I was recently asked to give a few words in honor of a friend who was reaching a milestone anniversary in ministry. The best and most accurate accolade I could think to give was a description that Eugene Peterson had once taken as an insult: that he was a one-sermon preacher. Upon hearing today of the death of Peterson, I could think of nothing else that would better eulogize the preacher, pastor, and writer. He was a one-sermon man.
In his memoir The Pastor, Peterson wrote about his son, home from his university studies in creative writing, telling the older man what he was learning. The son, Leif, said, “Dad, novelists only write one book. They find their voice, their book. And write it over and over. William Faulkner wrote one book. Anne Tyler wrote one book. Ernest Hemingway wrote one book. Willa Cather wrote one book.” That seemed abstract enough until several days later, when the son said to his father, “Remember what I said about novelists writing only one book? You only preach one sermon.”
The older Peterson was wounded. After all, he didn’t repeat himself in the pulpit. He preached through the entirety of the Scriptures, with different means of handling different genres, different modes of application to his people. One Sunday morning, though, after hearing his father preach, Leif said, “Well, Dad, that was your sermon. I’ve been listening to that sermon all of my life, your one sermon, your signature sermon.” That’s why, the son said, it was so hard for him to find a church in his college town. “None of those other pastors had found their sermon,” he said. That’s what the son had meant all along. His comment wasn’t a critique of his father. It was a peek into his genius.
Peterson had a compelling vision, something persistent and coherent at his core that made sense of his preaching and his writing.
That “one sermon” of Peterson’s could be defined a number of ways. But I would say it’s a message about the way the Word of God, revealed in the story of Scripture, speaks to and reshapes the human imagination. This doesn’t imply that Peterson repeated himself; quite the opposite.
His works included a popular paraphrase of Scripture, The Message, studies of books of the Bible ranging from Jeremiah (Run with the Horses) to Jonah (Under the Unpredictable Plant) to Revelation (Reversed Thunder), and essays and collections on the pastoral life and calling. None of these books was the same, at all. They included rich reflections on Scripture, with application to the psyche and practice of persons and congregations, usually steeped in a lifetime of reading in fiction and poetry. Peterson’s prose was varied, though, not because of a varied view of his calling, but because of a unified view.
Eugene Peterson had a compelling vision, something persistent and coherent at his core that made sense of his preaching and his writing.
Two of Peterson’s best books (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and When Kingfishers Catch Fire) bear titles evoking a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem, Peterson reflects, is about a hidden congruence of life, which we only see in momentary glimpses in this life. The coherence is due to the mystery at the heart of the cosmos—namely that, as the apostle Paul taught us about Christ,
We look at his Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. (Col. 1:16–17, The Message)
That one Word of the Father, which holds everything together, is why we see, Peterson concluded, the splendid variety and beauty and joy in the world. This is why God addresses us in so many different genres, why God—as Peterson put it (citing Emily Dickinson)—always tells us the truth but “tells it slant,” circumventing the ways our imaginations try to protect us from facing the truth about ourselves. It’s also why we can suffer without nihilism or cynicism.
This manifold joy, by which kingfishers catch fire and by which God’s message rouses us out of our dull slumber of sin, was why Peterson, though no polemicist, found a persistent target in the market-driven North American church.
Cultivating a Field
Peterson saw pastors moving from church to church, often in exhaustion, and identified the problem—a sense of pastor as program director for a church that often viewed the gospel as a way to success, or at least avoidance of suffering. His answer was a paradigm shift, but not the kind found in ministry self-help bestsellers.
“The paradigm shift is not accomplished by a change of schedule, attending a ministry workshop, or getting fitted in a new suit of spiritual disciplines—although any or all of these might be useful,” he wrote. “It is the imagination that must shift, the huge interior of our lives that determines the angle and scope of our vocation. A long, prayerful soak in the biblical imaginations of Ezekiel and St. John, those antitheses to flat-earth programmatics, is a place to start.”
Sometimes those who critique the church do so not so much because of their theology but because of their misanthropy. Not so with Peterson.
This call to an interior life was, however, no call to withdrawal. Sometimes those who critique the church do so not so much because of their theology but because of their misanthropy. Not so with Peterson.
He warned against those who see congregations with the impatience of those building a shopping mall rather than with the mindset of those cultivating a field. The end result is disillusionment with the church. What Peterson saw in the church, though, was what he saw in nature and in the Bible: an imagination struck with wonder.
“The congregation is topsoil—seething with energy and organisms that have incredible capacity for assimilating death and participating in resurrection,” he wrote. “The only biblical stance is awe. When we see what is before us, really before us, pastors take off their shoes, before the shekinah of the congregation.
To Awe and Wonder
We hear much about the church, and much of it good. We hear what’s wrong with the church. We hear how to mobilize the church. We hear how to teach the church, about doctrine or missions. We hear about the centrality of the church in God’s mission. But rarely do we hear a wise, Christ-following servant speak of the church—a real, little, flawed congregation—with awe.
And that, I suppose, is right at the core of Peterson’s lifelong sermon to us. He had many things to say to us, and he said them in a wide spectrum of ways. But, really, he was just pointing our imaginations away from ourselves and toward awe and wonder—in the Bible, in the universe, in the local congregation, but all of it really pointed to awe in the presence of the One who holds it all together, a Jesus who loves us and is, in ways we can’t adequately piece together now, calling us homeward.
Christ plays in ten thousand places, so Eugene Peterson tried to preach and write in ten thousand ways.
Christ plays in ten thousand places, so Peterson tried to preach and write in ten thousand ways. He played as he worked, with the joy of a Christ-soaked imagination.
And, through it all, he pointed to the one sermon behind all the books and essays and messages and translations and memoirs: “Here he is! God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about” (John 1:29, The Message).
The exclamation points weren’t in the original Greek, of course. That was Peterson’s imagination at work and at play. The punctuation was there to point us to what was there in the words of John: awe in the presence of Jesus.
Eugene Peterson can see Jesus now. And he no doubt realizes how temporal and fragmentary his awe was in light of what he experiences now. He leaves behind the people to whom he preached and taught and loved. And he leaves to those of us who never knew him personally the example of a long obedience in the same direction and a pile of books. But with all of that he left us one sermon. How we needed it, and how we need it still.
- Eugene Peterson on the Reading and Writing Life of the Pastor (Owen Strachan)
- Should We Still Read Eugene Peterson? (Russell Moore)
- The Pastor: A Memoir (Brian Croft)