Remembering Eugene Peterson – A Hike in the Woods.

ep2On Monday, October 22nd 2018, Jesus of Nazareth welcomed home a fellow shepherd. Christianity Today once called him “a shepherd’s shepherd.” Pastor Eugene Peterson, 85, passed through from this life to the next.

NavPress, publisher of Peterson’s most well-known work, The Message Bible, relayed the news this way…

Among his final words were, “Let’s go.” And his joy: My, oh my; the man remained joyful right up to his blessed end, smiling frequently. In such moments it’s best for all mortal flesh to keep silence. But if you have to say something say this: “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

Yesterday, I posted my remembrance blog and in the process invited others to tell me their Eugene Peterson stories. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a few of those responses. Here’s the first…

From my good friend, Don Follis, Champign/Urbana, IL

No pastor has influenced me more than Eugene Peterson.  On a lark, back in 1998 I drove from Illinois to North Carolina to attend a pastor’s retreat at Kanuga Camp (An Episcopal retreat center near Hendersonville, North Carolina) where Peterson was the speaker.  There were about 100 Episcopal priests in attendance, and another 50 or so of us from lots of different denominations. We had all converged upon the place to hear the inimitable Peterson talk about the life of a pastor.

Peterson read his first talk, as he did all of them that week. He was not a great orator but he was such an outstanding wordsmith I sat on the edge of my chair, hanging on every word. You had to want what he had, and I wanted it.

The first afternoon following lunch we had several hours of free time.  Somehow Peterson and I both ended up standing out on the porch of the main lodge/dining hall after we had finished our lunch. He was standing alone looking out at the lake next to the lodge so I walked up to him and asked him if he had a couple of minutes to talk about writing – “Maybe 5 or 6 minutes sometime this week.  Not long. Just sometime when it’s convenient.” I told him I had just started writing a Sunday religion column for my local newspaper in Champaign-Urbana, IL, and I wanted to perhaps get his take on what I should write and how I should go about writing my columns.

He said, “Why of course. What do you say we take a hike and talk right now?”  I couldn’t believe it.  Within seconds, the two of us headed off into the woods. We took a long hike, close to an hour, just the two of us trudging through the North Carolina forest. We got lost at one point and Peterson asked me if I had any idea where we were.  I didn’t but I knew we weren’t very lost. Let me tell you, at that point as a growing preacher and writer there was no person on earth I would have rather been lost in the woods than Eugene Peterson. When we got back to the main lodge, he suggested we sit and have a glass of wine together while we finished talking.

As we hiked, I told him I loved A Long Obedience in the Same direction, Under the Unpredictable Plant and Working the Angles. I told him I so appreciated his take on personal pastoral holiness and the way he urged pastors to take a personal sabbath each week. He thanked me for reading his books but kept turning the conversation back to me, asking me about my ministry and what it was that really motivated me. He wanted to know what part of the ministry I was really good at.

I remember the year was 1998 because it was October and he told me he was turning 66 in the following month. An article I read today said he would have been 86 in November. I was 42 that year.  No cell phones in 1998, apparently, or I’d be Facebooking a photo of the 2 of us to beat the band!  Ha… 🙂 🙂

I had written about 20 religion columns at that point. Peterson was very interested and said, “Tell me what you’ve written.” When I shared a few of the ideas, he just said, “That’s very creative.  I think you’ll be good at writing columns. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.  And you won’t have to wait around for months to see if someone wants to publish a book you wrote.  You’ll see your column in the Sunday paper.  There will be an immediacy to it that I think you’ll like.”  I took his words to heart and have never turned back. I now have written nearly 800 Sunday religion columns for the Champaign-Urbana, IL, News-Gazette.

Over the years I read nearly every book Peterson wrote, most of them more than once. And of course, his poetic language in “The Message” is second-to-none. I doubt there are 5 people in the English-speaking world with the poetic feel for words and a knack to put the Scriptures in a way that a common man can say, “Oh, I get it.”

Peterson told the pastors at the retreat that when he wrote the New Testament part of “The Message” he put his Greek text to the left of his computer screen and his trusty Revised Standard Version to the right of the screen.  “I tried to make the language something the common person could understand. That’s about it. I let my son read it. If he liked it, and he usually did, we went with it.”  That’s about it?  We all know what an incredible gift the man had with language. I found him to be as humble and self-effacing a man as you’d ever hope to meet.  I think his Romans 8 in “The Message” is nothing short of spectacular.

When we parted that afternoon and I walked back (Well, I think I actually floated!) to my little cabin to read, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I remember thinking, “What a gentle, kind man.” Many a Thursday when the deadline for my religion column looms, and I’m struggling, feeling as if I have nothing to say, I remember Peterson’s words to me 20 years ago, “I think you’ll be good at writing columns.”  And I press on.

Thank you, Don. What a marvelous story. I’m totally envious! :0) MB

If you have a Eugene Peterson story…(and who doesn’t?)…I’d love to hear it. Pastor Eugene touched so many lives, and like me, you may never have had the opportunity to meet him, but his writings touched you deeply. Send ’em my way.

BTW: Author Winn Collier will be writing a biography on Peterson. Can’t wait to hear the story!

Click here to read my “Eugene Peterson” story… 

Click here to watch a video of the Memorial Tribute to Eugene Peterson. 

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