Category Archives: Pastor

INTERVIEW WITH EUGENE PETERSON’S BIOGRAPHER

Winn Collier is director of The Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary.

The following interview revolves around Collier’s highly anticipated book, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson.

Moore: Give us a bit of the backstory of how you came to be the person to write this biography of Eugene Peterson.

Collier: Well, I began reading Eugene over 20 years ago, when a generous church elder, who apparently knew I needed help, handed me a copy of Working the Angles. I was only paragraphs in when this pastoral vision Eugene described detonated in my soul. Eugene described what my soul ached for—but didn’t have any language to describe. I began to write Eugene letters, and remarkably, he wrote back. He became my pastor. In January 2017, after a trip to Montana that I assumed would be my last time to see him, I wrote Eugene and asked him about writing his biography. He hated the idea. But we kept talking, and eventually he warmed to it.   

Moore: I have read several books by Peterson. All were terrific. I also read his 2012 book simply called, The Pastor: A Memoir. How is your book different than The Pastor?

Collier: The Pastor is a beautiful memoir (though he also resisted this and only wrote it after years of cajoling), but Eugene really didn’t enjoy talking about himself. So, there were lots of interior places he shied away from and numerous rabbit trails that he never considered interesting enough to follow (“why would anybody be interested in my life,” he’d often say to me). But like a bloodhound, I couldn’t help but follow the scent, sniffing my way to fascinating revelations and numerous insightful dimensions to his life. Also, he wrote his memoir through the lens of being a pastor, but I was far more curious about the fulness of Eugene as a person. And of course, Eugene’s memoir ventured little into the years after he left his church in Bel Air, MD—and Eugene had so many remarkable years after this, some of his best stuff really.

Moore: The physicality or materiality of spirituality captivated Peterson, though I know he did not like the word “spirituality.” Would you describe why physical spaces and material realities so captivated Peterson?

Collier: If we separate the material and physical from our encounter with God, then we’ve amputated a massive part of the gospel. Eugene insisted you could never separate geography from theology. The entire story of Scripture reveals God acting in particular moments, with particular people, in particular places. Jesus was born a Jew, to one mother named Mary and spent his childhood tucked away in one dusty village, surrounded by the troubled history of the tribe of Judah. If we ignore any of this, we misunderstand Jesus. The same way, Eugene was born under the shadow of the Swan Mountain Range, for years inhaling the scent of blood and wax paper in his dad’s butcher shop, feeling his mind and heart swell as he spent Saturdays alone in the rugged vastness of that Big Sky country. To miss any of this would be to miss part of Eugene…and to miss the particular ways that God’s grace surrounded and shaped Eugene. The whole earth—every osprey and sunrise and Appalachian hollow, every painting and carpenter’s angle and every loving kiss—declares the glory of God.

Moore: What do you think are Peterson’s best three books, or at least the ones that have spoken most powerfully to you?

Collier: Let me just stick with the ones that have meant the most to me. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity names the poison in the pastoral stew better than anything I’ve read, and with precision that is both simple and daring, offers us the cure. Then either Leap Over a Wall or A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (sorry, two here) both offer artful guidance into life with God. As a third, I’d say Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, where Eugene sketches a panoramic, breathtaking vision of God’s presence in the world and with us—I don’t think this work has fully detonated in our imagination yet. There’s three (or 4). Ask me on another day, though, and I might give a different answer.

Moore: I think your book strikes a wise balance in not getting into prurient details about personal matters while still describing important details like the hurt Peterson experienced in his relationship with his dad. How did you decide what was appropriate to include and what was not?

Collier: That was tricky. I didn’t want to play into sensationalism or voyeurism. However, nothing would be more dishonoring to Eugene’s way that to stick him on a pedestal. He was human, flawed. For me, this is what makes his story so compelling. To encounter a person so fleshy and human, yet someone being transformed by holy love—that’s beautiful, that’s important for us to encounter. I wanted to include everything necessary to make it true and a well-crafted story but nothing that would merely serve as bait—that would only cheapen the story.

Moore: One disappointment I (and others) have had with Peterson is how he steered clear of what is called “polemics.” I certainly appreciate Peterson’s penchant for being irenic and avoiding nasty fights where pedantic points dominate the debate. It seems that Peterson’s desire to avoid the fleshly fray may have caused him to overreact. What do you think?

