On Living Well: Brief Reflections on Wisdom for Walking in the Way of Jesus
It’s inevitable that “new” books are released posthumously by those who, like Eugene Peterson, have sold a lot of books. The question for readers and fans always is, “Is this actually something new or just recycled material?” Happily, in the case of On Living Well: Brief Reflections on Wisdom for Walking in the Way of Jesus, the book is 100% previously unpublished material.
Long before Eugene Peterson rose to fame as the translator of The Message, he wrote books like Working the Angles and Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work that summoned pastors back to their vocations. In those years, Peterson was also a pastor—he was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, and served that congregation for 29 years. During that time, he wrote a weekly letter to his congregation called Amen! Most of the material in On Living Well is drawn from Peterson’s weekly newsletter, with some additional entries from sermons and other sources.
The book is clearly vintage Peterson and makes a welcome addition to his canon. There is his typical pastoral wisdom:
My first and continuing pastoral purpose in this pulpit is that you confess Christ personally. As a pastor, I have never wanted to be a moral policeman. Your morals are not that interesting to me. . . . I don’t merely want to tell you about this great story I have been reading in this book (the Bible); I want you to meet the Author. And he has told me he wants to meet you—to involve you in a new story he is making. I can arrange the interview.
The pastoral task of helping his congregants know God is a theme he returns to:
It is not obvious what pastors do—at least it is not obvious to me. So I keep asking myself, What am I doing here? What do I want to do? What I want to do is say the name God accurately so that you will know the basic reality of your existence and know what’s going on. And I want to say that name personally, alongside you and with you in the actual circumstances of your lives, so that you will recognize and respond to the God who is both on your side and at your side when it doesn’t seem like it—when you don’t feel as though it’s true.
This is the genius of Eugene Peterson. I am in a men’s group that meets on Thursday mornings and we’ve been going through N.T. Wright’s very fine study of Galatians and I & II Thessalonians. Wright provides his own translation to the text. Often, though, we find our study enhanced by reading The Message alongside Wright. Peterson has a way of making what can be confusing abundantly clear. And just as he reminds pastors again and again of their calling, so too does he remind average Christians of what it is we’re about in church.
There are compelling one-liners: “A Christian congregation is a group of people who decide, together, to pay attention,” and “There is nothing more important for a pastor to do than teach people how to pray.”
And there is this remarkable definition of pastoral work, which has quickly become a favorite of mine:
Because words are so basic to who we are and the way the world is and who God is and the way he comes to us and because words are so commonly reduced in value and so easily misused, the church takes a few of its members aside as preachers and teachers and puts them, so to speak, in charge of the words.
A book like this can be used several ways. First, it can be read devotionally. All the entries are short, most about a page in length, and easily lend themselves to that style. But it also could be used as a resource book by pastors who continually need quotes for sermons and likely have their own congregational newsletters to write. The book is divided into five sections and the table of contents lists every one of the over 150 entries. Need a quote for a Pentecost sermon or about the meaning of the sacraments or on joy or what worship is really about? Quotes are easier to access here than searching the indexes of Peterson’s 30 other books.
Short writing is the hardest writing—what’s that famous Twain line about not having time to write a short letter so he wrote a long one? Peterson acquits himself well here. On Living Well gives us Peterson from the 1970s and 1980s, when he was at the height of his pastoral ministry, saying what needed to be said. These are words worth repeating.