Winn Collier’s A Burning in My Bones, the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson, has been a sweet revelation, even though I knew Eugene, and his wife, Jan, who, sometimes, casually at least, did the talking for her soft-spoken husband. Burning, like no other book I’ve ever read, tells me a great deal more about a man I thought I already knew very well.
I was surprised to learn that Eugene’s mother was a celebrated Pentecostal itinerant and radio preacher. I knew he grew up Pentecostal, but I had no idea that as a man of the cloth himself, he was following his mother’s firm footsteps, albeit on a path of quite different dimensions.
I’d like to enter a few meanderings about Eugene and Jan and A Burning in My Bones, in every case not to add anything missing from what is admirably already there in the biography. Burning is a wonderful book about a wonderful man. By way of some reminiscing, please consider these particulars of mine as my own kind of eulogy, if Winn Collier will allow it.
What Eugene Peterson wanted to be, Collier insists, is a saint. To me, right from the get-go, he most certainly seemed one.
When I came home from the Red Rocks retreat center–from my very first meeting with the Chrysostom Society–I told my wife I’d met this lanky guy in a vest, a flannel shirt, and bleached levis—Eugene Peterson. I’d known of him by reputation (this was pre-Message days), but I had never sat beside him or certainly never eaten a morning’s eggs and bacon with the two of them. Of the Chrysostom Society members, Eugene distinguished himself, I told her, even though others (Walt Wangerin, Phillip Yancey, Luci Shaw, et al) did too, for differing reasons. “This guy,” I said, “this Eugene Peterson—he strikes me as the closest soul I’ve ever met or seen to a saint.”
Still, I can’t imagine he’d appreciate my saying that, then or now.
I’m not so bold as to believe I can determine a worthy definition of the word saint. Collier says Eugene spent hours considering the meaning himself. What I came away thinking that very first year was that he was delightfully smitten by a paradox he found perfectly joyful: profound believer that he was, he clearly took great joy in the things of this world, the flora and fauna all around, his friends, his loving wife, his Montana holy land, in prayers and good thoughts. To him it was all of a piece, as real and earth-bound as it was perfectly divine.
He struck me as something of a St. Francis–tall and thin, willowy and gaunt as good saints should be. What hair he had, like his beard, was snowy. But, unlike Saint Francis, he was not given to wild-eyed flights of spirit. He was, after a fashion, contained and solid, even, well, Presbyterian. Throughout the years I knew him, most of the short devotions he’d give during our meetings were ideas he’d drawn from the geese on the lake beneath his Montana home or the shape of a bird’s nest, memorable homilies of the perfect beauty of grace all around. His gravelly voice was surprising, given how infrequently he put his vocal cords to work. His persistently wide grin could have been branded. He spoke of grace, but had the remarkable ability to show it just as deeply.
My introduction to the group at that first meeting included their request for me to read something of mine, which I did, a long story about a friend who’d taken leave of the pulpit to drive a truck from some in-law’s business and thereby take a couple years to consider if he really wanted to continue to wear the collar.
What I wanted to do with the story was to ice the conflict myself, to bring him back, the reason being I thought he was the kind of preacher the church needed more of. I wanted to write a story that would wrestle him back behind the pulpit, and that’s what the story does.
It was fiction, but a recognizable prototype would have come driving that gravel truck right out of the story had any of Society members known the man whose story I used. Had he been there himself, they might have liked to know what he thought of being handled the way I’d handled him. Back then, I wouldn’t have shown my friend the story. I certainly hadn’t asked him to read it or begged his permission.
When it was time for this new guy to talk about himself and his work, I referred to what I felt sometimes when accosted by experiences and revelations in my own small world, real—sometimes raw–happenings that prompted me turn those events into stories with characters who had real-life prototypes.
After reading the story, I mentioned some guiltiness from the species of human trafficking I was doing, creating stories about events I couldn’t not help but hear in lives I could not help but know. “Maybe it’s just me,” I said, but soon enough the conversation warmed up enough to prompt similar confessions from other quarters. I wasn’t the only one to feel awkward about it, a moral question not unlike that which pastors face when, from the pulpit, they talk about their kids.
