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Tomorrow marks one year since the author of The Message went to glory. Viv Thomas, honorary teaching pastor at St Paul’s Hammersmith remembers him
I first met Eugene in the Atrium of Regent College, Vancouver in January 1995. I was having a cup of coffee with a mutual friend and Eugene came over to chat. Dean and I were telling very funny stories to each other and Eugene joined in. It felt like we were buddies from the first conversation.
I signed up for Eugene’s course which I think was called ‘Introduction to Christian Spirituality’. After attending his first lecture I was disappointed. He seemed so flat, so monotone. He seemed to have a cold with his slightly broken voice. I remember thinking we should pray for his voice after the lecture. Later I found out this was his actual voice.
I went the next week to hear him teach again and found something was stirring in me through this man. On the third week I had a Holy Spirit encounter – an epiphany if you like – and I have been gripped ever since. Through Eugene, God started to give me jewels of such precious worth that if you offered me a million pounds in exchange for them I would let you keep your money. Here are five of them:
1. A new language
He was able to express in words things going on in my heart which I'd been unable to articulate. This was partly because of his unique gift mix. He was a theologian and a teacher, yet he was also a prophet possessing the patience of a teacher with the thunder of a prophet. The mix of his Pentecostal background and liturgical appreciation meant his images and language were always rich. He paid attention to language, to words, and images with the idea that if you paid attention to words there was a chance you could pay attention to people.
2. A love for story
Eugene loved stories and had little place for abstractions. He resisted abstract classifications of people primarily because these reduced the real size and scope of a person. Psychometric tests were not for him. He wanted to let the stories do their work and not reduce everything to ‘spiritual principles’, ‘moral guidelines’ or ‘theological truths’.
He was always after metaphor, story and the concrete when teaching or pastoring. He had a storytelling mother who taught him Bible stories but did not hesitate to add imagination to the text. She was able to bring imagination to the text without violating it, and so was he. She taught Eugene how to think narratively, immersing his praying imagination in the realities of people’s stories. This made him a brilliant pastor. He insisted it was the biblical story, the story of God that shaped everything else, if only we could live in the middle of it.
3. A revolutionary approach to prayer
Eugene had much to say around prayer particularly to the evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic world. He was a subversive, and a revolutionary, especially when it came to prayer. He was particularly helpful when it came to critiquing prayer as technology. This is where valid intercessory prayer shifts into assuming that our prayers must have the right technique - a bit like a computer software prayer programme – which always produces desired results. For Eugene, prayer was not about receiving what we want, it is about God accomplishing what he wants.
He wrote, "If we come to the Psalms looking for a way to develop our inner life, we come to the wrong place. If we come to the Psalms in search of peak experiences, we have made the wrong choice. The Psalmists are not interested in human potential; they are passionate about God – the obedience-shaping, will-transforming, sin-revoking, releasing God." Prayer is about God, not us.
4. A way to waste time with God
Eugene knew how to take Sabbath. By Sabbath he meant, "uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing." This was linked with his insights into Christian spirituality being always earthed in the ordinary material world.
Through Eugene I learned how to connect prayer, rest and play. I learned how to waste time with God, which of course was no waste of time at all. To put it another way, I learned how to keep company with God.
I met Eugene in Vancouver a few years ago and he said, "you are travelling too much." This came out of a passion for pastors to be rooted in local community. I said, "as a leader in a mission’s community my congregation is spread around the world". He looked at me with a penetrating look that said "I have never heard such drivel in all my life."
5. A passion for holiness
When it came to leaders, his passion was holiness - but not as we have traditionally understood it. We often think of ‘holy’ as being too good for this world or someone too nice to associate with someone like me. For Eugene ‘holy’ was our best word to describe our human aliveness emerging from dealing with God. Holiness is not primarily avoiding specific sins but engaging a full relationship with God.
He believed that knowing people’s names could save a leader from treating people as a thing for the leaders use. He saw the pastoral leader’s job as helping people discover their true identity. Eugene was not a fan of the church growth movement. He told me once he read all the church growth books so he would know what not to do. He really did not want his church to grow more than the number of people he could know and name.
For Eugene, pastoral leaders need to focus on three things. Firstly, cultivating an attitude of awe so being able to marvel at a person’s life. Secondly, cultivating a sense of your own ignorance because there is always more to know regarding another’s life. Thirdly, cultivating a disposition of prayer with the assumption in all discipling encounters what a person really wants it to learn how to pray.
How we will miss him.
Viv Thomas is honorary teaching pastor at St Paul’s Hammersmith and organisational development associate at OM International. For more information visit formation.org.uk
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