For those that know of Eugene Peterson‘s work and have felt the impact of his life spent as a pastor-theologian, you probably already know that he passed away earlier this week. Christianity Today has a nice write-up (see here), and so does The New York Times. I won’t attempt to retell his story but will maybe say a note about my story with him. My first encounter with Eugene was a book in his pastoral series, Under the Unpredictable Plant–a book that transformed my image of what biblical reading could look like. It also, to be fair, was the beginning of my exit from traditional church ministry. As I read his pastoral series, I knew I could not be a pastor in the way the North American church imagined it, and until I had matured and deepened in faith.
I still haven’t, unfortunately, seen the church’s transformation or my own. But when I was living in rural Japan, I took one of his distance ed courses from Regent College. It was called Soulcraft, and with his gravelly voice and slow imaginative style, Eugene led us through Ephesians, looking for the roots of spiritual direction.
It was in that course that I read his Long Obedience in the Same Direction, a bit of an evangelical classic now as it treats the Psalms of Ascent. But the real encounter for me was Frederick Buechner, whose memoirs helped me recover and reimagine a vocation of writing and scholarship and pastoral work after I had left the paid pulpit behind. I am forever grateful for that Soulcraft course, an essential intervention at a critical moment.
And now, some years later, I am pleased to be the one who gets to teach a couple of Eugene’s distance education courses at Regent College, including Soulcraft. Year after year I get to walk students through his materials, guiding them in discussion and hearing them tell their heart-stories. It is a tremendous privilege.
And a timely one. During our second-last week of Soulcraft discussion, we heard that Eugene was not well. As the forums are coming to their end, we have heard of his passing–energetically embraced by his hopeful self but no less a loss to our world. My current Soulcraft students are sharing their wishes and thoughts in their online forum, and it is a pleasure to see. Eugene certainly had a powerful influence for the good, and I am grateful for his rooted, holistic, creational, incarnational, hope-filled spiritual theology.
I thought of posting some great quotation of his, and have some from my current reading of Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that might be worthwhile. The book is about creation, rest, community, and resurrection, so I think it would be fitting.
Even better, though, is something like this. C.S. Lewis once quipped that he wasn’t sure there was a book he wrote that didn’t reference George MacDonald. I wonder if the same could be said of Eugene and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins’ rhythmic, enigmatic, evocative poetry–poetry that makes me want to write and contemplate at the same time, as if one could–fills out Eugene’s work, rhyming with his “spiritual theology” in bountiful ways. So, I think, it is Hopkins who might best express a lift of the chin to Eugene Peterson. For Christ does play in ten thousand places, after all.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.