Remembering Eugene Peterson

When you’re a kid, you believe heroes never die. Today I was reminded once again how untrue that statement is.

Eugene Peterson became a hero to me just over 20 years ago. As a college student in the late ’90s, I was preparing myself via studies and intern experiences for a life of working in the church. I was always an avid reader growing up, and college is already filled with plenty of assigned texts, but I was very hungry in those years to devour so many books handed over to me by professors and mentors.

In those days, a handful of us would take trips to a tiny used bookseller in Fort Wayne, Indiana called Hyde Brothers. They had a surprisingly robust theological section on hand, and I’d often leave with several well-loved volumes to call my own. It was there, at Hyde Brothers, that I first met Peterson when I picked up the modern classic, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

As I read that book on discipleship, something important happened to me. It wasn’t just that I appreciate that book in particular (which I’ve re-read a couple times), but I learned to appreciate Peterson. A friendship, albeit a one-way version, had begun. He would become a trusted confidante and colleague on the journey along the way.

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Here’s what makes Eugene Peterson such a gift: he saw through the bullshit.

Peterson, of course, was never so vulgar. He was a poet at heart and immensely talented with words. But for a 20-year-old feeling his way into working for the church as a career, it was important for me to find mentors and trusted leaders who I could trust. As much passion as I had to work in the church and be someone who would make a difference in the world, I was also equally as passionate to call out anything that seemed inauthentic.

I’d grown up in the church, or at least a small, independent, charismatic version of it. Like most churches, there are myriad stories, good and bad, in that time and place, and largely I came out still somehow in love with what the church could be even as I held so much disdain for what it was. I had little time for people who weren’t willing to tell the whole truth. I had zero patience for religious exercises or moral codes.

Life was messy. Faith was a mystery. The Bible was contradictory. The Spirit was unfathomable.

Peterson was a theologian, author and pastor, a man who walked the roads I dreamed of walking down, who embraced all of this. Over the years, Peterson would teach me how to position my inner life as a follower of Jesus, how to order my day as a pastor, how to care for a harmful community, how to read and love the scriptures while simultaneously removing the lenses I’d grown up with. He was a master of language and encouraged me to love words as well.

More than anything, Peterson’s greatest gift to me was to fan the flames of storytelling. As a writer and speaker or whatever I do these days vocationally, I am enamored more than ever by narrative. I love telling stories. I love hearing a great story. I love digging inside the lives of others to help them discern their own stories. Peterson gave me permission to follow that passion with great zeal in many of his works and interviews.

Peterson, for me, was a deeply rooted fruit tree against whom you could rest for shade, for support, for sustenance. He centered the soul in turbulent work. He could see through the religious to the real and illustrated how I could do the same. His pastoral theology series or Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places or his memoir (The Pastor) or Practice Resurrection—each volume was filled with spirit-given wisdom, a true love for the work, and real concern for all of humanity.

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These days I am just a writer. Community became too messy for me, so at the very least, I am on a nice long (if I’m allowed to define it) break from working for a church organization of any kind. I love teaching. I love stories. But writing allows me to channel some of those energies without the whole “human” part of things.

But that’s the rub. I know I’ll be back. In some way, shape or form, I know that my gifts simply have to come back into deeper contact with a community of people—at least in a deeper way than I’m experiencing life right now. Whether that means inviting neighbors over for regular meals, getting involved with a non-profit, working in a church, etc.—honestly I am not even concerned with any of that now. But I also know that a certain mentor would have a lot to say to me about the work—namely, that it needs that messy community in order to flourish as the best sort of story.

Here’s to you, Mr. Peterson. We never met on this side, but your long obedience in the same direction became a beacon for me.

Thank you for your work and your love for it.