This Someday Eden
I didn’t encounter the transformative writings of Eugene Peterson until my mid-thirties, and that’s probably a good thing. Any earlier than that, and I’m afraid I might have dismissed them altogether. I wanted to save humanity, after all. My world was far too big for his earthy calls to local faithfulness.
I spent my childhood in a doubly insulated world. Not only did we make our home in Tyler, Texas, boasting more churches per capita than any other city in the country, we also lived in a parachurch community of international missionary staff.
There was a whirlwind of kinetic energy swirling inside that bubble and, it seemed to me, a great clarity of purpose, too. Every one of us “had a heart” for some specific people group or country, and we had the passport stamps to prove it. We would sing the words of the second Psalm, “Ask of me and I will give you nations as your inheritance,” as if it were God’s standing invitation to us personally. Thus, we would respond with prayers like, “Lord, give me Estonia!”
Every week, outreach teams returned from the field gushing with stories of soul-winning, Bible-smuggling, children-rescuing efforts from the jungles of Brazil to the closed borders of Communist Europe. And every week, such stories swept me away and my calling would change. “Lord, give me Papua New Guinea!”
In the ensuing years, my feet never stopped itching, and my heart never stopped grabbing hold of potential outlets for ministry, meaning, and identity. By the time I was thirty, I felt the ghosts of Hudson Taylor, John Wesley, and the Moravian missionaries breathing down my neck. These men changed entire nations, but I had yet to start a single revival!
I wanted to do something big. But instead of running into my grand, international destiny, I ran headlong into Eugene H. Peterson.
I had only known “The Pastor” as the author of The Message, but I heard a well-known anecdote about him that caught my attention: When one of Peterson’s students reported to him that the lead singer of U2 had been raving about The Message, he reportedly asked the student, “Who’s Bono?”
Something about that little story awakened a holy curiosity within me. How could a man be so nonchalant about his status? I wondered. Bono’s endorsement was a testament to the massive scope of Peterson’s worldwide impact and should have signaled to him that he had, really and truly, arrived. But by all accounts, Peterson was altogether unaffected by such reactions. He gave glory to God, and kept his head down, seeming thoroughly unimpressed with himself.
I began seeking out more of Peterson’s writings after that. His memoir, The Pastor, reinforced his reputation for humility in the midst of success. His twenty-nine year tenure at his Maryland church stood as a monument to quiet faithfulness: to feet that didn’t itch, and to a heart that doggedly refused the spotlight.
More than that, though, I saw a man who was content with home and place. In this light, his translation of Psalm 131 sounds almost autobiographical:
“God, I’m not trying to rule the roost,
I don’t want to be king of the mountain.
I haven’t meddled where I have no business
Or fantasized grandiose plans.
I’ve kept my feet on the ground,
I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.
Like a baby content in its mother’s arms,
My soul is a baby content.” Ps 131:1-2 MSG
My soul had never tasted such contentedness, and I found myself drawn there: to the soils of simplicity and faithfulness; to a ground that might become familiar, and into which my roots might drive deep.
The text of Psalm 131 framed Peterson’s chapter on humility in his classic work A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. There, he draws a contrast between godly aspirations and spiritual ambition.
Aspiration is the channeled, creative energy that moves us to growth in Christ, shaping goals in the Spirit. Ambition takes these same energies for growth and development and uses them to make something tawdry and cheap, sweatily knocking together a Babel when we could be vacationing in Eden.
The good pastor had diagnosed my disease years before I ever contracted it. Somewhere along my journey, I had allowed my own godly aspiration to sour into spiritual ambition. Instead of envisioning the global harvest, I was trying to lay a personal claim to it. Instead of selflessly offering myself up to God and His kingdom, I was playing about with daydreams, knocking nations together into a tower that might someday reach the heavens.
This was nobody’s fault but my own. My leaders and colleagues never put me in the center of our work. I was the one who made it about myself. They never told me the grass was greener on the other continent. In fact, the long-term overseas missionaries are always trying to erase the romantic glow the rest of us tend to cast over their work. They understand we are in the same business. We are all tending gardens.
Today, I am still working to correct my mistake. I’m trying follow Peterson’s lead in helping to shepherd a congregation with humble anonymity. And the irony is not lost on me: I am at once trying to become more faceless and more public. Even as I venture into the world of book-writing, I am endeavoring to sink my hands ever deeper into this rich, local soil. These local seeds. These local souls. But if a man like Eugene Peterson, with his massive, international impact, could walk this path and keep his soul grounded, then maybe I, too, can continue to find poetry in the everyday.
For now, I thank God for this messy and beautiful garden where He’s placed me. Here there is good ground and rocky soil, deep roots and choking weeds, withering vines and blossoming fruit. Here seeds of sorrow and joy intermingle. We grow together, ache together, and praise together. And instead of crying, “Lord, give us the nations,” we ask, “Lord, help us be faithful in this small place; this someday Eden.”