RECENTLY HAVING REACHED the inauspicious age of 42, no longer a kid but not yet feeling entirely grown up, I find myself in a decidedly reflective mood. I’ve been taking stock—spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational—as I stare with some trepidation at the unchartered future.
Obviously, my experiences of late, while not quite universal, are hardly unique. There are many terms used to describe this time of life, some less generous than others. (“Mid-life crisis” comes to mind.) “Betwixt and between” is how the Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner described folks like me, hunkered down in a “liminal phase”—on the threshold between one chapter of our life story and the next—in a kind of existential limbo. As we wrestle with ambiguity, some of us seek the counsel of wise elders, with the hope that they might steer us in the right direction.
Such was the case at a gathering I attended in New York City earlier this year, where a small(ish) group of young(ish) Christian “influencers”—pastors, writers, artists, and a host of American evangelicalism’s mover-shakers—were invited to two private, daylong sessions with the venerable author and theologian Eugene Peterson.
Best known for The Message—his “para-translation” of the Bible into modern English—Peterson is a scholar and prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books including A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Subversive Spirituality, and (my favorite) Run With the Horses.
In some evangelical circles, Peterson is a rock star. (With the gravitas of an elder statesman and elusive mystique of an artist who isn’t concerned with courting public notoriety, he is the Dylan to Billy Graham’s Springsteen.) A bespectacled, ginger-haired man with the plain-spokenness and genuine humility commonplace among Montanans, he is a practical sage and modern mystic—equal parts pastor, poet, and pioneer.
Reared a Pentecostal and ordained a Presbyterian minister, Peterson, who turns 80 in November, retired to his native western Montana in 2006 after 29 years as pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Md., and many years as a professor of spiritual theology at Vancouver’s Regent College.
Peterson doesn’t travel much these days, preferring instead to spend most of his time along the shores of Flathead Lake in Big Sky Country. So when an invitation arrived to spend a couple of days literally sitting at Peterson’s feet as he told stories from his life and faith, I jumped at the chance.
Thanks be to God—I’m glad I did. Rather than assume the position of a professor lecturing to students, Peterson’s approach was wonderfully conversational. He told stories—about his faith, the majesty and mystery of God, the joys and difficulties of the pastorate, and about living simply, the true meaning of a Sabbath, and the life he’s created with Jan, his wife of more than 50 years and mother of their three grown children.
I didn’t know what to expect from those two days with Peterson. I just knew that spending time with him would be a blessing, and I had a hunch that I would learn something important, something that might help me navigate the “betwixt and between.”
In the months that have passed since those two days with Peterson in the Big Apple, I’ve poured over the pages of notes I furiously scrawled in a journal, determined not to overlook a single gem from the mind and heart of The Pastor. It was an embarrassment of riches, yes, but as time went on and I reflected on the event, I began to see a bigger picture, a macro-level lesson.
Most of the questions posed to Peterson at our gathering shared a common theme: I don’t know what I’m doing. Tell me if I’m doing it wrong. And if I’m doing it wrong, please tell me how to do it right.
And almost to a person, Peterson’s answer, was the same: I don’t know. What works for me may not work for you. Figure out what God is calling you to do and do that. Don’t worry about “doing” it “right.” Here, let me tell you a story ...
Many of the folks in the room wanted Peterson to give them advice and answers. What he kindly told us was that, while we may find inspiration or words of wisdom from someone else, we cannot simply mimic what they’ve created, done, or said and expect identical results. You have to do your own faith journey. You have to have your own pastorate. You can’t have anyone else’s.
WHY ARE WE so often compelled to look to others to show us what to do rather than muddle through on our own? A few weeks after I returned from New York, I called Peterson at home in Montana and asked him precisely that question.
“I wonder about that too,” he said. “We live in a very un-relational society, and asking a question is trying to get some information, and it doesn’t work. But this is what we’re trained to do. We’ve lost the heart of relationship, friendship, of just being with another person.
“So when I’m with these people, what I try to do, eventually, is just listen to them,” he said, “so that something happens between us that isn’t just an idea or a suggestion or something like that.”
You can’t give someone the answers for what they should do or how they should live, can you, I wondered aloud.
“No, but you can start entering into a relationship with them, and maybe then they’ll start to get it,” Peterson said.
Peterson is an avid hiker and for many years was a competitive runner. He told us many stories that revolved around walking—walking in the woods with Jan, bird watching on a hike, strolling near the lake with guests from out of town. Walking. Quietly. Walking alone, or rather, alone with God. Perhaps that’s the invitation God extends to each of us. “I know you have lots of questions. Hey, come take a walk with me ...”
