Daniel Grothe: Eugene and Me — What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

Note from CM: Thanks to our friend Daniel Grothe for sending me this. He is the Associate Senior Pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs and blogs at Edging into the Mysteries. You all know that Eugene Peterson is my most beloved pastoral hero and mentor, and I appreciate this piece from another who has learned to relish Peterson’s voice and wisdom. In my opinion, the silly kerfuffle that occurred last week says more about the state of social media and the relentless evangelical rumor/opinion mill than about Pastor Peterson. I also recommend the article by Pete Enns linked on the IM Bulletin Board for a more sane perspective.

• • •

Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has been the topic of conversation the last couple days. If you have not heard anything and would like a quick summary, his literary agency has a short statement here. So, I thought I would take a moment to tell you about the Eugene Peterson that I have come to know and love. This will be a three-part series, and I’ll cover a range of topics, including his recent comments critiquing megachurches with some of my conversations with him in years past that will broaden the conversation.

Eugene and Me, Part 1

Nearly eleven years ago, life changed for me. I had been on staff at New Life Church for a year-and-a-half when suddenly we lost our pastor due to a moral failure. Lisa and I were in our mid-twenties and she was pregnant with our first child. We had moved away from both of our families and friends, and now this. It was a moment of great sadness for so many people. Thirteen months later on a snowy Sunday morning, a young man stormed onto our campus with an assault rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition and killed two beautiful sisters in our parking lot before storming into our church building where he was confronted and took his own life.

As a church, it felt like we had nothing left. As a young pastor, I was spent.

One sleepy Monday morning, I walked into a Goodwill Industries store. When I go I always have to scan the used book aisle to see if someone got rid of a gem, and that day was no different. A particular book on the shelf just wanted me to find it. It was the only one I could see.

The Contemplative Pastor.

I had never heard of it, but I saw Peterson’s name on the spine. I think that’s the guy who translated The Message Bible. So I grabbed it for $.99. When I say that book changed my life, I’m not exaggerating. I had seen my parents live the pastoral vocation beautifully in front of me, but I had never before seen it articulated like this on the page. The day I finished the book is the day I wrote a letter to thank this perfect stranger who was awakening in me a fresh imagination for my work.

But I didn’t know anything about Eugene—how old he was, what he was like, or where he lived. That meant I would need to send my letter to his publisher, which I did. “If you could get this to Mr. Peterson, I would be grateful. But if you can’t, I understand.” In my letter, I thanked him for his writing and asked him if I could spend a day with him discussing our shared vocation.

Truth be told, I expected that would be the end of it.

Then one day I came home from work. I went to the mailbox. Just like I did every other day. But this day was different because there it was, the white envelope—I have it sitting in front of me on the table as I type this—with my name handwritten in the most distinct cursive. You know, the cursive a grandparent uses because they were educated in a different era, and they cared about such things. That cursive. When I looked in the top left corner of my envelope, I saw “E Peterson, Lakeside, Montana.”

Time stopped.

“Dear Daniel, Yes, I would be willing to spend a day with you here in Montana. But not so fast.”

But not so fast.

He went on: “I think it would be better if you spent some time thinking about what is involved. Why don’t you take some time to reflect on what ‘pastor’ exactly means to you. And what ‘church’ means to you. Write a couple of pages on each, pastor and church, and send them to me.”

As I’ve reflected over the last nine years of interacting with Eugene Peterson, I’ve come to think of those four words as some of the most important words ever spoken to me.

But not so fast.

Speed is one of the gods that reigns among the American pantheon. We want what we want, and we want it now. Get rich overnight. Lose weight overnight. Fix your ailing church overnight. You name it, the formula for fast is being sold by someone. Amazon Prime is the natural result of such a society, and I admit that I love Amazon Prime. But that impatience has seeped into the life of faith. We are in trouble when we start thinking a mature life in Christ comes quickly.

Eugene has become an icon of faithful presence in a world that runs on adrenaline.

Pastoral ministry is slow work. Pastoral work is inter-generational work, dedicating a young girl to the Lord one week and burying her great-grandparents the next. Pastoral work is work that takes a lifetime. Stay in one place for as long as the Lord will let you, pour your life into the people in front of you, and watch the Kingdom come. And when I get tempted to take shortcuts, I hear Eugene: not so fast.

The world we live in celebrates a lot of flashy things while hidden faithfulness is often overlooked. Eugene is a man who lived and wrote in virtual obscurity until The Message erupted onto the scene. “It only took Eugene Peterson 65 years to become an overnight success.” That’s what I’ve told all my friends. Have you ever heard of Bel Air, Maryland? Exactly. I hadn’t either until Eugene told me he pastored there for 29 years. His book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction has become the epigraph for his life and it has become the goal for many of his readers.

