When I heard about a forthcoming Eugene Peterson biography, my mind wandered back in time. I recalled how he joined the Regent College faculty right here in our backyard of Vancouver, BC. From 1993 to 1998 we had the opportunity to attend public lecture series that included Peterson. And then the anticipated translation of the entire Scriptures called The Message in 2002, the ‘gift book’ at a conference we attended that year. But mostly, I think of a retreat we were privileged to attend with Peterson at Warm Beach in Washington State in 2003. In that setting we could see Peterson’s pastoral heart as he opened Scripture with his trademark raspy voice and twinkling eyes. It is that memory that came back most strongly as I read A Burning in My Bones. The title is drawn from Peterson’s own words as throughout his life he searches out how to respond to God’s purposes that seem to lodge deep within himself.
As with any good biography, Winn Collier gives a storied history of Peterson’s Norwegian grandparents who immigrated to Kalispell, Mont., and Stanwood, Wash., respectively. Peterson learned much from his father, working alongside him in the butcher shop, and from his mother, whom he held up as one of the best preachers he ever knew. Peterson spends a lifetime pondering the influence of his parents and the Montana landscape.
No one was as dear to his heart as his life’s partner and wife, Jan. Together they lived the blessings and challenges of leading a congregation, birthing children, Karen, Eric and Leif, and raising a family, all the while nurturing their love and seeking God’s path. Collier writes tenderly and honestly about marriage struggles and pastorate temptations.
Every aspiring pastor would do well to dip into this biography. Peterson encourages a calling of pastor that is counter to what current culture thinks an effective pastor should be. Peterson’s desire was to be a pastor of the people, opening Scripture and worshiping each Sunday with them but then making his way into the neighbourhood to be with his congregants in their everyday experiences. He believed in prayer-led, Spirit-filled growth. Although it wasn’t without its difficult times, the Petersons were able to pastor with the Christ Our King Presbyterian community in Bel Air, Mary., for over two decades. Peterson was an example of committing to a long relationship with one congregation. He encouraged people to search out a worshiping community within their own neighbourhoods.
Collier had three years of continuous focused conversation with Peterson. He also spent hours reading through journals, sermons, and other archival materials, much of it stored for years in boxes in the crawl space of the Petersons’ home. Collier also searched out reflections from others. This reviewer appreciates the author’s attention to indicating what are verbal or written quotes.
The author of 35 books, Peterson saw himself as pastor-writer and writer-pastor. Even as his books gained popularity he eschewed the public stage and avoided the speaker conference circuit.
After serving as professor of theology and arts at Regent College into his 60s, the Petersons were eager to return to the Flathead Valley and the Peterson cottage on the lake that came to be named Selah House. It was in this sacred space that they felt the holy presence of God and welcomed others in to share hospitality into their retirement years.
Before offering a closing tribute, Collier touches on two events in the latter decades, one a joyful meeting, the other an uninvited disturbance.
The first is Peterson’s surprise relationship with Bono and the U2 band. When contacted by Bono, Peterson had no idea who this world-famous musician was, but he bent his ear to sit with Bono and listen to his heart.
The second event was an interview with RNS journalist Jonathan Merritt in 2016. The conversation about same-sex relationships caused discord throughout the evangelical community. Collier, along with Peterson’s son Eric, reflect on Peterson’s understanding of Scripture.
Peterson’s repeated mantra to Collier during their visits was, “Everything has just been a gift.” Collier’s biography testifies to a gift-filled life. (Waterbrook)