December 22, 2016
Eugene Peterson —
Entering Into What Is There

"Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming." These are words of the beloved biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson. Frustrated with the unimaginative way he found his congregants treating their Bibles, he translated it himself and that translation has sold millions of copies around the world. Eugene Peterson’s down-to-earth faith hinges on a love of metaphor and a commitment to the Bible’s poetry as what keeps it alive to the world.

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served as a pastor for 29 years. He is the author of over 30 books, including Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, The Pastor: A Memoir, and The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.

About the Image

Eugene Peterson sits on the dock outside his home in Lakeside, Montana. Photo from the NavPress film Peterson: In Between The Man and The Message, directed by Greg Fromholz.

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As I was reading the transcript of this interview with Eugene Peterson, I was reminded of a poem I wrote earlier this year. Several years ago, I was interviewed by a psychologist as part of the discernment process for ordination in a mainstream Protestant denomination. She was critical of how I explained and defined spirituality in my life, and especially that I would considered myself a mystic. ( As if she were the Mystic police! ) My metaphors from my background in engineering seemed to her too concrete, too physical, or perhaps just too different from most clergy. This experience inspired me to write several poems including the one which follows.

The Mystic

Is there not more?
More that we can see,
more than we can touch.
Unseen, unheard, yet present.

Before we invented history,
we explored the unknowable.
Through ritual, fasting, prayer and pain,
pursuing wisdom through the dreamtime.

Christians and Muslims, Brahmans and Buddhists,
and too many others to name or number.
Influenced all by that nameless presence,
which whispers to our souls.

Perhaps, all arts have this source,
a wellspring deep within our being.
In spiration* with all creation,
we inhale deeply of pure, raw, possibility.

See for yourself.
Close your mouth and eyes.
Quiet the restless mind.
Listen in stillness.

Listen not only with your ears.
Listen with your entire being,
feelings, guts, blood, and bone.
Trust your Self.

Is there not more?
More that we can see,
more than we can touch.
Unseen, unheard, yet present.

* spiration

1 obsolete : the action of breathing as a creative or life-giving function of the Deity
2 obsolete : the action of breathing as a physical function of man and animals

Beautiful description of mysticism and the joy of not knowing but always wondering that our orthodox religions have mostly banished. Thanks.

Oh wow, Douglas, you nailed the mystic orientation and sensibility with your poem! How can it not be a portal to God? Beautiful!

Thank you for your program. Mr. Peterson recently wrote a forward to the book Becoming D.A.D.S. by Marvin Charles. Marvin hosts a weekly support group which came to mind when you spoke about what christianity and church might be in the future.

In a relatively small room two or three dozen people meet; a mix of familiar and new faces; there is no pulpit or pastor, though many pastors are in attendance. A passage from the bible is read first in a traditional translation, then from Eugene Peterson's The Message. Then a free flowing conversation occurs, lasting an hour or two, and the meetings are closed with a prayer.

People are free to walk in and out late or early. No one is judged for being or not being there. The conversation circles around the scripture and invariably reveals connectedness. There's no call to action, but action feels integral, like a breathing component in the process of being and doing. Being at the meeting inspires doing things in our lives, at whatever scale.

I get more understanding about the bible through these meetings than anywhere else; the congregation is remarkably varied; it's what i wanted church to be when i was a child – a promising model of community.

Awesome... the poetry of the Living WORD,, thank you for the gifts you bring, what an interview...

Thank you. Fifty-one minutes well spent. Several aha moments for me. I live in the Bible belt and have been turned off by religion as it is practiced in Oklahoma. I will be listening to this broadcast again and will be taking detailed notes. Eugene Peterson's books will be on my reading list for 2017. Thanks again.

Merry Christmas. Today is Christmas eve. I have been given an early Christmas present, this audio. For numerous reasons, yet I will only name one. For years my ears have held deep pain. Visits to ear specialists showed no abnormalities, concerns. Because of this recording, I now know my ears have been wanting me to learn something very, very important and meaningful to my life with God and with myself. The lesson: Listen. Thank you, dear ones. Thank you to my ears. Thank you for this beautiful conversation. For so many good, beautiful reasons, I thank you with all my heart. Bless you and yours always, Mary

"Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming." These are words of the beloved biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson. These are not the rough hewn hammers and jigsaw, but the paper thin, razor sharp fingers of the crafter of jewelry. These tools do not uncover what we missed. They empower us to rub the rough and smooth aspects of our heart light, pulling us deeply into the unseen. From a trance, awakening!

