I sat in my reading chair in the late afternoon on Good Friday this year and finished A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier’s brilliant biography of the late Eugene Peterson. I wiped tears from my eyes as I set the book down. In the words of John Wesley, I felt my heart strangely warmed.
Though I have more than two decades of pastoral experience, I felt like a freshly-graduated seminary student heading out to my first church. I’ve read countless Peterson books, and I’ve considered Pastor Eugene my pastor for more than 15 years, but there was something stirring about this biography.
I picked the book back up and I wrote the following short prayer in the back of the book: God, grant me the grace to walk in the steadfast and saintly steps of your servant Eugene. Amen. God, grant me the grace to walk in the steadfast and saintly steps of your servant Eugene. Amen. Click To Tweet
Throughout the book, Collier repeatedly makes reference to Eugene’s desire for holiness, to be a saint. This desire shaped Eugene as a husband, pastor, professor, and writer. That said, he wasn’t always saintly. Collier documents some of Peterson’s failures, shortcomings, and questioning, but these stories give context to his undeniable desire for God and a desire to craft phrases and sentences to communicate God’s work on the earth through the church and in creation itself.
Collier captured Eugene Peterson’s spirit in this sweeping biography. With access to Peterson’s journals, interviews with his family, and numerous conversations with Peterson himself before his death, Collier drank deeply from his spirit and I felt it chapter after chapter. I found myself pausing after reading a section of the book and in reflecting on Collier’s words, I could hear the raspy voice of Peterson himself in my ears.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Winn Collier and talk to him about A Burning in My Bones. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, one in which we discussed aspects of Peterson’s life and themes that are integral to the long-term and fruitful life of a pastor.
The Sacredness of Space
DV: Montana features predominantly in your biography. Why do you think place was so important for Eugene?
WC: He used to say, “You can never separate theology from geography.” Place is not just a side reality in our life, but it is part of God’s creation of humanity and the world that shapes us and makes us who we are. He was inherently a Westerner. He didn’t like to be in circles that felt elite; he was the son of butcher, he was a Montanan. He lived in Baltimore and went to seminary in New York City, and there were things he liked about those places. But there was something about the deep connection and nearness to the land, to the salt-of-the-earth people, that defined was who he was, who he spoke to, and how he saw himself.
The Holiness of Words
DV: Eugene saw words as holy. How did that understanding of language shape Eugene Peterson as a preacher and writer?
WC: It brought a sense of humility to his work. We can be tempted to see words as utilitarian tools. They are things to be used to fashion the thoughts we want to get across or the ideas that we think are going to move someone. But language comes from the one who is the Word, from Jesus himself. Language is part of the mind and heart of God, and there is a sense of holy reverence for that which was given by God. Eugene wasn’t going to preach a sermon with words that didn’t seek to be humble before God. He wanted to declare something beautiful and true with a sense of reverence that these were God’s words and not his own. He did the same thing in his writing. We can be tempted to see words as utilitarian tools. But language comes from the one who is the Word, from Jesus himself. Click To Tweet
Pastoring through the Badlands
DV: Eugene talked about his struggle through “the badlands,” that season of time after they launched Christ Our King Presbyterian Church. Once they built their building, attendance began to dwindle, and Eugene experienced years of frustration. What lessons can pastors learn from that period of time?
WC: One thing is the gift of endurance. We are wired to think of things in short-term increments. We are in way less control than we think we are. It is an illusion to think that we are in control of much of anything. We are at the mercy of grace. The way of following Jesus means walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It means walking through the desert. Eugene tried to leave during the six-year period he called “the badlands.” He applied at churches and wasn’t accepted. It is heartening that we are not even in control of our ability to walk through the badlands well. During this time, Eugene returned to woodworking, and he and his wife Jan began their Monday Sabbaths.
Feelings of Inadequacy
DV: One of the recurring themes in this biography was Eugene’s feelings of inadequacy and that he often felt out of place. Where did these feelings come from? Why was it a struggle for him?
WC: The word that captures that whole orb was his sense of otherness. It is hard to find a season in his life that he did not feel a sense of otherness wherever he found himself. There was such an interior world to Eugene. It is hard to describe. He was so comfortable with silence. It wasn’t an effort. It was his natural habitat. There was something about Eugene that made him who he was that annoyed people like Jan. There was a way that he was present to God and to himself, and he was more intuitively aware of what was happening around him.
A Pastor to Pastors
DV: Eugene loved pastors. You record this in the biography. I am a pastor who experienced his love from the few times I was with him and the letters we sent back and forth. What is one thing Eugene would say to pastors today?
WC: He probably would prefer not to say one thing to all pastors. He would want to say one thing to the pastor in front of him. At the same time, he would find himself from time to time in a room full of pastors and I think he would say, “Don’t be afraid to be a pastor.” He would then pause and let that sink in. He’d repeat that statement. Don’t be afraid to be a pastor in a world that does not know what a pastor is anymore. We are not trained and we are rarely encouraged to tend to the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of the people right in front of us with integrity, humanity, mercy, and grace and believe God is enough. Don't be afraid to be a pastor in a world that does not know what a pastor is anymore. Click To Tweet
I cannot recommend A Burning in My Bones highly enough. My only disappointment with this book was that I finished it wanting more! I was somewhat surprised that Peterson’s 29 years as a pastor was summarized in about five chapters. I would have loved to read more stories, mundane stories, about Eugene’s interaction with his congregation. I assume editors were at work editing down the manuscript so that it didn’t turn in a 500-page biography, but I would have loved an additional 200 pages.
This single weakness of this biography is, in actuality, a strength of the book. A good book always leaves us wanting more. What I want after reading this book is to continue to be a pastor like St. Eugene. I want to spend the rest of my life pastoring people, like Peterson, in the ways of Jesus—and not Jesus as defined by pop culture, political pundits, or people shaped by the values of American culture—but Jesus as the peaceable Lamb of God. What I want after reading this book is to continue to be a pastor like St. Eugene. I want to spend the rest of my life pastoring people, like Peterson, in the ways of Jesus. Click To Tweet