The Passing Of The Hero
Listen to “The Passing Of The Hero” by Fred Smith
Oswald Chambers wrote “Our soul’s history with God is frequently the history of the passing of the hero. It is not wrong for you to depend on your “Elijah” for as long as God gives him to you. But remember that the time will come when he must leave and will no longer be your guide and your leader because God does not intend for him to stay.”
When I read last week that Eugene Peterson had entered hospice care I felt bereft. It was not mourning although I know that will come soon. It was being left without a hero. Eugene would never have claimed hero status and was adamant about the snare of becoming a celebrity figure. He was especially suspicious of religious success that displaced the calling of a local pastor caring for the souls of individuals. How often did we all hear him say, “The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans” or “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches.”
The last time Eugene spoke at The Gathering he was our Bible teacher. When I invited him, I did not know what to expect. I was delighted when he accepted because in the times I had been with him over the years I had been impressed with his directness, practical application of poetic language, and his dedication to his own ordination as a pastor. When the trend seems to be two extremes lately – pastors are just ordinary folk like you and me or they are icons to be revered – Eugene is neither of those. He’s not ordinary and he’s not interested in being venerated. He’s a pastor who has spent his life deeply immersed in the lives of his congregation. Wendell Berry says this through the character of Jayber Crow: “And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place, had made it answerable to my life. Of course, you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose, it seems, without being chosen. For the place, in return, had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.” Eugene Peterson chose a place and people who had a claim on his life – and he on theirs.
I received this note from Eugene along with his agreement to speak. “As I prepare my soul for the conference it would help greatly if you would give me some sense of who these people are and the circumstances of their lives. I am a pastor and “congregation” is an important ingredient in what I say. I don’t have a “stump speech” that I give. So anything you could tell me that would help me in the months I have in prayer and imagining would help.” I responded by asking several Gathering participants if they would write Eugene directly and tell him where they are in their lives. I could have done it but I thought it would be far more helpful if he heard from them. It was. I know this – and I am not saying it to compare his response to any other speaker past, present or future – I had never had anyone ask me such a pastoral question about the participants. “How can I know something about their lives so I can pray, imagine and prepare?”
I’ve written before about my commitment to teaching Sunday School. For that, I can thank Eugene Peterson. Years ago, in Working The Angles he wrote about the vow of ordination. “This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularist hopes for something better. There are lots of things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working…we are going to end up living futile fantasy lives.”
Eugene Peterson has lived his vow and never given in to the demand to tell us something other than what he was ordained to speak and write. I know that God does not intend for him to stay forever but he will be missed by all who love him.