The Pastor Will See You Now

The Message that Burns in Eugene Peterson’s Bones

Larry Parsley / 4.21.21

Have you ever observed the “smile” on the face of a pastor or priest during a worship mishap? Say, a horribly mispronounced word during an Old Testament reading, or a tragically off-key solo, or a quasi-heretical comment made during an announcement about missions? My friends and I call that carefully composed expression “Minister’s Smile.” (Trust me, Reader, when I say I know that smile from both sides of the pulpit.) Sometimes those of us in the pews are left to wonder, “Is that pastor really that serene? What candid thoughts lie behind that benign smile?”

Winn Collier’s authorized biography of Eugene Peterson, A Burning in My Bones, gifts readers with the candid thoughts lurking behind one pastor’s lovely demeanor. And not just any pastor, but the best-selling author of The Message and an insightful, contemplative theologian. With wide access to his journals and a deep grasp of his published writings, Collier helps us uncover what Peterson really thought — about his marriage to Jan, his fatigue at running a church, his joy and misgivings over his legacy as a father, his disaffection with the church growth movement, his too-frequent indulgences with his friend Jim Beam, his desire to be more “pastor than policeman” when it comes to doctrine, and his struggle to maintain the twin vocations of pastor and writer.

The book follows Peterson, the butcher’s boy, spellbound by the Bible stories embellished by his mother (a Pentecostal lay preacher) through eight decades of ecclesiastical life. The reader sees church through his eyes, from famed mid-20th century Madison Avenue Presbyterian (where he attended as a seminarian) through the suburban Christ Our King he founded and pastored during the last third of the 20th century. After his retirement from official pastoring, we see him nurture future pastors at Regent College and then, along with Jan, host a virtual Montana Bed and Breakfast for those seeking counsel or spiritual direction.

All along the way, Peterson lived and proclaimed a vision for the “unbusy pastor”:

My father was a butcher. When he delivered meat to restaurants, he would sit at the counter, have a cup of coffee and piece of pie, and waste time. But that time was critical for building relationships. … Sometimes I’m with pastors who don’t wander around. They don’t waste time. Their time is too valuable. … To be unbusy, you have to be disengaged from egos — both yours and others — and start dealing with souls. Souls cannot be hurried.

Anyone will find plenty of grace notes to reward a reading of this beautiful book. You may find yourself intrigued by Peterson’s early attempts to translate Galatians into the dialect of suburban Christians whose minds have been shaped by the American way more than the Jesus Way (an early version of what would become The Message). You may giggle as he writes “FD” in a two-hour block on his pastoral calendar three times a week so that he can leisurely read the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky! The six pages which unfold the lovely, unlikely friendship between Peterson and Bono may be worth the price of the book.

Peterson believed that the grace of God saturated our chaotic rhythms. To him, God was not a lofty ideal toward which we aspire, but the opposite. Life with this God was somehow simultaneously as unexpected as a Montana thunderstorm and as commonplace as a gentle canoe ride across Flathead Lake.

Peterson’s The Message has served as holy leaven in both my preaching and my prayer life. His works on the Psalms and spiritual theology, along with his dogged pursuit of an atypical vision for the modern pastoral life, have sustained me for decades. Peterson’s imaginative preaching, spring-fed by poets and novelists, has provided an alternative to the glib self-help sermons which began to gain market share right as my pastoral career was launching. Now, thankfully, I know much more about the true thoughts lurking behind Eugene’s famous smile.