The Man Who Saved My Life Died Today

Author, pastor, and theologian Eugene Peterson died today. The same man who saved my life. Let me explain. 

Like most young guys coming out of school working their first “real” job you’re clueless but pretend everything’s fine. Fake it until you make it they say. 

Well I faked it, but didn’t make it. I was a young pastor excited to serve the church and see people coming to know and mature in Jesus. Excited to see our community serve our neighbors and watch our city transformed with a renewed hope in God. My own conversion experience was so powerful and unexpected and amazing. I wanted the word to “taste and see the Lord is good.”

But as I began my vocation in pastoral ministry, I didn’t like what I saw. My first boss treated me like trash. They squelched my voice in meetings when I suggested change. 

The church seemed more concerned with budgets and how many people filled the pews each week than with faithfulness to God and his word and love for his people. More concerned with their navels and insider church politics instead of the people in our communities who were hurting and not yet disciples of Jesus. 

The church felt more like a business and less like a family. 

That is when a seasoned Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson saved my life. 

This small and humble Charismatic-turned-Presbyterian from Montana showed me a compelling and different approach to life and ministry. Instead of a hurried and frantic business-like approach to pastoral work. He fought for a prayerful and with-the-people approach. Peterson showed me marketing and business tactics would have to submit to Word and Sprit. Workaholism would have to submit to Sabbath. 

Peterson taught me how to read the Scriptures and pray. How to take a day off and be still and silent and play. 

Eugene didn’t save me from a burning building or separation from God. He saved my soul from the frantic pace and faulty ideologies the church often buys into and gave me a fresh vision for what the Bride of Christ could be. 

Years later after devouring dozens of Peterson’s books I met him in person. He came to our seminary and did a lecture on pastoral ministry. He was not a dynamic speaker, and I was shocked at how ordinary he was. 

Despite Eugene Peterson’s unassuming demeanor and lack of dynamic communication skills. Peterson was magnetic for different reasons. He was a good listener. He acted as if you were the only person in the room. Each question we asked Eugene he would give a calculated, wise, and thoughtful response. Like a wise sage trying to counsel a wayward son. 

Peterson taught me ministry is primarily about people. Treat them with respect. Listen and don’t do all the talking. That is hard for someone like myself who often has diarrhea of the mouth and is anxious to get to the next thing.

Another gift from that seminary lecture fourteen years ago was something he said about pastoring a church and doing conferences. He said he never wanted to pastor a church or do a conference with over three hundred people. Why? 

He wouldn’t know all their names. He felt you wouldn’t be able to have a good conversation and interaction in large crowds. Three hundred people was the max.

Sounds like Jesus. 

Jesus changed the world with twelve disciples and only when the crowds emerged did they leave disappointed when he challenged their commitment to follow him. 

In a culture that values bigness and flashy over the faithful and fruitful Eugene Peterson was a gift and still is. He literally saved my life. 

If I would have never picked up a Peterson book, I’m not sure I’d still be a pastor. His vision for life with God and vocational ministry looms large in my vision for the church I lead and the legacy I hope to leave. 

I continue to come back to his books, essays, and poems. What he wrote thirty years ago is still relevant today. The same problems we face in the church today are the same ones he dealt with. Nothing new under the sun, I guess. 

I’m saddened today because Eugene Peterson left us. Maybe selfishly I’d hoped he’d had written one more book or essay or done one more interview. Something to gleam more wisdom from the small man from Montana. 

But I’m not sad for him. I’m jealous. Peterson leaves us on the spinning ball called earth with broken bodies and disordered loves. Eugene now lives and sees and knows nothing of sin, pain, and sorrow. What we all long for. He sees the God he wrote about and prayed to and preached about for 85 years. 

I’m also saddened that more pastors and people in the church have not listened to this wise, godly, and sweet man’s counsel. Too many pastors and leaders and dad’s and mom’s and kid’s have burned out and flamed out and made a mess of their lives because of the seductive nature of our culture. 

Believing external achievements are equivalent to our contentment and joy in God or related to the health of our soul. Peterson unearthed the lies of the Enemy and the world for what true contentment looked like. He found it in the Messiah and he found it in relationships. 

Relationship with God, family, church family, and neighbor. People are not widgets and formulas we try to fix. Image bearers are gifts from God we’re called to love and serve. Peterson lived his life for what mattered and would last. 

I don’t give all the credit to Peterson for saving my life. He wouldn’t want it that way. I have many mentors living and dead to thank for their wisdom and encouragement over the years. But Peterson is still is a distant mentor who I will continual come back to for the reminders I often need. 

Like the best thing you can do for the church is stay faithful to Scripture, pray for your people, and be with them. Simple, but often hard to pull off. 

I’ll come back to Peterson when I need to be reminded to take a day off, Sabbath. The church and world will be fine if I turn off the phone and take a nap. 

Eugene Peterson was a great man and has influenced more pastors and Christians than we could count. He has run his race well. 

So, to honor the man, who saved my life, I’d like to share some posts in the coming months related to his work. I hope these reflections and quotes and ideas will help pass on a great legacy of Christian faithfulness in the world. 

Thanks Eugene, and we are jealous for what you are now experiencing…