It was around the time when the two tenters appeared in the church parking lot that I read Eugene Peterson’s Where Your Treasure Is. I remember this because, along with the book, it was the other most memorable thing that happened in that summer of work. I was serving as a summer student when I drove into the church to start my day and saw, to my surprise, a tent set up along the far side of the parking lot. There was no movement around it, so I went inside to the office. Within the hour I saw two people coming out of the tent, and gathered courage to go and speak to them. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to act like an officer checking to see what right they had to set up there without asking or like a host seeing if I could get them some coffee or breakfast.
To my relief, they were friendly, a young couple from the prairies on a summer vacation between university years. They had happened upon our parking lot, with its wooded shelter on all sides, the night before and decide it was as good as (and cheaper than) a campground. They were somewhat apologetic, and I gathered that they probably had planned to be in the car and gone before anyone showed up. But they were easy strangers to welcome, and ended up spending the morning with a bunch of us who were preparing for Vacation Bible School. They happily helped paint murals and hang up decorations. As the day progressed, I asked them what the next items on their itinerary were, and invited them to come back and join us for midweek Bible study that evening. I also extended an invitation for them to come and stay the night at our house. My parents were on vacation and there were plenty of rooms. They thanked me and headed out for some Halifax adventures, assuring me that they’d see me in the evening.
They didn’t join us for Bible study, but before it was over they were back in the building, ready to take me up on the offer of a place to stay. I was eager to see them again, but first finished up my study for the evening. It was based on one of the Psalms, and was largely drawn from Peterson’s book.
Like most people, my first exposure to the name Eugene Peterson came from The Message, his popular contemporary language translation of the Bible. I knew in the late 1990s or early 2000s that The Message existed, but didn’t spend any time with it. But in the summer of 2003 or 2004 I got my first real taste of Peterson’s writing, as I stumbled upon Where Your Treasure Is and used it for the weeks I was covering for the Bible study. Although I’ve never gone back to reread the book (titled Earth and Altar when it was released in 1985), I think of it fondly because it was the first time I encountered Peterson’s distinctive way of speaking about Christian life.
One of the things that struck me most about Where Your Treasure Is was its cover photo. It was an overhead picture of a suburban neighbourhood. In each fenced-in backyard there was a swimming pool. The implication was clear as I read beyond the cover: though we live side-by-side, many of us live in cordoned-off little worlds, satisfying our own desires and prioritizing privacy and personal recreation above the bustle, inconvenience, and richness of community. Much of North American Christianity—the target audience of Peterson’s book—has been captivated by the suburban dream of protected, insulated lives. In the backyard swimming pool you’re able to avoid the crowd. You don’t have to pass people on the sidewalk or speak to strangers. It’s no judgment on those who have swimming pools for me to say that this was a striking image of the way we can cut ourselves off from community, being “alone in a crowd.” (Pool parties and exercise seem to me two perfectly fine reasons why people might have a backyard pool.)
In Peterson’s readings of a number of Psalms he intends to work toward the “unselfing of America.” The Psalms summon us, he says, “from self to community.” In all of his writing, Peterson’s concern was to guard against giving our discipleship into the grip of consumerism. God has called us into something bigger than ourselves, and the Psalms help us retrieve the language of that bigger something. As we pray the Psalms (which is what Peterson encourages us to do, taking up the habit of centuries of Christians who have gone before us and have used the Psalms as both prayerbook and hymnbook), we find ourselves praying for things we didn’t know we needed, and we find words for feelings we didn’t know how to articulate.
Over the years I have made the Psalms a daily part of my prayer life. These ancient hymn-prayers have made me care about things I didn’t know I could care about, and have led me to pray in ways that didn’t just match my feelings at the moment. Sometimes, of course, they’ve also allowed me to put into the perfect words the very thing I needed to say to God. They’ve reminded me that I’m not alone in this. I am part of a community that stretches around the globe and that has existed across many, many centuries. It is far from a perfect community, but then I am far from a perfect person. But God has created this community and by his grace he’s made me part of it too.
With its insistence on community over the walled-off self, Where Your Treasure Is was probably a big part of why I wanted so badly to say to those tenting strangers, “Come on in.” As Christians, it’s sometimes easy to get wrapped up in our own little worlds and fail to extend the hospitality that God has first extended to us in the cross of Jesus and by the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the rewards of breaking down the walls—of sharing the pool, so to speak, or the VBS decoration duties—can be very rich.
The young couple came back with me to the house. I think we watched a movie together and chatted for a while, and then we all said goodnight. As I lay down to sleep there may have been a moment or two when I wondered whether I was making a huge mistake in trusting and welcoming these people to our home. They may have wondered the same thing about accepting my invitation. But the next morning we all woke up and shared breakfast together before they left for the rest of their big summer adventure.
The only regret I have at this distance about those twenty-four hours is that at some point over the years I forgot their names. It doesn’t seem quite fitting to the welcome we gave one another (for they surely welcomed us for the day as much as we welcomed them). But God remembers, God knows their names—and mine, even if by now they’ve forgotten that too. And as we read the songs of community that the Psalms surely are, we know that the God who knows us also knew the names and stories of those who first wrote and read and sang them, just as he will know those who come after us and find their lives welcomed into the same story and their voices welcomed into the same songs.
This is the third in a series of posts that could be titled, “Helpful Stuff I’ve Learned.” Most of these bits of learning were connected with reading books or sitting under certain teachers, so I’m usually going to share them as little pieces of autobiography: how I came across them, why they mattered to me at a certain time, or how they continue to matter. These posts will deal mostly with ideas, but these ideas have also supplied me with memorable images or phrases that have helped me over the years in trying to discern what it means to follow Jesus.