Eugene Peterson – A Tribute and Call
This week, I find myself mourning the loss of a man I have never met. Eugene Peterson, the pastor, author, poet, and translator, went home to Heaven on October 22, 2018.
The diversity of those in grief speaks to Peterson’s character. As a young pastor, counselor, and aspiring writer myself, I began to ask what it was about Eugene that made him so unique. There is a lot to glean from his life and ministry.
I first got to know Eugene through his translation of Scripture entitled ‘The Message’ while I was in seminary. In my circles, to read this version tended to be taboo. I often felt I was sneaking off for a smoke when I read it in chapel. But thank God for it. In a time in my life where I was spiritually withering away while accumulating all kinds of knowledge, Eugene helped usher me towards the intimacy of the Word. This is a debt I can never repay.
Later, as I entered a season of depression, his book “Running with Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best” helped revive the fight in me. As he talked about the prophet Jeremiah, Eugene told me about myself. He had a knack for holding up a mirror to his reader through the stories and poetry he shared.
When I entered the pastorate, his memoir helped me accept my role as a pastor. In all honesty, I hated the idea of becoming, in his words, “a shopkeeper of religious trinkets.” His authentic longing to love God and people helped me find my way and still does.
As I reflect on his life and legacy, there are four attributes that stand out, all of which hold space and deserve reflection on this site.
View of Humanity
“Congregation is a company of people who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered.” The Pastor: A Memoir (2012)
Eugene viewed people first and foremost as image bearers of an Almighty God. As small a thing as this may seem, it’s completely countercultural. How many problems do we read and write about on this site that have their roots in not viewing people as image bearers?
Rather than seeing someone in addiction as an addict, or looking at someone in prison as a criminal, or even viewing the person wearing the fake smile in the pew as a congregant, what if we put on Eugene’s glasses and see them as persons created in the image of a very good God, fearfully and wonderfully made? How much more would we heal in unity if we simply treated each other as neighbors, with compassion, dignity, and deep-founded respect?
Hermeneutics of Intimacy
“The words printed on the pages of my Bible give witness to the living and active revelation of the God of creation and salvation, the God of love who became the Word made flesh in Jesus, and I had better not forget it. If in my Bible reading I lose touch with this livingness, if I fail to listen to this living Jesus, submit to this sovereignty, and respond to this love, I become arrogant in my knowing and impersonal in my behavior. An enormous amount of damage is done in the name of Christian living by bad Bible reading.” Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (2009)
As I studied Scripture and its languages, I got excited like any good student. It was thrilling to know something, to have an angle on a word that others didn’t have. But in time, the novelty wore off. So long as I treated Scripture as words to be deciphered, it would often become more academic, and thus more disconnected from the living God.
Eugene seemed to grasp that Scripture is God making himself known, thus, the Bible is a profoundly intimate book: Christ becoming flesh; God passing by and showing his glory to Moses; the Spirit descending like a dove. Eugene also seemed to understand that pastoring people was an incredibly intimate vocation, getting into the mess of their lives while openly sharing your own.
His translation of the old languages into the American vernacular, in light of intimacy, helped me access God’s word. How can you know God’s revealed word if you don’t know how to reveal yourself to another? Thanks to Eugene, I’m able to get into Scripture now and sink down deep like in a lake rather than standing on the shoreline and studying the ripples, reflections, and purity of the water.
“And yet I decide, every day, to set aside what I can do best and attempt what I do very clumsily–open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.” A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (2000)
Eugene was practically at one church for his entire life as a pastor. His church started in his basement, the catacombs as he describes it, and he never seemed to lose the humility of that. He talks about pastoring as being a career in making one mistake after another. He knew what it meant to walk dependently upon God, rather than trying to make a name for oneself.
His goal was never fame and I can only imagine his thoughts at all the fan letters and eulogies like this one. In fact, when Bono from U2 asked to meet Peterson, he originally turned him down, not knowing exactly who Bono was. Years later, Peterson said this after meeting with him: “We had a lovely conversation. It was just very personal, relational. He didn’t put me on any kind of a pedestal and I didn’t him. I was just really taken by the simplicity of his life, of who he is. There was no pretension to him. At that point, I felt like he was a companion in the faith.”
I think it’s safe to say Peterson’s goal was also never to change anyone. He simply showed up in obedience, faithfully walking out what God put in front of him. He didn’t seek power over others, but service to them. May we do the same.
“My identity does not begin when I begin to understand myself. There is something previous to what I think about myself, and it is what God thinks of me. That means that everything I think and feel is by nature a response, and the one to whom I respond is God. I never speak the first word. I never make the first move.” Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (2009)
If you read anything Eugene Peterson wrote, you will walk away with a profound gut check: it’s not at all about you. You’re important; after all, you are formed in the image of God, but it’s not about you.
Eugene has continuously taught me that what God thinks about me carries abundantly more weight than what anyone else thinks of me. There is great freedom in this. I’m no longer tied to your like or dislike of me. I can respond to you with compassion and empathy, even when you’re cruel to me because my identity is unshakeable. God thinks well of me. God loves me.
In a world that is hostile to the Imago Dei, there is much joy to be found in the favor of the One in whose image you were made! This world will hurt you, throw shade, disrespect, and demean you. You’ll need to seek healing for that. But this world and our adversary can never shake the consistent delight your God takes in you. This was a grace Eugene embraced.
This kind of life that seeks to walk in the way of Jesus, as much as it listens to the way of Jesus, has everything to do with us who seek to call out and fight the sin of racism, sexism, and abuse that surround us. If we follow suit and see people primarily as image bearers, if we live intimately with God and one another, and if we walk humbly with our identity rooted in God’s view of us, we will bear infinite light in this finite darkness.
I want to end this article by quoting Eugene Peterson’s final words in this world as a call to us to follow suit in following Jesus: “Let’s go.”