Eulogy

by Doug Kelly, Head of Staff

Six weeks ago, when pastor- theologian Eugene Peterson died, I lost someone. Was he a friend? No. Was he a family member? No. Had he intersected my life at all? No, though I had met him 4-5 times. What I lost was someone who had saved my ministry.

In 1987, a year out of seminary, I was frustrated. I just didn’t feel like I was doing what I was trained or called to do. One of my journals had a review of a new Peterson book, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. I had read Peterson before in his early work, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, but Peterson had this weird way of reading the Psalms which seemed extravagant.

Working the Angles was different. For one, Peterson was angry. He was angry with what his profession had turned into; angry with colleagues who he felt had abandoned their posts and abandoned him. Second, Peterson was naming aspects of my own wilderness wonderings, “What am I doing here?” 

I can still remember the first time my eyes came across this paragraph: “With professions the integrity has to do with the invisibles: for physicians it is health (not merely making people feel good); with lawyers, justice (not helping people get their own way); with professors, learning (not cramming cranial cavities with information on tap for examinations). And with pastors it is God (not relieving anxiety, or giving comfort, or running a religious establishment).”

One year out of seminary and I’d already forgotten. Peterson gave me back my calling and some incredibly valuable tools, the key angles, the key invisibles of ministry: paying attention to God in scripture, paying attention to God in prayer, and paying attention to God in other people’s lives. 

I read Working the Angles annually for 15 years. A week after Eugene’s death, I read it again. 

Since 1987 I’ve read nearly everything Peterson wrote, save a few volumes. A lot of people when they hear the name “Eugene Peterson” think of the MESSAGE Bible translation. Some think of his many books on the psalms. (By the way, I went back to read A Long Obedience, which I had tossed aside, and came to discover a scholar who wasn’t being overly extravagant with Scripture, but rather was using his imagination to unpack passages that he had lived with, feasted upon, and explored in the original languages for decades).

Some people appreciate Peterson’s work on prayer; his Answering God is stellar. Others value his commentaries; Reversed Thunder, his fresh reading of Revelation is a classic. For me, however, it’s his books and articles on this profession of pastoring that saved me in my ministry. 

Of course, I learned more than how to be a pastor from Peterson. He exposed me to novelists I’d never heard of. He taught me how to use the English language. He made the Bible exciting again and Peterson could make me laugh.

Thirty-one years after reading Angles I have never regretted being a pastor. It has been such joy for me. A lot of credit goes to three healthy churches to serve in. A lot of the joy is God’s grace. A lot of it is the intellectual and creative challenge of the work itself. Peterson once shared at a conference that “being a pastor is one of the last creative professions left.” But a lot of the joy I owe to Eugene. So my good word, my eulogy for this theologian, this writer, this pastor to pastors is “Thank you.”