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.

The Undertaker

Tonight I told the boys I had a new book to pick up at the library for our evening reading. A friend recommended Ferrol Sams and his tales of Porter Osborn, Jr., a boy growing up on a Georgia farm during the depression.

Wyatt was eager. But Seth needed one detail clarified: “Does anyone die in this story?”

Last Friday, we watched Where the Red Fern Grows, the new version with Dave Matthews looking right at home in those baggy overalls. During the infamous scene that shall not be named, Seth was mortified. He cried out and jumped up on the couch with Miska and me and buried his head in the covers in a futile attempt to erase the horrors he had just seen. “This is a bad, bad movie,” he said, gulping down the tears. “Why would anyone watch this???”

Now you understand why, when he heard that a story was coming about a boy and a farm, Seth wanted to know whether anyone or anything would be meeting their maker. He’s no fan of death.

Fair enough, neither am I.

Still, we’re all heading there. The line about death and taxes may be tired, but it’s true. And I wonder why we don’t talk about it more, why we don’t plan for it more, why we don’t ponder if how we are living will help us be the people we hope to have been when the time for living’s done?

On the bookshelf next to me, I have a book by poet Thomas Lynch who also happens to have a day job as an undertaker. The title alone deserves a read: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch’s first page begins: Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.

Every year, come rain or shine. And it’s the same in every town and hamlet and village world ’round. There’s nothing much more common than dying, you’d think we’d be good at it. But we aren’t, least not most of us. A couple days ago, one of my friends mentioned that he’s thinking about reading an obituary every day during Lent, the spiritual discipline of remembering who was here, who lived and who isn’t living anymore. The idea isn’t to be morbid, but to remember, to “count your days” as the Psalms instruct. The point really isn’t death at all — but life.

Eugene Peterson once said that the pastor’s job is to prepare people for a good death. When you do that, you’re preparing them for a good life. On this month when we are thinking about beginnings, let’s also ponder endings. And then let’s live well toward that.

Villification and the Way of Jesus

More often than not, I find my Christian brothers and sisters uncritically embracing the ways and means practiced by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations and causes, people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate emotions, and who then write books or give lectures telling us how we can do what they are doing. But these ways and means more often than not violate the ways of Jesus. {Eugene Peterson}

With our move to Charlottesville, our book club has fallen behind. However, Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way refuses to be ignored. A couple years ago, I heard Eugene give a lecture based on one of the themes he develops in this book, the observation that Jesus lived in stark contrast to all prevailing societal modus operandis of his day, both to the way of the Pharisees (the way of religious rigidity) and to the way of Herod (the way of power). It wasn’t only the message of these groups that Jesus resisted – it was just as much their way, the manner in which they pushed their message. The cliche has truth: the medium is our message.

However, dominant church culture has bowed at the feet of pragmatism. If it works (however that is defined), then by all means, do it. With this conviction, we baptize commercialism and individualism and every manner of gimmicky shlop in the name of Jesus. Art becomes merely propoganda. Friendship and justice and hospitality become merely bait. The Gospel is made subservient to a political philosophy or a theological grid or a historical prejudice.

At odds with all this message stands the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Jesus does not offer merely a message or an agenda or a bullet-point list of cultural ills to eradicate. Jesus offers himself, God made flesh. Jesus offers his words and his actions and his friendships and his conversations and his pains and his love. Jesus is the truth, absolutely. Jesus is the life, thank God. But Jesus is also the way, the how, the manner. It is simply a perversion of Jesus’ message if we assume that message to be codified only by theological assertions. Jesus’ message is himself, the son of God, come to save us.

All this seems timely to me. You might have noticed we are in an election year. Why do politics often bring out the worst in us? I’ve already written about the shameful smeer campain on Obama. Unfortunately (but certainly not surprisingly), it has not slowed. I continue to receive forwards and video links and alarming emails with lots of exclamation marks and capitals. A small bit of it centers on policy, fair enough. Most of it, however, maligns character, distorts positions and uses fear as a prime weapon. The Christian response is clear: none of that is the way of Jesus.

The past few weeks, I have been just as apalled at the vile and venom that has been spewed at Sarah Palin. Again, debate on policy and questions of experience are fair game. But the relentless attack on her family, the cruel mockery and elitist jabs at her rural home are, in my opinion, despicable. Of course, it bears repeating: none of this is the way of Jesus.

Personally, I am disgusted by the villification. I know that both parties have their own blame to bear. And of course both sides will claim the other side fired first (sounds eerily like Russia and Georgia). But when we begin to view the other as our mortal enemy, one who we must crush at all costs, we have truly lost our way.

I return, then, to the subversive way of Jesus. I discover that if I proclaim to be a Jesus-person, then my entire life sits under his authority: not only what I believe – but how I believe, not only what I say – but how I say it, not only the vote I cast – but the way I live toward those who cast their vote differently. As Eugene said, “Once we start paying attention to Jesus’ ways, it doesn’t take us long to realize that following Jesus is radically different from following anyone else.”

Eat This Book

I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. It’s splendid.

eatthisbook.jpg One of my growing convictions is that we have made the Bible to be something it is not: a manual, a collection of moralisms, a melting pot of proverbial wisdom, a flat historical account. I see these tendencies in the way I grasp at Scripture. I see it in the way the Bible is often taught in the church. I see it among the liberals who supposedly abuse the Bible and among the conservatives who supposedly are Scripture’s guardians.

All of us face the temptation to make the Bible out to be something we can control and manage rather than a meeting place with Jesus Christ, a meal where we ingest the Living Word, however it comes to us, whatever is served.

As Peterson says, “It is entirely possible to come to the Bible in total sincerity, responding to the intellectual challenge it gives, or for the moral guidance it offers, or for the spiritual uplift it provides, and not in any way have to deal with a personally revealing God who has personal designs on you.”

peace / Winn