Today I received word of the passing of Eugene Peterson, probably best known as the author of the paraphrased Bible titled the Message. He was also a pastor, a seminary professor, and the author of many books that God used to shape this pastor and his ministry.
I discovered the writings of Eugene Peterson sometime in the 1980’s while pastoring in Moab, Utah. His articles in Leadership Magazine and Christianity Today, led me to his books.
Eugene was a pastor at heart, and at the time I discovered him he was the senior pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, a church that he founded and then pastored for nearly 30 years. He often talked of longevity and how a pastor was like a farmer who would faithfully till the same fields, year after year, for his entire life. That view of pastoring was very attractive to me and made me think that I would spend my life ministering in the red rock deserts of Southern Utah. Then, one day, God began to dismantle my pastoral nest in Moab. In my confusion I wrote a letter to Eugene. His response to my letter gave me the freedom to let go of Moab and trust God for the path ahead, a path that led to Truckee, California in the summer of 1991. As I came to Sierra Bible Church, Eugene’s words to me were, “May the peace of Christ be with you in your new life-long field.”
In the summer of 2001, I was offered a position at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. Following a visit to the ministry I began to prepare to tell my congregation that I would be moving on. Before that happened, on my 50th birthday, the congregation at Sierra Bible Church gave me a gift, an Alaskan fishing trip with my father and my son. I left for that trip on September 1, planning to tell the congregation of my ministry plans with Focus upon returning on September 11.
The return trip on September 11 was postponed for a week because that was the day of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, after which all U.S. airlines were grounded.
Before leaving on that trip, I grabbed a book from my bookshelf, just in case I had some time to read. The book was Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Little did I know when I picked that book to take with me, that I would soon have a whole week to read it and digest its message. God, in His sovereignty, had me right where He needed me, with His chosen message, and time to soak it in.
In the book, Peterson likened the ropes that held Odysseus to the mast, so that he could not follow the siren’s songs, to a pastor’s ordination vows. He wrote, “With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.” Through those words, God revealed to me that the call to Focus on the Family was a siren song. I then, obediently returned to Truckee, where I have been for the past 28 years.
Twice, in my pastoral ministry, God used the words of Eugene Peterson as a rudder to help steer my course. But perhaps his most powerful words to me came from Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message. Jesus said, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Get away with Me and you will recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with Me and work with Me, watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”