In Memory of Eugene Peterson (1932-2018)

Phaedra Taylor, "Pentecost Project," for Christ Church, Austin, Texas (detail)

“Let’s go.” -- Eugene Peterson's final words (2018)

"I find myself wrapping things up. The continuity of my life now has to do with people of my own age. We're all looking forward to death, or maybe it's just me. Maybe I should say, anticipating death." -- Eugene Peterson on his mortality (2015)

A collection of crosses in the Peterson home.

Peterson and Dostoevsky
I first met Eugene through an essay that he’d written on Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read it at some point in the early ‘90s while I was still in college at the University of Texas. Being a Humanities major, something about his essay stirred a sense of excitement in me. I had read Dostoevsky, I had written essays on him, I had felt a kinship with his melancholy vision of the world (in a way that made me more insufferably melancholic), but I had never read anything by a Christian who’d attempted to make a link between Dostoevsky’s novels and what it meant to be a human being, let alone a Christian. As he explained to me his interest in Dostoevsky in April of 2015:

"I just love the way he's able to carve out a Christian ethic in a culture which is antithetical to it, and his ability to probe the spiritual depths of things, not just the psychological. I've learned more from him that way than anybody else."

When I asked him which 2 or 3 novelists he would take with him to the proverbial isolated island, he answered: "That's pretty easy. Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and probably Wallace Stegner."

After reading his essay on Dostoevsky, I became curious about other things that Eugene had written. Eventually I discovered that he taught spiritual theology at Regent College, in Vancouver, British Columbia. At the time I had no interest in studying at a seminary. I had no interest in working in a church or teaching theology. My interests lay with the Foreign Service. But, much to my surprise, I found myself filling out an application in May of 1995 to study at a seminary in Canada where Eugene was training students to love the Bible--as if for the first time.

In his lectures he used the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the literature of George Eliot, Karl Barth’s theology and Frederick Buechner’s novels, Greek mythology and stories from his Pentecostal childhood as a way to help his students understand who God was and what God was on about it in this expansive vision of Holy Scripture. All of it felt immensely exhilarating to me; it still does.

A moment of spontaneous laughter between Eugene and Bono.
Silence and Saint Patrick
I remember, however, how disconcerting the beginning of his classes felt. He’d invite us to pray with him, but then he’d wait an interminably long time before he actually said any words. It was likely only a minute or two of silence. But in the moment it felt like the silence would never end; it engulfed us, weighed down on us, discomfited us and was utterly ambivalent to our feelings. Our feelings never came into the picture.

After praying, he’d make us sing St. Patrick’s hymn, “I Bind Unto Myself.” He insisted that we sing the whole thing, all 7 or 8 verses of it. It was a never-ending, melodically impossible, vocally gymnastic, lyrically dense, theologically demanding song. At the start of the term, it only irritated me to waste so much time singing. I was anxious for him to get on with his lecture notes. But for him, the silence, the praying, the singing, the listening, the waiting, the being present were the teaching A certain form of learning was requisite to form us rightly.

The Love of Learning and the Desire for God
As he reminded me in an independent study that I did with him along with two friends, the further along we went in our schooling, the more dangerous the form of our schooling might become to our sense of self and the shape of our spiritual life. As he put it in a letter to us in 1997:

“But what do you do when you are part of a system that is diabolical? Boycott it? Subvert it? Do the best you can to survive privately through the process? I'm thinking primarily of the PhD process which seems to me to be truly diabolical--knowledge acquired with no rootage in the prayerful, the local and the personal, and at such a strenuous level that virtually no one has any enjoyment/play in the process. Will there come a time when all the saint-intellectuals refuse to continue in higher education becuse they love learning and God too much? Has the time already arrived when the school is no longer a congenial or safe or holy place to cultivate the life of the mind?”

Some twenty years later I began work on a doctoral program at Duke Divinity School and his words haunted me all the way through. They haunt me still today. At the time, he encouraged me to read Jean Leclercq's book, The Love of Learning and The Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. He believed it might send me in the right direction, and it did.

Eugene, reading one of his own books, while I finished up the list of questions I'd ask him on camera.

"You're not a scholar, David"
At some point in the spring of 1997 I visited Eugene in his office at Regent College. I was hoping he might help me figure out my life. At 25, I no longer knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had no plan, no vision. I didn't want to be pastor and I was scared of being an academic. I only knew that God was slowly deconstructing my INTJ, Enneagram 3, achievement-oriented, performance-driven, inefficiency-loathing, highly calculated identity.

