Eugene Peterson, known most of all for translating the entire Bible from the Hebrew and Greek into modern American street language died this week at the age of eighty-five. Eugene Peterson was once asked how he would like to be remembered. He answered that he would want to be remembered for being a good husband, a good father, a good friend, and a good pastor by the people he had those relationships with. But even as he was faithful in all those respects, he will be remembered for that, along with the Message translation, and much more.
Eugene Peterson pastored a PCUSA church in Belair, Maryland, roughly an hour drive from where I pastored for fourteen years. While I never met him, some of his church members moved to our part of the state and joined our church, and I remember their gratitude and love for this gentle, wise, scripture loving pastor.
Here are things that stood out to me through his books, life, and ministry.
1. He revered scripture as the Word of God, but understood scriptures was a means to an end, namely the end to build our relationship with God.
One of the devil’s finest pieces of work is getting people to spend three nights a week in Bible studies. How much do you need to know? We invest all this time in understanding the text, which has a separate life of its own, and we think we're being more pious and spiritual when we do it. But the Bible is all there to be lived. It was given to us so we could live it. Most Christians know far more of the Bible than they're living. They should be studying it less, not more. You just need enough to pay attention to God. We treat the text as if it is in a separate world of its own, apart from our lives. Yet this text reveals God lovingly at work in the world. And the intent of the text is to draw us into that world of God's action. Study is normally an overintellectualized process--it takes us out of relationships. So I guess I'm just not pleased with all the emphasis on Bible study as if it's some kind of special thing that Christians do, and the more they do the better. It needs to be integrated into something more whole.
2. He understood that religion was the great enemy of God, and a weapon used by people who are running from God.
Spiritually speaking, the self is constantly construing itself against God. That's the nature of our sin--we want to be our own gods. So we have all these layers of defensiveness that often take the form of pieties. Religion is the major defense we have against God. So how do you take people who are heavily defended against God by religion and get through the defenses? You do it by subversion. You get around the defenses. That's what a parable or a proverb does. Jesus did very little that was direct. People were always scratching their heads and saying, "What does he mean?"
The devil does some of his finest work behind stained glass windows.
3. He emphasized the opportunity to live our faith is the opportunity to live it now.
"The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at the ...moment."
4. He understood and modeled the importance of preachers who preach who need to also love and evangelize people by listening first.
"Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to them. The question I put to myself is not 'How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?' but 'How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?"
5. He practiced a personal sabbath every Monday.
After preaching and the demands of Sunday, Eugene Peterson took long walks with his wife, walks where they were silent during the walk to process the preaching, the worship over the weekend, and to center their minds on Christ.
6. He was genuinely unimpressed with himself and with the outward trappings of “church”.
"All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us."
"I will not try to run my own life or the lives of others; that is God's business."
"[Jesus] said “Follow me” and ended up with a lot of losers. And these losers ended up, through no virtue or talent of their own, becoming saints. Jesus wasn’t after the best but the worst."
"Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors."
7. He naturally loved outsiders, and confessed to the temptation of loving to hang out with non-believers rather than believers.
"Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders."
8. He got the Gospel and lived it out in a disarmingly authentic way.
"There must be Someone in heaven who knows the truth about me, in highest heaven, some Attorney who can clear my name — My Champion, my Friend, while I’m weeping my eyes out before God. I appeal to the One who represents mortals before God as a neighbor stands up for a neighbor."