Remembering Eugene Peterson


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.


Eugene and Me, Part 3: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

Eugene Peterson recently celebrated his 85th birthday, so to wrap up my three-part blog series, Eugene and Me, I thought this would be a great occasion to share a little of what friendship with Eugene and Jan Peterson has meant to me over the years.

At the end of August, I went to spend two days with them at their home. Though I’ve met up with them a few times at retreat centers across the country, this was my fifth visit to their home in Montana. Every time I had gone to their house before this trip, they were in a position to receive me with some semblance of strength. On my first visit, Eugene was a vibrant 77-year-old who had just finished writing Practice Resurrection: A Conversation On Growing Up In Christ.

That was the fifth manuscript he’d written in five years. His mind was energized and energizing to me, his young interlocutor. He would rattle off exact quotations from Kierkegaard and von Balthasar, Torrance and von Hügel. To be with him was to be invigorated. I remember all those flights into that modest little airport in Northern Montana. I would find myself looking out the window like a giddy 7-year-old boy on his first trip to Disney. I can’t believe I get to be here!

But the trip in August was different. Instead of that giddy feeling of going to visit a legend in the faith, a literary icon whose 40-plus books I have devoured, I felt the sober seriousness that one feels when he gets to visit an aging grandparent. It was one of those trips you take because you don’t know how many more of these you’ll get.

I showed up at their place that afternoon and they were sitting in the front room. Jan, with that perfectly gentle voice of hers, was reading Eugene one of their favorite novels. The front windows were slightly opened and I could hear her voice as I walked down the steps to their front door. We spent the afternoon together catching up and doing small jobs around the house. I noticed a few light bulbs were out, so I changed them. I took out the compost while Jan picked some basil from their herb garden. We made dinner. The stuff of life.

After breakfast on the second morning, Eugene retreated for a couple minutes and came back out wearing his swim trunks. He threw me an extra pair and said he wanted to go for a morning swim in Flathead Lake.

We walked out the back door and down to the dock—I, walking beside him the whole time as we took the steep decline, instinctively holding his slender arm, ready to catch him in case the dirt slid out from beneath him. I did not ask for permission to hold his arm, but wondered if I should have. Earlier in life, Eugene was a fantastic athlete, having run over 20 marathons. Was my taking his arm just another one of the thousand reminders that life for him is changing, that strength is waning? But almost right away I could sense his gratitude at the gesture, and I knew we were OK.

We got to the dock, threw our towels down, and Eugene shuffled over to the edge of the dock, his toes hanging over the side. In that moment, everything stopped and my imagination flashed back 70 years to Eugene as a teenager, diving into this water, his father standing behind him and bellowing out that laugh that can only come from a proud dad. Eugene grew up swimming the Flathead. This is his family’s place. In fact, his teenage years were spent helping his dad build the little cabin that he and Jan live in today.

He rocked back and forth a couple times, measuring what the jump would require, leaned over and dove in.

We spent the day walking, looking through his library, praying, kayaking and talking. Twelve hours of talking. I have always loved spending time with people in their 80s and 90s because I know they are a treasury of experiences, so I came ready with questions.

I asked Eugene about a lot of things, but I stumbled onto something. I wanted to know what he has learned about money. To give a little context, this is a guy who translated a Bible that has sold over 17 million copies. I was interested to know what that has taught a guy who grew up in a modest home during the Great Depression, in a hard-working, small-town community, who himself lived paycheck-to-paycheck for most of his working years.

Eugene was totally silent for about 60 seconds. He was rubbing his fingers through his grey beard and staring off into the distance across the lake where the Rocky Mountains are in view. Through so many of these moments with Eugene over the years, I have learned to wait through the long pauses.

It seemed like he had gathered a thought.

“I don’t think I’ve learned anything about money,” he said. And then he went silent again. I waited, but I was thinking, What do you mean you haven’t learned anything about money?

Then it hit me. This is a guy who lives in his childhood home. They have one car, a Honda. There is not an ostentatious bone in their bodies. These are people who have turned down opportunity after opportunity in order to preserve a life of simplicity and quiet faithfulness. A long obedience in the same direction. I have long said that it only took Eugene Peterson 65 years to become an overnight success, and the success came when he had gotten over his need to be successful. God must have known he could trust this old couple with that kind of money, that kind of acclaim.

What I discovered is that Eugene and Jan have been doing this their whole lives, been giving themselves away, their strength away, their money away. I basically made him admit that he and Jan have paid for scores of his students to pursue Masters or Doctoral degrees. Full scholarships out of their own pockets.

“We determined that that’s why God gave us this money. That’s what it’s for,” he said. They have given to local and global mission work. As the Psalmist said, “They have freely scattered abroad their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honor” (112:9).

