Eugene Peterson

The Pastor's Message

RECENTLY HAVING REACHED the inauspicious age of 42, no longer a kid but not yet feeling entirely grown up, I find myself in a decidedly reflective mood. I’ve been taking stock—spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational—as I stare with some trepidation at the unchartered future.

Obviously, my experiences of late, while not quite universal, are hardly unique. There are many terms used to describe this time of life, some less generous than others. (“Mid-life crisis” comes to mind.) “Betwixt and between” is how the Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner described folks like me, hunkered down in a “liminal phase”—on the threshold between one chapter of our life story and the next—in a kind of existential limbo. As we wrestle with ambiguity, some of us seek the counsel of wise elders, with the hope that they might steer us in the right direction.

Such was the case at a gathering I attended in New York City earlier this year, where a small(ish) group of young(ish) Christian “influencers”—pastors, writers, artists, and a host of American evangelicalism’s mover-shakers—were invited to two private, daylong sessions with the venerable author and theologian Eugene Peterson.

Best known for The Message—his “para-translation” of the Bible into modern English—Peterson is a scholar and prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books including A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Subversive Spirituality, and (my favorite) Run With the Horses.

In some evangelical circles, Peterson is a rock star. (With the gravitas of an elder statesman and elusive mystique of an artist who isn’t concerned with courting public notoriety, he is the Dylan to Billy Graham’s Springsteen.) A bespectacled, ginger-haired man with the plain-spokenness and genuine humility commonplace among Montanans, he is a practical sage and modern mystic—equal parts pastor, poet, and pioneer.

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Rob Bell: 'Surrender the Outcomes'

Rob Bell listens to a question from the audience at a conference Tuesday. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

How do you step out and take a risk — as a pastor, as an artist, as a parent, as a person — when the job description of a pioneer or a vanguard comes with the assurance of persecution?

“Surrender the outcomes,” Rob Bell told the audience at his intimate gathering, Two Days with Rob Bell, in Southern California on Tuesday.

“Surrender the outcomes of your presence, your influence, your work, your leadership,” Bell said. “They may drink the coffee. They may not. That’s just how it is. When you come to terms with this, then you’re actually free.

In other words, it’s not about you.

If, as a pastor, parent, or person, if you do what you do because you’re called to do it — without expectations, without needing a particular response, without hitching your wagon of joy to someone else’s reaction (or lack thereof) — you free not only yourself, you liberate others as well.

Doing Nothing for Lent

"Me (quiet.)" Photo by Cathleen Falsani.
"Me (quiet.)" Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

Last week, I spent a couple of days listening to Eugene Peterson share stories and precious wisdom from his 80 years on this little blue planet. 

It was a blessing of unparalleled riches to sit at Peterson’s feet (literally — I was in the front row and he was on a stage that put me at eye level with his black tassel loafers) and learn.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a retired Presbyterian pastor and prolific author perhaps best known for The Message, his para-translation of the Bible and titles such as Practice Resurrection  and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

A native of Western Montana, Peterson and his wife of more than 50 years, Jan, returned to Big Sky Country several years ago to the home his father built on the shores of Flathead Lake when Eugene was a child.

Undoubtedly, it will take me many months — or years — to digest all that Peterson shared with a smallish group of youngish Christian leaders at the Q Practices gathering in New York City. But I can say what struck me most indelibly is how at ease — content, yes, but more than that — Peterson is in his own skin. Fully present. Mellow but absolutely alert, energized, fascinated by the world and the people around him.

Relaxed — that’s it.

Lost in Translation: Eugene Peterson and His 'Message'

Eugene Peterson. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.
Eugene Peterson at the Q Practices gathering in NYC this week. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

Eugene Peterson has written more than 30 books on theology and the life of faith in his 80 years, but he is perhaps best known for the one book he didn’t write: The Bible.

Peterson’s “para-translation” of the Bible, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, was published over a span of nine years, from 1993 to 2002. And even a decade after its completion, critics still are debating the merits and missteps of his translation of Holy Writ into idiomatic, sometimes colloquial, modern English.  To date there are more than 15 million copies of The Message in print.

During the two-day Q Practices gathering in New York City this week, Peterson talked about the epic translation project he says he still can’t believe he actually managed to complete.

“I didn’t feel it was anything special when I was doing it,” Peterson said. “I can’t believe I did this. Reading it now I think, ‘How did I do this?’ It truly was a work of the Holy Spirit.”

Eugene Peterson: The Pastor on Preaching, Women Clergy

Eugene Peterson speaking Tuesday at the Q Practices gathering in New York City.
Eugene Peterson speaking Tuesday at the Q Practices gathering in New York City. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

NEW YORK CITY — Today and Wednesday, I have the privilege of attending a private gathering here in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan with Eugene Peterson, the 80-year-old theologian and prolific author best known for his para-translation of the Bible, The Message.

The two-day event, Q Practices, is part-retreat, part-seminar on the theme of how we might cultivate our inner lives in an age of epic distractions.

I'll be reporting more fully later, but wanted to share with you a few gems from Peterson, who recently published a marvelous memoir titled, simply, The Pastor, from this morning's sessions.

Peterson, who is a Presbyterian minister (now retired from the pastorate after 30 years), grew up in Montana in the Pentecostal Christian tradition. His mother, in fact, was a preacher who later founded and pastored her own church.

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