Romey’s Place wasn’t my first novel, but it was the first to get some significant ink, a novel in which the patterns of the yarn, although greatly fictional, most definitely came close to personal narrative.
I think my intro to the Chrysostom Society went over well, well enough at least that when I went off for a walk into the mountains for an hour to shake the intro jitters, I felt good about the story I’d chosen and the directions discussion had taken.
The concern I registered that first meeting became, from the Calvinist in me I suppose, a refrain from year to year—I wasn’t the only one to bring it up, but I continued to feel uncomfortable about it.
Madeline L’Engle was still with us back then, and I’ll never forget what she wedged sharply into the discussion. “You have to get out of the place you live,” she scolded. I don’t know that she’d ever been to northwest Iowa—I doubted it. “Writers—and artists—have to live with other artists.”
I needed to move to New York, or Iowa City perhaps, somewhere I could live with other writers, other artists. I had a good sense of how that advice would go over with my family. Whether or not the speaker is as luminous as Madeline L’Engle, comments like hers have remarkable candle power.
Eugene’s son is a novelist, but Eugene himself never wrote any fiction that I’m aware of. He wasn’t a victim of my particular sense of sin. But I couldn’t help but think of Eugene and Jan up there in that cabin in Montana, a terribly long way from New York or even his Baltimore church, few such artists for miles around.
Some years later, the subject arose once more. After reading Susan Cheever’s description of finding herself, or parts of herself, in her father, John Cheever’s, stories, I referred to what I’d read. What stuck with me was Susan Cheever’s pain in discovering random pieces of herself and her life in characters who peopled her father’s stories. She hated those bits and pieces, they made her feel less than whole—and used, as if her father was disassembling his daughter and creating her again in grotesque ways, almost a kind of abuse.
The Chrysostom Society, back then and yet today, is composed of fiction writers, poets, a few critics, and some plain old lovers of literature. My problem with using characters and reasonably approximate events and actions was not a problem many others faced. Some poets simply shrugged their shoulders; it never dawned on them that what they created on paper could be anything other than the ruminations of their own experiences. How could you not use your life—or even others, even friends—in creative work? It’s all we have to write about.
Eugene was in process of doing his massive translation, the work that became The Message. Parts of it had already been published. At one point in the conversation, I turned to him, even though I assumed the question under discussion wasn’t anything a Bible translator worried much about.
“How much of Eugene Peterson is in your translation work?” I asked him.
He smiled graciously, as he always did.
“I mean, even in translation, you have to be a part of the process, don’t you?–your experience, your life?—it’s somewhere there in the translation you create? How much?”
His answer was not what I could have expected.
“Every word of it,” he said, in Peterson style, close, clipped, sincere, punctuated solely with that smile. Then, nothing more.
I’m not a theologian. I’d never thought hard and long about a developed hermeneutic, but his response enriched my perception of what it is we’re talking about when we talk about scripture. Saint Eugene was only one of holy writ’s dozens of translators and writers. Each of them carried their own experience, their own lives, into the work of translation.
I don’t know that I had ever thought about the Holy Bible in the way I had done before he offered that short answer, and I don’t know that I’d understood it until reading Collier’s Burning. Collier fleshes out that answer by noting how Eugene thought of his work in The Message as being “profoundly personal, an encounter with God.”
And more. Collier goes on to quote Eugene’s own explanation: “No one notices or remarks on what it is that I have done in the translation—read and listened to the text with my heart, not just with my head.” And then, “Every word translated in The Message arrived on the page in the context of rhythms and syntax and diction learned on the roads of Harford County. . .with considerable composting in the humus of Montana.”
Burning helped me greatly to understand.
One of the features of our annual get-togethers was members taking turns reading from whatever it was we were working on, then fielding responses from the group, a circle of writers, some of whom had sold thousands, even millions, of books.
