This past week I was privileged to spend a week hosting one of my writing and pastoring heros. David Hansen is now retired, but he has led a very wonderful life as a pastor and writer. The thing that struck me as we spent time together was how surprised he was at the impact that he has had on pastors all over the nation through his writings.
I asked him permission to share this with you. Here is Dave’s tribute to one of his mentors:
The Eugene Peterson I knew for over thirty years was a sanctified genius who gave what he had to the work of the Kingdom of God including whatever it meant to be a fully Christian man to anyone he happened to be with. The fact is that Eugene was a better man in his personal relationships than he was in his very best writings, sermons and lectures. The result of this is that we can all aspire to be as good as Eugene was when he was at his very best.
I met Eugene and his amazing wife Jan in the late 1980s. I was pastoring two little churches in the Bitterroot Valley, South of Missoula, Montana. One day I received a phone call from my brother-in-law, Bruce Becker, who at the time was pastoring a Presbyterian church in northwest Ohio. He told me he had attended a one-day seminar led by a Presbyterian pastor named Eugene Peterson and he said, “You and he read a lot of the same stuff, he likes Karl Barth.”
One of the two churches I was pastoring was half Presbyterian and half American Baptist, (the latter being my denomination) so I looked around in the office and sure enough I found a booklet listing Presbyterian churches and pastors in the U.S. I looked up Eugene and mailed him a letter to his church in Bel Air, Maryland. About a month later I received a letter from him from an address on Flathead Lake! (It’s about two hours north of where we were living at the time.) He invited me up to spend the night with him and Jan. So I drove my powder blue ’65 Volkswagen Bug to their place on the lake. I arrived at about 10:30 in the morning. Following a warm welcome from both, Jan went to the kitchen to prepare lunch while Eugene and I talked books.
We enjoyed a delicious conversation about authors common to both of us, including Karl Barth, P.T. Forsyth, and Baron von Hugel. At one point I mentioned that I was discouraged in my pastoral counseling, (I was pretending to be a psychologist). He asked me if I had ever heard of something called “Spiritual Direction”. “No” I responded. He said he had tried the “be a psychologist” route himself and had failed miserably but there was another way. He talked about pastoral care which was a “listening for God’s work” in the life of the parishioner which included cross experiences as well as resurrection. It sounded wonderful. This non-method valued the life of the Cross and Resurrection in the person’s life. Jan called for lunch, and as I rose from my seat Eugene said emphatically, “read St. John of the Cross”.
Lunch with Jan and Eugene was delicious food and fellowship. At one point, Jan asked me “Which one of Eugene’s books do you like the best? I said, “I’ve never read anything by him.” She looked stumped, he laughed out loud. Thus, began a thirty-something year journey with two very dear people.
When Eugene wrote his autobiography, he entitled it simply, “The Pastor” a peculiar title considering all the things he’d done in his life. He appreciated his years lecturing and mentoring students at Regent College, but he never lost track of what he was first and foremost vocationally – a pastor. He communicated to me several times over his years at Regent that on a level basic to what God had made him to be, he felt out of place at Regent College.
One day, fairly early in his Regent years, I called him and asked him in a smart-alecky kind of way, what it was like “being a professor”. “It’s terrible”, he said “I don’t know who I am here. I’m a pastor, not a professor. I’m a preacher, not a lecturer.” So I asked him, “What’s the difference between being a professor and being a pastor.”
He answered immediately (he obviously had thought about it). “Professors are the “CPA’s (certified public accountants) of the Kingdom. They work to purify, categorize and store the truth. We pastors use the truth like a football. We run with it try to score with it, we get tackled sometimes and kick it through the goalposts.” I thought: that is exactly what I do and what I love doing. That’s not to say that he did not enjoy his time at Regent. Of course, he did – but he never felt like he made the transition from being a pastor to a “professor”.
One time in the early 1990’s he mailed me some translations he’d made of some Psalms. In his letter, he intimated that the voice he was using in these translations were something he might publish someday. The first translation was Psalm 1. The last clause of Psalm 1:1, the old translations say something like “…nor sit in the seat of mockers.” He had translated that clause, “…or go to smart-ass college.” I suggested to him that he might not get that line published!
