It’s cold here in the Ozarks. The streets are damp, and the leaves are changing. I woke up on this crisp autumn morning to the news that Eugene Peterson is entering his final days of this life. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, his best-known work is a paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. He authored more than thirty other books, too, mostly Biblical commentary. A quick check through the list puts my personal reading at just over a third of them; almost all are on my “essentials” shelf.
The Message grew from a small-group Bible study at his first pastorate in Maryland, a small suburban Presbyterian church. There were four people in that group he led in the church basement. If anything indicates the type of person he was, and the way he viewed ministry, it might be this: serious attention to formation for the individuals and small groups of church-going Christians. That, and a vision for other leaders to follow a similar path, eschewing the trendy, the glossy, the market-driven methods of the mega world.
In his book The Unnecessary Pastor (coauthored with Marva Dawn), he gives his “mantra” for pastoring. After reading the book and meditating on alternatives, I’ve adopted it as my own and tried to live true to it in the years since. I won’t share it here. If you ever dare to read the book yourself, you’ll know why.
Of all the theologians I’ve encountered over the years, none has had the enduring, overall influence of Peterson. I tried on a couple of occasions to go hear him speak, but his appearances were rare and usually limited to small audiences at out-of-the-way, unglamorous retreats. Or to his small classes of seminary students. Or to the tiny Bible study he still attended in a church basement in his hometown of Kalispell, Montana.
More than once I thought about writing to him, somehow trying to express what his words and life mean to me, how they’ve at times quite literally saved my faith — maybe even my own life. Since I never got around to setting my thoughts down and sending them to him, I offer them here as tribute and encouragement for all of us to revisit his books that sit on our shelves or go and dig into his words for the first time. (If you need a place to start, I would suggest one of his first, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.)
Dear Pastor Peterson,
I’ll keep this short, as you have demonstrated a remarkable affinity for an economy of words and an aversion to accolades — two traits I long to emulate. But there is so much more.
Chief among your gifts is the concept of having a Biblically-informed imagination. And not just having one, but the necessity of nurturing it as a guiding ethos, a North Star, a living part of you. I’ve adopted the idea and understand it as an “active Gospel imagination,” cribbing ideas and words from various works of yours. I do my best to live by it and bear witness to it.
There’s also the freedom you showed from the constraints of factionalism and fad. Your wide-ranging and fearless scholarship has pulled from so many sources that proved treasure troves to me. I often meticulously worked my way through the bibliography of your books and was introduced to a pantheon of authors I might never have otherwise encountered. And the way you engaged them all showed me how to likewise approach people and ideas very foreign to my provincial upbringing with respect but also with critical evaluation.
Last is the overall way you have lived your life. I understand the danger of making such an estimation of persons removed by distance, and especially of a public figure. But from everything I’ve ever heard, read or seen, you’ve chosen to remain true to your first calling. You could’ve chosen a much larger stage. You could’ve jockeyed for far greater accolades or lobbied for grander audiences. For heaven’s sake, you once turned down a personal invitation from Bono to visit him and be a VIP guest at a U2 concert to finish up some work on Isaiah.
There is so much more I could add, but I will end here with a prayer for you as your labor in this life is ending and as you will, undoubtedly, enter this next life carrying with you your deep love, insatiable curiosity and profound reverence for Jesus and the Kingdom of God. I pray that for all the ways you have sacrificed and sparked these same affections in me and countless others, you will be be utterly overwhelmed by experiencing them in full in the life to come.
With sincere and profound gratitude, grace and peace,
John Ray is a missionary, spiritual director and the elder responsible for teaching at Grace Church of NWA. John and his wife Jane spend way too much time packing and unpacking, vacuuming dog hair and chasing raccoons off their porch. They much prefer sharing good food and good coffee with friends, reading and trying to keep up with their daughters.