As one looks around the American landscape of local church ministry, it is difficult to find people who have been in it for the long haul, whose love for God and his church is still vibrant, whose familial relationships are still intact, and who are full of innocence and joy. Eugene and Jan Peterson are two people who meet this description.

Some people this week have been frustrated with Eugene for what they see as a sloppy interview and/or a muddled retraction. I can understand that. I’m guessing Eugene and his publicists were thinking this would be a routine interview for his final book before riding off into the sunset. But it wasn’t easy. And he’s slowing down. He’s almost 85. This is how life works, people.

Grandparents make their children and grandchildren possible. They carry them, pray for them, cover them in their weakest and most vulnerable moments, and see them through into seasons of fullness. Eugene has done that for so many of us. But while grandparents make children and grandchildren possible, there comes a moment when the roles are reversed and children and grandchildren must carry their grandparents. That is where we are right now.

Eugene has spent the last 60 years taking care of other people. Now it’s our turn to honor and take care of him.

43 thoughts on “Daniel Grothe: Eugene and Me — What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

  1. Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Jen Hatmaker got her kicked out of Lifeway stores, too. Should we denounce Merritt as Fake News? Denouncing homosexuality doesn’t seem to be cutting it.

    Eugene Peterson’s answers to Merritt’s questions were not the ramblings of a senile man. Don’t pin that on Peterson, or irresponsibility on Merritt by suggesting he committed elder abuse.


  2. Eugene Peterson used “Not so fast” seven times (the perfect number?) in The Message:

    1 Samuel 9:6
    1 Kings 22:16
    2 Chronicles 18:15
    Psalm 75:2-4
    Hosea 12:9-11
    Romans 9:14
    James 2:18


  3. Yes, as the title indicates, the whole point of the Message is that you understand/see the MESSAGE, and not get bogged down in the details. It’s about seeing the wood for the trees.

    Ironically, the people raging against it are the ones who would most need this ‘step back’ from ferocious literalism (littleism).


  4. or don’t pick period 🙂
    remain an observer because there is
    no reason to be manipulated by anyone into ‘choosing’ “A” or “B”


  5. And just because of the fun irony, I’ll give you Peterson’s take on these types directly from The Message version of Matthew 23. Read, see it applies, and enjoy…

    “Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. ‘The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

    ‘Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’

    ‘Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.

    ‘Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.

    ‘I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God’s kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won’t let anyone else in either.

    ‘You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned.

    ‘You’re hopeless! What arrogant stupidity! You say, ‘If someone makes a promise with his fingers crossed, that’s nothing; but if he swears with his hand on the Bible, that’s serious.’ What ignorance! Does the leather on the Bible carry more weight than the skin on your hands? And what about this piece of trivia: ‘If you shake hands on a promise, that’s nothing; but if you raise your hand that God is your witness, that’s serious’? What ridiculous hairsplitting! What difference does it make whether you shake hands or raise hands? A promise is a promise. What difference does it make if you make your promise inside or outside a house of worship? A promise is a promise. God is present, watching and holding you to account regardless.

    ‘You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

    ‘You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

    ‘You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

    ‘You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You build granite tombs for your prophets and marble monuments for your saints. And you say that if you had lived in the days of your ancestors, no blood would have been on your hands. You protest too much! You’re cut from the same cloth as those murderers, and daily add to the death count.

    ‘Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.

    ‘You can’t squirm out of this: Every drop of righteous blood ever spilled on this earth, beginning with the blood of that good man Abel right down to the blood of Zechariah, Barachiah’s son, whom you murdered at his prayers, is on your head. All this, I’m telling you, is coming down on you, on your generation.

    ‘Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Murderer of prophets! Killer of the ones who brought you God’s news! How often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn’t let me. And now you’re so desolate, nothing but a ghost town. What is there left to say? Only this: I’m out of here soon. The next time you see me you’ll say, ‘Oh, God has blessed him! He’s come, bringing God’s rule!’”


  6. –> “This says a whole lot more about those gatekeepers than it does about Peterson. And none of it is good. Starting with a lack of charity and grace.”

    Yep. Just as the Pharisees were the gatekeepers during Jesus’ day, so are these people today. And if Jesus is shown condemning ANYONE in the gospel accounts, it’s the gatekeepers. Matthew 23 applies to them, though they probably don’t see it.


