‘Going to God’: Remembering Eugene

'I knew him far better than I know his work. We were friends for 25 years.'

It was one of the scariest moments of my life. The people in a circle around me were real writers whose work sold thousands, even millions – Luci Shaw, Walter Wangerin, Philip Yancey, Keith Miller, Richard Foster, and, good night! Madeline L’Engle. Twenty distinguished Christian writers had asked me to join them and, as an intro, read a story. One of the scariest moments of my life.

It didn’t need to be. This “Chrysostom Society” was an odd thing, something of a love fest. They got together to talk about writing, but they also loved each other. That too was a little scary. Keith Miller, a proud Southern Baptist, kept hugging me because, he said, those dang Calvinists are cold fish. About me, he wasn’t wrong.

One of them was working on the Bible, rewriting it. I was stunned. I knew the man by reputation but hadn’t read a thing of his. Tall, gaunt, slightly stooped, fleece vest, a plaid shirt and a silvery comb-over, he seemed shy, thoughtful, and, in a very good sense, preacherly, the softest touch of the whole bunch, no reason to be afraid.

Eugene Peterson had nothing of Jeremiah in him. He was quiet, his wife, Janice, more social, nimble in conversation. Sometimes he entered the discussions only at her prodding. I told my wife the man had the bearing of a saint.

For the substance of his thoughtful works, his commentaries and expositions of scripture, Eugene is greatly loved. 

But I haven’t read much of all of that. I page through commentaries when I need to, so this little eulogy I’m writing for Eugene Peterson may well be unique, because I knew him far better than I know his work. We were friends for 25 years.

Behind the words
Maybe a decade ago now, he told a story – he and Jan did. Out of nowhere, they got a call from someone doing the legwork for a rock star who’d read The Message, found it wonderful, and wanted to meet him. The man’s name, they said, they didn’t recognize.

It was Bono. 

They were flown out, had dinner, rode in a limo, went backstage, then sat up front for a concert unlike any they’d ever experienced. The two of them told that entire story the next year at Chrysostom, and when they did, they laughed and laughed, mostly at themselves. As did we. That too was Eugene Peterson.

In 1996 or so, when Phillip Yancey was finishing What’s so Amazing about Grace? he brought along the chapter on Mel White, the gay man who’d left his family and the evangelical world he’d been part of. He and Philip had been friends. Philip read that chapter to us and the room went silent as stone. 

I asked Eugene what he thought. He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I get campaigned every week from both sides.”

Once, we were talking about the place of self in writing – the perils and temptations, just chatting about how we are read by those who love us most, our families, how difficult it is for some of them to read us because they know us so well. 

But it’s impossible not to write without the self, we said – isn’t that true? I asked Eugene how much of him is in The Message. “Every word,” he said, humbly. 

Common ground
A few years later, when I was the President of the bunch, I had to come early. Eugene and Jan were there too. It was just the three of us at a retreat center so off the beaten path you drive through a river to get there. 

We got to talking, when suddenly he said something stunning. “You know, Jim,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life doing pastoral theology, my whole life – and sometimes I think it didn’t do a damn bit of good.”

A few of us, perhaps, have never felt that kind of despair; but the Bible makes vivid that lament is a very human response to the darkness that steals into most of our lives. I told him that just that week I’d been to a difficult funeral of a one-time colleague, where the preacher had quoted at length from Eugene’s own commentary on Psalm 121:

The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winner’s circle. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

Last year, at the Petersons’ swan song at Chrysostom, we were saying our goodbyes, almost a sacrament among the members, when suddenly our president, a gracious, wonderful woman, announced she thought it fitting that our ex-President – me – give a kind of official goodbye to the Petersons. That was scary too.

Eugene wasn’t walking well, and he was frequently confused. That this was it, was all too obvious.

Honestly, I haven’t a clue what I said right then. It was from the heart, but I don’t remember a thing. Now that he’s gone, I’m happy the Pres gave me the moment she did, the blessed opportunity to say goodbye. 

If you who know his work and believe therefore you’ve heard his voice, then be assured you would not have been at all surprised to know the Eugene Peterson I knew, the man who lived outside his book covers. His warm and loving presence was and will remain an abiding blessing to every one of us. 

  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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