Monday Morning Proverb

"Do you see those skilled in their craft?  They will stand before kings. They will not stand before obscure men"  Proverbs 22:29

For the few moments Heather and I were in Eugene Peterson's home last week, I couldn't help but notice the table where Eugene and Bono had a recent conversation. The first time Bono reached out to him, Eugene had no time to meet. He hadn't heard of Bono, and he was too busy working on completing The Message. During that same time, I had also attempted to get Eugene to teach a course for me at Western. I too was turned down. At least I was in good company!

But as Peterson told me last week, numerous people began to remark, "Do you realize who you turned down?" They of course weren't talking about me. And no, Peterson had no idea he had rejected an opportunity to see the lead vocalist of the rock band U2. He did not know Bono was a songwriter and singer who happened to be granted honorary knighthood by Elizabeth II, as well as honored as Time's Person of the Year in 2005. But as Eugene shared, he was in the thick of spending time in Isaiah, and the prophet was the greater priority.

Bono became aware of Eugene's work in The Message, especially Psalms, because it is a translation that connects with the language he uses. And though they did not initially see each other, they eventually met. Eugene and his wife Jan were flown in Bono's personal jet to hear U2 in concert. And Bono came to Flathead Lake, where he and Eugene discussed the Psalms. Their time is captured in a YouTube video, Bono and Eugene Peterson: THE PSALMS.

I did not ask Eugene what it was like to fly in Bono's plane and hear him in concert, but I am guessing he must have wondered--how did a man growing up in rural Montana, eventually planting a simple church in the basement of his home in Maryland, and writing books to pastors come to a place where he was invited to spend time with one of the world's most famous musicians?

Proverbs 22:29 makes the point that those who are diligent in their work, faithful to their gifts, and who excel in their craft have a way of being found out. We may not have our picture taken with the President or spend time on some celebrity's yacht, but the sage's observation is that, in the main, people who give attention to excellence do not remain in obscurity.

It's not a promise--and it's not what should motivate us. I'm all but certain Eugene did not spend such careful time researching and writing his books so that he could one day fly with famous people. Some of us may never rise above obscurity, no matter how well we have excelled in child rearing or sales or running a school. But I have noticed that people who work unusually hard to serve the best food, or teach in the classroom, or whatever--devoting  themselves to the gifts God has given them--do get noticed. People content with mediocrity, satisfied to aspire to nothing more than average, are generally passed by.

In his book, Platform, Michael Hyatt notes it is easy to "settle." Instead, he makes this challenge--one the sage is making in this proverb--

1-take a stand for greatness--resolve that you will not sell out but play full out

2-connect with your original vision--become present to what you have dreamed and are trying to create

3-remind yourself what is at stake-which will keep you from quitting

4-listen to your heart-it is not infallible, but it can point in the right direction

5-speak up-give voice to your idea. If you don't, who will?

6-be stubborn-refuse to settle. Refuse to drift, go with what is natural--mediocrity

And here's one more--in the end--do it for God and His glory. That's all that really matters.


All of us have influencers in our lives, people who have had a transformative effect. Somewhere around the late 80's, as a young and rather desperate pastor, I read Working the Angles. I was still getting my bearings for this thing called ministry, and Eugene Peterson's work drew the lines and the worked out the angles. It is perhaps his most distilled description of pastoral work. Prayer, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction give shape and integrity to ministry. They are the angles that inform the lines--preaching, teaching, and administration.

It was a helpful corrective, for it is easy to distort ministry. Contemporary American culture does not offer a congenial condition in which to live out the pastoral vocation. Back then, many of us pastors in small and mid-sized churches were in awe of mega church ministries, and we went to conferences that held these models up as the markers of success. Peterson, who pastored a mid size church in Maryland for nearly thirty years, warned that too many pastors have left their calling to be CEO's. Churches have devolved into ecclesiastical businesses with a mission to market spirituality to consumers. To put it another way, the vocational call to holiness has been replaced by religious entrepreneurs busy about strategic business plans. I needed these warnings.

My first church was not my dream calling. It was in a rough area, and it had been adrift, an eighty year old church set in its ways.  By my estimation, it would never be this innovative church growing out of space and needing to move to some dynamic new area. There were barriers and walls, and at times I desperately wanted out. But then God led me to Under the Unpredictable Plant, a book Peterson wrote five years after Working the Angles. It is a creative approach to Jonah, and I realized I was much like Jonah. I was taking repeated trips to the travel agent (aka District Superintendent) to find a ticket to Tarshish (aka a new, exciting and exotic ministry). I was trying to flee Nineveh, but Peterson's words helped me to be obedient and serve where God called me--and here I served ten years.

