Telling Eugene’s Story

Eugene led me down the stone steps past their kayaks and into the crawl space under their home on Flathead Lake. The cool cave carved out of the earth holds boxes of books and a collection of water air-up toys and several rat traps scattered along the floor. The traps were only mildly successful, as I’d later discover shelves loaded with leather-bound editions of The Message and rows of new hardbacks (like Eat this Book) nibbled through, these Montana rats literally taking Eugene’s advice. Stooping through the low entrance, Eugene flipped the switch and the bare 100 watt bulb flickered and sizzled. Eugene pointed to twin black metal cabinets stuffed full of letters, manuscripts, sermons, calendars, clippings from high school, college and decades at Christ Our King Presbyterian. It feels conservative to say that somewhere close to a bajillion people, every sort of person you can imagine, wrote Eugene letters. And Eugene responded to as many as he possibly could, stapling the original and his reply together and sliding them into a manilla folder. There’s a lifetime of love and craft and criticism and hope and struggle stored in that dank grotto.

I’ve spent hours in that space, rummaging through so much texture and so many stories. Over numerous trips, I’ve checked bag after bag at the airport, praying to God that these treasures wouldn’t be accidentally tossed on the wrong conveyer belt and land in some lost baggage claim office in Lithuania. I’ve even destroyed two of the Peterson’s bags trying to haul too much material home to Virginia (sorry, Jan). Whenever I’d come back up to the house, Eugene would ask, “Well, Winn, did you find anything worthwhile?” I’d smile big. Boy, did I. He always asks questions like this with genuine bewilderment. “I don’t know why anyone would be interested in any of this,” he’s said to me multiple times. “Everything has just been a gift.”

Eugene Peterson has had an immense impact on my life, and I’ve been privileged, as have so many others (nearly a bajillion), to correspond with him in letters, to spend time with him on several occasions. But when I said what I assumed would be a final goodbye to him and Jan in their living room in October 2016, I had no idea that by February I would be given the joy and responsibility of being Eugene’s biographer. For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been up to my kneecaps in research: diaries and letters and old slide reels, chatting with Eric and Leif and Karen, with the kaleidoscope of people they call friends. And now I’m turning to the actual task of writing, trying to narrate Eugene’s story, the many good years he and Jan have spent doing what the Petersons do: trying to pay attention to the holiness and the wonder of this life they’ve been given.

It seems right for me to let you know that this is the writing work I’ve been up to, and will be up to for a good while longer. This story deserves every bit of literary gumption I can muster — and then some. I hope to do Eugene justice.

24 Replies to “Telling Eugene’s Story”

    1. Mainly just conversing with him over the years and then at some point thinking I should ask (since someone was going to write it) and then more conversations. It was unexpected in many ways.

  1. Winn, you are my hero! I cannot wait to read the book. I have loved this man from afar and his writing has shaped my heart. Can’t wait!

  2. Wow, what an opportunity! To spend so much time with a legend in the Presbyterian Church gives me a goosebumps! He may be retired, but he’s a really progressive and compassionate person. So accomplished that he wrote his own version of the bible!

  3. Thrilled for you and all of us because the Petersons chose just the perfect person to tell their story. What a wonderful adventure you are on. Cannot wait to read and learn more about Eugene and Jan and their lives of holiness and wonder! Thank you!

  4. Such a good, good thing, Winn. I am grateful for and to you both, in more ways than I can possibly list (like a bajillion, I’m sure!). Enjoy this task — and it is a gigantic task. Looking forward to the end result and, hopefully, a few updates along the way about what this process means for you, in you, and to you. Peterson has been a primary influence on me for years and years — what a treat that the author of my favorite book of the last couple of years is now working on telling us his life. Go to it, man.

  5. Winn, It is an honor to be asked to write for someone you admire so much, but, I have read your words and I am saying that Mr. Eugene knew what he was doing! You have a way of telling a story that lets your reader use all his senses and hunger to read what you write. I have told you before, my Bible is full of sayings from you! Like,” live well, love others.” I use it frequently when I end a letter or card, thank you! And yes, always in quotes!!

  6. Winn, when I heard Eugene was heading into Hospice care I cried for a day. I had to dig deep and ask myself why the tears would not stop. After all, we sure know where he’s going, right? As we remember him and re-read his work and re-watch the videos, I was fortunate to land on your writings. Thank you for your beautiful messages about Eugene. How exciting the torch is being handed to you (and really all of us) to continue sharing his life’s work and The Message for all to hear.

    I don’t remember my first meeting with Eugene because according to my mom I was two years old. This “pastor” had knocked on our door to welcome us to Bel Air, MD. Apparently they did not have good “pull ups” for toddlers in the 60’s and my mom was horrified as I pranced around the living room leaving a trail of something that resembled little “milk duds” in front of this kind pastor.

    Years later in high school, I noticed Eric Peterson and some of the cool kids (like Leif) were attending Young Life and I thought I should check it out. There I met Christ and became lifelong friends with Eric and family, ultimately getting to know Pastor Pete way before he was globally known. You’re right, what you see and hope Eugene would be, he certainly was and is. He and precious Jan wrapped their arms around us as teens and have left a lasting impression on my life and faith. My family was able to sit on the famous dock in Montana a few years ago with Jan and Pastor Pete and share some precious memories, ice-tea, cookies and hugs. Unforgettable.

    I sure hope when I get to heaven, I’m in the Peterson cul-de-sac. In the meantime, I look forward to following your writings and will be praying for you as you continue on this exciting journey of unpacking and sharing the story of the most humble man I’ve ever known.

    P.S. As one of the bajillion that wrote Pastor Pete a letter, you can bet I saved and preserved the beautiful response that came back in the mail:)

    Keep up the good work.
    Your new fan,
    Karen

  7. Winn my friend—what a serendipity to open up my e-mail and read about your stories with Eugene Peterson. When I heard about his passing on Monday, I stopped and prayed for his family and reflected of a life lived in the arms of the Father. Unfortunately, too many of our friends and colleagues are being disqualified from the race they’re running because of callings and failings, but to hear of someone finishing well? I pray that can be said of you and I.

    It’s been. A minute since the last time we talked. And it’s been over 2 decades since you and I skipped class at Dallas Seminary to watch the Circle of Life and Simba. Think of you often, and so glad to hear of your upcoming book. Know you still have a friend in me (I know, another quote from a children’s movie!), but if you’re ever close to Nashville, I would be honored to see you again. Love you my friend! I can say, “I knew you Winn…”

    1. Chris, so good to hear from you. I think of you often. Remember also when we snuck over to the stadium to see the Rangers play, sitting out in the outfield with cigars as I recall. My father-in-law lives in Adams, so I should pop over and say hi next time we’re there for an extended stay (doesn’t happen often).

  8. Winn – What a tremendous privilege, and responsibility, to bear witness to the life of this man who loved Jesus so much. Blessings as you steward this book.

  9. Wonderful task you have taken on. I have always considered Eugene my pastor, via his books. He taught me a long obedience, and to eat The Book, and to love the least and to receive grace. I had the pleasure of eating supper with him once at Warm Beach and his attention to me as a person was restorative. May God bless you richly in your writing.

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