Yesterday, Eugene Peterson walked across the threshold of heaven’s gates. Our hearts are sad and, at the same time, in awe at a life well lived. Eighty-five years, over 30 books authored, a meaningful vocation, a wonderful family and millions of lives were impacted through Peterson’s words on paper. Most pastors have held a great appreciation for the life and ministry of Eugene Peterson. His steadiness and faithfulness to his calling is one that we can’t arrive at through function, but only through a Long Obedience in the Same Direction. His life has provided a model to follow in life, ministry, and even now, in death. It seems strange to mourn someone who I didn’t know personally, with the same emotions of grief and loss as I have for those that I have truly known, nevertheless, I find myself sad today as many of you do. I had the opportunity to speak to Eugene on the phone once, a number of years back. As I dialed the number I was aware that it is not often that you get the chance to talk to one of your heroes. I’m treasuring that conversation a little more today. In our chat, I got the opportunity to tell him how grateful I was for his ministry of writing and how it has been such a blessing to my life. He was so gracious, and in return, thanked me for sharing that with him. He told me that when you pastor a church there are always people who stop by the back door after the sermon to encourage you with how the message impacted their lives, but Peterson said that often times writing books doesn’t provide that opportunity. He said that people read the books and in most cases, he is never aware of if it landed well with them. His words resonated greatly with me. In three distinct seasons of my life, Peterson has been a faithful friend and a steady mentor.
Eighty-five years, over 30 books authored, a meaningful vocation, a wonderful family and millions of lives were impacted through Peterson’s words on paper.
As a Student
I can remember sitting in a class early in my undergrad program at SEU and one of the supplemental texts was, The Contemplative Pastor. I had never heard of the book or the author and was not prepared for how that book would impact me. This book was my introduction to a man that would become one of the most influential voices in my formation as a Christ follower. His words provided texture to the pastoral calling that I was preparing for. Professors that I respected would quote him often and it became clear to me that this was a man that could be trusted to help prepare me for vocational ministry. His admonishments felt like invitations to love people well and not exchange the sacred work of the pastorate for corporate notions of grandeur. The wisdom and grace that I would hear in his voice years later, was present on each page. He was guiding and provoking with language while steadying our souls for the sacred work of the ministry. Each turning of the page was like taking steps down a winding staircase, I was at the same time advancing and also moving deeper and deeper into the mystery of following Jesus. I loved that Eugene was a scholar and a pastor. The two were not divorced from each other, but they complemented one another. It was a beautiful model for me to follow as a student learning what it truly meant to be a pastor. It was not just a physical action, but one of mind and soul too.
His admonishments felt like invitations to love people well and not exchange the sacred work of the pastorate for corporate notions of grandeur. The wisdom and grace that I would hear in his voice years later, was present on each page. He was guiding and provoking with language while steadying our souls for the sacred work of the ministry.
As a Professor
Years later, I had the opportunity to join the adjunct faculty of Southeastern University. I found myself teaching some of the same classes that I had taken as a student. Sometimes, I would be teaching in the exact rooms that I had taken classes in a few years earlier. It was surreal. I took the opportunity to introduce some young and eager students to my steady friend, Eugene. By this time, I had read most of what Peterson had written. I liked to think I was Petersonian in my pastoral theology and desired to help students make the decision to pattern their pastoral hearts after his. Their ministry would undoubtedly look different, but the core of how they thought and practiced the sacred work of pastoral ministry could be directed by him. It was a joy to bring students into contact with his work because I knew the profound impact it had on me. Truth be told, you seem to learn the material at a deeper level when you are teaching it to someone else. This season of instructing them was actually drilling deeper wells in my own heart for the sacred work of being a pastor.
As a Pastor
About 16 months ago I transitioned from my roles at SEU, to become the Lead Pastor of Metro Church, in the Metro D.C. area. Everything fell into place and our move from Florida to D.C. happened rapidly. In the process of packing and relocating our family to our new place of ministry, I was drawn back to my friend Eugene. I had used his memoir, The Pastor, as a text in classes that I had taught at SEU, but now I felt the pull to reread the book not as a lecturer, but as a pastor seeking the advice of a sage who had walked this path before. I was filled with excitement and anxiety at the weight of this new adventure. It is one thing to talk about pastoral work, and another thing altogether to be a pastor. It was time to move from the classroom to the place where my thoughts and lectures had to now be lived out in real time. Reading The Pastor again, I was reminded that Eugene left his work at the university to become a Pastor. I had forgotten that, and at that moment I felt a connection to him that harkened back to what I felt all those years ago as a student. As a student, I felt Peterson’s words propelling me toward a calling, but now reading his words as a pastor, they were protection for me. They are an anchor in my pastoral work. Without an anchor, I could drift. I could easily cling to tactics and techniques rather than prayer, faithfulness to the scriptures, and a deep love for people. I could become focused on numerical outcomes, rather than faithfully shepherding the sacred stories that are wrapped in the people I am now entrusted to guide.
As a student, I felt Peterson’s words propelling me toward a calling, but now reading his words as a pastor, they were protection for me. They are an anchor in my pastoral work.
Like many of you, I am forever marked by Eugene Peterson and to be honest, I couldn’t think of anyone better to have allowed access to my heart and mind. Thank you, dear friend, for turning simple cups of coffee and a book into sacred space shared between friends. You’ve challenged me and brought correction to me when I have forgotten the ancient things. You have helped reassure me of the faithfulness of God and the wonder that is in knowing Him. You are now a part of that great cloud of witnesses cheering the rest of us on in our Long Obedience.
May we finish as well as you did.