When Phillip Yancey was finishing What’s So Amazing About Grace? he chose to read the chapter he’d written about Mel White, an evangelical hero who had ghost-written for the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham. Already a decade before, White had taken up residence with someone new, a male someone-new. He had lived in the company of thoroughbred evangelical preachers, many of whom didn’t know what message to deliver when their friend left his wife and family for another man. Many who did know picked up stones.
When Phillip finished reading the Mel White chapter, silence sat down in the room beside us, the silence of astonishment, not at the chapter or even the Mel White story–some members of the group knew him well. What silenced the circle was recognizing the enormity of difficulties, even horrors that any such discussion would most certainly create among the evangelicals that circle of writers understood to be their own readership.
It seems to me that the first to speak was Walt Wangerin, who simply surveyed the possibilities and said something to the effect that he didn’t believe anyone in the room could say anything whatsoever about what we today call the LBGTQ+ world without triggering an explosion with unimagined fallout.
Significant silences followed, some headshaking, shrugged shoulders. No one criticized anything about what or how Phillip had written. The silence grew from a realization that the issues would tear up people of faith. It just felt, back then, enormous.
I thought that maybe especially here in the dearth of comments, Saint Eugene’s sense of what narrowed eyebrows all around would be helpful. “Eugene,” I said, “how do you feel about this whole thing?”
The Eugene I knew and Will Collier describes never ever spoke quickly, and, right then, no one, I’m sure, expected he would. He smiled, waited, looked around at the circle of friends, scratched his beard a bit. “I don’t know,” he said, in that gravelly voice, “but I’ll tell you this–not a week goes by without someone calling to try to get me on their side.”
It may have been one of the few times the ubiquitous smile fell away. No one spoke. The Yancey chapter brought most of us to the brink of controversy that would assuredly prove not just harrowing but destructive.
But then, Eugene was far more comfortable with ambiguity than most hometown believers I knew back then, and he generally assumed (a presumption many interpreted as naïve) that people of goodwill could arrive at vastly different conclusions but still, awkwardly perhaps, learn to live together. What Burning makes clear is that neither his conception of church nor his personal experience could be characterized as sentimental.
The truth was, back then Eugene didn’t know, he honestly didn’t know how he felt—and, for the time being, that was okay with him. In a world made dangerous by razor-sharp absolutes, Eugene would have much rather looked out over the placid lakeshore world beneath his Montana cabin, as would many of us.
But Winn Collier helped me understand Eugene’s hesitancy to engage in the fight that was already brewing. Eugene’s saintliness was particular to him. To him, there was always more than “four spiritual laws” and far greater breadth to our own personal and particular pilgrimages. He was reluctant in many ways, in every way, to sign on to someone else’s spiritual or political agenda. Collier quotes from a journal entry.
“I’m not comfortable with signing position statements. It seems to me an impersonal way to do a personal thing. I am a pastor who has done everything I can think of to keep what I do personal and local. This doesn’t fit into who I am and the way I have gone about pastoral work. Sorry.”
But the world he lived in–and the pastoral theology he offered in his writing—couldn’t keep him from the wrecking ball that hit the evangelical world: how, spiritually, to deal with same-sex marriage. Collier’s biography, sadly, narrates the final years of Eugene’s life as the most withering.
Collier tells a story familiar to many Christian writers: offend the piety of those who don’t share your view and true believers quickly play the God-card, make knee-jerk decisions about complex issues, and clothe that decision with what they believe is righteousness.
In an interview with the Religious News Service (RNS), Eugene was asked–after a few questions on the subject–whether he would marry a gay couple from his church. A long silence ensued before Eugene answered with one word: “yes.”
All hell broke loose. The biggest Christian bookstore chain in America issued an ultimatum: either Eugene clarify or his books would be jerked from the shelves. It would have been difficult at the time to think of any other one-word answer he might have given that would trigger the level of horror his “yes” did to that question.
