February 9, 2007
Quiet Graces at a Loud Conference
Last year at the National Pastors Convention, Dallas Willard spoke at an early morning Bible study gathering. Unlike the main sessions the Bible study had no music, no flashing lights, no massive screen. There was nothing remotely worshipful or stimulating about the physical setting. Still, I recall feeling most blessed and caught up into something divine during that simple lesson by Dr. Willard.
Yesterday morning I had a similar experience. For the second year I have been blessed by a soft-spoken, gray haired sage. This morning it was Eugene Peterson. In the same bland ballroom Peterson opened the Bible to share his reflections on prayer. There was nothing spectacular about his presentation, but it carried the gravity of a godly life.
Peterson spoke about the prayer he begins every day with as he walks the quarter mile from his front door to retrieve his newspaper. Living amid the natural beauty of Montana, Peterson greets the squirrels and the deer as he recites the words of Zachariah in Luke 1:68-79.
The first eight verses of this prayer focus most heavily on what God does, he said. There are ten verbs that speak of God's actions, and there is only one verb to describe ours, "serve." Peterson said this helps clarify our identity - God does ten things and we do one.
In verses 76-77, Zechariah speaks of his newborn son, John:
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.
Most interesting is that while reciting these verses Peterson inserts his own name for "child." He reminds himself that our calling as pastors is to be a prophet - one who speaks God's word into our world - to prepare the way for the Lord. We are not the Lord, and we do not accomplish what he accomplishes. All we can do is prepare people to encounter the Lord. The outcome rests in his hands, not ours.
The final verse of the prayer speaks of Jesus coming as the Sunrise, or Daybreak. Peterson often says these verses as the sun peaks over the Montana horizon flooding the landscape with light. He says it reminds him of the sight of God over all things. Everywhere we move we are within his Kingdom.
These are simple ideas, but what I cannot capture in a blog post is the poise and substance of Peterson as he spoke. He taught as one whose inner spirit has been shaped by the prayer he cited. I suppose that is what the people meant when they marveled at Jesus' teaching - he taught as one with authority, not like the other scribes (Matt 7:29). It is the intangible authority of an integrated life.
Conferences like NPC are billed as action-packed events, gatherings to acquire skills to impact your ministry, and a place to have an invigorating and energetic experience. Fine. But what isn't publicized are the quiet moments of inspiration. These moments are not prepackaged or choreographed. They are not projected onto huge screens or screaming to be heard. They are the unassuming pockets of God's grace content to stay hidden amid the commotion, but longing to be found.
I suppose these graces don't only exist at conferences. They must be strewn throughout my days. Sages like Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson have inspired me to search more expectantly for them.