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There are many stories of Eugene Peterson’s powerful, pastoral presence. Perhaps predictably, however, my own favourite story is of his absence.
Eugene left the employ of Regent College just as I entered it—in the summer of 1998. I was given the office he had vacated just the week before. There hadn’t been time for it to be cleaned or vacuumed, but no worries. I had arrived with my very many books and had to unpack, so unpack I did.
Over the following week, as I worked away, Regent students, alumni, and other admirers of Eugene would show up at the office door. Invariably, they were beaming in anticipation, only to have their faces fall as they took in the non-Eugene unpacking books.
"Uh, is Eugene here?" they would venture.
"No, sorry. He's retired to Montana."
"Oh. Oh," they would mutter, and back away, crestfallen.
After a week of disappointing a dozen or more people, I'd had enough. I put a sign on the door: "ICHABOD. Eugene has gone to Montana." And that did the trick.
A few years later I told him this story and was favoured with his delightful bark of a laugh...
Eugene Peterson has been widely and properly praised for his numerous writings that helped many of us walk closer and better with God. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction came across my desk when I was studying Nietzche as an undergraduate, and I was pleasantly startled that a Christian book would use a phrase of this self-declared anti-Christ. Eugene was hardly a Nietzschean, of course, but he was widely read, including authors (such as Friedrich Nietzsche) normally seen as “off-limits” to good boys and girls.
Eugene in fact didn’t feel bound by the conventions of evangelicalism. He was, after all, ordained in a mainline denomination (the Presbyterian Church in the USA) and made most of his living pastoring among such folk that would have included evangelicals, yes, but many others besides.
This freedom let him undertake a task, translating the Bible into English, that many would have thought of little practical purpose in this era of many, many translations. Yet his poetic inclination and love of the original languages, coupled with his long experience in preaching and teaching, combined to produce a version as fresh in its way as J. B. Phillips’s and Ken Taylor’s had been in previous generations.
This freedom also let him speak sharply against the grain of the dominant evangelical narrative of pastoral success in America. Rather than seek numerical church growth, he emphasized the cure of souls. Rather than celebrate ever-larger congregations and buildings and media presence and political clout, he counseled ever-deeper spirituality.
To be sure, some of us at Regent would smile in the days when Eugene and Marva Dawn would combine at our summer school, a one-two punch into the midsection of mainstream evangelical culture that left some people reeling: “Don’t they care about seekers? Do they even believe in evangelism?!” Many others, however, listened with teary gratitude to Eugene as he confirmed the value of their small-scale, week-to-week pastoral work of discipleship.
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Eugene might have been extreme at times, and perhaps some pastors who were merely ineffective took false comfort from his emphasis on the few and the local. But listened to properly, one heard from Eugene Peterson a necessary counterweight to the Hybels/Warren/Driscoll emphasis of the last several decades of evangelical leadership.
Toward the end, Eugene made waves by giving off signals of at least possible openness to the ethical legitimacy (beyond just the official allowance) of same-sex marriage. A series of overheated and contradictory news bulletins left more dust than clarity about his actual views. But even that small flap was typical of Eugene: working the angles among fidelity to hard sayings of the Bible, concern for the welfare of each individual, and a firm determination to be gentle with everyone—except bullies, and especially pastoral bullies, against whom those kind eyes could flash.
Eugene’s fame only increased after retiring from Regent to speak and write. He became widely sought after as mentor and even guru. Somehow, however, even in the company of celebrities, he kept his feet on the ground, his heart in the Spirit, and his mind on things above, where Christ is.
How do we know? We know because of all the testimonies you’re hearing now from non-celebrities, ordinary folk who sought a bit of advice and got a whole letter, or hoped for an autograph and got a whole day’s visit instead. Self-important people who have more money and fame than they know what to do with don’t take time for such pastoral work.
Eugene Peterson did. And for me, grateful as I am for all he wrote, that is the most challenging and moving lesson he taught.
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