Four years ago, I moved to western Montana to accept my first-call as a pastor. Coming straight out of seminary in the heart of flatland America, I was awed to serve in what still seems like a mountainous frontier. Though there have been people living here for thousands of years, wilderness is still respected in western Montana like few other places in our world these days. I was eager to engage my spirituality in this place while at the same time cutting my teeth as a pastor.
Full of eagerness to finally live out the vocational expression of my faith that I had been discerning and preparing for over the years, I was eager to soak up any mentorship that I could. It is no small coincidence that in my first month of serving here I read an interview with Eugene Peterson. (Of course, perhaps I should not be surprised at this since, even in his 80’s, he welcomed spiritual seekers like me every week.) In the interview I read, Eugene talked about how megachurches and church growth hysteria permeated church culture over the decades spanning his career and how this phenomenon has had detrimental effects all across the church. He shared that when people were moving away from his congregation in Maryland and asked his advice about seeking new churches elsewhere, he would say, “Go to the closest, smallest church you can find, and stay there for six months.” Eugene authentically stood against the illusions of grandeur that come with having thousands of members and attenders, and I will always appreciate that about his ministry.
As a pastor of a small congregation, in a small town, in a state dubbed “The Last Best Place,” his advocacy for commitment to small faith communities was music to my ears. Though small, rural churches have always been overlooked and passed over by urban cathedrals and the interests of church leaders in metropolitan areas, the fascination with big churches has reached epic proportions as of late. People interpret church growth as a sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on large congregations, and disparage the lack of church growth in small ones as a sign that the Spirit is blowing elsewhere. But not Eugene. He saw through the trappings of our age and understood that small communities are places that foster genuine spiritual discipline, faithful contemplation of what God is doing in the world, and honest spirituality in ways that larger churches often lose sight of under pressure to perform for the masses. I will always be grateful to Eugene for lifting up the truth that God does great things through meek churches.
I will be most grateful for how Eugene brought God down from the mountain for the rest of us."
But, I think I will be most grateful for how Eugene brought God down from the mountain for the rest of us. I recently listened to an interview Eugene did with Krista Tippet in her show On Being on NPR. In the interview, Eugene talked about how he encountered God in the wilderness when he was young. On his days off of school, he would head out into the mountains surrounding Kalispell and spend his time find our Creator in creation. He encountered God in the mountainous wilderness of Montana, finding rocks that declare the Lord's praise, streams that sing with Our Savior's mercy, and trees that stand in exultation of our God. In his days on the mountain, Eugene learned to read the Psalms and praise God with the rest of the created world through which he journeyed. What a wonderful way to grow in the faith!
A profound aspect of Eugene’s legacy for the next generation of faith leaders is that when he came down from the mountains he learned to share his spiritual encounters with God to the rest of the world. Anymore, there are many who are content to find God on the mountain and keep these powerful experiences to themselves. There are many who proudly dwell in the significance of what their Christian faith means to them, while neglecting considerations of what their faith might mean to others. Too many people these days proudly relish in seeing God in their child’s eyes, rest in the knowledge that the work they do is in service to the Kingdom of Heaven, and come before the thrown of God when they are praying alone. Our next generation of Christians, and especially Christian pastors, could learn a lot from Eugene Peterson who encountered our living Lord in all of these ways, and then turned around and brought God down with him off of the mountain to make the Lord’s presence known among the people.
Today is All Saint’s Day, a day when we remember the faithful departed. For the first time Eugene Peterson is among their ranks. As he enjoyed sharing his life on earth in the company of the faithful, I am sure he feels right at home with those who have already joined in the resurrection. He was a humble, yet poetic witness to the presence of God in our world, and now stands as a witness to the Gospel in the world to come. May he rest in unending peace.
Eugene Peterson's memorial service will be held at 1 pm (Mountain Standard Time) on Saturday, November 3rd at First Presbyterian Church in Kalispell, Montana. You can live stream the service through the congregation's website: https://www.fpckalispell.org/
Rev. Seth Nelson is the author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He serves as a pastor in Ronan, Montana, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.