Let me begin by saying this: the man was the man you came to know through his writings.
Many first came to know Eugene Hoiland Peterson through The Message, his translation of the Bible from the original languages (see the final chapter in Eat This Book for a fuller explanation of this work). I came to know him as Uncle Gene. That has always been his most vital role for me.
As a little girl, summers were my favorite. I remember the flurry in our household as my mom packed us for vacation. It felt like a momentous occasion every year–the refrigerator was emptied out and packed into coolers; my brother and I were tasked with packing our clothes for several weeks; Chee-Chee the cat was captured in some room so she would be ready to put in the car (which she hated and always let us know the whole journey) for the ride to the most magical, wonderful, happiest place on earth: the lake (sorry, Disney. I’m not buying what you are selling).
It was magical for so many reasons–the lake and the dock and the inner tube towel forts and the cliff-jumping and the shooting-star-watching from the dock at night and the deluxe two-story treehouse with real windows and the amazing sandbox cities all of us cousins spent summers constructing. And it was magical because grandma and grandpa were there and all the rest of the Peterson side of the family. My mom always made sure we were there the same weeks her brothers and families were. So there were grandma’s famous Flathead Pancakes on the cast iron grill over the open fire some mornings where the boy cousins held pancake eating competitions and campfires with roasted marshmallows at night and the cackle of sticks gathered from the woods. In the afternoons, everyone congregated on the dock to swim, warm ourselves in the sun, and talk.
Uncle Gene was, well, Uncle Gene. He gave you the hardest, most uncomfortable bear hugs where you were crushed to his lean frame and glad you came out alive. He disappeared for hours on end to study or something. I remember waking most mornings to the sun and the sound of a splash in the lake. It was Uncle Gene, back from his run, diving straight into the lake to cool down and have his morning swim. Around the campfire, he was the favorite storyteller, especially when he’d break out his banjo, and in his quiet, raspy voice, sing and tell us the story of AbiYoyo. There might have even been dancing on his part…Here’s a version that gives a good flavor of what went down around the firepit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liO3zbjgt4E
I suppose I knew he wrote books and was a pastor and read his Bible most of the time in the original Greek and Hebrew. None of that mattered. I loved his stories, his hard, bone-crushing hugs, and that he liked to swim and laugh.
As a family, we’ve watched as Uncle Gene became more and more known and sought after, but we never heard any of it through him. My parents, who have lived side-by-side Uncle Gene and Aunt Jan at the lake these last 15 years during both of their retirements, have underscored how quietly and unassumingly Gene and Jan have continued to live. I remember calling my mom one day a couple of years ago and asking how things were going. We did the normal catching up and then she said, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, Bono was here.” What the heck, mom?!! You can be sure I would have led with that in my opening gambit. My parents didn’t even know Bono was coming until he was almost there. Another time, fifty pastors from Korea flew to little Lakeside, MT to the Presbyterian campground there for the experience of having time with Eugene. They apparently thought it was worth the time, effort and expense for the hour and a half a day Eugene spent with them. Again, my parents didn’t know about it until afterwards. As my dad said, “To us, it only appeared he had been to Lakeside for the mail.”
How to understand this man’s reach, influence and impact on so, so many? I’ve been chewing on this on and off for years. Sure, he spent over a decade translating the scriptures in a manner that made them accessible to so many or helped scripture regain freshness for others. He wrote books and delivered lectures. But that alone does not account for his impact. I believe his reach and impact were because we are all hungry for integrity, authenticity, examples of faithfulness and long obediences in the same direction. We want to know language matters, that what we say and how we say it matters, that imagination and creativity and thought and substance are important. We want to know that where we live now is okay–even important–imbued with meaning. We are hungry to know that intellectual rigor, the faithful practice of spiritual disciplines, quiet, unassuming hospitality, and a non-hurried pace and life do, in fact, matter. We want to know there is a way to live sabbath, to take hikes, learn bird names, to leisurely break bread and drink wine with friends, to plant ourselves in one place and really live there, to do a little bit this day and then a little bit again tomorrow. We want see how this looks. We want to know all this is possible.
In this world of flash-in-the-pan celebrity, where people get their 15 minutes of fame for the most ludicrous things and where people in positions of power can say anything and get away with it–even if their lives completely contradict what they are saying–we are quite literally starved for people who live authentically the message of their lives–for whom there is no discrepancy between what they say and what they do, what they communicate verbally and what they communicate through their lived life. We long for people of integrity in positions of influence and power, for whom we do not have to worry they are going to let us down with a moral failing. We want people who can show us it can be done, how it can be done.
Eugene and Jan’s life together (and as many have noted, there would be no Eugene without Jan-for more on her see: https://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2018/october/eugene-peterson-jan-my-life-as-pastors-wife.html) was the biggest tribute to a long obedience in the same direction–to living simply, caring for the creation around you, the person in front of you. There are literally thousands of recipients of personal letters Eugene wrote. He never had email until it was necessary, and that was only for family (and I assume editors/publishers). He knew to stay in his lane. He assumed (quite correctly, I am sure) that with email, he’d be inundated with quick questions and would never be able to keep up. However, for those who took the time to snail mail write him, he took the time to write them back. Furthermore, particularly in the years since he and Jan permanently moved to Lakeside, they opened their home to countless pastors, persons and families, ministering to them. Eugene would keep his mornings quiet–writing, studying, reading, but in the afternoons and evenings, he would make time to sit with people and interact with their questions, struggles and lives and later, he and Jan would offer hospitality around the breaking of bread and a simple meal.
