An Imagination for Relational Student Ministry: Learning to Wonder with Eugene Peterson

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Youth ministry is often synonymous with “relational” ministry. Relational is a word that I could stand to put some more thought into. I feel victorious in completing my ‘to do’ lists for the week, but like a failure when it comes to the many conversations I have that make up my relational ministry. 

I wonder if anyone else struggles to really get to know people, even the ones they spend a good amount of time with. I want the people I’m with to feel heard, and I want their stories to be respected. I want to know how they specifically need the gospel, without enforcing my thoughts and opinions on them. 

The text below is something I came across in my academic reading that didn’t necessarily offer me practical advice. Rather, it engaged my imagination and taught me to begin to see my meetings with both students and my peers with more wonder, and genuine curiosity about what God is doing in their everyday lives. I try to read this regularly. Good strategies have followed—but my imagination needed expanding and renewal in order to get there. 

Eugene Peterson’s book, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, records an “earthquake” he experienced while reading James Joyce’s Ulysses (a tediously detailed novel of one day in the life of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, as he walks the streets of Dublin in 1904). 

Peterson’s words have meant a lot to me, when it comes to relational ministry:

“Leopold Bloom, the ‘Ulysses’ of Joyce’s story, is a very ordinary man. No detail in his life is distinguished, unless it be his monotone ordinariness. And Dublin, the city in which he lives, is a very ordinary town, with nothing to distinguish it unless it be its depressing ordinariness.

This colorless, undistinguished human being in this colorless, undistinguished town provides the content for the novel. James Joyce narrates a single day in the life of the Dublin Jew Leopold Bloom. Detail by detail Joyce takes us through a single day in the life of this person, a day in which nothing of note happens. But as the details accumulate, observed with such acute and imaginative (pastoral!) care, the realization begins to develop that, common as they are, these details are all uniquely human. Flickers of recognition signal memories of the old myth, Homer’s grand telling of the Greek Ulysses as he traveled all the country of experience and possibility and found himself finally home.

Joyce woke me up to the infinity of meaning within the limitations of the ordinary person in the ordinary day. Leopold Bloom buying and selling, talking and listening, eating and defecating, praying and blaspheming is mythic in the grand manner. The twenty-year-long voyage from Troy to Ithaca is repeated every twenty-four hours in anyone’s life if we only have eyes and ears for it.

Now I knew my work: this is the pastor’s work. I wanted to be able to look at each person in my parish with the same imagination and insight and comprehensiveness with which Joyce looked at Leopold Bloom. The storyline is different, for the story that is being worked out right before my eyes, if only I can stay awake long enough to see it, is not the Greek story of Ulysses but the Gospel story of Jesus. The means is different . . . but we are doing the same thing, seeing the marvelous interfacings of history and sexuality and religion and culture and place in this person, on this day.  I saw now that I had two sets of stories to get straight. I already knew the gospel story pretty well . . . I had learned the original languages of the story, been immersed by my education in its long development, taught how to translate it into the present. I was steeped in the theology that kept my mind sane and honest in the story . . . 

But this other set of stories, these stories of Leopold Bloom of Buck Mulligan, Jack Tyndale, and Mary Vaughn . . . —I had to get these stories straight too. The Jesus story was being reworked and reexperienced in each of these people, in this town, this day. And I was here to see it take shape, listen to the sentences form, observe the actions, discern character and plot. I determined to be as exegetically serious when listening to Eric Mathews in Koine, American as I was when reading St. Matthew in Koine Greek. I wanted to see the Jesus story in each person in my congregation with as much local detail and raw experience as James Joyce did with the Ulysses story in the person of Leopold Bloom and his Dublin friends and neighbors . . . There is a lot more to this than ‘showing up.’ I find myself listening for nuances, making connections, remembering and anticipating . . . watching for signs of atonement, reconciliation, sanctification. I am sitting before these people as Joyce sat before his typewriter, watching a story come into existence . . .

There is a text for this work in St. Mark’s Gospel: ‘He has risen, . . . he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you’ (16:6-7). In every visit, every meeting I attend, every appointment I keep, I have been anticipated. The risen Christ got there ahead of me. The risen Christ is in that room already. What is he doing? What is he saying? What is going on?”

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 

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