Collier says Eugene, who was aging, was already showing a level of mental awkwardness at the time, but he doesn’t explain Eugene’s answer to the question the RNS asked as an example of some early onset senility. Whatever Eugene’s state of mind at that moment, Collier explains how immensely difficult it was for Eugene and Jan to stay afloat in the flood of criticism that arose once heresy detectors were powered up in the evangelical world.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, Collier says, displeased Eugene Peterson like church schism, especially the role often played by pastors. “I don’t think pastors are called to be God’s policemen,” he once wrote. But to many believers, with that “yes,” Eugene had signed himself into the darkness.
I don’t know that the outcome of this year’s CRC Synod would have been any different, but I can’t help thinking that if every delegate had been assigned to read the anguished story of the last few years of Eugene Peterson’s life as Collier tells it, perhaps the terror of synod’s ruling could have somehow been tempered.
Eugene freely admitted and even enjoyed ambiguity, Collier says, quoting from Eugene’s own memoir: “[These things] are as murky to me as to you. And I have no airtight, clear-cut ‘answers.’ The difference between us at this point, I think, is I don’t feel that I have to have clarity in order to live honestly as a pastor.” Eugene would have smilingly agreed with Anne Lamott: “the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.”
One moment when the three of us were alone in the Peterson’s room at the Texas retreat center, I saw a Eugene I’d never known before, a struggling saint.
I’d come to the annual retreat early. I was the person in charge that year. No one was yet around except Gene and Jan, who’d been there for a week, following a speaking gig somewhere in Texas. Eugene was working on something or other. Jan was just enjoying the natural world all around this gorgeous conference center in the Texas “hill country.”
Somehow, I knew they would be there. The place was empty–no meals were being served. Maybe I ran into them when I signed myself in—I don’t remember. “Come on over tonight,” they said. They had a little wine. “You know how to find our place?” The retreat had given them a cabin, not just a room.
So much of our conversation that evening I don’t remember, which likely means we sat around telling stories and laughing for quite some time; and then things got serious after taking a turn I’d not seen coming. Something must have happened—I don’t remember his telling me what that something might have been–but what I’ll always remember is an uncharacteristic burst of anger and despair.
“Jim,” he said, shaking his head, “I’ve spent my whole life trying to work at pastoral ministry, and sometimes I just can’t help thinking it hasn’t done a damned bit of good.”
It was a moment so out of character that it seemed to me it required immediate burial. I’m an unlikely spiritual director, but I told him that just a week or so before, at the funeral of an old colleague of mine, I’d heard the preacher quote extensively from Eugene Peterson, the man who’d done The Message, the man who’d written all these wonderful books about scripture, about the ministry, a moment far, far away he could not have possibly been aware. My comment was well meant, but I can’t now, nor could then imagine it did much good. Eugene Peterson was convinced that his calling, his life’s work, had been in vain, his profound anguish an open wound. He was deeply troubled. I’d seen enough of the throes of depression in my life to describe what I’d witnessed as despair.
I’ve told that story only once, and then to very good friends. I never would have told it here without having read Will Collier’s Burning. Collier quotes Eugene’s journaled prayer at the beginning of chapter 17:
“Lord Jesus: I thank you for a life well-lived. Pastoral vocation well done. Books well-written. Marriage. . .children. . .Regent. . .
But right now I feel so flawed and inadequate.
Heal my memories. . .restore me. . .create in me a clean heart.”
Collier says “To be a pastor requires immense humility and self-awareness, clinging to mercy like a drowning man grasps for a buoy.” And then he quotes again from Eugene’s journal: “The strongest sign of authenticity in what you and I are doing is the inadequacy we feel most of the time.” Yet another paradox.
Eugene was weak enough to feel besieged by that kind of inadequacy, by failures he could see even when others could not. Ironically, the darkness may well have grown exponentially with the unending waves of approval that came his way—like backstage with Bono. What Will Collier creates in his biography of Eugene Peterson is a man weak enough for despair, but strong enough to recognize it; even when he felt the depths of darkness, he likely told himself that his suffering was itself a verification of his authenticity. He wasn’t strong enough to avoid suffering, but he was given grace sufficient to keep it in its place.