Last year, there was a significant dust-up regarding Eugene’s views on gay marriage. For many, how that all shook out was confusing, hard and undermined what they thought they knew and understood of the man, while for others, the opposite was true and provided them reassurance. I was in Montana at the lake right after all this brouhaha broke. As someone on various social media platforms, I saw many of the statements and heard the disappointment and/or relief. It was suggested that, in the end, Eugene chose money over love. Now, I have my own personal interpretation of things regarding this dust-up, but I can say this with confidence, regardless of how it may have looked to some, the choice for Eugene was never money over love. If you’ve even made it through one of his books, that should be clear. That did not change at the end of his life. Celebrity and fame never mattered to him and often made him uncomfortable.
As I continue to reflect on my uncle’s life, getting ready to make the trek again to the lake deep with memories to celebrate his life and where his presence will always be embedded, I am diving back into his writings, reading underlinings from years past. When someone lives well, when their message matches who they are, they challenge us to look anew at how we are living, at how we are being. As I consider my uncle and aunt and their life together, what it all looked like and meant, I am challenged anew to buckle down and be faithful in my own life and call. None of it is flashy. Lots of it is NOT FUN. More of it than I would like is not fun at all. Every bit of it involves an invitation to show up in the moment and stay present in that place. My own life and vocation requires my faithfulness. That is the word that encapsulates my uncle for me: faithful. For my mom, Eugene’s little sister and one of his biggest fan girls, it’s his humility. She said last week, “The most dominant characteristic of Eugene is his humility. We have lived next door to him for fifteen years and have seen that he lives everything he’s written.”
Now I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as remarkable. And this seems to be the consensus of people writing about his impact and legacy now. Those of us who knew him or encountered him, knew we had encountered a stunning soul. He was never a man out to build his brand or make a name for himself. In fact, as Philip Yancey noted in a tribute he wrote, in terms of public speaking, Eugene defied popular wisdom and convention (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/evangelicalpulpit/2018/10/farewell-eugene-peterson-philip-yancey/ ). He didn’t have what one would think of as a highly charismatic persona–nothing flashy that we should be drawn to him–except he had a weight, substance, and a gravitas combined with a deep wellspring of joy. He wasn’t out for approval. Most of us sensed in his presence that we needed to sit at his feet, quiet down a little, and learn. He had things to teach us. He still does.
What are you going to practice or begin again at in the light of this, or any, race well run? We have been given a rare glimpse of the life of a humble, “simple” man. Most of the people living as Uncle Gene did aren’t ones we get to see. Most of these people don’t have autobiographies, biographers, interviews you can find on YouTube, or audio lectures (head to Regent College’s audio website for some free downloadable lectures through the end of Nov 2018 https://www.regentaudio.com/collections/eugene-peterson). Most don’t have a stack of books and a biblical translation from which others can catch a glimpse of who they were as persons. But in my uncle’s case, we are blessed to have this strange juxtaposition of Gene–simple, yet famous–to see, learn from, and use as an example to examine our own ways of life.
How do you want to live more authentically, simply, creatively, and faithfully? What does your long obedience entail? I know for most of us it is not full on biblical translation, pastoral writing or answering thousands of letters, one by one by one. That is not the point. It never was. The point is, where are we rooted? What is it that is in front of us to do? Where is it we are being asked to show up, again and again…and again? What does our faithfulness look like? I leave you with a hefty chunk of words from the man himself in his introduction to The Jesus Way. If you make it through it, you will see the man and a core piece of his message:
My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living “in Jesus’ name.” But the ways that dominate our culture have been developed either in ignorance or in defiance of the ways that Jesus uses to lead us as we walk the streets and alleys, hike the trails, and drive the roads in this God-created, God-saved, God-blessed, God-ruled world in which we find ourselves. They seem to suppose that “getting on in the world” means getting on in the world on the world’s terms, and that the ways of Jesus are useful only in a compartmentalized area of life labeled “religious.” This is wrong thinking, and wrong living. Jesus is an alternative to the dominant ways of the world, not a supplement to them. We cannot use impersonal means to do or say a personal thing–and the gospel is personal or it is nothing.
In this matter of ways, the how of following Jesus and taking up with the world cannot be depersonalized by reduction into a how-to formula. We are involved in a highly personal, interrelational, dynamic way of life consisting of many elements–emotions and ideas, weather and work, friends and enemies, seductions and illusions, legislation and elections–that are constantly being rearranged, always in flux, and always in relation to our very personal and holy God and our very personal (but not so holy!) brothers and sisters.
Peterson, Eugene. The Jesus Way. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. pp.1-2.
Ways and means permeate everything that we are in worship and community. But none of the ways and means can be compartmentalized into functions or isolated as concepts apart from this comprehensive biblical and Trinitarian world in which we follow Jesus. They permeate everything we are and do. If any of the means we use to follow Jesus are extraneous to who we are in Jesus–detached “things” or role “models”–they detract from the end of following Jesus. Do our ways derive from “the world, the flesh, and the devil” of which we have been well warned for such a long period of time? Or do they serve life in the kingdom of God and the following of Jesus in which we have been given, historically and liturgically, a long apprenticeship?