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Some years back I had the privilege of doing an on-stage interview with Rev. Eugene Peterson at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. Like most pastors I know, I had long found that Peterson’s writings fed my soul, my pastorate, and my preaching. His numerous books and his fresh paraphrase of the Bible in “The Message” were regular wellsprings of inspiration and challenge. Gene, however, was a very humble, unassuming man. He was fiercely quiet in his own way. In fact, I confess that on one occasion when he delivered a long lecture on Genesis 22 at the Worship Symposium, he even came off a little dry. His content was fantastic but he was not one for oratorical pyrotechnics. In any event, I had a long list of questions I had labored over for my interview of him at the Writing Festival. But once the interview began before a packed Calvin College Chapel audience, Gene was being so “Yup” and “Nope” with most of this answers that we were burning through my list at an alarming rate.
So I started to ad lib a bit and asked him at one point if any (or most) of his prolific writings had ever started out as sermons. I then assured him that I could personally testify how often it went the other way; i.e., his writings turned into my sermons! He matter-of-factly said that no, his writings and his sermons existed in separate spheres. But he seemed quite delighted, maybe even vaguely surprised, that his words translated well into other people’s sermons. Gene had the ultimate twinkle in his eye most of the time and you could just tell that the thought he was feeding preaching in Christ’s Church pleased him.
But it says so much about his native humility that he had clearly never spent a lot of time pondering how that might be happening all the time. This is probably the same reason that he was so surprised to find out that his fresh translations of The Psalms had been feeding the soul of U2’s lead singer Bono for years. When Peterson and Bono got together a couple of years ago for a film produced by Fuller Seminary, it was Bono who looked like the one who was meeting a rock star, not the other way around.
As most readers know by now, Eugene Peterson died yesterday at the age of 85 after some recent struggles with heart failure and some form of dementia. According to news reports, he faced his death with courage but more, with joy. But then, joy infused so much of his writing over the years. Few writers knew more keenly the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness comes and goes depending on circumstances. Joy endures because it emerges from the other side of death in the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, because of Christ, death is precisely the place where deep and abiding joy flourishes best.
Over the years there were more delights in Peterson’s written work than I could even begin to list. In fact, so much of his work is residue in me that I am channeling Gene’s work without being aware of it half the time. But I recall how I laughed to read years ago his method to insure that he would always have enough time to keep reading and reading and reading. Some people don’t consider a pastor’s reading a novel to be real work in ministry–you should always be able to interrupt a pastor if “all” he was doing was reading. So he began to have his secretary make appointment entries on his calendar to prevent anyone from stealing his precious reading time. “I’m sorry,” the secretary might say to someone on the phone “but Rev. Peterson is not available right now. He’s in a meeting with a Mr. Tolstoy.”
For all of his mild mannered ways, though, he could also be a fierce and even stinging critic of what he perceived to be a growing shallowness among both congregations and pastors alike. Last month I quoted Peterson several times in my Calvin Theological Seminary Convocation speech “A Call to Christian Seriousness.” In particular there was this implied rebuke of what Peterson saw as a problem in the contemporary church: “I am convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to most American congregations. The curriculum would consist of four courses: Creative Plagiarism, Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling, Efficient Office Management, and Image Projection.”
Peterson really was a pastor’s pastor, a shepherd’s shepherd. But that is why he knew that sometimes what pastors and the church generally needed was the hard word of rebuke designed to call us all back to first things, to that which would endure in our Father’s kingdom.
We have now lost his voice at a moment when more than ever the church needs to be called back to the enduring example of Christ and to following Jesus’ lead above all. In a time of ugly shouting matches, cruel humor, and the church’s wanton grab for political power, Peterson’s legacy calls us back–to quote the title of one his finest books–to sit under the unpredictable plant where we are called to reflect on vocational holiness in ministry.
I am profoundly grateful for Eugene Peterson, his life, his ministry, his prodigious body of written work, and for the radiant kindness of his very person. I will close with this quote from “Under the Unpredictable Plant” as it almost surely speaks a word for this fraught moment in which we find ourselves.
“There are thousands of ways of being religious without submitting to Christ’s lordship, and people are practiced in most of them. We live in golden calf country. Religious feeling runs high but in ways far removed from what was spoken on Sinai or done on Calvary. While everyone has a hunger for God, deep and insatiable, none of us has any great desire for God. What we really want is to be our own gods and have whatever other gods that are around to help us in this work. We are trained from an early age to be to be discriminating consumers on our way to higher standards of living. It should be no great surprise to pastors when congregations expect us to collaborate in this enterprise. But it is serious apostasy when we go along.”