I discovered Eugene Peterson relatively late in my ministerial career. Better late than never, they say. So true. Peterson has had a remarkable influence on me.
For those who aren’t familiar with him, Peterson has been called a shepherd to shepherds and pastor to pastors for his books on ministry. He was also the the author of the best-selling “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.” And if that was not enough, he authored some 30 books. Some may remember he was the speaker at the 47th annual Montana Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in 2007 here in Helena. I mention that because I was on the steering committee at the time and recommended him. I’m pretty proud of that. Peterson, a man of great faith, died Oct. 22. His final words, his son reported, were “Let’s go.”
Peterson grew up in Kalispell and had lifelong Montana connections. After his undergraduate years he went to the New York Theological Seminary. After that he earned an advanced degree in Semitic language from Johns Hopkins University. He did a stint teaching Semitic languages and being an associate minister before becoming the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland (1963-1991). Like many of us in the ministry, he failed retirement and went back to work, this time as a professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Finally, in 2006 he returned full time to the Peterson family home at Lakeside. Whether active in ministry or retired, Peterson never stopped writing. Much of “The Message” was written at the Flathead Lake home.
“The Message” was his magnum opus. It is an idiomatic translation of the Old and New Testaments. A Catholic/ecumenical edition with deuterocanonical books was published in 2013. Peterson’s goal was to put the Bible into everyday language. "My intent,” he said, “was to provide something for people who had never read the Bible before, or didn't think they could read it."
Mission accomplished. Twenty million copies of “The Message” have been sold. As a serious student of the Scriptures, I turn to the New Revised Standard Version first. But then I open the “Message” to meditate on the meaning of a passage.
Here’s an example from Psalm 27:1:
NRSV: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” That’s a solid, accurate translation of the Hebrew. It appeals to my head."
The Message: “Light, space, zest—that’s God! So, with him on my side I’m fearless, afraid of no one and nothing.” Now, that’s an energetic, if not literal, rendering of the Hebrew. It appeals to my heart."
Both are proper renderings of the psalm, one more literal and the other more expressive. That’s the secret of “The Message.” Peterson uses down-to-earth words and phrases that touch us in familiar yet fresh ways. Here’s another example from Psalm 100. Read it aloud slowly, accenting each exclamation, pausing at each comma or semicolon, and savor the exuberant praise offered to God.
“On your feet now—applaud God! Bring a gift of laughter, sing yourselves into his presence. Know this: God is God, and God, God. He made us; we didn’t make him. We’re his people, his well-tended sheep. Enter with the password: “Thank you!” Make yourselves at home, talking praise. Thank him. Worship him. For God is sheer beauty, all-generous in love, loyal always and ever.”
It’s hard to name my favorite Peterson book. “Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading” is high on my list. In it Peterson encourages us to gnaw on a Biblical text like a dog chews on a bone, turning it over, tasting every juicy tidbit, enjoying it and in no hurry. For those wanting a fancier way to describe this kind of Bible reading, Peterson suggests the more traditional term, “Lectio Divina.” I highly recommend “Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination.” With so many goofy books about Revelation being published, Peterson offers a thoughtful and refreshing look. “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society” is stunning. Considered a Christian classic, it is about finding the resources to keep going when the going is tough. Peterson’s words just before he died, “Let’s go,” reflect his resurrection faith, revealed in "Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life." Peterson has often been called a shepherd to shepherds or pastor to pastors for works such as “The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.” In short, he was a gifted writer and pastor who empowered members of the clergy as well as laity. He is well worth getting to know through his books. I, for one, am grateful to have discovered him even if late in life. His writings have touched me in deep and profound ways. Requiescet in pace.
The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired dean and rector of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Helena.