I’ve been bracing myself for this news for the past few years, but even as my wife called to tell me the news of Eugene Peterson’s passing, the warm tears began to flow down my cheeks. Like countless pastors around the world, Eugene pastored me. I’ve read every book he’s written at least twice through. Even before my official installation as a pastor in my early twenties, he had already left an indelible mark on my life.
But I wasn’t pastored or mentored only through his writing. A few months after graduating from college in 2001, my wife and I were married and moved across the country to begin working at NavPress, the publishing house that published The Message translation. The year we began working at NavPress was the significant time when The Message Bible was released in its entirety.
At 23 years of age, I had the privilege of serving as the emcee for The Message Bible release party, a grand celebration honoring Eugene for the decade of his life he devoted to translation work. Well-known pastors and top leaders in the Christian publishing world attended; even Bono offered a personal message of thanks to Eugene piped in via video. It was at the release party where I first met Eugene and his wife, Jan. When the event was over, I shared with him that while I appreciated The Message, it was his pastoral theology books that had shaped me the most, as I was planning on becoming a pastor in the near future. I found his writings to be equally prophetic and poetic, starting with Under the Unpredictable Plant which I first read in high school. I told him I had several more questions about ministry and wondered if I could converse with him from a distance. He gave me his address and promised me if I wrote him he would always write me back.
Who promises stuff like that to a 23-year-old kid you just met who feels called to ministry? Eugene does. I asked if I could write to him with some of my questions as a young pastor. He gave me his address and promised to always write back. Who promises stuff like that to a 23yo kid you just met who feels called to ministry? Eugene does. Click To Tweet
“Your friend, Eugene.”
I wrote him dozens of times. He kept his word, always writing back within a few weeks’ time. It was like Christmas morning for me each time I opened the mail box to find a letter with a return address from Lakeside, Montana. It was never email; each letter was always about 2-3 typed pages. I’d read each one multiple times, making sure I caught every piece of encouragement, every drip of advice, every challenge to receive. His letters were kind, thoughtful, patient. He was caring, asking frequently about my wife and kids. He was excruciatingly patient with my pastoral questions. The topics included the importance of sabbath, self-care, prayer, scripture, remaining faithful through adversity, preaching, even specific follow-up questions to what he had written in his books. Above all else, he taught me that ministry is helping people pay attention to God and respond appropriately. Each letter was a seminary class in and of itself.
He was wise and measured with his responses. But he also had a spunk to him, answering some of questions that were, at times, surprisingly forthright. He could be quite opinionated. (It’s no secret he was not a fan of megachurches). He took this literary mentoring very seriously. He often signed off with “The Peace of our Lord,” but sometimes he would write “Your friend, Eugene.” It was deeply meaningful to me that while I always considered him my mentor and a giant in the faith, he always chose to call me friend. I kept his letters in a shoebox, which I cherished deeply.
When I planted a church a decade ago, I asked him if he would be willing to write a letter specifically to our new church, instructing, encouraging, and reminding the congregation of what it meant to be a faithful community centered on Jesus. He was kind enough to do so. I cried as I read it to my people. Some of them did, too.
When NavPress decided to publish a year-long devotional using the ancient prayer practice Lectio Divina with The Message, I, along with two other authors and Eugene, created the devotional known as The Message Remix: Solo, which is still in print today. He was so gracious through the process. And later, he was also kind enough to write the foreword to one of my books.
Nobody has left a more important mark on my understanding of my pastoral vocation than Eugene has. I doubt anybody else will leave that kind of a footprint on my calling. I was fortunate to tell him that on a few different occasions. He was gracious each time I shared it.
In the spring of 2010, after more than six years of writing letters back and forth, he called me and invited me to come and visit with he and Jan for a few days at their home in Lakeside, Montana. Early that June, he picked me up from the airport and spent three days talking together with Jan, eating good food, going for long walks, praying and laughing. He told great stories, breaking into his quintessential ear-to-ear grin followed by a quick chuckle. He shared what it was like to pray with U2, while Jane gleefully told me Bono kissed her on the cheek and how she never planned on washing her cheek again.