  7. Peterson is a treasure of the church. Someone who brings the love of christ and neighbor o leadership and spiritual formation and service. It was shameful and at the same time very telling the way the gatekeepers of evangelicalism treated him for a few phrases in a lengthy interview just because those phrases had a slightly different view than the approved one. This says a whole lot more about those gatekeepers than it does about Peterson. And none of it is good. Starting with a lack of charity and grace.

    These are the same gatekeepers who can’t muster anything more than an occasionally furrowed brow when John Piper opines that women should endure abuse for a season or when John MacArthur advises parents to turn their gay kids over to Satan.

    When the tribe is out to ensure the survival of the tribe, it can get pretty contradictory and pretty ugly. Love gets lost in the battles, as does truth. And then they wonder why people aren’t seeing Jesus in their words and actions.

    Lord, have mercy.


  8. And if you present people with the stark choice of “all or nothing” best not be surprised when many of them pick “nothing”. More and more every day.


  9. The difference is that Peterson consciously tries to reflect the original languages, whereas the paraphrase simply takes the English language and puts it into one’s own words.

    But you are right, both are interpretive. All translations are, to some extent. But some employ more interpretation than others. Peterson’s interpretive effort, however, was an attempt to bring the power of the original languages to contemporary people.


  10. Ok but you’ll have to explain to me the distinction you’re making between “putting it into his own words for his kids” and “consciously rendered the resulting translation in contemporary language”. As I said not trying to be a pedant but how to distinguish between an “idiomatic” translation and a paraphrase?


  11. Actually it is not a paraphrase. That would be the original Living Bible, which Ken Taylor did by taking the English Bible and putting it into his own words for his kids. Peterson translated from the original language but consciously rendered the resulting translation in contemporary language. It is an “idiomatic translation.”


  12. Amen.

    I’ve recently led/facilitated studies on Philippians and Galatians, and have just now started Colossians. I’ve begun each of these by reading the entirety of each letter/epistle to the group. My question after doing so is, “What’s the overall purpose and message of the letter?” (The point I try to make is, “Why do we take individuals lines in each of these and make so much out of them. Take, for instance, in Colossians, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” I said, “That’s one line out of this beautiful letter. Why do we make so much of it?!”) The potential problem with “studying” scripture too closely is that it could taint the overall message.

    Another related incident…
    A couple of years ago at a Christian conference, the pastor/speaker gave a great message on Matthew 11:28-30 (probably one of my favorite chunks of scripture). I approached him afterward and asked, “Have you ever read The Message’s take on this?”

    He looked at me like I was either crazy, or maybe a heretic, with a look that said, “Why would I ever read The Message, let alone prepare a sermon from it?!” He replied, “No, I don’t use that.”

    I said, “Well, I’d probably never use it to do an outright Bible study, but it’s a great paraphrase, and Peterson’s take on Matthew 11:28-30 is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.”

    I hope that one day he’ll check it out and see.


  13. I agree it was a reasonable question to ask. The problem wasn’t that it was a hypothetical; it’s perfectly reasonable to ask someone who’s a source of advice and counsel what he or she would do if . . . (fill in the blank). The person can always decline to answer, and Peterson does not allege he was misquoted. I think he was frightened by the backlash, which I wish he had condemned. Slacktivist (see link on the blogroll) has had a couple of good posts of this subject.


  14. If you ever want to just read the Bible, The Message is perfect.

    People don’t seem to get that. I guess the Bible isn’t read so much as “studied”.

    Which..is missing the point, and is the problem.


  15. The government has a responsibility to treat all its citizens equally under the law. All its citizens.

    I’m starting to think that this is THE biggest divide between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’. For liberals, it’s just common sense. For conservatives, you are now sinning against GOD ALMIGHTY MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH DESTROYER OF SOULS.


  16. –> “Not to be a pedant but The Message Bible is not really a translation. Its a paraphrase.”

    I consistently point that out to people. And I often add, “Though I’d never do an out-right Bible study using only The Message, I LOVE it for the way it paraphrases scripture!”


  17. –> “Not much room for ‘clarification’ in winner-take-all perspectives; there is ultimately no such thing as context, nuance, etc… All those things with Mr. Peterson emphasizes are squeezed out.”

    Yep. People who insist that “we must draw lines in the sand and plant the flag for God and Truth” really, really dislike those of us who believe there’s a lot of gray area, neutral ground out there.


  18. Evangelicals “eat their own” with zeal.

    Since I left the community lo those many years ago I haven’t really kept up with all the internecine quarrels and fights. But I do note that apologist James White is currently being raked over the coals because he attended an Interfaith dialog with a conservative Muslim cleric. Now White doesn’t strike me as the least bit “liberal” and truthfully seems to me to even be a bit of a fanatic but boy howdy you’d think he converted to Islam instead of just trying to find out what they actually believe.


