I remember when I started reading Eugene Peterson. I was five years into full-time pastoral ministry, and the entirety of my church experience to that point had been in the environs of evangelical megachurches. The sort of places where my colleagues had titles like “Director of Synergy,” and “Pastor of Land Acquisition.”
As a young leader, I learned a lot: how to recruit volunteers, how to manage a large budget, how to gather crowds and run events. But I found it hard in those places to learn how to be a pastor.
It was in those days that I started spending most of my book budget scooping up Eugene Peterson books. A mentor recommended I pick up a book Peterson wrote for pastors called Working the Angles, so I did, and was immediately enthralled.
“American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate,” he wrote. “They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. . .But they are abandoning their posts, their calling.”
I was hooked.
Over the next few years, I devoured his other works on pastoral theology: Under the Unpredictable Plant, The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, The Unnecessary Pastor. And I immersed myself in his books on the David-stories, the Psalms, the Revelation to John, as well as his series of works on spiritual theology, and more.
Eugene Peterson became a theological and vocational hero to me: his rich vision of the pastorate, his evocative, earthy style, his holy reverence for souls and for words. His imagination of what a pastor is shaped what I wanted to become. Eugene Peterson planted a new congregation, and also pastored it faithfully, adhering to a “vow of vocational stability” in his Maryland parish for three decades.
Eugene Peterson spent whole afternoons reading Dostoyevsky and James Joyce. Eugene Peterson was an unbusy pastor. Eugene Peterson got his elders to take ownership of managing the financial and administrative dimensions of his congregation so he could tend to God, Scripture, and souls. Eugene Peterson wrote books — piles of them — that were imaginative and rich: they were true.
And so, I couldn’t wait to make my way through Winn Collier’s recently-released A Burning in My Bones, the authorized biography of Peterson’s life.
It didn’t disappoint.
Collier’s prose sparkles: it’s vivid and lively in a way Peterson would love. But the most striking feature of A Burning in My Bones is the way in which he amplifies Eugene’s own voice, through his thorough research and compilation of Peterson’s countless journals, letters, conversations.
The picture that emerges from Collier’s attentive telling of this pastor-writer’s life is complex, flawed, and beautiful. Anyone who has lived a pastoral life will find so much with which to resonate in the journey of this man who seemed such a vocational giant — I know I did.
Here’s Eugene Peterson, who wrote bracingly of the sacredness of place, who urged pastors to take “vows of stability” to their parishes, struggling to love and embrace suburban Bel Air, fantasizing about being a pastor in a different context. I laughed as Collier narrated Peterson dealing with divisive board members, having spent my fair share of time in elders meetings more focused on org charts and five-year plans than holy mysteries and human souls. People left Eugene Peterson’s church. Even he fretted over attendance figures and budget trends. Before Eugene Peterson wrote piles of books, read by Bono and Bill Clinton, he amassed piles of rejection letters from publishers. My throat tightened into a lump as I watched this man of deep integrity travel through strained seasons of married life with his beloved Jan.
For all that, when I closed A Burning in My Bones and put it down, I didn’t come away at all disillusioned. Quite the opposite: Collier’s biography humanized someone I idealized. The picture painted by this biography is of a pastor-writer who lived the space between the convictions in his soul and the realities in front of him; who was a fully human being, wise and inspiring and also contradictory, flawed. Someone who, over a lifetime, under God, became a saint, as Peterson himself so often prayed.
His life, over decades, took on a “weathered but holy shape,” to steal Collier’s memorable phrase. This was an introduction to someone who was a “saint without any trappings,” as Eugene himself once wrote. I’m grateful for this humanizing introduction to a hero.