Eugene and Jan could have gone the traditional retirement route that is the last stretch on the highway to the American Dream and no one would have blamed them. They could have circled the wagons and shut everyone else out. They could have spent that money on themselves. But they haven’t.

At the end of our second day together, I asked if I could pray for Eugene and Jan. But I took it a step further, asking if I could anoint their heads with oil. There is an unmistakable significance to oil throughout scripture.

It’s the way people were “set apart” as holy unto the Lord, and it signifies the “oil of gladness” for which every human being is longing. This felt like a big thing to ask, a younger person asking to anoint a sage. They were emotional as they said yes, of course, I could anoint them with oil. “Father, let them feel it deep down in their bones, that ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” It was a moment I will never forget.

Then Eugene got up and went to the other room. He came back in carrying his own bottle of anointing oil. He cracked that thing open, the room immediately filling with that unmistakable smell of frankincense. He anointed me with oil and he and Jan prayed for me. He prayed so many wonderful things, but as he prayed this line stood out to me:

“Father, help Jan and I to take what’s left with us and share it with those around us … Help us give it all away.”

Of all that I have learned from Eugene and Jan Peterson over the years, maybe that’s the thing that will stick with me the most: that true life is found as we become like Jesus, as we spend our lives giving it all away.


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Eugene and Me, Part 2: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message



Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has become a friend and one of the more important figures in my life. I’m writing a three-part series, and here’s a link the first installment in case you missed it.

Eugene and Me, Part 2–On Megachurches

Recently, an interview with Eugene Peterson was published in which he was asked whether he’s encouraged or discouraged by what he’s seeing across the landscape of the American church. In his response, he talked about megachurches:

“I’m not sure it’s either/or. I do feel like pastors are not doing their job. Look at what’s going on in the church, at least in my Presbyterian church. It has a consumer mentality. It’s about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church…I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that…Now, there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places.”

Now, a quick autobiographical bit about me: I have spent my entire life in megachurches, which the Baylor Religion Study of 2007 simply defined as any church that has more than 1,000 members. My parents have pastored for 40 years and my formative years were spent in a fantastic (and very large) church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Straight out of my undergraduate theological studies, my wife and I moved to Colorado Springs where I’ve spent the last 12 years serving at New Life Church, which is also a very large church.

With my background, one would think that it would be easy for someone like me to be put off—if not outright offended—by Eugene’s comments. But I’m not. And here’s why:

First, I know Eugene. I’ve exchanged letters and shared phone conversations with him and Jan over the last nine years. I’ve made seven visits to be with them, four times in their home and three times for retreats in various parts of the country. I’ve shared meals at their kitchen table, prayed with them around their fireplace, and spent several nights upstairs in their guest room. I’ve gone on walks with them around the lake and sat with Eugene in his study. We’ve talked specifically about megachurches.

I will never forget my first flight to Montana to meet Eugene and Jan. I was a nervous wreck because I wondered if I was going to get rebuked by him for working at a large church. I wondered if he was going to tell me that if I wanted to work at a real church I would have to go find a group of 300 or so where I could be a real pastor. After spending those first three days with him, I was shocked that he didn’t say any of that!

Instead, he asked me about the process of discerning my call to New Life Church, and he wanted to know what life in our particular church is like. He asked me about the congregants, what kind of work they do, what challenges they face. He asked me what life is like in Colorado Springs, a military town situated in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. So I told him the story.

Like a loving grandfather, he encouraged me. He told me that it sounded like God had clearly called me to this church, to serve these people, at this specific moment in time. And lest I idealize life in a small church, he told me that there are no ideal churches, large or small. In the world that is awaiting the finishing touches of God’s newness, we’re always working in approximations, always trying to do our best. Eugene, more than anyone I know, has worked to dismantle any romantic notions of a utopian church. He told me that he was sure there are unique temptations in a church like mine, and that there were difficulties and temptations at a small church like the one he pastored, and that my work was to discern and stand against the particular idolatries that exist in my context. And then he laid hands on me and prayed for me, commissioning me to get back into my work with every bit of focus.

The second reason I’m not going to let Eugene’s comments get under my skin is because I know that he hasn’t had the opportunity to see some of the beauty of the megachurch. He doesn’t know that many megachurches are leveraging the strength of their resources to serve the poor. Several years ago, New Life Church bought an old run-down and abandoned apartment complex. Our mayor told us that our city had a shortage of transitional housing, and that many single parents were sleeping in their cars at night with their kids. These are the working poor who are trying but just can’t get over the hump by themselves. After much prayer, our pastor and elders sensed the Lord was moving us to do something about it. So we told our congregation about the need and our heart to help, and they gave generously. We purchased the apartment complex with cash, remodeled it beautifully, and today all of the units are filled with single moms and their children who not long ago were sleeping in their cars. That is one of the unique strengths of a megachurch, and every time something like that happens the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God reverberates throughout a city.