Little did I know at the time that he would, first, speak a hard word to me, then name me. Sitting across from him, as he rocked in his rocking chair, I said, "Dr. Peterson, I don't know what I'm supposed to be. I only know that I want to be a shepherd of ideas and a shepherd of people."

At first, he didn't look at me. He only listened, looking instead out the window at the North Shore Mountains. Nor did he answer me immediately. He only rocked back and forth, waiting. Then he said, looking at me now, "David, you're not a scholar." That's the first thing he said and, in the moment, I thought that might be the only thing he'd say. My immediate reaction was to feel hurt. It's not what I wanted to hear. I wanted him to say something that would comfort me, to make me not feel adrift and disoriented and so helpless, despite this feeling that I should know better at twenty-five. I found myself becoming upset.

But then he said, "David, only God knows what you will become. Be patient with yourself. But if you end up in the academy, you will probably be a pastoraly-teacher, and if you end up in the church, you will probably be a teacherly-pastor. I will pray for you."

At the time I didn't fully understand his words. Looking back on that conversation years later, however, I realized that he had named me. I don't think anyone had ever named me before. I'm not sure anyone has named me in that way ever since. What he meant, I think, by saying that I was not a scholar is that there wasn't only one way to be a scholar. All scholars were not like Barth or Westermann or Pannenberg or Brown–Driver–Briggs. There was space for all sorts of callings to a scholarly life, and for that word of encouragement, I remain grateful to this day.

I stayed in seminary for five years. At the end of that time, after two degrees in hand, I found myself working at a small church called Hope Chapel, in Austin, Texas. Initially I felt uncomfortable when people called me "Pastor David." It sounded decidedly weird to my ears and I felt a slight embarrassment at the title. Eventually, though, I realized that people were calling me by my true name, a name that Eugene had prophesied, as it were. For better and for worse, I was a teacherly-pastor: a pastor who loved to teach.

And when I found myself, by God's grace, teaching at Fuller Seminary years later, I couldn't be anything else except a pastoraly-teacher: a teacher who loved to pastor his students.

Glacier National Park, which is near the Peterson's home.

A Smile with a Bite
Eugene’s million-dollar smile is as warm and friendly and kindly as you would imagine by looking at photographs of him. It’s almost like a MARVEL super-power. In person he’s wholly present to you, even if he’s looking away, thinking, listening, waiting. But while one might easily become mesmerized by his smile, and by his gravelly voice and laconic style of speaking, one should not think that Eugene lacks a bite.

He hates certain things with a zealous fire—like the consumerist, individualist, feelings-centered, suffering-free faith that he felt had captivated so many Christians in North America. Nor does he easily tolerate self-aggrandizing pastors who only want to “make it big” and get “big numbers” in the church.

In conversation with him once, I saw him become suddenly, even if only momentarily, angry, and it scared me. I thought, "I better watch what I say. I don't want to be on the receiving end of that anger."

As plenty of his friends could testify firsthand, Eugene was always Eugene, but never in a way that was predictable ("He endorsed The Shack? Really?!"), never pigeon-hole-able ("That title comes from Nietzsche? That God-hating atheist? Really?!"), never conventional ("He dropped out of a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins and he plays the banjo? Really?!"), never merely "one of the crowd" ("Was he ever?!"), and never one to withhold his opinion about things that matter to him, like the time in class that I tried to defend the desire of my Pentecostal friends to seek the miraculous and healing power of God in their lives and he simply told me that this desire too quickly turned into a desire for escape from the earthiness of their lives.

I think it's fair to say that I had a sweet friendship with Eugene, but I don't think that I'd ever call it a cozy friendship. He smiled a lot, and his crinkly smiley eyes were Jesus-y in their warmth, but there was always a fire just beneath the surface.

A moment of listening.
"Learn to stay with your crummy church"
At another visit to Eugene's office I bemoaned the crummy condition of my church in Vancouver. Everything about it seemed poorly done--the preaching, the singing, the organization, the mission, the all-too-reserved hospitality and the utter lack of vision. To me, it felt sickly and dispiriting. And it bored me to death. What I wanted was for Eugene to give me permission to leave. But what I really wanted was for somebody else to make the decision for me. He refused to do either. Instead he told me to stick it out. "Stay with your crummy church, David. Learn to love the people. Don't give up so easily." He said this firmly, with a hint of rebuke, not gently.

