Remembering Eugene Peterson

This past month, a man died who has a treasured place in my memory. Eugene Peterson was a prolific author who I had a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to spend a week with in Collegeville, Minnesota at a writing workshop sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education and the Lilly Endowment in 2008. At this workshop, I met several people who became friends and writing partners. We’ve supported each other through the years, and I’ve been impressed with the contributions they’ve made to the literary world. The act of sitting around a table sharing our writing and receiving input from each other was a good primer for life-long friendships to emerge, because there is something sacredly vulnerable about such an act that engenders trust and relationship.

When a master of the art sits at a table with young writers and offers their own insights, it is a humbling experience that also inspires confidence. I was in awe of Eugene Peterson when I went to Collegeville, and his attention to my own writing made me feel like I had something worth sharing with a wider audience. That is why I consider that week a treasure.

I remember my friend Magrey Devega used the week to share writings that he had composed for his church newsletter. When I first saw these entries in the writing packet all 12 of the participants received in advance of the writing workshop, I thought to myself that he was squandering an opportunity to go over some real “creative writing” that was the name of the workshop, “Creative Writing and the Pastoral Life.”  When I got to meet Magrey, I discovered just how wrong I was. Magrey wasn’t squandering an opportunity, this pastor with a true pastor’s heart was utilizing such a treasure and looking ahead to how he might “multiply those talents” among the community to which he had been sent. Eugene was similarly impressed with Magrey’s direction. The experience taught me that these words, these opportunities to share some thoughts with you, the congregation, are not to be taken for granted.

It truly is an honor and a privilege to have the role in our community of faith to share with you words that challenge, uplift, and focus your lives of faith. Meeting Magrey and having the privilege to offer insight on his communications with his congregation gave me the unforgettable lesson that percolates in my mind every time I write a newsletter article or sermon. That’s why I craft the words with prayerful attentiveness. That’s why I kneel in prayer every Sunday in the sacristy before I preach those words to 100 or so people who have gathered to hear them as part of your worship of the Living God. Eugene Peterson and Magrey Devega are part of that preparation. You can be assured that, even if the sermon may contain humorous elements that I hope you can connect with in some way, I do not flippantly consider the act of preaching. It is a treasured opportunity.

It is also a treasure when I have received words from you. The words that four of our congregation composed for the stewardship witnesses this past month, the meditation on baseball and the spiritual life that Scott Kirtley shared a few years ago at a men’s book club that I’m always reminded of this time of year, the cards I received during “pastor appreciation month,” that spoke of what impact I have on your own spiritual lives, even emails and text messages I receive from time to time when you are communicating deep matters of your spirit with me—these are all moments when we are vulnerable with each other and therefore open to the guidance and insight of each other. That is where the Holy Spirit comes in and makes the words “living words.”