At times, be it in a church in Southeast Portland, or The Hague, The Netherlands, or Beaverton, Oregon--when my ministry has needed centering--I have turned to Peterson and others--but especially Peterson and his works. Coming up to the Pend Oreille, my summer wilderness escape, I usually add Peterson's The Pastor, his memoir, to my stack of books.

This summer, I asked Eugene if I could travel over to his home in Montana, and he graciously said yes. Montana has been this "sacred ground" that shaped his early life. I wanted to see it. So Heather and I got on the road and traveled the wide open Montana space for places I had read about. We spent about two hours with him over lunch at a nearby restaurant next to Flathead Lake, and much of our discussion reinforced what he has written over these years. Like me, his journey to becoming a pastor and a theologian has been haphazard and intentional. Like me, he initially had little interest in the pastoral vocation. Being a pastor was "one step from being unemployed." But God changed his heart, and thankfully he has become a pastor's pastor. And thankfully, God changed my heart, and by the time I finished my seminary work, the only thing I wanted to be was a pastor. Peterson gave legitimacy to this decision. He still does.




Monday Morning Proverb

"The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things"  15:28

For almost a year, I have submitted myself to the last phase of writing a book--editing. I have been assigned a core of editors who have been checking my spelling, my punctuation, my word choices, my tenses, my thoughts, my form, my sources...I could go on. It is meant to be an exacting process. Use loc. number rather than page number when you refer to Kindle; be consistent with the translation you choose; make sure that quote from the movie is precise.

When Liam Neeson is being chased by wolves, in the movie The Grey, he screams to God at one point, pleading for divine help. But sensing there is no response, he tells God: "Fine, I will do it myself!" My editor corrected me, He actually said, "F---k it, I will do it myself." I promptly corrected this account in my book. It would be unfortunate to misrepresent Neeson's words.

The sage also encourages us to be about editing our speech. What separates a wise man from a fool is the way he/she measures words. The wise ponders, reflects, edits (yehgeh) one's language before addressing the question. One exercises precise care. This is part of self-control. It is what keeps a person from shooting oneself in the foot.

The fool is just the opposite. She blurts out, speaking before she thinks. He tweets before considering the potential costs (I know, it is hard to come up with an immediate example). Fools are known for their tendency to vent, spout off. They are the loose cannons who cause collateral damage. Those with a "diarrhea of the mouth" need help--fast.

Verse 2 reinforces verse 28--"The mouth of the fool gushes folly." In other words, they do no editing. Their language pours out, full of errors, with no governor. Listeners (like readers) eventually stop listening.

The advice here--make sure the "Review--Track Changes" tab is on before you speak.

-I always appreciate your responses

Why Am I Writing This?

Today I am thinking about Mrs. Himes, and there is a reason. More than forty years ago, I was assigned to her. I had moved to Portland to attend seminary and work in a student ministry. We wanted to make a difference, reach the more desperate, and turn our spiritual convictions into godly actions. She was part of a county list of people living in impoverished conditions. She lived off of a busy avenue and across from a major Bible college. And yet, ironically, I am not certain anyone nearby knew she existed. She was a homeless person who happened to have a home.

I reached her door once I worked my way past the overgrown weeds and hedge that practically concealed her home. It was clear she had closed herself off from the outside world. I knocked, and though she was hesitant to open the door, especially to a stranger with a bucket and some cleaning supplies, she permitted me to enter in to her wretched existence. After explaining my intentions, I began to work on walls covered by years of grime and cobwebs. Because the blinds had been permanently shut, and few lights were in operating order, I could not tell if I made much of a difference. It felt a little like emptying the Pacific Ocean with a spoon. I can still remember how overwhelming were the smells.

Over time, suspicion was replaced with trust. A relationship began, and I occasionally returned to help the woman. I will never forget the time months later she called to let me know she was being evicted and asked if I could move her. This meant going beyond the familiar to the scary--to the back bedrooms. Who knows what creatures--or skeletons--existed back in those darker regions? But one afternoon I left seminary and drove a U-Haul truck to the place and moved Mrs. Himes to some government housing.