The Legacy He Leaves Behind
Eugene was humble. He never read his own press clippings. He was not about hype, he was skeptical of fame, allergic to being cool, and he was against following trends. And yet, for me and many other young pastors, that’s what made him even more compelling. I don’t think he ever fully understood the impact he has had on pastors, on bible readers, or on the North American Church. He was deeply anchored and grounded in his identity as a child of God, a husband, a father, a friend, and a pastor. I never once saw it inflate him in the slightest, even when book sales reached into the millions and celebrities and dignitaries called the house.
One afternoon on my visit to the Petersons’ home, we sat on the back deck drinking lemonade and watching the hummingbirds flutter and hover around their feeders. A FedEx truck pulled up and delivered the final edits from the publisher of his memoir, The Pastor. As he opened the box, he asked if I would read over the introduction and the conclusion of the manuscript and offer any feedback I might have. I looked at him incredulously, not sure what to say. “Eugene, how can I ever give you any legitimate feedback—and of all things, on your memoir?” He was insistent, telling me he truly wanted my thoughts. He handed me a red pen, told me he would be back in an hour and walked to his study. Humility.
He never pastored a church large enough where he didn’t know everyone’s name. That was important to him. He needed to know the names and the stories of the people for whom he was called to care for their souls. “How can you care for someone’s soul if you don’t know their story, let alone their name?” he wrote in one of his letters. Ironically, thousands of pastors he would never meet from around the world would say they were a part of his congregation, who were cared for and pastored by his life and works. He was a pastor to pastors. He loved his God. He cared deeply for people.
He taught people how to pray. He taught pastors how to pray. He taught me how to pray. He taught pastors how to be patient, to not manipulate congregations or try to control them, but to love them. He taught pastors to open up space to allow the Spirit to work in people’s lives. He challenged pastors to be patient. He reminded pastors of their holy calling by tending to people’s souls. And he was quick to remind pastors that churches are made up of sinners—one of those sinners in each of those churches is also pastor.
Eugene Peterson was quick to remind pastors that churches are made up of sinners—one of those sinners in each of those churches is also pastor. Click To Tweet
His Last Project: Preparing to Die Well
On the back deck that day, he told me The Pastor would be the last book that he would ever write. “So, what’s next, then?” I asked. I’ll never forget his response: “Well,” he said, looking thoughtfully to the glaciers across Flathead Lake and speaking with his distinctly raspy voice, “What’s left for me now is to prepare to die well.” I teared up when he said it. I choke up now even as I type these words. As reports of his failing heart and dementia became known recently, that phrase keeps rolling around in my head. What’s left for me now is to prepare to die well.
Many Christians around the world were puzzled over Eugene’s statements on same sex marriage in the interview with Jonathan Merritt last year, followed up by his even more confusing attempt to clarify his original comments. People reacted, publishers scrambled, and Christian bookstore chains pulled his books from their offerings. I never spoke to him about those statements. There’s so much more to remember Eugene for than that awkward interview. There’s too much he offered to the world. There was too much he offered to countless pastors who also considered him their mentor, whom Eugene wrote to regularly and for whom the Petersons hosted for visits in their home. Many of his books, written a few decades ago, seem even more prophetic, powerful, and poignant today than when he originally wrote them. We will be reading his books several decades from now. At least I know I will.
He prepared to die well. And he, in fact, died well. A life well-lived. Wise, faithful, caring, humble, patient, rooted in Jesus, anchored in hope, always exhibiting a deep love for the Church. He wrote what he lived and, more importantly, he lived what he wrote: a long obedience in the same direction. More than a translator of the Word of God, he embodied its message with his life. I’m deeply grateful.
You will be missed, Eugene.
Your friend, J.R. He wrote what he lived and, more importantly, he lived what he wrote: a long obedience in the same direction. More than a translator of the Word of God, he embodied its message with his life. You will be missed, Eugene. Click To Tweet