise and clamor of the American Christian trinket-and-publishing industrial complex, he had to ignore it and focus his attention on his little church in Bel Air, Maryland. By the end of his life, his very congregation had taught him how best to be himself. The real Eugene. He didn’t rush it. He knew that, by and by, the real Eugene was destined to develop and emerge. But first he had to be deliberately, almost monastically, local. Intentionally contemplative, prayerful, and hopeful.
Earlier in my own ministry, I too often caved in to juvenile ambition. Propelled and justified by a dubious earnestness and urgency to “make an impact” and “start a movement,” I indulged in the rush and hurry of church planting, even as I formally renounced all the industrial metaphors. I made fun of those who “launched” churches and insisted that we “plant” them instead. But despite my organic vocabulary, I was a manager, ambitious at heart and impatient in spirit.
As our congregation enters upon an initiative to pair mentors and mentees in relationships designed to foster support and growth in grace, I have been enjoying our leadership’s consensus that we aren’t going to programmatize things. That we aren’t going to churn out disciples on a conveyor belt. That, instead, we are all going to commit to pursuing growth in grace, to supporting one another’s growth. I am enjoying a certain feeling of liberty, rather than managerial unease, as we pursue this together.
I am among the late-bloomers when it comes to the blessed substitution of patient intentionality in the place of juvenile ambition.
The great German poet of a century ago Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, says of art and artists what I think can be said about ministry and ministers; about Christian growth and Christians; about human development and human beings:
Being an artist means: Not numbering and counting but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconscernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the so-called 10,000-hour-rule. The idea that to become great at something, you’ve got to put in 10,000 hours. I bet Rilke would say “fine, but don’t count the hours.”
Ten years into my pastoral ministry, I find myself repeating myself, particularly as I try to bring my sermons to a close. Two of the things that I keep saying are, “Isn’t it such a wonderful thing to be a Christian believer?” and “Remember: in Jesus Christ, your best days are always still ahead of you.”
Or, as Rilke tells his young poet, whom he mentors patiently with his tender letters:
“You are so young, and so much before all beginning.”