This was a wonderful interview. I'm glad to have heard this pastor whom I've never heard of.

Two things arose for me while listening to this conversation -- Mother Theresa was asked what she did when praying and she replied, "I listen". And then she was then asked what God did, and she replied, "He listens".

The second is the opening line of a book that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche wrote for his students: "At this time, great confusion and suffering exist because humanity cannot simply be." In other words, we are unable to simply be open to and grateful for the fullness of existence and instead involve ourselves in a constant struggle for something else, for, as he puts it, "another now". This does not mean that we shouldn't work to address injustice and unkindness, but if we can't be present as we are in the context of things as they are we are always addressing our idea of existence instead of the existence itself.

What a wonderful gift to hear this interview on Christmas morning! (on WAMU in DC) I'm a retired Presbyterian pastor and have consistently gotten excited responses when a lay leader or I read the scripture from "The Message". In a time when scripture is taken so literally and then twisted beyond reason, it was refreshing to hear Dr. Peterson's call to listen to scripture as metaphor leading us into deeper mystery and understanding.

I wrote this as a reminder to myself on December 17, 2016...

"Dear Josh,

You do NOT have to "earn" what is freely given to you as a Spiritual Truth."

I wrote this down because I was doing my best to burn through and revisit all of my realizations and experiences in life, however, the feelings I felt, the things I thought, the way I responded were too numerous to count. Even in a single experience, I felt like I was having multiple experiences, and I was afraid that I was some sort of a Narcissistic Psychopath who had a dissociative identity. I know that we don't always know much about this world, and act prematurely on values that, even based on our individual experiences, or no matter how much wisdom we gain, or how well I seem to heal myself from things that did or didn't even happen. I didn't understand what it was like to be me. And then I kept going back to esoteric knowledge, to understand the planes of existence. After watching Dr. Strange, I realized how much I've been violating some of these rules - to mix things together a little too much, and to create chaos when there should be none, and yet chaos seems to be the deciding growth factor in which humans evolve, at least just a little more. I remember wanting to be a musician because I thought that bringing a message to the world would help ease its time during transformation where we hit rock bottom and do our best to get back to the top in a limited amount of time.

But to change the hearts and minds of people would only be manipulating them, and experiences are necessary to help us evolve into ourselves. We're human, even though we're created like God. How interesting that how we grow mirrors how God Himself may grow. That there is no end to our potential expansion, and whether something is "right" or "wrong" in the grand scheme of things has no meaning, because ultimately these aren't the lessons that change allows us to embody. We inspire others to grow from lack, not abundance, we think that physical needs are sometimes more important than our mental, social, emotional, or spiritual needs and vice versa, and how or why are we being conditioned to think the way we do? Is it too naive to say that society conditions us, and that nature and nurture do in fact, work together to help create who we are in our 3D reality? Wouldn't it be safer to say that as we receive who we "truly are" from God, and express it to have a positive impact on ourselves and society? Hasn't my altruism in this mode of thinking gotten me in trouble before? Did I truly live out God's plan for my life when I singlehandedly thrown my life and others lives in danger? Aren't all those well-being books and/or courses that are so expensive so worth it when we focus on alleviating suffering by knowing and trusting in God Himself to give us our needs, and humbly doing what we're "supposed" to do instead of throwing up our hands in the air and making a big kerfuffle because something unnecessary happened?

Why can't I apply this to some of my relationships? Is it okay that I don't feel safe with certain people and that it's safe for me to move on and truly live my life? Am I really a covert narcissist masquerading around the world as a highly sensitive ambivert?

I don't have all the answers. In fact, I don't think it's safe to always have an answer for every question when we apply it to the complexity of life. Whether the meaning of life sits in a small space of being before we have an experience or understanding the expansiveness of our inner world and struggling to "unleash" it... no grandiose notions could ever save us from the present moment because it's meant to be lived. And if life comes down to ourselves - how we love ourselves and how we take care of ourselves, does the fact that people get away with things seem so evil when they put in the work to meet others halfway?

Is there something we can freely give ourselves and each other to live within society, but not be tainted by it? Does the equation look something like Balance of Love/Power or Justice/Mercy + Awareness/Absolute Presence + Groundedness = Peace?

Or Individual Experience = Transformation?

Transformation + Humility = Non-suffering through change?

