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On my 2,676 mile, 4-day drive last weekend moving from the east coast to the west I listened to A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier, the biography of Eugene Peterson. What a beautiful life of faith, one worth considering and imitating (Hebrews 13:7). During seminary Peterson met a German immigrant named Willi Ossa who had lived in Germany under the Nazi regime. Ossa witnessed his pastor turn into a devoted Nazi, and because of his experience with the German church he believed that all churches were corrupt and would corrupt Peterson too. So he tried strongly to dissuade Peterson from becoming a pastor, not only through words but also through that portrait which depicted Peterson with “vacant eyes, flat and empty. The face gaunt and unhealthy,” and as Ossa explained, “the way he will look when the compassion is gone, when the mercy gets squeezed out of him." Peterson kept that painting in his study for 55 years, occasionally taking it out to remember the prophetic warning of what can happen to a minister in a church culture which “reduced pastors to functionaries in a bureaucracy where labels took the place of faces and rules trumped relationships.”1
Eugene Peterson avoided becoming a wolf because of Ossa’s close encounter with a shepherd-turned-wolf and warning to Peterson that the same could happen to him. Rather than tossing that disturbing portrait in the dump, Peterson allowed Ossa’s close encounter to become a close encounter with the dormant wolf genes inside himself.
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The apostles also warn about wolves in God’s church, not only from inspiration but because they too had a close encounter with a wolf in the person of Judas Iscariot. So I wonder, maybe if there wasn’t a Judas, would the other 11 have been more vulnerable to becoming wolves themselves? Maybe close encounters with wolves, like all our shadow experiences in this dark world, are ordained by God for our good. Only that intended good begs the crucial question: are we paying attention?
Luke uses the same word for when Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes…who devour widows’ houses” (Luke 20:46-47) and when he says “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). While Eugene Peterson translated Acts 20:28 differently, I imagine he would approve this rendering: “Beware of yourselves, and beware of others.” There are wolves without and potential wolves within.
Quote from Eugene Peterson
Religion is in fact one of the best covers for sin of almost every kind. Pride and anger, lust and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion. Those of us who do identify with institutions or religious vocations can’t be too vigilant. The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass.
A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier
Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity by Eugene Peterson
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, a collection of sermons by Eugene Peterson
As I bought the audiobook I haven’t seen a print of Peterson’s portrait. If anyone happens to know where to find a quality picture online please comment below!
Are you paying attention? Do you know what external and internal conditions nurture the slow, gradual and often imperceptible transformation from shepherd to wolf?
Praying for and laboring with you,
Quotes taken from excerpt of Eugene Peterson’s memoir accessed at https://spu.edu/depts/uc/response/new/2011-autumn/features/cautionary-portrait.asp.