I stayed at that church through the end of my seminary years, four years' worth. And while it remained crummy in some ways--it never grew in numbers, the singing stayed un-even, the community never cohered, and the pastor from England who traveled across the Pond with exciting ideas about how to revive the church in Canada eventually returned home across the Pond, leaving us in no better condition than when he'd found us four years prior--I learned to love the people of God in the way that Eugene had hoped I would. As he said to me in my conversation with him once:

"The church is not a good place, the church is not an ideal place, it's a lot of trouble, and you've got lot of people to forgive and put up with, but where else are you going to find anything better?"

While one is tempted to turn Eugene's observation into an inviolable Law of the Medes and the Persians, he wasn't dogmatic about his conviction (as you'll see in the last part of this post), despite the fact that he kept saying the same thing year after year. Largely his conviction about staying put in a church grew out of a companion conviction to stay put in a place. In his own words:

"I guess what I would like to convey through my writings, mostly, and through relationships, is that creation is a huge thing, and that our faith has to reflect the basicness of creation to what we're doing. The minute you leave the place, the contingency of place, you lose the story. You're thinking about mystical things, or dogmatic things, or religious things, but this is where it all happens." 

How can I love the church if I don't love the place in which a particular member of Christ's body finds itself? How can I say that I love the church if I don't love these particular people, as rotten or obnoxious or dull or provincial as they may be? As Eugene saw it, it's with these people, in this place, that God's salvation actually happens. For me, during most of my twenties, I kept looking for a better deal: a more interesting group of people in a more exciting congregation. It's what Eugene might have called a fool's errand, a fool in the psalmic sense, which is not the kind you want to be.

Eugene's Bible.

Feeling the Multi-Sensory Texture of the Biblical Text
I regularly read The Message. I read it devotionally. I read it to my students in class. I read from it when I preach. I read it because Eugene makes the biblical text come alive. Rather than remaining flat on the page, he makes the words crackle with life. He grabs the reader by the jugular, arrests our attention. He wants readers to feel in their guts the rhythms of the biblical text. He wants them to feel with the ear the kinetic and lyrical power of words as they would have sounded to the original hearers. He wants them to laugh where the text deserves a good laugh. He wants them to feel awe where the text arouses awe.

He wants them to stop and listen where the text demands that we stop everything that we’re doing and really listen, really look. He wants readers to feel all the emotions that the psalms invite us to feel.

He wants readers to see the humanity of the saints throughout Scripture, the strangeness and loneliness of the prophet’s vocation, the drama of Jesus’ ministry, the pathos of St. Paul’s travels, the terrifying vision of St. John’s apocalypse. He wants readers to see all these things as a way to re-see themselves: that they, too, experience strange, lonely lives, that they too have lives marked by drama, that their comings and goings are also characterized by pathos, that they too have seen terrifying things, and that, most importantly, God is with them in the midst of all these things.

Not just Permission, but Encouragement to love the Arts
It's one thing to be given permission to do a thing. It's quite another to be encouraged, and supported, and patronized, and inspired, and resourced to do a thing. Eugene's one of those key people in my life who encouraged me to pursue the arts. In his lecture at the dedication of the "Eugene and Jan Peterson Chair in Theology and the Arts" at Regent College, Eugene remarked: “Theology is the North Pole and art the South Pole of the Christian Life. Theology is the study of what God does and says; art is what people say and do in the entire context of what God says and does…. You can’t have one without the other…’”

I feel tremendously lucky to do what I do professionally, to work in the field of theology and the arts. I teach theology and I teach a theology of the arts, among other things. It's the two great scholarly loves of my life. Driving Eugene Peterson and Jeremy Begbie to their hotel after one of the evening events at the Transforming Culture symposium that I'd organized in Austin in 2008, I kept pinching myself. "I've got two of my favorite people in the world in my car. Don't blow it, David. Don't say something stupid. Don't fawn. Be cool. Be completely cool. Whatever you do, don't embarrass yourself--like the first time you met Eugene, and, Jeremy, too."

But I so loved the way he began his talk at the conference (which rolled over into the chapter that he wrote for the book I edited, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts). It's so perfectly Eugene, and so much what we as artists need to hear:

"After I accepted the invitation to be at the symposium in Austin, I wondered, “Why Me? I’m not an artist; I’m a pastor. A pretty conventional pastor at that. I study and preach the Scriptures. I lead a congregation in worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I listen to and pray with men and women who, whether they know it or not, are called to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.” I know I would be honored to have all of you artists in my congregation. But I don’t know what I’m doing here in your congregation or why you would want me here. But after thinking along those lines for a while, it didn’t take me long to realize why I might be here. I’m here to be a witness. I am here to give witness to the decisive and critical influence that artists have had in my life as a pastor in a Christian church."

