I’ve been surprised by tears this week. It’s a strange thing to find yourself weeping privately over the loss of someone you’ve never met. I don’t quite understand it, but have experienced it time and again since Eric and Leif Peterson shared news of their father’s death on Oct. 22 in his beloved Montana.
With words simple and profound, Eugene Peterson often pierced this pastor’s heart. He was, of course, good with the pen. But the deeper reason his words reverberated within so many of us is because of how deeply God’s ways and Word reverberated in his own soul.
In the preface to his book, As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire, Peterson referenced T.S Elliot’s comments about Charles Williams with words that fittingly reflected Peterson’s own essence:
“Some men are less than their works, some are more. (He) cannot be placed in either class. To have known the man would have been enough; to know his books is enough. … (He was) the same man in his life and in his writings.”
In recent years, my sense of this uncommon congruence between page and person nurtured an increasing desire in me to encounter this wise, textured soul. So, I wrote him a letter. In it, I shared the impact his writings had made upon me, then boldly asked for the opportunity to fly to Montana, buy him a meal and spend time with him. Montana has been a thin place for me since serving a church there in college. Peterson created many thin moments for me through his words. I mailed my request with the faint hope of future pilgrimage.
Later, I received a kind email from his son, Leif, telling me he’d seen the letter open on his dad’s kitchen table. He shared gratitude for my words and what they’d meant to his dad. Had I asked one year earlier, he said, Eugene and Jan would likely have hosted me in their home. But now, with Eugene facing cognitive decline, it was not in the cards.
“The world needs more people like him still: profoundly congruent persons who so evidently conduit God’s humility, love and grace, but who also don’t seem fully aware of it – at least not in ways that alter their simple, authentic goodness.”
I’m deeply grateful Leif took the time to write, giving me the opportunity to pray for and grieve with them. Of course I regret not writing that letter a year earlier, imagining the sacred moments that might have been.
The world needed Eugene Peterson. The world needs more people like him still: profoundly congruent persons who so evidently conduit God’s humility, love and grace, but who also don’t seem fully aware of it – at least not in ways that alter their simple, authentic goodness.
As I reflect on all of this today, I’m struck by Peterson’s response to Jonathan Merritt’s final question in a 2017 Religious News Service interview. His answer is even timelier today.
Merritt: I’d like to ask you one last question. You’re entering the final stage of your career, your ministry, and your life. One day, as with all of us, Eugene Peterson will not be someone who exists. He will be somebody who did exist once. When that moment comes, how do you hope people will remember Eugene Peterson?
Peterson: I don’t know. I tell you, I’m still getting used to it all. I’m still getting used to being noticed. People write to me. They ask to come and overnight with us, with my wife and me. Boy, the stuff that comes in my mailbox is just enormous, so I do a lot of letter writing and telephoning. And I’m just amazed really.
I haven’t been part of anything big. I’ve never been a big church preacher. I’ve never been on the radio or anything like that. I’m so pleased that people care about what I’ve done and support it because these are difficult times for the church. I’m quite aware of that. Anyway, I guess I’m just surprised that anyone would remember at all.
Merritt: Thanks for your time. I know I speak for countless others when I say thanks for your courage, for your witness, and for your words all these years. You will be remembered, Eugene Peterson. For how could we forget?
Indeed. As we remember, may the challenge Peterson lived and left – in person and in page – ever prompt us to become the congruent followers of Jesus whose lives reflect the humility, love and grace this world so desperately needs. That, of course, will require a long obedience in the same direction.