Collier: Perhaps due to my own disposition (or maybe overreaction), I tend to get more where Eugene was coming from—and operate mostly the same way myself. For Eugene, it was more about ways and means. It wasn’t at all that Eugene didn’t want to say hard things (he could light some fires, if you were paying attention), but rather Eugene felt that the way we go about polemics typically undermines whatever truth we were trying to get at. Also, he often simply distrusted the framing of the debate, the binaries, the assumptions. It wasn’t so much that Eugene refused to answer the question that was being asked—it was simply that Eugene was asking different questions. A friend once got frustrated with Eugene and accused him of being “coy.” Eugene winced at that criticism, and thought it was to some degree unfair. However, he took it to heart, and in his following book tried to be more direct in a few areas where he had something direct to say (the Christian misuse of power and the church’s idolatrous political alignment). However, I think his friend still found him coy.  

Maybe we should handle this now. What nasty fight should we wade into?

Moore: Your well-crafted words honor your subject. You did a terrific job conveying a wide range of emotions from the humorous to the poignant. What are a few things that you hope your readers will take from your book?

Collier: I hope they will encounter Eugene, what it was like to sit with him (both in laughter and silence), to watch for the osprey to swoop into the bay, to hear his raspy voice, to sit at the table after dinner and share a bowl of butter pecan ice cream, to linger with a friend whose life has become a prayer. I hope a few readers will find hope again, just knowing that there are people like Eugene and Jan who’ve lived good lives, faithful lives, artful lives—people who are far from perfect, but people who are true and trustworthy. I hope a few readers will become more curious: what could my life, lived with such receptivity to God’s love and presence, be like? or maybe: what good story is God writing with my own ordinary days and years?

JOSH HARRIS…A WARNING TO ALL OF US

Many things could and should be said about Josh Harris’s announcement that he has left both his wife and Christian faith. I offer here a few things that strike me as underappreciated by many Christians. More seriously, I also think the case can be made that these areas completely pass under the spiritual radar for far too many of us.

Be Sad, but not Surprised

The Bible makes it clear that you can cast out demons and not be a Christian (Mt. 7:21-23). Since that is true, it means that you can be a pastor, missionary, memorize lots of Scripture, lead people to faith in Jesus, and a whole bunch more, yet not be a Christian.

We American Christians are impressed with behavior. Our models for Christian growth tend to focus on what people do, not who they are. Don’t misunderstand. I am a big believer in sharing my faith, memorizing Scripture, and reading the Bible. However, Scripture warns me that these important practices for Christian growth can also be done for less than honorable reasons. Though terribly misguided, it is impressive to see someone who pours gas on his own body and then lights himself ablaze as a human torch. We’ve seen this occur from time to time in various protest movements. Such a stunning sacrifice, yet the Bible makes clear that this incredible act can be done completely devoid of love (I Cor. 13:3, NASB).

I’ve done open-air preaching on the campuses of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. I’ve also done open-air preaching on the streets of Boulder, Colorado and Dallas, Texas. Impressive, eh? I can tell you, however, that these were much easier to do than gladly serving my family when I am tired physically. People may be wowed by the public preaching, but I can attest that it was much easier to do than serving my family in obscurity.

Biblical Illiteracy is Causing Much Damage

I’m sixty-one years old. I’ve been in various ministries for over forty years. In many places where Christians congregate, I’ve seen a precipitous drop in biblical literacy. A few months ago, I asked a group of ten college students, all from evangelical backgrounds, whether they had heard at least one sermon on the book of Lamentations. Not one of them had. Here you have a book of the Bible that has much to say in our current cultural moment and yet many are unaware of its riches. I should add that the book of Lamentations is not difficult to understand. The message of Lamentations is certainly difficult to accept which maybe offers some reason why so many preachers steer clear from preaching through it. Sadly, many miss this life-giving book of the Bible that offers unvarnished language for grieving when the unthinkable happens in our life.

