I just heard that influential author, extraordinary Bible translator, and beloved pastor Eugene Peterson died. In the days to come, there will be many accolades and testimonies, all pointing to the grace-filled life of this man.
I want to add one story to the collection. I’m calling it “Eugene Peterson, When Nobody Was Looking.” Strictly speaking, I was looking. But the point is that I know something about how Eugene lived when he wasn’t “on,” when he wasn’t writing or speaking or doing all the things that earned him such appreciation and even fame.
My story comes from a time over ten years ago. I had just begun as the Senior Director of Laity Lodge, an idyllic retreat center in the Texas Hill Country. In this role, I helped facilitate a variety of retreats. One of these was a private retreat for a group of influential, successful Christian writers. You couldn’t just show up at this retreat because you had written a few blog posts or even a few books. You had to be invited personally by this exclusive group, one that included Eugene Peterson among its members.
When my fifteen-year-old son, Nathan, learned that Eugene Peterson was going to be a this retreat, he asked excitedly if he could come and meet him. Nathan loved Eugene’s Bible translation, The Message, and wanted to get “the man who wrote the Bible” to sign his book. (Yes, Nathan did get the irony of this description.) I told Nathan he was welcome to join me at the retreat.
But, when we showed up, I felt immediately awkward. Though I was newly in charge of the retreat center and the writers were effectively in “my place,” some of them regarded me as an interloper. A few were almost rude in their supercilious response to my presence. And they were even less pleased that a teenager was alongside me. I wasn’t making a good first impression on this group, that’s for sure.
A minute later, I was called away into another conversation, leaving Nathan to fend for himself. I figured he’d get Eugene’s signature and that would be it. My conversation ended up lasting for fifteen minutes or so. When it was over, I began looking for Nathan. As I scanned the room filled with famous Christian writers and poets, and one teenager, at first I couldn’t see Nathan. I figured maybe he went back to our room. Then, as I made my way through those literary movers and shakers, I saw Nathan . . . talking with Eugene Peterson. They were deeply engaged in conversation.
As I watched, I marveled. Eugene didn’t seem at all bored with Nathan or eager to move on to someone of greater stature. The esteemed author didn’t calculate which of the writers would be the most strategic for conversation. He didn’t wrap up quickly with Nathan so he could get on to more important people. For Eugene, Nathan, the least accomplished person in the room at that time, was the most important person in the room at that time.
I’m quite sure it never dawned on Eugene that he was doing anything unusual or praiseworthy by spending so much time talking with Nathan. He was simply doing what he did, caring for the person right before him, listening to his or her life, sharing his own life in return. Eugene was, as the King James Version says of God, “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). When nobody was looking, Eugene was, well, rather like Jesus.