Eugene, a man from his beloved home state of Montana, knew just how someone might say it there. In fact, there are a number of “Montanaisms” in The Message. I can hear a Montana accent in it frequently. It definitely doesn’t make it less valuable than translations by New Testament and Old Testament scholars where you can hear the “accent” of the professional academy.
One time, Eugene got really mad at me and I deserved it. Here’s how it went. I had been blessed in that in our frequent dialogs by phone and letter, Eugene thought enough of my thoughts about pastoral ministry that he suggested I should try out writing for publication. He gave me a double blessing in that he gave my name to InterVarsity Press and Leadership Journal as someone who might be able to publish with them.
As it turned out, the break he gave me worked out. I began writing for Leadership, and in 1994, my first book, The Art of Pastoring, Ministry Without all the Answers came out with Inter-Varsity Press. In less than a decade, I had four books out, scads of articles, and speaking gigs galore. Then the writing stopped. My publishers were still enthusiastic about my work and prodded me, but I had nothing more to write about. I tried again and again but I was done. I was frustrated. One day, my frustration poured out on him. I called him (he was at Regent College by that time) and told him my tale of woe, ending with – “I guess from now on I’ll just be a pastor.” (I am really embarrassed to admit that I said that but I really did say it.)
SILENCE over the phone. I knew I was in for it. “ONLY a PASTOR” he exclaimed stridently.
“That’s the highest calling there is…you can’t go any higher than that!” “You’re right,” I admitted…sheepishly and ashamedly.
I bring this shame-faced story up because it gives us an important insight into how he saw himself. When he titled his autobiography The Pastor he gave himself the highest title and the highest honor he could think of. Not “The Professor” not, “The Writer” not, “The Bible Translator”, but “The Pastor”, that’s where his heart always was.
Eugene Peterson was a pastor and that’s really how he thought about himself. It’s a truth he never abandoned about himself, when he was at Regent, and when he was translating The Message and after that and into retirement and as he and his amazing wife Jan kept pastoring people through hosting people at their place at Regent and their home on Flathead Lake in Montana.
If you need more evidence that Eugene thought of himself first and foremost as a pastor, it is reported by his son Eric, a Presbyterian minister in Spokane, Washington, that one of Eugene’s last verbalizations came when he said, out of a stupor, out of the blue, “It seems so sacred that they trusted me so much.”
This line means so much to me personally, right now, because this past January 2018, I retired after forty years in the ministry. I reflect back that people trusted me during some of the toughest times in their lives – what an honor! Yes, there were a few hair-brained schemes I came up with over the years where, thank goodness, they didn’t trust me; but the overall impression is one of being trusted and being welcome in people’s lives and what an awesome privilege that was.
You can have that too. You don’t have to be a Eugene Peterson author-writer-“professor” to live the kind of life he led. The best of Eugene was how sanctified he was in person for pastoral ministry when he was a pastor in Bel Air or meeting with fellow pilgrims at their place in Montana or at Regent College.
You can do what Eugene Peterson did when he was at his very best and who’s to say you can’t do it just as well or better than he did. Being a pastor and a pastoral person was what he treasured most about himself. And may God bless you with the same impression about your life now over many years.
I did the writing, speaking, teaching gig. It was okay. But looking back I wouldn’t trade having been a pastor for forty years for any of that other stuff. I’m no genius, and I’m not all that sanctified, but if I could take something of Eugene’s and have it for my own, it would be to be like him as a pastor and as a human being. In my opinion, he was better at being a human than he was at anything else he did.
You can tell I admire Eugene to the skies, but I still haven’t read all his books, and I don’t use The Message as my Bible, (my Bible-savvy wife does) but may God bless us all with the same aspiration and the same success as Eugene “The Human Being”. That’s what I want to emulate. That’s what I remember, that’s who I want to be like. Not the author, not the professor, not even the pastor, rather, to emulate the Man.
David Hansen did just that. He is at his heart a pastor. And I am proud to call him my friend.