A Tribute to Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson represents something of a conundrum in our world. When you hear him speak, he is gentle. But when you read his works, he brings a prophetic edge. His words have been provocative and fearless, often wounding in the moment, in the hope of healing in the long run. But those words are hard to marry up with this soft spoken introvert.

He is a mystery in that he displayed humility and audacity side by side, in the same life, at the same time. His humility is encapsulated in the fact that he doesn’t consider ‘The Message’ to be his book. His audacity is displayed in the 35 books he wrote for pastors and for the Church – he was not afraid to say what he had to say. Yet he managed to be audacious without arrogance. He managed to hope that his lasting legacy might be to shift the pastoral imagination in America – and our gathering suggests that even that hope has been exceeded, but then in the same interview said apart from his marriage and his children, the rest of it could all go to pot.

He put himself out there, in an unassuming way. In our culture we are so used to celebrities who want something from us. In Eugene Peterson, it seems we encountered someone who wanted something for us.

And not every one of those 35 books was a winner. A friend of mine once said as he handed me a spare copy of ‘Eat This Book’ – ‘he writes good books, but gee his titles need work’. I once purchased a book of Peterson’s poetry called ‘Holy Luck’. Didn’t understand a word. I think it was regifted to a friend with more poetic sensibilities! Another friend affirmed this saying that of the first book he ever read of Peterson’s, he only understood a quarter of it. Even more recently, when reading his memoirs in the book ‘Pastor’ there was one complete chapter that made no sense to him at all.

But for each of those awkward phrases in the Message about not hanging out in ‘Sin Saloon’ we were also blessed with absolute pearls like ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’ which seems to have sunk especially deeply into our spiritual vocabulary. We are blessed not in spite of Peterson’s somewhat hit and miss offerings, but because of them. His refusal to play the celebrity game meant that every book did not need to become a bestseller. It seems he was content to offer them in the hope that something would land for someone somewhere, even if it didn’t all land for everyone everywhere. Such generosity, such vulnerability may be at the heart of what has drawn so many of us to him and his works.

Perhaps he is offering us a metaphor for ministry in the shape of his own life. Can we dare to make an offering that isn’t perfect, isn’t universally celebrated, trusting that someone, somewhere will be blessed, even if most aren’t, or aren’t even interested. Perhaps most surprising of all, is that Peterson began writing the Message for his own congregation. For years, it was a purely local phenomenon as he offered new insights into God’s word and God’s world for the people he knew best. The rest of the story, the fact that we even know about The Message, we could say came down to Holy Luck. Can we give of ourselves as freely? We can if we make peace with what we have in hand, and trust that in Christ it will be enough, more than enough for the work before us.

AUTHOR: Malcolm Gordon
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