Eugene Peterson Has Completed His Long Obedience

Kate Shellnutt

Christianity Today, October 22, 2018

Family says Message author joyfully looked toward heaven as he neared death, saying, “Let’s go.”

Eugene Peterson has completed his “long obedience in the same direction.”

The Presbyterian pastor, best known for authoring The Message Bible, died today at age 85, a week after entering hospice for complications related to heart failure and dementia.

Author Winn Collier first shared the news on Twitter. “My dear friend and pastor Eugene Peterson has died this morning,” he wrote. “The lantern is out, but the joy he carried with him to his final breaths endures. Eugene is now with the Triune God he has loved his entire life. Memory eternal.”

NavPress, publishers of The Message, confirmed Peterson’s death. His family released a statement on his final, joyful days hearthside. “During the previous days, it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between earth and heaven,” they stated. “We overheard him speaking to people we can only assume were welcoming him into paradise. There may have even been a time or two when he accessed his pentecostal roots and spoke in tongues as well.

“Among his final words were, ‘Let’s go.’ and his joy: my, oh my; the man remained joyful right up to his blessed end, smiling frequently. In such moments it’s best for all mortal flesh to keep silence. But if you have to say something say this: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.'” Eric Peterson had shared an update about his father’s health status a week before, describing the author’s “sudden and dramatic turn” and the family’s decision to offer palliative care for his remaining days.

“It feels fitting that his death came on a Monday, the day of the week he always honored as a Sabbath during his years as a pastor,” the family stated today. “After a lifetime of faithful service to the church – running the race with gusto – it is reassuring to know that Eugene has now entered into the fullness of the Kingdom of God and has been embraced by eternal Sabbath.”

Last year in a Religion News Service interview about the end of his career in ministry, Peterson told Jonathan Merritt that he was more curious than fearful of death. “I have no idea how it’s going to work out. But I’m not afraid, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I’ve been with a lot of people who are dying. I think those conversations are some of the best I’ve ever had. These are people who have lived a good life and who have embraced their faith. They’re not afraid.”

Peterson’s Bible paraphrase and writings on spirituality inspired evangelical leaders and laity alike. CT had described him as a “‘shepherd’s shepherd’—a pastoral writer who aims to keep Christian leaders grounded in robust biblical theology amid the din of shallow preaching aimed at self-improvement and megachurch marketing campaigns to ‘do more.’”

He was the author of more than 30 books, including the bestselling A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, where he explored discipleship and perseverance in the Christian life.

“Resurrection does not have to do exclusively with what happens after we are buried or cremated. It does have to do with that, but first of all it has to do with the way we live right now,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, The Pastor. “But as Karl Barth, quoting Nietzsche, pithily reminds us: ‘Only where graves are is there resurrection.’ We practice our death by giving up our will to live on our own terms. Only in that relinquishment or renunciation are we able to practice resurrection.”

The Message was the second title in the history of NavPress to sell more than a million copies, and has gone on to sell 20 million.

“How does this Book, this Bible, reveal The Message of love to us? Is there a special God language to convey this special God love? Just what kind of Book is this? And how does the way this Book is written control and shape and affect the ways in which we read and understand it?” he said in an interview in 2002, when the complete paraphrased version was released. “These are important questions because the way The Message of God’s love comes to us is exactly suited to the way God loves us.”

Peterson’s influence among the church extended long after his nearly 30-year tenure as pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian in Bel Air, Maryland. His popularity famously reached U2 frontman Bono, and the two appeared in a film about the Psalms in 2016.

“I discovered Eugene Peterson’s The Message through the Psalms,” Bono said. “In the dressing room before a show, we would read them as a band, then walk out into arenas and stadiums, the words igniting us, inspiring us.”

Christian leaders shared brief tributes as word of Peterson’s death spread on social media.

“God has used your exceptional writing skills to deepen and revitalise the spiritual lives of many,” wrote Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston. “And God has used the fruit of your pen to deeply influence me.”

Peterson, raised in the Pentecostal church and ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), taught at Regent College and held degrees from Seattle Pacific, New York Theological Seminary, and Johns Hopkins University.

In their statement, Peterson’s family thanked supporters for their prayers during the pastor’s final days. They plan to livestream his funeral, to be held at First Presbyterian Church of Kalispell, Montana, but have not set a date.

Last year, CT published an excerpt from one of Peterson’s final works, As Kingfishers Catch Fire. “The story of our faith, our very existence, begins and ends with joy,” he wrote. “… Joy at the beginning, joy at the end, joy everywhere in between. Joy is God’s creation and gift. No authentic biblical faith is conceivable that is not permeated with it.”

His family saw Peterson live that divine joy through his final moments on earth.

“With full and overflowing hearts, we give thanks for the gift of his life,” they stated, “knowing that his joy is now complete.”