Eugene Peterson’s death this past week has affected me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. First of all, I did not expect it to come so soon. Our family had traveled to Montana in July and spent an afternoon with Jan and Eugene and, while he was weak and showing signs of dementia, there was also much hope that he might have several more years.
But the end of his long obedience has come.
I first “met” Eugene through his book Under the Unpredictable Plant. The year was 1990 and I was a very green youth director and my supervising pastor suggested we read and discuss it. The book is about vocation, specifically pastoral vocation, and what it means to pastor a church. It was a meditation on the book of Jonah summarized by a line in a letter Eugene would write to me nearly 20 years later, “the church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.” His writing was prophetic and beautiful at the same time. I found myself deeply attracted to be the kind of person he described, yet also profoundly convicted by his challenge to my self-oriented default approach to church life and, if I was honest, to Christian faith in general.
Four years later (1994), with the blessing of the San Francisco Presbytery who were thrilled that I would be studying under Eugene Peterson, I enrolled in Seminary at Regent College in Vancouver, BC where Eugene had begun teaching two years previously. Sharon and I were star struck at first, desperately desiring to have time with Jan and Eugene, but terribly awkward when we got it. They did their best to put us at ease (usually it was Jan who was most helpful there!), and over time they got to know us and we got to know them. I have no idea how many of Eugene’s classes I sat through. I took them all – if not for credit, I listened to them on “tape” and took notes just for myself. I even did a guided study with Eugene to fulfill some of my Presbyterian ordination requirements. I never grew tired of his perspective.
As I was nearing the time of graduation, I still was unsure about my future. Missions? (back to China where we’d taught for two years already?) Para-Church work? Pastor? I had completed the Presbyterian “call” process, but I still had my doubts about being a pastor – was I really cut out for it? I wanted to have it all planned out. I wanted to “design” my life so that it would be “used” by God in the most “effective” (and efficient…and with minimal pain) way. I wrote him a letter about this in 1997 and he responded with these words of example (and therefore challenge!):
“Most of the things I fantasized doing [by being ‘intentional’] I didn’t do. I have mostly just tried to be obedient to the work that was before me – as pastor and writer. I’m suspicious of ‘gift-defining’- too much ego involved. I don’t think any of us do a very good job of planning (intentionalizing) our lives – we aren’t smart enough – or lucky enough. Saying No and staying uncluttered is not so much a matter of intentionality as of obedience to place and work and the people who God has placed in your life: wife, children, family, etc. ‘Life-purpose’ and such rather crowds out faith and prayer don’t you think?”
Clearly I was a poor student, and a slow learner. Like most of Jesus’ disciples, I loved being with this man and knew that he was right, and yet my actions and choices were slow to follow. Yet Eugene patiently walked with me through my angst, until one day as I met with him in his office he said straight to me, “Geordie, you are a pastor. Stop trying to design your life, and be obedient to what God has put in front of you.”
And so with a bit of fear and trembling, I became a pastor.
Since he was a large part of the reason I became a pastor, I asked Eugene if he would preach at my Ordination. He agreed, and in March of 1999, Eugene and a myriad of other pastors and elders laid hands on me and prayed my ordination. The title of his message to me was “Eat this book,” taken from the title of the book he was currently writing. That title though expresses one of the foundational impacts that Eugene has had on my life. He, more than any other, has taught me to take the Scriptures seriously. But not in a stogie, uptight way. Rather, Eugene taught me that God is real and Jesus is alive and the Spirit is present and that there is nothing connected to this triune God that is not personal through and through. Boy have I needed that message. So much in me is wired to perform, to achieve, to compete, to hide. And yet his relentless message was to believe that God is present and speaking through his word. It is ALIVE – because HE is alive!
Along those same lines, Eugene taught me to have a Biblical imagination. Part of it was his way of speaking – it was so different than anyone else I knew. Whereas I’d been accustomed to thinking of salvation as a thing you “had” or didn’t “have,” Eugene talked about it as a “country” where you live, a spacious land in which you come to find yourself. And the scriptures were our access to that world. He taught me to appreciate and pay attention to the “spirituality” of the characters in scripture. In fact, one of my favorite classes Eugene taught bore that title: Scripture as a text for spirituality. I’ve never heard them the same since.