Honestly, I never thought I’d tell that story. If Jan were alive, I can’t help thinking I still wouldn’t. But A Burning in My Bones authorized my telling it. Will Collier helped me understand.
At the last Chrysostom meeting both the Petersons and I attended, Paula Huston, then the Pres, out of nowhere, asked me to lead in prayer at our final leave-taking. She’d given me no warning, simply told me to do it. Eugene and Jan had been asserting, quietly, that this meeting would be their last. Throughout the weekend it had not been difficult for us to see Eugene was suffering, mentally, although he remained almost blissful. He showed the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, attended Jan like a pet, something he had done, really, throughout his life. But this weekend she had become his means of staying a part of things.
I’ve never been comfortable doing public prayer, and I’m not particularly good at it. It’s difficult to avoid pretense. I tend to side with the Savior, who wasn’t taken with the performance aspect and suggested that prayer in closets was preferable. Burning makes very clear that for Eugene, prayer was a beautiful rite and privilege. I’m afraid I don’t measure up that way, so when Paula, out of nowhere, asked me to pray before our leave-taking, I was startled and shocked and immediately tongue-tied. But I did it—I really couldn’t say no–and I think I did a credible job.
I prayed at that moment—about the Petersons, about us, about all of our lives. I wish I had a recording of what I said because when I finally climbed to the Amen, I was telling myself that what I’d contributed at the moment was neither simple nor tedious and may have even been a blessing. I don’t know if saying it that way is spiritually worthy, but I thought I’d prayed very well.
Perhaps the Petersons had brought the books along—I don’t remember. It would have been unlike them to do so, but there were dozens of copies of The Message sitting there, a sufficient number, I believe, for the whole group of maybe 25 people. The Schaaps already had a copy, and I knew we had several of the smaller editions of individual books–when I wrote devotions on the psalms, I used his versions, simply to see how Eugene had rendered what I’d read in the NIV or KJV.
But I took another copy from the pile just then. I didn’t think the books back home were signed. Eugene was sitting at a table signing.
Now let me be clear—I’m 74 years old, and more than aware of the way things thin out with the years—from hair to skin to tooth enamel. We wear out, period, which is itself wearying.
I’d spent hours with Eugene and Jan. Burning says a great deal about their penchant for hospitality, how they loved to entertain there in Flathead country, at their lake cabin. Honestly, they’d invited the Schaaps up a half-dozen times—both Eugene and Jan, probably Jan most forcefully. “Please come by sometime, we have plenty of room.”
I have a precious Christmas note from the Petersons that says he and Jan have been reading two books of mine together, aloud, and enjoying them. He’d written an intro to my Sixty at Sixty, a book of meditations.
I’m sad now that we never took them up on their offer of hospitality. I’m sure I would have loved the cabin above the lake.
When that last year I came to the front of the line at the book table, I opened the cover to the first page of The Message and laid the book in front of him. I’m sure I said some things about how we’d miss him. I tried to be gallant, and loving, and blessed. Then, he set the pen to the page, lifted it, and stopped.
It was painfully clear that he was riffling through a mental notebook of names and faces, trying hard to remember exactly whose name to write.
It could just as easily have been happening to me, but I didn’t know how to play the silence. Should I simply tell him my name—and risk his embarrassment, or should I wait for him to ask and pretend I didn’t know what was going on?
Finally, “And who again?” he said, looking up.
And it hurt, I’m sure, when I said “Jim Schaap.”
He smiled that lovely smile. Then he told me, clearly and without flinching, that things weren’t working all that well anymore. He raised his right hand, the one with the pen, and pointed to his temple, nodded a bit, still smiling, then finished the dedication.
That was five or six years ago. I was 69 years old—far beyond being shocked or embarrassed by memory lapses. That wide and saintly smile made it clear that he wasn’t either.
Still the smile. Still the silence. Still the saint.