My last memory of her is Thanksgiving. It was a couple of years later. I was now married, and I told Heather about Mrs. Himes and suggested that we visit. Recognizing my voice, but still cautious, Mrs. Himes opened the door. Immediately, the same smells escaped through the crack of the door, and I could see enough to know her new environment had become very much like the one she once occupied. The address was different, but everything else was pretty much the same.

So why am I thinking about her? Someone recently asked why I am writing a book about Jesus's conversations in John. What is the passion driving this three year project to describe life under an open heaven? Is it so I can say I am an author with a published book? I hope not. When I think hard about this question, I come back to stories like those of Mrs. Himes. The reality is that I have seen many versions of her over the years. We all of us have lived in some form of confinement. All of us are held down by something--small dreams, appetites that rule our lives, legalistic faith, low expectations of what God is doing, or sinful habits that cause us to miss our divine moments. Coming to Christ should be--has to be--about being set free. About opening the windows and letting the Light replace the darkness. About allowing the aroma of life to replace the aroma of death. About getting past the walls.

Still, even with new birth, we have this tendency to remain conformed to old habits, accept limitations God never served up, be driven more by fear than by trust, and live as if the heavens are still closed.

I wish I could write about the final years of Mrs. Himes life, but I moved on and never went back. Hopefully someone else stepped into her life and helped bring some light into the darkness . Hopefully she did not die alone--and yes, I hope the expanse she could have experienced this side of eternity is one she has entered into with Jesus.



Monday Morning Proverb

"Those who find wisdom find life and receive favor from the Lord, but those who fail to find prudence harm themselves; all who hate me love death"-8:35-36

Up here in the wilderness, a book like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a nice companion. She is a student of creation. She inspires me to open my eyes to see beyond what I expect--to see what might be otherwise missed.  And there is much I miss--a passing flight of geese, an elk grazing on the other side of the river, a beaver out for a night swim. Up in the forest, it's very much a now-you see-it, now-you-don't affair. Dillard watches and ponders like a scientist looking under a microscope. She engages with nature. She describes mountains as giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into the mountain and it will keep it. There is reverence behind her language as she describes the rush of the wind, the beauty of a current, or the sway of a tree. It's not that she worships nature--creation draws her back to the Creator. I find the same pull, when on an early paddle in my kayak, I observe the beauty and am moved to sing How Great Thou Art.

But for all the wonder there is to take in, there is another side to the wilderness. There's a reason for the first syllable. Life is not domesticated. Here's how she describes one summer experience, staring at a frog:

"He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin empted and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflated football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water." Just one bite from a giant water bug was all it took.

It's rough out here. "Every live thing," she writes, "is a survivor on a kind of extended bivouac." There is grandeur, and there is mystery. There is life, and there is death.

Lately, we have been observing the deer that come by in the morning hours to feed. Two fawns have accompanied one of the moms, but today we just saw one. This is part of the narrative played out in creation's theatre. I have watched with awe the eagles that come and go from the tree next to our property. But I have also noticed the fragments of numerous victims near the base of their tree.

There's a certain romance to observing nature, but a wariness as well. A stray coyote walked by yesterday, as if to let me know that he too has rights to the property. He was here long before any of us. The way he walks tells me he is the hood of the forest. If he wore attire, he would have on tight, dark jeans with a white T-shirt. His sleeves would be folded up to display his tattoos, as well as serve to carry his Lucky Strikes. He would wear dark glasses and, in a less obvious way, carry his blade. Coyotes don't prance--they slink around with searching eyes. They stalk. They remind me of the sage's description of the adulterous--who eats and wipes her mouth and says, "I have done nothing wrong" (30:20).

Proverbs 8:35-36 is a necessary reminder that only a fool would live with rose colored glasses. There is another side, an underside out there. There are stalkers--be it the sinful men who entice others to join their gang as they prey on others (1:10-12); or the loose woman who with her many persuasions tempts the foolish to come to her--as an ox to the slaughter (7:21-22). The first nine chapters of Proverbs are a repeated warning that those who fail to pursue wisdom do so to their own peril. They may as well be doing violence to their souls. They are setting themselves up. Naiveté is a disaster in waiting.

Yesterday at dawn, I paddled on a still river, taking in the silence. By afternoon, the halcyon moment gave way to thunder and lightening and winds. It's the nature of the wilderness--it is the nature of life. The sage would warn us that, to survive, it is important to watch for the shifts, to live with eyes wide open. It's important to see the whole landscape.