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On the death of Eugene Peterson

I’ve been able to identify two different ways in which I grieve the passing of Eugene Peterson from this world. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that he is one of my heroes. The second is the fact that while he leaves behind a legacy in the form of books, and disciples, the grounding influence of his presence on the church will be sorely missed.

Loss of a personal hero

Mentors come in many forms. Some are traditional, face-to-face relationships with someone who knows you well and invests in you personally over a period of time. Others write books or create other forms of media that speak to you in ways that are formative. We never meet them, but they still impact our lives for the better.

Eugene Peterson was one of the latter for me. I never knew him personally (though I would have liked to), but his writing about the pastoral life helped to shape me and how I see the spiritual life.

“Earthy” is probably the best word I’ve found to describe the kind of Jesus-follower Peterson was. He chose to never pastor a congregation that was too big for him to know all of their names. He was passionate about making the spiritual life something that people understood to belong “out there” in the world, not trapped inside a church building.

While it might not sound revolutionary, the life of Eugene Peterson was counter-cultural, even to the church. When everything was getting bigger and more “professional” and a famous pastor was more likely to invite an admirer to a conference he was speaking at than into his personal space, Peterson did the opposite. He made space for people, even inviting them to visit him at his home, to pray and eat with him.

He lived slow, had time for people, and practiced the Jesus life in a way that wasn’t distant and removed, but embedded in everyday practices.

The loss of a godly man of influence

When my grandfather died many years ago, it felt like part of the foundation of my life had been torn out. His presence on this earth was grounding, giving context to my own identity and journey.

While I’m not as personally attached to Eugene Peterson as I was to my grandfather, he is certainly one of the grandfathers of the faith for my generation. His presence grounding and his life an arrow pointing out an alternative to the distraction-filled, hyper consumptive lifestyle that has become so normative.

I’m sad for what it means for those of us who follow Jesus to no longer have Eugene Peterson around. We can no longer look to him as an example of what it looks like to live a life oriented on Jesus, an experienced sojourner on the Jesus path.

But his loss is also a challenge to those of us who put him on a pedestal and admired him from afar. Because we can embody the values he stood for and make them a reality in a world that so badly needs them. We can choose to go slow, to listen, and to embody the life of Jesus in the midst of this crazy world. 

When Bono met Eugene Peterson
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