Beloved pastor and poet Eugene Peterson, 85, passed away Monday morning, October 22, a week after entering hospice care for complications related to heart failure and dementia.
Peterson (1932–2018) wrote more than thirty books, including his widely acclaimed paraphrase of the Bible The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language and bestselling spiritual formation classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Cindy Bunch, associate publisher and director of editorial at IVP, said, “Eugene Peterson was a teacher who pointed us to the essentials of faith, worship, church life, Scripture, and obedience. I am grateful that InterVarsity Press has had the opportunity to publish his words of exhortation not just for pastors but for all believers. He wrote, ‘Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim.’ We need his prophetic words now more than ever.”
Peterson was born in East Stanwood, Washington, and grew up in Kalispell, Montana. He was founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for twenty-nine years before retiring in 1991. With degrees from Seattle Pacific, New York Theological Seminary, and Johns Hopkins University, he served as professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, until retiring in 2006.
Peterson’s The Message paraphrase and writings on spirituality inspired evangelical leaders and Christians around the world. His popularity even reached U2 front man Bono, and they formed a friendship around their common interest in the Psalms.
“In the last few years, Eugene's writing has kept me sane,” said Bono. “Run with the Horses has been a powerful manual for me. It includes a lot of incendiary ideas. I hadn't really thought of Jeremiah as a performance artist. Why do we need art? Because if we're honest, the only way that we can approach God is through metaphor, through symbol. Through Run with the Horses I learned about the prophet's work and it really changed me.”
Peterson published several books with IVP including Run with the Horses, Earth & Altar and Traveling Light. His first book, published with IVP in 1980, was A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
“When I wrote A Long Obedience twenty years ago, I was a parish pastor writing for my parishioners, the people I knew best in the place I knew best, a few acres of Maryland piedmont on which we were camped for a few years in our wanderings through the North American wilderness,” Peterson wrote in the epilogue to A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. “I was doing what pastors do—trying to get this gospel of Jesus Christ into the lives of these men and women with whom I was living, and doing it the only way I knew, through Scripture and prayer, prayer and Scripture. I preached and taught the Scriptures that revealed Jesus. I prayed with and for this mixed bag of saints and sinners that was my congregation, prayed in the name of Jesus.”
He further explains that seventeen publishers initially rejected the book, saying there was no “niche” for it. IVP’s risk in picking it up gave him confidence to continue in his work and his writing.
“Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction vibrantly and powerfully opened up the wonder of the Psalms and its Songs of Ascents to me very early in my journey of faith,” Jeff Crosby, IVP's publisher, said. “And that book, in turn, prompted me to follow Eugene’s written work over the past three decades, from his essay on the classic literature of Fyodor Dostoyevsky to his spiritual theology from Eerdmans publishing and, of course, his work on The Message which I have used devotionally since its publication. His voice was one of great wisdom, his life an example of Christian fidelity, and his witness of obedient discipleship a challenge to us all.”
The family statement on Monday said Peterson remained joyful and smiling in his final days.
“It feels fitting that his death came on a Monday, the day of the week he always honored as a Sabbath during his years as a pastor. After a lifetime of faithful service to the church — running the race with gusto — it is reassuring to know that Eugene has now entered into the fullness of the Kingdom of God and has been embraced by eternal Sabbath,” according to the statement.
In an interview with Religion News Service last year Peterson said that he did not fear death. “I don’t think it’s anything to be afraid of,” he said. “I have no idea how it’s going to work out. But I’m not afraid, I’ll tell you that. I’ve been with a lot of people who are dying. I think those conversations are some of the best I’ve ever had. These are people who have lived a good life and who have embraced their faith. They’re not afraid.”
“We do know what’s going to happen, those of us who believe in the Trinity,” Peterson said. “For us, there’s something quite . . . I don’t want to use the word ‘miraculous’ in a sloppy way. But there are people who die well, and I want to be one.”
Peterson’s family stated, “With full and overflowing hearts, we give thanks for the gift of his life, knowing that his joy is now complete.”
To see IVP's tribute to Peterson, please visit www.ivpress.com/eugene-h-peterson.