Everything a Gift: Remembering Eugene Peterson

Eugene led me down the stone steps past their kayaks and into the crawl space under their home on Flathead Lake. The cool cave carved out of the earth held boxes of books, a collection of water air-up toys, and several rat traps scattered along the floor. The traps were only mildly successful, as I’d later discover shelves loaded with leather-bound editions of The Message and rows of new hardbacks like Eat this Book nibbled through, these Montana rats literally taking Eugene’s advice. Stooping through the low entrance, Eugene flipped the switch and the bare 100-watt bulb flickered and sizzled. Eugene pointed to twin black metal cabinets stuffed full of letters, manuscripts, sermons, calendars, clippings from high school, college, and decades at Christ Our King Presbyterian. You cannot imagine the tens of thousands of letters Eugene received, scribbled and typed from every sort of person. Eugene responded to as many as he possibly could, stapling the original and his reply together and sliding them into a manila folder. There’s a lifetime of love and craft and criticism and hope and struggle stored in that dank grotto.

As Eugene’s biographer, I’ve spent hours in that space, rummaging through so much texture and so many stories. Whenever I’d come back up to the house, Eugene would ask, “Well, Winn, did you find anything worthwhile?” I’d smile big. Boy, did I. So many times, he asked me questions like this with genuine bewilderment. “I don’t know why anyone would be interested in me,” he said multiple times. “Everything has just been a gift.”

I’ve loved Eugene for a very long time. I’ve felt such honor to be able to get to know him a small bit and then to spend more than a decade exchanging letters. Then two years ago, after a visit that I assumed was my last, a letter followed by a conversation led to me being his biographer. For close to two years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time with Jan and Eugene. Jan would point me upstairs to “my room,” and over time she even allowed me to cook my famous Texas chili for them, to do a few chores around the house. I’ve loved every minute of it.

I had one fear, though, in taking on this work (aside from the terror that I’d screw up his story)—the fear that I’d get into Eugene’s most intimate world and discover he was not the man we all thought him to be.

I’ve dug through decades of journals, combed through thousands of letters, talked to a range of people from every sphere and season of Eugene’s life, spent hours and hours in intimate, unfiltered conversation, been in the house with Jan and Eugene for days of unguarded proximity. And I can tell you, with the clearest conviction: the Eugene Peterson we’ve all seen in public is the Eugene Peterson you find behind closed doors. Eugene was wildly generous, profoundly humble. Have you met a man in whom there was no guile? Who did not play the power games we assume must be played? Have you encountered a man who believed so much in kindness that he would not betray it, even if it meant being taken advantage of or being misunderstood? I have. Eugene loved his God with every fiber of his being. He prayed and laughed and even cussed a little. Eugene was wildly generous, profoundly humble. He loved his God with every fiber of his being. Click To Tweet

I do not write this glowing homage because he was a faultless man without failings or shortcomings. Eugene wrestled with temptations, and in his private writings, he demonstrated a relentless grappling with his humanness. For a man who insisted on honoring what it means to be human in God’s image, it would be disgraceful for me to caricature Eugene as anything other than human.

And yet he was also holy. He loved the Father, Son, and Spirit. He loved his family like mad. He loved his friends. He loved Flathead Lake and the Mission Range mountains. He loved those magnificent ospreys and kingfishers whenever they’d make their appearance.

Once at dinner, with the fire burning and the moon shining over the lake, Eugene asked how long the biography would take. I told him probably three years. “Can you make it three years, Gene?” Jan asked. He looked up, smiled wide. “I’m sure trying.”

Eugene didn’t make it, but his son Eric said that his joy stayed with him until his final breaths. This is the joy he knew his entire life, the joy he could not help but give away to so many of us.

Indeed, Eugene, “everything has just been a gift.” And we are so very grateful.

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