I'm deeply grateful for his encouragement as a pastor to me as an artist and to so many artists around the world. It informed how I saw my own work as a pastor to artists, with the arts ministry at our church and with artists around the city of Austin.

Eugene blessing the audience full of pastors, artists, scholars, and lay people

It's the People, not the Plans, the Programs, the Productivity
I say nothing new here when I say that Eugene's  message to pastors over the years is to make relationships matter more than projects, to make staying put in one place far more important than looking for more exciting opportunities, to make friendship with other pastors a priority, rather than trying to do it better than them.

Don’t confuse numbers in a congregation with maturity in a congregation. Don’t treat your people like dittos; treat them like the infinitely extraordinary, magnificently particular human beings that God has made them to be. Be content to be yourself, rather than wishing you were somebody else.

That's what he has said and written for years. And, I confess, it's far easier for me to write these things down than to actually do them.

Eugene's writing desk.

The Legacy of his Life and Work
As I see it, Eugene will have encouraged an entire generation of pastors to slow down and to be present to their lives so that they can, in turn, help their people slow down in order to be present to their own, mostly-ordinary lives, as a space in which God might make them more deeply human. His life’s goal has been to change the pastoral imagination of pastors today and I believe he's been successful in that goal for some sectors of the North American church.

For lay people, he’ll have been the one who showed them most vividly, through sermons and letters, books and conversations, how the imagination was a way to get inside the truth, how metaphor was a way through to the true knowledge of God, that praying isn’t being nice before God, and that the good news of Jesus is for everybody, no matter who you may be. Eugene will have been one of the few pastors and authors (one of the few "famous people") who will have told them that their small-scale, small-fry acts of faithfulness within the context of their rather ordinary lives mattered a great deal to God.

For me, while I knew that the news of his death would come eventually, it still hit me in a deep, sorrowful, visceral way. I found myself crying throughout the day, on Monday, when I first heard from my friend Steven that Eugene had died. It's been hard for me to reckon with the fact that he's no longer with us. Like others, I won't get to hear his voice any more, or touch his hands, or see him smile this side of our earthly pilgrimage. And it makes me think that that's perhaps what the author of 1 John felt, too, about Jesus, that it's the tactility of the flesh that means so much about knowing someone personally.

What Phaedra wrote on her Instagram page made me weep again, when I read it:

"I was taking a walk earlier when I heard the news that Eugene had passed through the veil this morning, and I had the clearest thought of something I'd read just a few nights before to Blythe at bedtime. We are finishing C. S. Lewis' novel, The Last Battle, and I'm drawing it out as long as possible because I love every bit of the end. All the Kings and Queens of Narnia are standing on the other side of the door with Aslan, and suddenly all the people they thought had died are running towards them through the door. Roonwit the Centaur rushes past crying "further in and higher up" and gallops off into the new country. It says, "though they did not understand him, the words somehow set them tingling all over." 

"This is what I imagined happening for Eugene. That he would be rushing in to taste his true home..."thundering away in a gallop to the west." When I got home I read an email from Jan where I saw that some of Eugene's last words were "Let's go," and I just sat on the floor and cried. Friends, what lies ahead is more beautiful and rich and enchanting than anything we can begin to imagine. Sometimes I get a glimpse and it sets me tingling all over, even thought I don't understand it, and I think my heart might burst from both the longing and joy."

"One day we will see our beloved ones rushing towards us, "their eyes brighter and brighter," and everything that is wrong will be made untrue, and we will wonder at how little we knew, and how much there is ahead to explore." 

Among all the gifts that he has given me over the past twenty-plus year, it’s Eugene's joy that will remain the gift that shapes me most deeply. Even now, as I think about it again, I find myself a little weepy, not just with sadness, but with joy, because I know that his joy is being made full and he would want us to share in it, too.

For Phaedra and me, we count it a grace to have been friended by Eugene and Jan Peterson. And we're deeply grateful for the things that Jan shared with Phaedra in this interview at the Art House America Blog, in particular this moment of candid confession:

PHAEDRA: In one of Eugene's books he says: “The holy is found in unexpected places.” Which I love. In what unexpected place have you found the holy?

JAN: Gene wrote that?

PHAEDRA: Yes, somewhere. I don't remember where.

JAN: (Laughs.) I haven't memorized everything he wrote.

A poem carved on one of the stones in the Peterson's yard.
A Postscript Where Eugene Says "Uncle"
I end here with a comment that Eugene made to me when I visited his home in 2015. It's so quintessentially Eugene, and so funny, too. While I had personally believed Eugene's exhortation to stay put with a church that may not satisfy all your desires and needs, I knew plenty of young people, and perhaps middle-aged and old people too, who found it hard to keep that advice perfectly. So I asked him the following question. I guess you can say that I just wanted to hear him say "uncle" once in his life. And he did.