    If the evangelical community wants to die on the LGBT hill I’ll be glad to chip in for a memorial. The Supreme Court was not doing theology. The government has a responsibility to treat all its citizens equally under the law. All its citizens.


    Not to be a pedant but The Message Bible is not really a translation. Its a paraphrase.


  19. > as much as a clarification of what he believes

    Not much room for “clarification” in winner-take-all perspectives; there is ultimately no such thing as context, nuance, etc… All those things with Mr. Peterson emphasizes are squeezed out.

    I also found his response to be nuanced, humble, and cautious – not a straight-up “take back”. I don’t know how one would honestly read what he said in Absolutist terms; but no doubt an Absolutist can find a way.


  20. –> “I even understand Eugene Peterson taking back his answer, in order to stay a member of the tribe.”

    Maybe I’m viewing his “take back” wrong, but I don’t view it as a take back, nor as a ploy to remain a member of the tribe, as much as a clarification of what he believes. I certainly don’t think his motive was “to remain a member of the tribe.”

    It’s sad to see this happen to such an awesome model of Christ-like-ness. People can be such asses.


  21. > “you must see this OUR way”

    It is very difficult for those who insist “you must see this OUR way” to tolerate someone else who also says “you must see this OUR way”.


  22. > How did condemnation of LGBT people become such an Evangelical shibboleth?

    I think one reason was as a reaction to, and then an over-reaction to, the “being gay is okay” movement when it took on some in-your-face “you must see this OUR way” militancy. I think the rise in fundamental evangelism came about for much the same reason in reaction to, then over-reaction to, atheism/Darwinianism/evolution movement(s) when they took on the same “you must believe THIS” militancy. For some reason (human nature, anyone?), Evangelicals decided that lines had to be drawn and flags planted “for God and truth.” Secular groups and agnostics/atheists aren’t any different; unfortunately, I think we Christians are CALLED to be different, yet we don’t often show it.

    And we see it everywhere now these days, people taking the extremes as a reaction to the extremism they see coming from the other side.


  23. Appreciate the post and everyone’s comments. Good to know that Eugene has some faithful people at his back.


  24. > How did condemnation of LGBT people become such an Evangelical shibboleth?

    “become”? When wasn’t it? This was well established at least by the 1980s – so at least ~40 years ago. This has been established since before the majority of people on the planet today were born. This is an identifying characteristic of Evangelicalism.

    > I even understand Eugene Peterson taking back his answer, in order to stay a member of the tribe

    To his credit his “take back” was highly equivocal. He emphasized that every pastor is accountable within his local context and to the people he actually knows.


  25. I sort of understand the horror of being threatened by the tribe you have been a part of for 85 years, have faithfully served for the majority of those years, sharing your wisdom through the sermons you have given and the books you have written, to have the threat of that tribe turning on you for an honest answer in an interview. I even understand Eugene Peterson taking back his answer, in order to stay a member of the tribe. What I don’t understand is how the Evangelical tribe could turn on Eugene Peterson, condemning him for a one-word answer to a hypothetical question, with LifeWay threatening to ban his books and preachers condemning him from the pulpit. How did condemnation of LGBT people become such an Evangelical shibboleth? Where is the love of Christ in condemning groups of people who claim the same rights as Evangelicals, or in condemning an old man who has spent his life ministering to Evangelicals for his tentative, hypothetical support of those groups? No wonder much of the country sees Evangelicals as so utterly wrong-headed.


  26. With this kerfuffle, and Tom Wright called a heretic by the Grace for Nobody crowd…its been a tough week. Our orthodoxy….or maybe compassion,
    is shrinking.. .Jesus is still king, last I checked


  27. He is also right about hypotheicals. The world as a whole could do with far fewer hypotheticala.


  28. The interview seemed stock-n-trade standard to me; no setup involved. For a site like RNS to ask this question is reasonable.

    Mr. Peterson is right to avoid interviews and prefer written correspondance. I am sympathetic to his feelings.

    Ever been interviewed and had it written up? I have. I will avoid doing it again if possible. Conversations written down – especially if then edited – can be quite different than the conversation that happened. It is a sloppy business.


  29. I think it’s most unprofessional and almost elder abuse to set someone his age up for a fail like this.

    And it’s a disservice to the rest of us because now he (wisely) won’t do any more live interviews, which will surely deprive us of further riches.


  30. And then Peter and the disciples became despondent, and spoke among themselves, and talked of returning to their own villages. But Jesus, overhearing them, came to them and said, “Not so fast.”


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