Today, I had an interesting conversation with a small gathering of parishioners. I was making my eighth appearance before the Trinity Book Club — a group of folks who have met for years to enjoy each other’s fellowship and to discuss books and authors that are of interest to them. The first year I was at Trinity, I was invited to address the group in November — thus, November is “my month” (in perpetuity, I suspect!).
For today’s meeting, I decided to review, for the group’s edification, one of the books I read during my sabbatical: The Pastor: A Memoir, by Eugene Peterson. This book, by one of my favorite authors, offers the reader a peek inside of Peterson’s childhood in small town Montana as well as Peterson’s take on how those experiences shaped his life. The bulk of the book, though tells the stories of Peterson’s work as a pastor in a Presbyterian congregation he “planted” in the early 1960’s, and where he remained until his retirement from congregational ministry nearly thirty years later.
I was particularly taken with Peterson’s description of the pastoral work — work which Peterson primarily characterizes as reading the stories of Scripture and weaving those stories with the stories of the people in the congregation. He served his folks as “the pastor” — the everyday exegete — who translated the great themes of creation, sin, redemption, reconciliation and judgment into the vernacular of suburban, middle to upper middle class Americans. Along the way he baptized, officiated at weddings and planted plenty of mortal remains in hope of the resurrection. Certainly there was the usual froth of administrative details along the way (the stuff he grumpily/lovingly referred to as prerequisite to “running the damned church.”) Mostly, though, Peterson saw his pastoral role as a collector and teller of stories. Hundreds upon hundreds of little stories woven into the tapestry of the BIG story of the Gospel of Jesus.
The community of faith in which Peterson was the pastor was the field he plowed for those stories. Year after year — first in one direction, then, in another. Back and forth. Back and forth. Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost through Ordinary Time and back again. Over and over and over. Year in and year out.
As I was talking to the book group, reading excerpts from Peterson’s work, I decided to ask them about one of the previous rectors of Trinity Church. I wanted to hear from the members of the group how they experienced that particular priest’s tenure — a span of over thirty-five years. I simply asked the questions, “What did he do all day?”
I was expecting they would tell me he how he visited parishioners in their home and at the hospital. I expected they would tell me about how they liked/didn’t like his sermons. I expected they would tell me about his teaching or their appreciation of his life of prayer.
What I heard instead was the phrase, “He was a good man,” repeated several time — in a tone, which at once was both respectful and a bit melancholy. They told me how he organized the Women’s Guilds and occasionally upbraided the congregation for failing to sing a hymn with sufficient verve. They told me how he yelled at kids in confirmation class who didn’t do their homework. (Just allow the concept of required homework from a confirmation class sink in and you’ll know it was a different world then!) They also told me of the ways in which he made sure the widows and orphans in the parish received tangible assistance in their need — time and time again, with gentleness and patience. For all his gruffness, he was, by everyone’s account, “Good”.
Never once did I hear about this man’s ability as a preacher or teacher. Apparently over the forty years since this rector’s departure, the vast majority, if not ALL, of the words he uttered through his years of service, have evaporated from congregational memory. Yet, he is remembered. Not because he was perfect, but because he was “good”. The folks telling me the story today seemed content that “good” was “good enough”.
I doubt this poignant reminder of the impermanence of words will allow me to stop obsessing over the preaching task, but the folks who talked with me today gave me the gift of clarity: A life that preaches is far more significant than a life of preaching. Who knows? Maybe being remembered as a “good” pastor is “good enough.” Faithfulness counts. For Eugene Peterson. For George White. And for me.
Thanks Eugene Peterson, for sharing your story, because in telling a bit of it, I was inspired to learn more about the story of the community of faith I now serve. Your story also helped me discover a deeper appreciation for the community of clergy who have spent the past one hundred twenty-five years plowing this particular field in God’s Kingdom — weaving their stories and the stories of the people they served with THE story of God’s Good News. Year after year — first in one direction, then, in another. Back and forth. Back and forth. Advent to Christmas to Epiphany to Lent to Easter to Pentecost through Ordinary Time and back again. Over and over and over. Year in and year out.
They did their best to be good at it. Perhaps a few of them accomplished the feat. I get to try again tomorrow. Thanks be to God!