Like many eager seminary grads, my first call was both wonderful and very difficult. The context of the church I served was not very congenial to me being the kind of pastor that Eugene described. And yet it was Eugene’s vision of what pastoral ministry and church life should be that sustained and inspired me through those years.
During that time Eugene and I would speak on the phone a couple times a year. He knew my context was difficult and patiently listened to my vocational wonderings. Most of the time he was non-directive, but he asked good questions, and occasionally would challenge me to press in and get back in the game. Always he believed in me. He was such a good friend in this way.
Eventually, I knew it was time to move on. My desire to study the theology of T.F. Torrance had only grown with time and I began to feel drawn toward a PhD. I called Eugene to talk it over and get his input. He was pretty clear about his feelings. He said “I am not very enthusiastic about a PhD for pastors.” He worried that I would get caught up in the academic world and not want to come back to ordinary pastoral ministry. For Eugene, the PhD was showing up every Sunday and hanging out with ordinary Christians every week. Working out our theology in the real context of people’s lives was where the action was at.
While I believed him and respected his point, I still felt called to pursue the PhD. And that’s when the letter writing started in earnest….
I’d written and received a few letters with Eugene prior to our move to Scotland, but once we moved there letter writing became a regular thing. I suppose I realized that I needed his voice in my life. I worried that I might lose my footing, or stray from my roots. I didn’t want this new season of growth and learning to betray or reject any of my former growth, particularly my Regent education. I’d written a couple letters to Eugene, and he to me, prior to this, but during the season of the PhD and then re-entry into pastoral ministry, he wrote me nearly 25 letters.
One of the most important letters I received from Eugene was sent in March of 2009. By this time I’d completed a one-year Masters of Theology and was in the first year of my doctoral research trying to find my way and focus. I had sent Eugene my master’s thesis which he kindly read. His response, I believe, provided the fuel that sustained me through the fiery, lonely, despondent, frightening, overwhelming, isolating, spiritually costly trial that a PhD is.
Here is what he said:
I find your work on Torrance a great boost and affirmation – and an extension to what I have done, I think, most of my life. Namely, to rescue the business of growing up in Christ, coming to maturity (often treated today as spiritual formation) from the special interest groups, parachurch retreats and conferences, etc. and in general people interested in “spirituality.”
In the American church there is virtually no ecclesiology, no body of Christ humanity to deal with, the humanity that is given to us through the mediation of Jesus’ humanity. So the church is understand [sic] almost entirely in terms of its function, what we do for Jesus instead of what Jesus is doing for us. You and Torrance insist on something totally different, the church as ontological fact.
Given your thesis, it seems to me that what you now continue to do is resist in as many ways as you can think up the functional aspects church – our attempts at renewal and programmatic strategies – and insist on the ontological reality of the church….
The difficulty with Torrance is that he is, well, so difficult. You have done a superb job of making him accessible. He is a superb theologian; but he is not a pastor. Now, if I can be so bold, you have the task before you of doing for Torrance what he could not do for himself: provide the vocabulary and imagination that provides an ontological paradigm for the American church and demonstrates the emptiness and impotence of the functional.
Well, that’s a mouthful, and this is not the place to try and unpack all of what Eugene is saying here, but I cannot overstate the impact that his affirmation of the importance of my work has had on me. There were several seasons during my doctoral research when I considered dropping out, and every time one of the key elements that sustained me was the fact that Eugene felt what I was doing was important for the church, and in continuity with his own work. He could not have paid me a higher complement.
As I’ve thought about Eugene this past week and his impact on my life, I’ve come to realize that for the past 24 years his voice and vision has colored my life and ministry deeply. Whether it was his books, our face to face conversations, his classes, his letters, or his life example…I hear him beckoning me to center my life and ministry in God. Much of the time I am aware that I fall short, and yet I never have felt condemned in his presence. Convicted yes. Challenged yes. But never condemned. His way was always to call forth the best of Christ in us.
No blog or “tribute” can adequately honor the gift of a life lived with love and passion and grace. I think I’ll end with a quote from Fred (Mr) Rogers, who in his comencement address at Middlebury College, said the following:
“From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.”
And in the case of Eugene Peterson, pastored me into pastoring.