There have been a handful of persons whose relationship with our Father, companionship with the Son and fullness of the Spirit have had formative impact on both my ideals and practices of faith. One of those individuals now looks with unobstructed clarity upon the One whom he vigorously and excellently loved through the thin veil of these earthly bodies of ours.
Eugene Peterson passed this week into a land that he longed for in a way that made his temporary home replete with color, beauty and purpose. While he is no longer with us in the same manner he was just days ago, he is also not passed away from us either.
As his dear friend Winn Collier tweeted, “Eugene is now with the Triune God he has loved his entire life. Memory eternal.” Eternal in the great dance he so loved to write about, and eternal in those whom his faith spilled out upon, like me.
To look back upon the beginnings of what is now only a relatively juvenile pastorate, I would never have predicted that “Peterson” would have had such a tremendous impact on both my believed and lived relationship with our God and His church. At first reading, he was too poetic for my literal ears and too ethereal for my practical mind.
For me, God and His work were a matter of fact, not mystery, or at least not a mystery worth spending precious time on when there was so much “kingdom work” to be done. And yet, somehow in the business of quality and culturally honored production, my soul ached for the unfamiliar bond that Peterson preached,
Much of pastoral work has to do with nurturing intimacy, this, developing relationships in which love is successfully expressed and received—shared. The relationships are multiform: between women and men, husband and wife, parent and child, sisters and brothers, neighbors and acquaintances, employers and employees, friends and enemies, rich and poor, sinners and saints. And, in addition to but also involved in each of these conditions, the person of God.
As one who had been named to serve (Jeremy means “appointed by God”, and like my name, the appointment is something given, received with sure hope and expectation but certainly not earned), I was eager to do so. In my enthusiasm and naivety, I assumed the good works prepared beforehand for me were in-step with the programs, megaplexes, preachers and movements to which I belonged and was being effectively trained to manage and master.
But Peterson gave me language, pictures and an imagination for another way to be—and to do.
The humbling impression that my part in the body of Christ was to cultivate intimacy, helping people—and thus requiring myself to—”discover God’s will and love at the center of every encounter” so that “what is believed in the heart has demonstrable consequences on daily life;” perhaps should not have been novel to me. But it was. And it crashed upon me like a wave, not refreshing me with a gentle splash but knocking me off balance with its natural force.
Peterson’s understanding of an ordinary life lived with an acute awareness of the Creator and the created, painted a different portrait of my life’s vocation. To recognize ministry as primarily relationship, and not merely relating in order to motivate people to accomplish something (no matter how good of a thing) or to recruit combatants into the ranks (no matter how noble the battle), was course changing for my journey of obedience.
As Peterson wrote, to ask the question, “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” then, simply “be there, teaching, preaching Scripture as well as I can, and being honest with them, not doing anything to interfere with what the Spirit is shaping in them;” would never have been my strategy for faithful service.
Yet through Peterson’s service, and his library of contributions, I have found myself content and joyously, as well as more competently, immersed in the marvelous ambiguity of a particular people whom God is forming. Which is not the place I thought I would be when I first encountered his poetry and prose.
The writings of Peterson about his God, about his life with people, about the earthly texture of the kingdom already come, about God’s family and the place of a pastor within it; though strange to the senses of an emotionally underdeveloped pragmatist, have nevertheless awakened my heart to “sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” While I have certainly not arrived, nor will I this side of death, where I have come, I owe in no small part to Mr. Eugene Peterson. And I expect many others do as well.
Thanks be to God for a life, shared. May the words of his mouth and meditations of his heart that have been so pleasing to his Father, by the power of the Spirit continue to exhort, encourage, equip those of us who are following the Son in the long obedience in the same direction.