Taking Every Thought Captive

In II Corinthians 10, we read that we are to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” The battle always begins with our thoughts. All of us marinate on things that are ungodly. More than a few of these would be embarrassing to admit to anyone, but a loyal friend. Even then, it is risky. But what happens when you don’t know anyone who will provide a godly and safe environment to give voice to your darker thoughts? Answer: you are left to your own devices, and Scripture makes clear that going it alone is deadly.

I’ve seen this scenario play out before. A person has certain gifts that many are unwisely enamored with. The gifts cause the person to be elevated far past their maturity in Christ. In too many cases, the “indispensable” person is promoted to a position of Christian leadership when their own faith in Christ is uncertain. This, in most cases, only becomes evident later on when the damage is done.

During my various interviews for pastoral positions at four evangelical churches I was never asked about my own walk with the Lord. Everyone seemed quite happy that my two seminary degrees came from the right schools. One evangelical pastor, also with the right pedigree, only asked me about my ministry strategies for motivating church-attending men who are apathetic. In all the interviews, only one asked me about my relationship with my wife, but rather predictably, he is a professional counselor!

Where to Go from Here?

Instead of offering a grocery list of suggestions, and there are several things to consider, allow me to give one. When you think of your own life and the lives of the Christians in your orbit, focus on one thing: Who/what is loved most and why? If our communities are getting healthier, we should be free to say, “I love ministry more than God. I get more excited about shopping or golf more than anything else. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. Please help me with this.” May this be the kind of Christian communities that we build to His glory and our good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PASTORS LOOKING FOR A CHURCH…

Over the years I have read hundreds of résumés.   Actually, it is probably more than that.  In any case, between interviewing many people on radio and TV, I have also given input to some churches on pastoral searches.  I have evaluated dozens of résumés for a pastoral position.  Here are a few things which you may want to share with a friend who is applying for a pastoral position:

*First impressions are huge.  I was amazed by how poorly several of the résumés looked.  The lack of any attention to aesthetics was shocking.  I am not advocating lots of fancy stuff.  I am saying that using Courier font and inconsistent borders is not quite passing muster.

*The lack of good writing was painful to see.  Poor writing for someone going into a preaching ministry is troubling.

*The word passion is way overused.  When I see someone has a “passion” for this or that, I grow impatient.  I beg pastors to use some other word.

*Family is listed as hobby and many times not even the first one!  Some put family under a category called “interests,” but the same problem remains.  I have seen too many put gardening and golf or reading and travel on the same list as family. 

*No reason is given for leaving a particular church.  One candidate who was candid about the reason for leaving his previous position was put at the top of my pile.

*Stop using trivialities, sloganeering, platitudes, and playing to the crowd.  Since this last church I helped leans toward dispensationalism it was painful to read the pandering descriptions of how committed some candidates are to this particular system of theology.

*No references given from previous church.

*Stop saying the predictable “my wife is the most beautiful and my children are simply amazing.” 

*Dates of experience have gaps and these are not explained.

FRIENDSHIPS: OLD AND NEW

A brief reflection of mine to a friend wondering if pastors could be friends with those in their congregation.  My answer is “yes,” but my advice for all Christians is to choose wisely.  Here is my brief reflection:

You may know that Augustine wrote more about friendship than anyone else in the ancient period so his perspective adds light to our discussion.  Cicero, whose writings Augustine loved, also wrote on friendship.  Cicero’s work is just a little before Christ so the two give nice bookends to the ancient world’s perspective on friendship.  Cicero said you can’t be friends with tyrants or sycophants.  Yes, I know there are loads of those in the churches!  And with the laxity on choosing elders there are plenty of them on elder boards.  But the perversion of a good thing does not eliminate the need for the good thing. 

NO COMMENT

I’ve seen a few magazines have a “NO COMMENT” section for those things that speak for themselves.  In keeping with that tradition, here is the church web site description of Trump enthusiast and Pastor of First Baptist Dallas, Robert Jeffress:

Dr. Robert Jeffress is Senior Pastor of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas and a Fox News Contributor. He is also an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Dr. Jeffress has made more than 2000 guest appearances on various radio and television programs and regularly appears on major mainstream media outlets, such as Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “The Kelly File,” and “Hannity;” ”ABC’s “Good Morning America;” and HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

Dr. Jeffress hosts a daily radio program, Pathway to Victory, that is heard nationwide on over 800 stations in major markets such as Dallas-Fort Worth, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Seattle. His weekly television program can be seen in 195 countries and on 11,283 cable and satellite systems throughout the world, including China and on the Trinity Broadcast Network and Daystar.