Many people believe that these are tools. But understanding some of these constructs and loving ourselves so much to the point where we're not malignant is important to regain a sense of who we really are. To remember who we were created to be. To remember that God gives freely, and whatever we receive isn't for us, and yet, we live in it. To humbly be a vessel, carrying light for ourselves and for others as we treat each other as individuals. That "the system" isn't entitled because we simply do our best to be for others that which they aren't for themselves rather, it's how we focus our attention.

Thanks for such a lovely presentation on this auspicious MERRY CHRISTMAS day 2016. Having been following your radio broadcasts early on Sundays in Boston 90.9 FM WBUR, for years, you had touched upon the unique perspectives given so elegantly my Pastor Peterson and by your interview. One thing that stands out is the expression " GOD LISTENS " and old Vedic traditions, smarana( repeating name) and karana ( hearing ) combines the best of prayerful lives. Thus ones who "hears" the Psalms or Bhajans are truly uplifted higher planes of self-realization. The drawbacks are only those that attempt to listen without truly hear the voice of GOD Alminghty>

I stumbled across this interview while driving today. As a proverbial "seeker" and a holder of a masters degree in theology, and someone about to try to start a poetry reading group in my new home community, I felt a neophyte on my journey. The idiomatic translation from The Message, to the role and purpose of poetry, I am so humbled. I had wet eyes.

Mr. Peterson yanked me out of some manner of complacency to be hammered. And I don't know what that hammer is about. Yet.

I am ordering The Message tomorrow.

Perhaps it's The Hammer of God - check out the book of that title by Bo Giertz.

I listened while making Christmas brunch. Eugene Peterson's message moved me profoundly. Especially helping me with past hurts and anger that surface at this time of year. "How to cuss without cussing." I lamented in a poem and it was extremely cathartic. Such a healthy and biblical way of dealing with hurt.

This was an excellent interview.

Krista, I love your gentle curiosity and the way it draws out Pastor Peterson in such a genuine way in this session.

Hearing the interview ushered in a soothing to the neglected child within.

Mr. Peterson seems inadvertently to have come upon the solution to the interpretation of the Koran leading to so much violence (terror and destruction), misogyny, homophobia, barbarism and violations of the human rights that modern society in the 20th and 21st century has finally come to recognise as universal:

Maybe, as Mr. Peterson suggests, the sheikhs and imams just don’t know that their prophet was a poet and therefore "literalize everything and make a shambles out of it."

He is now just left to explain what there might be to "try to enter into"; what is the meaning of what the metaphor of the following verse of the Koran (And many similar ones) "doesn't say", because what it does say is quite clear:

Koran 9:5 "Kill the nonbelievers wherever you find them."

It's a metaphor.

As a non-religious person, let me first say that I love On Being, found during commutes in the Bay Area. I always gain something from it.
Your recent conversation with Eugene Peterson was particularly nice. I love his emphasis on listening and honesty, as prayer or as life. I love how he practices listening, how he pauses before answering any simple question if even just to say "yes." I love how he celebrates poetry and his attention to words, his reluctance for using the words "God" and "Christianity."
Thanks for sharing.

So thankful that Krista interviewed Eugene! Thanks thanks! Just an observation: later in the interview Eugene mentions how he would help people "figure out what to do" with their prayer. I wish they had taken more time to specifically unpack this. I assume Eugene is alluding to spiritual direction. He writes about direction in his book Working the Angles. Krista talked about direction with Fr. James Martin. In fact I experience much of Krista's manner of interviewing as a kind of spiritual direction. On Being and Eugene are refreshing because they allow for the dynamic breadth of how God uniquely engages each of us. The troubled nature of at least the Protestant tradition of which I am a part of, is its limited practice of prayer. Thanks for helping us cherish the gift of Eugene Peterson and his generous spirit!

Inspired by this interview:

How to Get In the Door

When words become too small
writers slide into metaphor.
Call it poetry if you must, a word
only two syllables larger than Everything.

God is such a small word
(says he who carries The Message).
How long will we need to hold onto it
when listening is what will key open that Door?

And, anyway, the way
only seems locked. Knock illusion
over gently without a key, it will
shatter easily and permit all in.

The door is too flimsy
to keep us out or in. Its line
has no dimension and no end, it flows
into scripted words, each a Door, a Metaphor.

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PS - could one say about prayer what Eugene Peterson said of metaphor? "You're not trying to figure things out/understand things, you're trying to enter into what is there."
Love that.