“You know, Jesus is walking all the time,” Peterson said, referring to the stories of Jesus’ life as told in the gospels. “And what are you doing when you’re walking? Well, you’re not talking a whole lot. When people come here to see me, we usually go out walking in the hills. A lot of the time is quiet. And then they’ll write to me a couple of weeks later and say, ‘Boy, I’ve never heard that before!’
“And I didn’t say anything,” he said, chuckling. “It was something different. It was something ... we’re not used to this, are we?”
Surely not. Silence is scary. Surrendering the idea of investment and outcome is uncomfortable. Doing is easy. Being is much harder.
PETERSON IS ALMOST twice my age, and just a couple of years younger than my father. Daddy is struggling with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and is not able to talk to me the way he would when I was younger—for hours, about everything and anything, not on walks but on drives through the countryside in his car.
“Let’s just see where this road goes,” Daddy would say, turning off the main drag onto an unexplored side road. On those rides, he told me thousands of stories from his life growing up in New Hampshire with my Italian immigrant grandparents, his years in the navy, his early years as a teacher in Germany and then in the States.
It’s Daddy’s stories that I miss the most. And yet, even when there are no words, just being with my father speaks volumes. Seeing him as his most essential self—sweet, gentle, funny, deeply kind, and never uttering a single complaint—has taught me more than I ever could have imagined.
Peterson knows a bit about my dad and his physical challenges. And he understands something of the peculiar liminality of this moment in our family’s story and the pain, loss, and unexpected grace inherent in it. So I asked him something I might ask my own father: When you think back to when you were my age, are there a few things that you didn’t know then that you wish you had?
“When I was 40, I was just coming out of what I called ‘the Badlands,’” Peterson said. “I realized early on—after the first few years of being a pastor—that I was just a competitor. I lived by competition. I realized that I couldn’t be a pastor and be a competitor. You can’t treat people in your congregation or anyplace else as competitors and get along very well. Somebody else always has to get beat.
“I just didn’t know what to do. I was just stumped. So I didn’t do anything. I started keeping a Sabbath. Jan and I did that every Monday—we’d go to the woods. I got a spiritual director—a Carmelite nun. I started running again—10k races. And that took care of it,” he said. “I had something to do competitively again. The people I was beating—I didn’t know their names and they didn’t know mine. So that was safe.”
While living in Maryland, Peterson and his family would make the trek west to Montana each summer for six weeks. Rather than thinking of it as a holiday, the Petersons turned it into a pilgrimage. “I grew up here, so I was on home ground. But they, the children, found this holy ground too,” Peterson said. “I was trying not to do anything, so all of these acts that I was doing was kind of not doing things. When I was 40, it was like I had no sense that anything was happening through those years, and then suddenly, I was at home. I didn’t have to do anything. And that’s when I really started writing my best work.
“I had a voice, and it was kind of true and it was congruent to who I was,” he said. “When I was 40, something happened, almost overnight, when I realized I wasn’t the same person anymore.”
So, it’s a matter of finding ourselves?
“Or being found,” Peterson said, before telling me the story of his spiritual director, the Carmelite nun.
“I was introduced to her by a friend,” he began. “She’d never been in close relationships with Protestants. She became a Carmelite when she was 18 years old. So she didn’t know Protestants. I was new territory for her. And I’d never been close to a nun before.
“Basically, spiritual direction is her work. She was with 13 nuns at a convent in Baltimore. She didn’t do much. She asked me questions; she listened; she told me stories about herself. It took me maybe two or three years to realize that most of what she said to me was indirect. It wasn’t giving answers, it was letting me enter into her life and her enter into mine.
She never prayed with me, which surprised me. She said, ‘Come to our prayer service and we’ll pray together in the community.’ So for somebody who grew up Pentecostal and didn’t really trust liturgy very much, it was another instance of what I’m right now calling ‘not doing,’” he said. “She had no program, she had no techniques, but she knew how to be relational.”
Peterson still sees his Carmelite sister, when she comes out to Montana every summer to visit for a few days.
“THERE’S AN ELUSIVE quality to life itself and if we try too hard, we miss it,” Peterson said.
I think I’m starting to grasp that. I’m not all the way there yet, but the fog is lifting a bit and I’m beginning to see lights on the road.
“Forty is kind of a benchmark,” Peterson told me. “The things you thought you were going to be doing, when you were 20, you’re not doing. And so you think, what do I do now? Try another spouse? Try another body? Get another job?
“There’s something about entering into where you are and getting comfortable with that,” he said as we were about to hang up the phone. “When you go back home to Connecticut to be with your father, I hope that goes well.”
It did. And I didn’t have to do anything. Being with my dad—exactly as he is and exactly as I am—was more than enough.
Cathleen Falsani is web editor at Sojourners.