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In Remembrance: Eugene Peterson

Screen capture from “Bono & Eugene Peterson | THE PSALMS” by FULLER Studio.

This month marks the start of my fourteenth year in the pastorate. Along the vocational path, I’ve enjoyed and re-enjoyed the company of the myriad authors whose books sit on my shelf. When I hanker for incisive reflection on the experience of being a pastor, Eugene Peterson’s work has always been my tonic of preference.

I was saddened on October 22nd, the day that Peterson went to be with the Lord. There are so many aspects of Peterson’s ministry that brought benefit to my own. His attention to the earthiness of Christian life, his pointing up the importance of story-form, his scriptural assessment of the pastor’s role, his gregarious use of wry humour, his clear interest in the health of Christ’s church—all of these things have bettered me in my role, and doubtless thousands of other pastors would testify similarly.

My initial acquaintance with Peterson’s writings happened in the years before I became a pastor. In about 1993, I read his Run With the Horses and thereby entered into a deepened enchantment with the book of Jeremiah.[1] About a year later, on the drive to Edmonton following a week-long course audit at Vancouver’s Regent College, I listened to a series of lectures that Peterson had given on the Beatitudes. I remember being struck with the tender way that he approached the Christian life, and I was also particularly gripped by one of his illustrations. When I returned to Edmonton, I worked up the nerve to call his office, both to thank him for his teaching and to ask if I might borrow the illustration. I still have a recording of the message he left in reply. After granting me kind permission to use the illustration, he said, “I’m glad to be used in your pulpit.” At the time I had no pulpit, but that was immaterial. The fact that he took time to return the call of a rather green and over-eager young man was (and still is) laudable.

Peterson’s writings have an inviting sustenance about them. I may not have always concurred with him on every point, and occasionally I even found my views to be in sharp discord with his (a happening that is common for readers!), but there is more than enough nourishment in his writings to keep me coming back. Whether reminding us that exegesis is an act of love,[2] or reflecting affectionately on the essential ministry of Abigail to David,[3] or exhorting pastors to mistrust the attractions of Tarshish in order to remain in their Nineveh-like congregations,[4] Peterson’s words were always colourful, memorable, captivating, and wise.

I credit Eugene H. Peterson with widening my literary horizons. In the late 1990s I purchased a copy of his Take and Read: Spiritual Reading (An Annotated List), which is a sort of parade of literary recommendations; a showcase of the authors who had been important for Peterson’s own spiritual formation. Prior to my engagement with that book, I had not heard of Blaise Pascal or Annie Dillard or Wendell Berry, and Peterson’s endorsement of G.K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was enough to make me go out and buy a copy. In Take and Read we get a glimpse of Peterson’s refusal to stay safely in a denominational or doctrinal box. He encourages the reading of a dizzying breadth of authors, from John Calvin to Herman Melville to Gerhard von Rad to Rex Stout.  He recognizes that not all the books he recommends will become the reader’s books, but if he succeeds at helping the reader develop a “room full of [literary] friends with whom [they] have ‘sweet converse,’” then mission accomplished.[5]

Eugene Peterson has been, and will remain, a literary friend with whom I have sweet converse. I thank God for gifting us with his life, his books, and his pastoral encouragements. May we who are pastors reckon seriously with Peterson’s wise pastoral counsel to us, and may he rest in sweet converse with his Lord.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983).

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 55.

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 82

[4] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 16

[5] Eugene H. Peterson, Take and Read: Spiritual Reading (An Annotated List) (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), xiii.