Dr. Jeffress is the author of 23 books including When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense, Perfect Ending: Why Your Eternal Future Matters Today; Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning; and his newest book was released February 16, 2016, Not All Roads Lead To Heaven: Sharing An Exclusive Jesus In An Inclusive World.

Dr. Jeffress recently led the congregation in the completion of a $135 million re-creation of its downtown campus. The project is the largest in modern church history and serves as a “spiritual oasis” covering six blocks of downtown Dallas.

Dr. Jeffress graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a D.Min., a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a B.S. degree from Baylor University. In May 2010, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree from Dallas Baptist University. In June 2011, Dr. Jeffress received the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year award from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Dr. Jeffress and his wife Amy have two daughters, Julia and Dorothy, and a son-in-law, Ryan Sadler

 

 

MY CORRESPONDENCE WITH TIM KELLER

Dear Tim,

I have read several of your books and benefited greatly from each one.  I am also grateful for your willingness to do the Patheos/Jesus Creed interview with me.  Hyperbole and lack of nuance (not two things many associate with you) can be taken literally when the person communicating is well regarded.  I’m afraid that may be the case with the following.  In several places I have seen various iterations of your remarks when it comes to young preachers.  Here is one such example:

I don’t believe you should spend a lot of time preparing your sermon, when you’re a younger minister. I think because we are so desperately want our sermon to be good, that when you’re younger you spend way too much time preparing. And, you know, its scary to say this to the younger ministers… you’re not going to be much better by putting in twenty hours on that sermon–the only way you’re going to be a better preacher is if you preach often. For the first 200 sermons, no matter what you do, your first 200 sermons are going to be terrible. (laughter from the crowd). And, if you put in…fifteen or twenty hours in the sermon you probably won’t preach that many sermons because you won’t last in ministry, because your people will feel neglected.

Similar to Gladwell’s now contested “10,000 hours of practice,” many seem to take the 200 sermons in the most wooden of ways.  I get the point that it may take some five years of preaching to “find one’s voice,” but surely there is a wide variation of gifts and maturity that make the number 200 arbitrary, aren’t there?

Personally, I have heard young preachers whose maturity coupled with a genuine unction of the Spirit made it evident that “they found their voice.”  Conversely, I sadly report hearing some minsters who long ago crossed 200 sermons and still seem in search of their voice.

Sincerely in Christ,
Dave

Hi Dave—

Certainly we can’t take 200 in a wooden way. Of course there are variations. By the way, I doubt I’ve used the number “200″ more than once or twice in off hand remarks.

You are right in drawing out the broader principle. If you preach regularly, say 40-50 times a year, including Sunday preaching and other speaking at weddings, funerals, and conferences, then, yes, I’d say it takes at least three years of full-time preaching before you get even close to being as mature and skillful a preacher as you are capable of becoming.

There are basically three things that go into the “maturing” process: a) the actual preparation of the message, b) life experience—of your own heart, of pastoral work, of prayer, c) practice.

I’d say that younger preachers a) don’t have enough life experience, and b) don’t preach often enough to be growing in preaching as they should. They tend to put all the emphasis on long hours of academic prep.  It would be better if instead of 20 hrs of prep they did 5-6 hrs of prep and spent the rest of the time out involved in people’s lives, and then simply preached and spoke more often.  That is the balance that is needed. And then give it 3-5 years to come up to whatever level God has gifted you.

And, yes, I have heard some young preachers with pretty good spiritual maturity for their age and God’s anointing–be quite good.  Yet compare the sermons of the young Spurgeon (who was a teenage preaching phenom) with the old Spurgeon. The older Spurgeon sermons are far richer, wiser, better.

Tim

TOUGHEST JOBS

According to Peter Drucker, the late leadership guru, the four hardest jobs in America (and not necessarily in order, he added) are the president of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital and … a pastor.

HT: DJ Chuang