Today friends and family gathered at a small church building in Kalispell, Montana to honor the life of Eugene Peterson. His body rested in a simple wooden box with a cross laid on top. There were stories of lives altered, hymns and many readings from the pages of The Message. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity for my life to intersect with Eugene’s.
We sat nervously at the restaurant waiting for our hero to show up. It was one of the strangest moments of my life. Three young pastor-writers were about to meet a man we felt we already knew. We’d ingested his honest reflections of scripture and ministry and life. We had journals chock full of questions to ask him. I had only one fear about our excursion with Eugene Peterson; that I would be disappointed by the man behind The Message.
It was not an anomaly to get an invite to Eugene and Jan’s beautiful home on Flathead Lake in Montana. My brother had the privilege of working for NavPress during the inception of The Message, continued their relationship through letters and stayed with Eugene and Jan for a few days. Pastor friends shared about their conversations on the Peterson’s back porch. Old friends visited them often. Their home was an outpost for hospitality and a refuge from the frantic pace of life. Their guestbook was a prized possession I had the honor of signing.
We lobbed questions to Eugene in the living room. He pensively responded with a careful mixture of care and truth. We talked about life and hiking and the church and Montana and the chaotic beauty of family. He told us how he turned down Bono for a visit because he was “far too busy” translating The Message (later he discussed The Psalms with Bono at his home). Eugene and Jan gave us their full attention, only pausing to take a phone call or two from a grandchild. He showed us his beautiful office perch where he poetically translated The Message and penned scores of other books.
Perhaps my favorite moments were at the local brewery. Over an IPA Eugene talked about his fragility. Eugene said he wasn’t afraid to die, but Jan was afraid of being alone. The glance they exchanged was beautiful. They were more honest than I had expected and as real as I had hoped. These giants of the faith reminded us they were just fellow travelers in this divine journey. There was no high and mighty Eugene; just a man with a simple and profound faith.
I was far from disappointed during those few days. He was good on pages, but he was better in the flesh.
I assumed that would be my last encounter with Eugene. But a few years back I was invited to be in the room for the premier the beautiful documentary of his life In Between the Man and The Message. I walked in discouraged. I was in a fog. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to be a pastor. I wised I had stayed on permanent sabbatical. We leaned in for two days soaking in his stories and prayers for the church. He injected encouragement into my veins. I walked out ready to give pastoring another shot. Leaders around the room scribbled notes and caught quotes. His words were deep waters, but his smile said everything you needed to know about him. That smile was a window to his soul!
Both encounters with Eugene changed the course of my life. Both times I paused my high-paced living for slow-paced conversations. Both encounters were both grounding and bewildering, hopeful and disorienting. I will never forget those moments.
During today’s memorial service his son, Lief, reflected that despite the volumes of books he had written he had only one message. He preached it from pulpits, at diners, in living rooms and at church picnics. He wrote it into the guts of The Message. He whispered it to his kids before bed…
God loves you.
He is on your side.
He is relentless.
He is coming after you.
That was the message of his life. He lived it well and beckoned the rest of us to live it also. He was good at getting out of the way so we could get a good look at the King.
Thank you for your hospitality, your prayers, your devotion to Jesus and his Church. You lived it well, Eugene. So well!