I’m also guessing that Eugene doesn’t know that many megachurches consist of several smaller congregations. At New Life Church where I work, our senior pastor, Brady Boyd, has organized and actively oversees our five different congregations that meet in five different locations. All of them have lead pastors who preach live; all of them have a dedicated pastoral staff; all of them have scores of congregants serving on vibrant teams; all of the congregations serve our city in unique ways and in various locations.

For example, at New Life Church we have a 700-member Spanish-speaking congregation (called Nueva Vida) that is located in one of the most economically depressed regions of our city. They have a food bank that offers help to some of the neediest among us. They have provided help to immigrants by providing attorneys that specialize in immigration law. Nueva Vida enjoys the aggregate strength of the large church while also enjoying the small church feel. In a way, the multi-congregational model “shrinks” a large church, and I know many churches in America that have adopted this approach. In short, there are innovations afoot within large churches that allow pastoral ministry to function locally and personally, which is what Eugene has been calling for all these years. He would be pleased by many of these innovations, I’m sure, if he knew about them.

There’s a third reason why I—a pastor at a megachurch—am not going to get defensive about his comments. I’m not offended because I want to be humble enough to listen to criticism to see if there’s something I can learn, and I’m not offended because I understand Eugene’s current role within the larger American church. For his working years, he was a local church pastor, taking care of the needs of his flock. He spent his time making house calls and hospital visits, officiating weddings and dedicating children, preaching the scriptures and calling people to carry a cross and follow Jesus. He had been assigned a specific people in a specific place—Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland—and he did that work faithfully for 29 years.

But over the course of the last two decades, he’s played a different role. In my mind, God has raised Eugene up as a prophet to the Church in the West. But it would help us to understand the role of the prophet. Prophetic speech, you see, is less about precision and more about provocation. Precision is absolutely necessary, but it’s the work of accountants and engineers. A prophet’s task is to roll into town shouting, Wake up, Sleeper! A prophet exaggerates because sometimes that’s the only way that we will finally hear the truth. A prophet wounds so that his listeners might ultimately be healed. Remember that the prophet Hosea said,

“Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds” (6:1).

As I’ve paid attention to the megachurch conversation through the years, I’ve discovered that there are usually two responses: either uncritical optimism or unbridled cynicism.

Uncritical optimism celebrates what is without recognizing that some reform is needed. Unbridled cynicism, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of good. In my mind, neither approach is adequate. There has to be a more nuanced middle way where we megachurch pastors ask the hard questions and critique our own practices without devolving into unbridled cynicism.

Since Eugene doesn’t know megachurches like many of us do, he’s probably working with the very worst caricatures—the stuff you read in the news when something goofy happens. But as an insider, I do know life in the megachurch. I know a bunch of large churches that seem to be faithfully carrying out their call. And I also know that there is plenty of sacrilegious gimmickry and cheap entertainment to be found out there, which means that there’s at least a kernel of truth in what Eugene is saying. We can and must do better.

When Eugene pushes on the megachurch, I don’t think he’s saying we should shut them all down and divide people up into neat little groups of 200 based on their zip code. I think he is using prophetic exaggeration, hyperbole to shake us from settling for the current version of our churches when there may be some reforming to do. So Eugene is not totally wrong, and he should know that many of us are listening.

Instead of getting flustered by Eugene, we need to know how to read Eugene. We pastors teach our congregations that there are different genres in the canon of scripture—there’s Law and wisdom literature, there’s history and narrative, there are epistles, there’s apocalyptic, and poetry—and each of them is to be read differently. Just like we don’t read poetry literally or scientifically, we shouldn’t read Eugene Peterson’s comments about the megachurch as some sort of factual sociological data about the state of the American church. Instead, we should hear a prophetic chastening, a grandfatherly reminder to take our time, to think it through, to make sure we’re building well.

For St. Paul himself said, “God was kind and let me become an expert builder…and we must all be careful how we build…” (1Corinthians 3:10). Eugene has given us all a fresh chance to consider how we are building.

Note: Feel free to subscribe to the blog and look for the third installment of the series coming soon.





Eugene and Me: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

Me with Eugene and Jan

Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has been the topic of conversation the last couple days. If you have not heard anything and would like a quick summary, his literary agency has a short statement here. So, I thought I would take a moment to tell you about the Eugene Peterson that I have come to know and love. This will be a three-part series, and I’ll cover a range of topics, including his recent comments critiquing megachurches with some of my conversations with him in years past that will broaden the conversation.

