I was not sure what to expect, but there he was, standing at the doorway. A bit unsteady, it was obvious the years were catching up with him. My wife and I had just driven from our cabin on the Pend Oreille River to his cabin on Flathead Lake. I was finally in his Montana world, one that had forged a visceral sense of place and time, topos and kairos. Even if it was for a few brief moments, I wanted to step into his home, meet his wife, and be with a man whose writings had influenced me more than any other writer. His words, written with the precision of a craftsman, had shepherded me during most of the 35 years I shepherded others.
I wanted to discover what explains a life that writes 38 books and sells 22 million copies. I knew some of the answers. I had read nearly every book he wrote, presented a paper in theological meetings that distilled his pastoral theology, and had some ongoing correspondence. I invited him to teach in my doctoral program so many times he referred to me as “the persistent widow.” But it was all correspondence. Now I just wanted to hear his gravelly voice and speak with him in person. No more asking him to teach. Just listen.
What, who shaped his life? His mother was a woman of prayer and fire and compassion, and she ranks near the top. He discovered a theologian by the name of Karl Barth who left an indelible mark because he was “a theologian more intent on getting it lived than getting it right.” Certainly, his wife Jan, numerous writers and poets, as well as imaginative pastors, left their powerful impressions. And for sure, the Montana mountains were “propitious” for shaping his soul.
Still, what explains the man? I have read his memoir numerous times, but not until I read Winn Collier’s book, A Burning in My Bones, did it become clearer who Eugene Peterson was. Much of his life was formed by Word, underscored in his Eat This Book. Reading Scripture was a rigorous discipline. He would not let go until he heard God’s voice. He respected the importance of thinking, imagining, and testing for truth. He learned to honor the Sabbath so that he could enter God’s presence.
During some of my hardest times in pastoral ministry, Peterson’s books were my lifeline. Under the Unpredictable Plant comes immediately to mind. As a pastor for 29 years, serving in one place, he went through his own badlands. It is a stretch every pastor goes through at some point—low energy, mediocre results, every mile a push through lifeless country. It is often prompted by unforeseen events, people intent on making your life difficult, and God intent on making your character what it must be for the days ahead. He refused to be a therapist focused on people’s problems; rather, he called people to worship God. He resisted the constant temptations of church growth manuals exhorting him to “make something of himself and build something significant.” Instead, he chose to be a prophetic voice. He would be a contemplative—not a competitive—pastor.
One of the most telling moments in Peterson’s life was the night he approached his board and said what most pastors think about saying but never dare to speak: “I’m tired of running this damn church!” He was finding that the time necessary to pray and be present to God was squeezed out by endless meetings, fiduciary matters, and the like. As Collier tells it, that was the night Peterson became a pastor. And in books like Working the Angles, he called other colleagues to come back to the post they had long since abandoned.
So what explains Peterson? After years of research, having access to Peterson’s journals and writings, and scores of interviews, Collier concludes that all that really mattered to Peterson was to be authentically surrendered to God. As Peterson put it, “to be a saint.” He loathed notoriety, even though the Bono’s of the world insisted he fly in their private jets. He had a certain disregard for pastors who took themselves more seriously than their theology. Rather, he chose to be relentless in his desire for God—for holiness—for the Presence.
As I moved into the final months of writing my theology of leadership, I kept this prayer of Peterson’s in front of me: “Dear God, I want to be a writer to your glory. I want to shape sentences and words out of my soul, not just my mind…fresh, alive, prayerful sentences.” It became, and continues to be, my prayer. His pursuit of God inspires me to seek out God each morning I get into my kayak, move upriver, and get past the distancing eye to the listening ear.
It is said that in his last days on earth, when the worlds of most grow smaller, Peterson’s grew larger. Immersed in God’s world, with its vast wonders, Peterson’s became more expansive, though he could no longer write about it. His son described it this way: “Dad was simply descending deeper into that interior world that he’d built with God his entire life—only we could not access it with him.”
If only my son might be able to say that one day of me.