Eugene H. Peterson died October 23, 2018, at age 85. While he is best known for The Message, he was also a prolific author on Christian spiritual formation and pastoral work. I have read 26 books by Peterson, and his writings have profoundly influenced my life and my vocation. Most of my deepest convictions about what it means to be a pastor come from him. Footnotes to the influence of Eugene H. Peterson on me appear in nearly every sermon, lecture or talk I have given, and his influence on me extends to all areas of my life as a follower of Christ.
As I’m reflecting on the life and legacy of “Pastor Pete,” here are four topics that have been particularly helpful to me from his writing.
Peterson returned again and again to the topic of Sabbath. He was emphatic that a “day off” and a day of Sabbath were not synonyms, learning from his own experience that a “day off” often has a utilitarian purpose. Sabbath, in his own words, is, “uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been doing and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week, we take ourselves far too seriously.”
Peterson understood the impulse to move on to greener pastures and confessed his own restlessness in several of his writings, but the story of Gregory of Nyssa helped him to stay put. Gregory was appointed to serve as bishop of Nyssa by his older brother, Basil. Nyssa was a small insignificant town, and Gregory protested his appointment there, but Basil told Gregory not to gain notoriety from the place where he was appointed, but rather to distinguish the place by his being there. In his own words, “All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people.” It is a deceptively simple truth, but one that mattered deeply to Peterson.
Busyness and the power of a calendar
Busyness is epidemic in American culture, and Peterson suspected that at least one reason why pastors succumb to busyness is vanity, and the desire to appear significant since “the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself — and to all who will notice – that I am important.” Peterson unapologetically saw busyness as an enemy of the Christian life.
One of the most practical things I learned from Peterson in addressing busyness is the power of a calendar. Peterson found that if someone asked him to attend a meeting on a day he had planned to write his sermon, or to spend time with his wife, someone would answer, “Well, I’m sure you can find another time to do that.” Peterson found, though, that if he answered instead, “My appointment calendar will not permit it,” the conversation stopped without further explanation. He urged pastors, and all of us, to protect our time by scheduling times to do the most important work (prayer, preparing sermons, time with our families, etc.), and then appeal to the authority of your calendar: “My appointment calendar will not permit it.” He adds, “The trick, of course, is to get to the calendar before anyone else does.”
Lastly, a family meal every evening
Jan Peterson, Eugene’s wife of 60 years, was once asked what her advice would be to parents about raising their children, and she answered, “Have a family meal every evening.” It’s a disarmingly simple answer, but Eugene and Jan Peterson knew most families do not share an evening meal together and suffer as a result.
Peterson frequently highlighted how meals were not just a means to an end in Jesus’ life and ministry, but often the backdrop of some of the most significant conversations and gatherings of his ministry. He said sharing a meal with someone mixes “conversation and calories” in a way that makes them both better.
This advice about a family meal sums up what I gained time and again by reading Peterson: he showed me things about Jesus or Scripture that I had overlooked before and gave me ways to apply it to my life in a way that was profound and practical. My family, my ministry and my life are better for it.
- Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
- Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
- Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
- Eugene H. Peterson, Living the Resurrection. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006.
- Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2011.