This blog post is in memory of Eugene Peterson, who passed away in October 2018.
Eugene Peterson is not the reason I became a pastor, but he might be the reason I am still a pastor. His impact on my life has been so pervasive that when I recently told my wife that Eugene had died, tears filled her eyes. I am not sure she has ever finished any of his books, but she saw his influence on me.
Most know Eugene Peterson through The Message, his paraphrase of the Bible in plain English. That is where I first heard about him, but it is not where he became my mentor.
My first real encounter with Eugene Peterson was in college. I was assigned to read Working the Angles, a book he wrote as a pastor to pastors. This author of The Message was first a pastor, having planted a church in Bel-Air, Maryland, serving there for 30 years.
This first encounter with Eugene the Pastor was not fruitful. I did not like Working the Angles because I knew too much. At 20 years old and in college, my blindness and ignorance prevented me from seeing what was there.
At 24, I took on the role of solo pastor of a congregation in rural Indiana. I was ready to preach, teach, pastor people, but I was not prepared. Divorce. Death. Abuse. Gossip. Sin.
Grace too, yes, but I was not ready to encounter how hard this world is. And as a pastor, you are often called into the ugliest places of evil this world has to offer. I was out of my element and had no choice but to go back to that book in college that I did not like but had not thrown away—Working the Angles.
From that day forward, Eugene was my mentor. I was drowning in evil and sin, and he was a life preserver.
Eugene’s primary lesson to me was this: God is the most important thing about me.
The problems in front of me, my inadequacies, my worries—those things may be what I spend most of my time thinking about, but I am wrong. Those are not most important. God is most important.
“We are known before we know…The fundamental mistake is to begin with ourselves and not God. God is the center from which all life develops. If we use our ego as the center from which to plot the geometry of our lives, we will live eccentrically…”
– Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses
My life started with me. It started with the enormous challenges of life I was facing as a young pastor. Eugene changed that for me.
The breaking point of this lesson came when one of the elders of our church had a heart attack. The heart attack happened on a Sunday morning and he still came to church! (No excuses this Sunday for me!) He looked awful that morning, and he was soon in the hospital. Jim was in his sixties, and because of lung cancer earlier in his life, his health was already weak. He slipped into a coma that evening.
We prayed for days. I was at the hospital with the family almost every day. Finally, after days of prayers, tears, and pleading with God, Jim died.
Losing Jim was hard, but I entered a season where God gave a clear answer to everything I prayed for: No.
It was hard to pray after that. I ask, God says no. Why not just cut the first step out and save time for all involved?
Again, Eugene stepped in and taught me how to pray. I had completely misunderstood what prayer is.
“There is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in prayer and praying to an unknown God, revealed through Israel and in Jesus Christ, who speaks our language…What is essential in prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves, but that we learn to answer God.”
– Eugene Peterson, Answering God
What is essential in prayer is that I learn to answer God. God had already spoken to me in His Scriptures. He had revealed Himself to me. He had started the conversation. This changed everything for me.
Every day when I pray, I do not start with myself. My problems. This world. I start with God, the most important thing about me. Eugene taught me that, and it has changed everything.
When God is the most important thing about me, it changes how I see the world, how I pray, and how I see the church. As a pastor, I am in the people business. My work is almost exclusively about people. And this might surprise you, but people are frustrating. When people are frustrating, it is easy to complain about that.
Again, Eugene stepped in. In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene rebukes pastors and Christians who complain or accuse others in the congregation. To him, the church is unique. The church is not a bunch of people with problems; it is something else entirely:
“Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where a person is labeled. It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’ name. A place where dignity is conferred.”
– Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor
Reading his works over the last 15 years of my life has conferred that dignity to me. He gave me a vision of pastoral ministry that was worth living into. More than anything, Eugene turned my attention away from myself and toward the Scriptures. Toward God.
That is the work of the pastor. To teach people how to pray. To teach us to look at our world, our reality, our griefs and our joys, and to see God as most important.
I never met Eugene, but he was a pastor to me. One day, I look forward to thanking him.