The news has spread throughout the land and many of the tribes of God’s people are in mourning today: Eugene Hoiland Peterson has entered his rest. The Pastor has completed his pilgrimage. He was nearing his 86th birthday, and his days in the land of the living numbered 31,397.
In December 2008, I wrote my first letter to Eugene after reading his book, The Contemplative Pastor. I was a 26-year-old pastor serving in a church that was walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but something about Eugene’s writing awakened hope in me that we could find our way back to the quiet waters. I had never met Eugene before I sent that letter and, frankly, he had no reason to write me back. He was 76 and could have ridden off into the sunset of the retirement he had earned. Nobody would have blamed him, not even I. But to my great surprise, he wrote back and invited me to their home in Montana for a few days of conversation and prayer. Since then, I’ve made seven trips to be with Eugene and Jan, their kindness making possible a friendship for which I’ll be eternally grateful.
For my whole life, I have been told that heaven rejoices in moments like this. I believe that with all my heart. But today I’m sad.
Sad for Jan, who has now said goodbye to her best friend and lover of over 60 years; sad for their three kids, who mourn the passing of the father they have spent their lives loving.
On a personal level, I’m sad because I can’t pick up the phone anymore and call him for advice and prayer, because I can’t share another meal with him on their back deck, or take another dip with him in Flathead Lake.
But I’m also sad for the church in America because we have lost a holy hero, a living witness, someone worth emulating, who can say with authority, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Eugene is one of the last of a generation of saints who had the courage to go slowly, who had the faith to live in obscurity. We have forgotten that it takes great faith to be small. Moses lived in wilderness-obscurity for forty years before leading the people out of Egypt. David lived in wilderness-anonymity before becoming king. Jesus himself lived the first 30 years of his earthly sojourn in quietude. As for Eugene, he spent 29 years tending a flock of saints in Bel Air, Maryland before the world knew about him. It wasn’t until the publishing of The Message that he became known, which means that it only took Eugene Peterson 65 years to become an “overnight success”.
And even when he became known, he ran from the spotlight and turned down opportunities that most of us would chase. This is the man who said no to an invitation from Bono, the world’s most iconic rock star, because he was too busy translating Isaiah. Sure, in the last few years they got together and formed a beautiful friendship, but not until it was time. Eugene was never in a hurry.
But I’m afraid that much of pastoral ministry as it is practiced in America today is marked by our impatience with the pace of life in the Kingdom. Instead of giving ourselves over to anonymity, we admire celebrity. While Jesus stripped himself of his robe to wash the feet of the world, many of our leaders in the church are recognized as fashion icons. Eugene called us to live The Jesus Way, but every day we’re seeing how easy it is to tell the story of the humiliated Jesus with all the hubris of Caesar Augustus. If we are not careful, we will live a long distraction in the wrong direction. But Eugene won’t let us get away with it that easily. His life and writings remain a provocation for the church as we move forward.
In the Exodus narrative, Moses is preparing to lead the people out of Egypt. After 400 years of slavery, they couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But before Moses leaves town, he makes one final stop. This detail found in the text should not be missed:
“Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for Joseph had made the Israelites solemnly swear to do it, saying, ‘God will surely hold you accountable, so make sure you bring my bones from here with you.’”
Exodus 13:19, MSG
So many years before, Joseph, one of Israel’s sons, was sold into slavery by his brothers. He found himself imprisoned in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Though the environment was entirely hostile, Joseph had figured out how to maintain his faithful witness in an unfaithful land. So, before Moses charges out of Egypt and into the unknown, he slows down, goes to the grave of Joseph, exhumes his remains, and carries them with him all the way into the Promised Land.
Eugene has entered his rest and though I’m sad, I’m not just sad. I’m also hopeful because I see pastors—in small churches and large churches alike—taking Eugene’s work seriously. I see pastors living into what Eugene called “vocational holiness” and walking away from the cheap “careerism” that can easily creep in; I see pastors finally believing that our work is “local” and “personal” in a society that wants to make everything universal and general; I see pastors sinking down into a life of contemplative prayer, working to develop “an interior adequate to the exterior” demands of pastoral ministry; I see pastors trying to discover their “proper work” so they don’t become “event planners” or “religious shopkeepers”; I see pastors “walking the neighborhood” so that their gospel proclamation is contextualized to the actual people they serve; I see pastors working to “tell it slant” in a confrontational society that runs on outrage; and I see pastors working to live “unbusy” lives so they can lead God’s people into rest.
In short, I see pastors carrying the legacy of Eugene Peterson as we make our way through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.