Ten years ago, Eugene Peterson was simply the man who wrote The Message paraphrase of the Bible. I had never read any other book by him, I had never known of his starting and pastoring a small church in Maryland, and I never would have imagined the impact that he eventually would have on me and my ministry.
My seminary experience was different from many of my friends and colleagues. I did not “do” seminary in the traditional residential way but instead completed my degree through a distance learning program which involved a few trips a year for intensive classes as well as my traveling up to south Maryland to take traditional classes. I petitioned to take classes outside of my program more than any other student I knew, and one of those classes was an independent study using some of the books of Eugene Peterson.
I honestly can’t remember when I learned of the expansive volume of books that Peterson had written. I imagine that it was when I went into the office of one of my fellow pastors. I’ve been known to simply stand before shelves of books in people’s offices, taking mental snapshots of what I see, comparing and contrasting what’s there, and slowly forming an idea in my head just how the person whose office I am standing in has had their theology and ministry formed by the writers represented on those shelves.
Regardless of how he got there, Peterson became a fixture on my radar. I started with one book, added another, then another, and another, and before I knew it, I had a healthy little portion of the catalogue of books he’s written. And by working the angles on my independent study during seminary, I was able to create a mechanism by which I was required to read some of those very same books.
“Learning from a pastor’s pastor,” that was what I called my independent study. The most significant book among the ones that I focused on was Peterson’s memoir, “The Pastor.” It was interesting to read through this memoir and hear the tales that described the formation of so many of the books that Peterson would write. It was even more fascinating to me since I hadn’t read most of them and it gave me a glimpse behind the curtain before I actually read them.
That book, “The Pastor,” has been the book that I have sent to friends upon their ordination to full-time vocational ministry. It impacted me enough, grounding me in my vocation rather than allowing me to be caught up in an occupation. Having grown up with a father who was a pastor, I was intrigued to read this memoir of a man who wasn’t too much older than my own father and to see just how he approached the vocation of pastor.
I remember when Peterson sat down with Bono, the lead singer of U2, to have a conversation about the Psalms. An unlikely pairing became a fascinating exercise in contemplative thought that was shared through every U2 fan who also happened to be a follower of Jesus. And it wasn’t showy or kitschy, in my opinion it was a little more than 20 minutes of nuggets shared by a pop icon and a spiritual mentor, an honest look at what has become one of my favorite books of the Bible. If you haven’t seen the video, I highly recommend that you click here and take the 22 minutes to watch it.
As I began to read more and more of Peterson, I adopted him as a spiritual mentor, just as I had with Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and a few others whose transcendent writings have always reminded me that what I do as a pastor and who I am as a pastor is far less defined by culture and people’s opinions and much more defined by the people who I lead and just how God needs me to be used to help them in their own formation. Peterson reminded me of the richness of the Bible, especially some of the books that are often overlooked by some of the superstar megachurch pastors that try to put the sexy back into the Bible while some of us are wondering how they even thought it was supposed to be sexy to begin with.
Eugene Peterson was a dying breed. In reading his books and watching videos of him, there is nothing glamorous or flashy about him. His humility and quiet spirit seemed evident not only as I listened to him speak but as I read the words he had written. With every book, I pictured myself sitting in a cozy cabin in comfortable chairs nestled in front of a fire, while man who had lived a significant amount of life imparted wisdom upon me in a gentle yet passionate way.
Eugene Peterson will be missed, but the legacy that he has left through his books will allow his voice to continue to mold and shape generations of pastors. I am grateful for that shaping that has occurred in my own life and which continues to occur. I will continue to gift his memoir to others as they step into vocational ministry and I will continue to allow his words to focus me back on the call of God on my life.