DAVID: "That sounds like a good idea, Eugene, to stick it out no matter what, but I can hear somebody saying in response, "The church I'm part of has poorly crafted sermons, songs with dodgy music and cliché lyrics, the building is ugly, and the people are dysfunctional. All the things that make something aesthetically worthwhile, or aesthetically linked to the incarnation, this idea of being rooted, it seems to me that there really are quite a number of young folks who feel like they're giving it their best, but everywhere they look, sermons, prayers, songs, space, it's just a cause for despair. It's like, go here, go to Montana, take a break from the church, from people." What would you say to a person who responded that way?"

EUGENE: "Make friends with the people where you are. Forget about the music. Forget about the sermon. Make friends. There are people there who are good people, maybe they're saints, who knows? But start where you are, and if it doesn't work, find someplace else. Become a Roman Catholic, become a Greek Orthodox." I don't have any problem with people that do that. My friends have done it and tried to get me to do it."

I'll feel lucky till the day I die that I got to work with Eugene and Bono with this project on the psalms. Thank God for everybody--especially Steven Purcell, director of Laity Lodge, Nate Clarke, the director of the short film, and Taylor Martyn, whose photographs are included in this post--who made it possible. May it serve as a living testimony to Eugene's life and calling. (And it's touching that Bono dedicated the song "There Is A Light" to Eugene at the U2 concert in London, on October 23, 2018.)

We love you, EHP. We love you, too, Jan. Thank you.

Let's go.

Eugene's reading chair.
Yes, that's a banjo.


JonatganBird said…
Thank you for this, David. Eugene’s passing has affected me far more than I expected it would, since I wasn’t close with him in ways I was close with other profs. But these many years later, working with pastors from many traditions, I find his example and his writings are more needed than ever. He remains a light in a darkening world. said…
Hi David,

Well said. Remember the long, uncomfortable pause before prayers exactly as you describe. What professor has students watch What's Eating Gilbert Grape? The same one who cheers on his students at late-night intramural ice hockey games. Miss EHP. Let's go!
Jonathan and Gary: so happy to see your comments here. Good memories from all those years ago. Hope you both are well.
Unknown said…
Thanks you, David. Well said.
Sniff, sniff,
Me too, Leah. Sniff, sniff.
Unknown said…
Your dad--my wife's youth pastor, your mom--my wife's high school friend, did so well with you! Thanks for your poignant remembrance of Peterson. Tears in my eyes and deep thoughts exploding my heart.
Mike and Judy Albin, Oregon City, Oregon
Allen said…
David, thank you for turning your goodbyes into this prayerful work of art. You help me remember Eugene in the one class I was blessed to have him teach me, and the gift of those years we shared at Regent. Peace to you in your loss

Allen Goddard
Ancient Mariner said…
David, a week has almost past since Eugene's death and much has happened in the intervening days (mail bombs and Pittsburg shootings as witnesses to our age), but almost daily I've been thinking of our friend: his gentle, kind, and truth-telling ways. And reading tributes, like this one, make me long for the relative simplicity of days in Vancouver. But I know we can't go back and mustn't dwell there because God's good work carries on at Laity, at Brehm, at A Rocha, at Tyndale, and in every local parish and congregation. And for us to do this work faithfully would be tribute enough. Thank you for encapsulating so much of the beauty of Eugene and Jan. I cant wait for the future greetings of rushing feet and bright eyes.

~ George
Mike Albin: thanks for the kind words.

Allen: thanks as well.

George: I'm grateful, even more so as the years go by, for the time that we got to share at Regent together. Grateful also to know that our paths might cross again in this earthly pilgrimage.
Tony Chung said…
Thank you David. I think we might've been sitting in the same Biblical Spirituality class in 95, and I felt the same way!
I was just reading A Long Obedience and finally finished it for the first time on the day of Eugene's passing. It's almost feels like my dad passed away. I appreciate you giving us a share in your relationship with Eugene. What a life lived! May we continue to be true in every sense.

Peace of the Lord,
Tony Chung
(Regent 95-98)
Tony! A flash from the past. So great to hear from you. I'm glad to hear you finally finished reading Eugene's first book. That's awesome. I think I'm still working on a few of Packer's books that I started at some point in the twentieth-century but have yet to finish in the twenty-first. Perhaps in the eschaton!

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