Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Pastoral Theology

The Life We Leave Behind

I have been on a long journey—a writing journey. It explains my absence from blogging, and a lot of other things. I have fallen into a few narcoleptic comas along the way, but now that the manuscript has been sent off to the publisher (Missing Voices, Langham Publishing), I have come out into the light once again. So nice to breathe fresh air, smell the fleeting autumn roses, reintroduce myself to my family, and write a new blog.

It was not hard to figure out what to say. Reading a post from Christianity Today this week, I noticed that Eugene Peterson is now in hospice care. I knew this was coming. Back in January, his son Eric had sent me a note saying that he was handling his father’s correspondence. Still, the news has come as a bit of a shock. We want to believe our heroes will remain ageless. I keep waiting for Eugene’s next new book, one I will read slowly and deeply. But I know I have read his last.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, I first met Eugene Peterson through his writings. I was grinding my way through my first senior pastorate, making the occasional rookie mistakes. I read Working the Angles, and I could hear the thunder behind the voice of this Norwegian prophet. “American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries…they continue to appear in pulpits…but they are abandoning their calling.” Peterson was noticing that too many pastors had metamorphosed into shopkeepers concerned to keep the customers happy. They were abdicating their responsibility to carry out a pastor’s essential tasks. He had me in his sights.

He was right then. He still is. Nearly thirty years later, his words are even more relevant. Pastors seem to be losing their identity (or have never understood what it means). In almost every book he has advocated for a “theologically authorized” church that is free from the world’s allure, a church that unashamedly stands for the gospel. He has written out of a conviction that most pastors have lost their way, hammering out a vocational identity from models given to them from the principalities and powers.

Peterson determined that his parish would be a location for spirituality—not a place to further his advancement. He would be a shepherd; he would not become a “branch manager in a religious warehouse outlet.” He became a model of longevity, shaming those of us flitting (or trying to flutter) from one ministry to the next in search of the perfect congregation.

Looking back, I have read just about every book he has written. Most notable include The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones, Under the Unpredictable Plant, and The Pastor. Paul Schrader once wrote that the best films start as you’re walking out of the theatre. This has been true of Peterson’s writings. His words have started me thinking, launching a number of pastoral endeavors.

I’ve presented a paper on his pastoral contributions to a theological society. I have corresponded, and I have done my best to get him to come to Portland and teach a doctoral course for me at Western. Failing this, I one day drove to Montana, observing none of the speed limits (there are none) to spend a couple of hours with Eugene at his place on Flathead Lake. One way or another, I was going to meet the man!

I can think of few—very few—writers who have written with such penetrating fierceness, such insight into the pastoral task, and yet with such great humor. I have so valued my graduate training in seminary, but it is Peterson who taught me what it means to be a pastor. Whatever ability to do contemplative exegesis. I owe to him. Like Peterson, I have lived in two worlds—the academy and the church. I like to think I understand something of pastoral theology, but Peterson was the essence of pastoral theologian.

As I have transitioned to writing, I keep coming back to Peterson. His attention to detail compels to write with greater precision. He has always had such a profound respect for words, cutting to the chase, and feeding my soul with his insights. Much of his depth has come from his practice of Sabbath keeping. I have not been so good at this, but in this season of my life,I am seeking to give greater attention to being over doing. By the grace of God, Peterson came to grips with this early in his life.

I must sound a bit like some sycophant. Maybe. I am simply reflecting my admiration and deep appreciation for a man who has influenced my life, and one I will deeply miss. Would that all of us will leave something of his legacy to others.


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