Christian reflections

Mourning Those We’ve Never Met: Grieving the Death of Eugene Peterson

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Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

When I was a little girl, my grandmother read me all the Anne of Green Gables and Chronicles of Narnia books. I’d snuggle up next to her or dump out a bin of Legos on the floor and build while she read, enthralled by tales of Prince Edward Island and Lantern Waste and characters like the verbose Mrs. Lynde and the golden, majestic Aslan.

Once, when we neared the end of a series, I commented that I couldn’t wait to read the next book.

“Oh my dear,” Grandma said, “I’m afraid this is the last book in the series. There are no more.”

“But the writer can make more books!” I chirped, my 8 year old self still blissfully unaware of human finitude.

“I’m afraid the author isn’t alive anymore,” she said, gently. Tears sprang to my eyes. No more… Anne? No more Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy? How could Lucy Maude Montgomery and C.S. Lewis, two figures who were as alive to me as my grandma was in the late afternoon Wisconsin sunlight shining in through our picture window, be… dead?

There’s a strange kind of mourning that arises when we lose someone we love dearly but have never met. Someone whose words we’ve read or movies we’ve watched or music we’ve grown to take into our hearts. It’s different than the grief that floods us when a person very physically or relationally near to us dies. We don’t weep for the loss of touch or hugs, the sound of a voice, the memory of meals gathered around the table.

But we lament nonetheless. We ache. The anguish is different, but the anguish is there.

Yesterday morning–Monday morning, the day he’d commonly used to practice the Sabbath–Eugene Peterson died. Presbyterian minister, author of dozens of books, faithful Christian, loving husband, speaker of truth. For many years I’ve considered him one of my pastors–someone willing to say hard things to those of us in ministry, to press us in the journey of discipleship.

I took a shower and cried over the loss, my tears mingling with the water and the steam. Yes, he was 85 years old. Yes, he’d had a long, beautiful life. Yes, he’d been on hospice and everyone knew the end of his earthly time was at hand. His death didn’t come as a surprise. But still, this temporal world is smaller and sadder without his presence. We are a poorer people without his voice among us.

I’ve only seen Peterson teach via videos and heard his voice through sermon links and lectures, but so many of his words are burned into my soul from hours I’ve spent with his books. His lessons from The Pastor on loving the people of God; his chastening instructions from Under the Unpredictable Plant on the consequences for sin and pride and tribalism; his refreshing translation of Scripture in The Message that helped me hear familiar words from the Bible in a completely new way.

No one lives forever. We are all finite, no matter how saintly we may be. But it’s okay to grieve the loss. Not just for me but for the church. For the world.

Thank you, good and faithful servant, for your steadfast, honest, tough, kind faith. There are still a few of your books I haven’t read, and I will pick them up in the years to come and cherish each and every page, listening to your voice from the other side of eternity.

Perhaps Peterson’s own words about the end and the beginning say it best. From The Pastor:

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. 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.

Say hi to Jesus for me, Pastor Peterson. Tell him thanks for giving you to us for so many years.

I look forward to meeting you someday.


If you haven’t read any of Eugene Peterson’s works, there’s a thoughtful, recent interview with him in Image Journal. You can also read his Scripture translation – the Message – for free here.

3 thoughts on “Mourning Those We’ve Never Met: Grieving the Death of Eugene Peterson

  1. I’m tearing up just reading this as I love The Message translation and what it has meant to so many people. What an amazing man; and the world is poorer for losing this man with a heart for God. I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t posted this blog. Thank you! I mourn along with you….

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  2. What a beautiful tribute.

    And I’m so glad I’m not the only one who does this. My husband didn’t know what to do when I started sobbing after reading the last pages ever published by my favorite fiction author.

    Like

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