Eugene and Me, Part 1

Nearly eleven years ago, life changed for me. I had been on staff at New Life Church for a year-and-a-half when suddenly we lost our pastor due to a moral failure. Lisa and I were in our mid-twenties and she was pregnant with our first child. We had moved away from both of our families and friends, and now this. It was a moment of great sadness for so many people. Thirteen months later on a snowy Sunday morning, a young man stormed onto our campus with an assault rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition and killed two beautiful sisters in our parking lot before storming into our church building where he was confronted and took his own life.

As a church, it felt like we had nothing left. As a young pastor, I was spent.

One sleepy Monday morning, I walked into a Goodwill Industries store. When I go I always have to scan the used book aisle to see if someone got rid of a gem, and that day was no different. A particular book on the shelf just wanted me to find it. It was the only one I could see.

The Contemplative Pastor.

I had never heard of it, but I saw Peterson’s name on the spine. I think that’s the guy who translated The Message Bible. So I grabbed it for $.99. When I say that book changed my life, I’m not exaggerating. I had seen my parents live the pastoral vocation beautifully in front of me, but I had never before seen it articulated like this on the page. The day I finished the book is the day I wrote a letter to thank this perfect stranger who was awakening in me a fresh imagination for my work.

But I didn’t know anything about Eugene—how old he was, what he was like, or where he lived. That meant I would need to send my letter to his publisher, which I did. “If you could get this to Mr. Peterson, I would be grateful. But if you can’t, I understand.” In my letter, I thanked him for his writing and asked him if I could spend a day with him discussing our shared vocation.

Truth be told, I expected that would be the end of it.

Then one day I came home from work. I went to the mailbox. Just like I did every other day. But this day was different because there it was, the white envelope—I have it sitting in front of me on the table as I type this—with my name handwritten in the most distinct cursive. You know, the cursive a grandparent uses because they were educated in a different era, and they cared about such things. That cursive. When I looked in the top left corner of my envelope, I saw “E Peterson, Lakeside, Montana.”

Time stopped.

“Dear Daniel, Yes, I would be willing to spend a day with you here in Montana. But not so fast.”

But not so fast.

He went on: “I think it would be better if you spent some time thinking about what is involved. Why don’t you take some time to reflect on what ‘pastor’ exactly means to you. And what ‘church’ means to you. Write a couple of pages on each, pastor and church, and send them to me.”

As I’ve reflected over the last nine years of interacting with Eugene Peterson, I’ve come to think of those four words as some of the most important words ever spoken to me.

But not so fast.

Speed is one of the gods that reigns among the American pantheon. We want what we want, and we want it now. Get rich overnight. Lose weight overnight. Fix your ailing church overnight. You name it, the formula for fast is being sold by someone. Amazon Prime is the natural result of such a society, and I admit that I love Amazon Prime. But that impatience has seeped into the life of faith. We are in trouble when we start thinking a mature life in Christ comes quickly.

Eugene has become an icon of faithful presence in a world that runs on adrenaline.

Pastoral ministry is slow work. Pastoral work is inter-generational work, dedicating a young girl to the Lord one week and burying her great-grandparents the next. Pastoral work is work that takes a lifetime. Stay in one place for as long as the Lord will let you, pour your life into the people in front of you, and watch the Kingdom come. And when I get tempted to take shortcuts, I hear Eugene: not so fast.

The world we live in celebrates a lot of flashy things while hidden faithfulness is often overlooked. Eugene is a man who lived and wrote in virtual obscurity until The Message erupted onto the scene. “It only took Eugene Peterson 65 years to become an overnight success.” That’s what I’ve told all my friends. Have you ever heard of Bel Air, Maryland? Exactly. I hadn’t either until Eugene told me he pastored there for 29 years. His book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction has become the epigraph for his life and it has become the goal for many of his readers.

As one looks around the American landscape of local church ministry, it is difficult to find people who have been in it for the long haul, whose love for God and his church is still vibrant, whose familial relationships are still intact, and who are full of innocence and joy. Eugene and Jan Peterson are two people who meet this description.

Some people this week have been frustrated with Eugene for what they see as a sloppy interview and/or a muddled retraction. I can understand that. I’m guessing Eugene and his publicists were thinking this would be a routine interview for his final book before riding off into the sunset. But it wasn’t easy. And he’s slowing down. He’s almost 85. This is how life works, people.

Grandparents make their children and grandchildren possible. They carry them, pray for them, cover them in their weakest and most vulnerable moments, and see them through into seasons of fullness. Eugene has done that for so many of us. But while grandparents make children and grandchildren possible, there comes a moment when the roles are reversed and children and grandchildren must carry their grandparents. That is where we are right now.

Eugene has spent the last 60 years taking care of other people. Now it’s our turn to honor and take care of him.

Note: Feel free to subscribe to the blog and look for the second installment of the series coming soon.