The passing of Eugene Peterson has hit me hard. Our connections were minimal in the scope of life and mostly long ago, but his influence, his soul and spirit touch, lasts.
I read A Long Obedience in the early 80's. The book stirred something deep within as I was awakening to life beyond the fundamentalism of my youth. I reached out via his publisher and he answered. A handwritten letter came my way and I was further smitten. More letters and phone calls led to arranging for him to be a summer speaker at the Christian conference center where I worked and lived.
He and Jan, his wife, arrived on a Sunday afternoon in August of 1983. He was driving a motorhome and wearing some sort of jumpsuit (something between garage mechanic and Air Force pilot). The look was quite a change from the only image I had of him in a black and white headshot wearing a clerical collar.
I spent the week in something of a fan fog. Conversations, his teaching, running, laughing at meals, and being with him.
Early in the week, Eugene confessed that he had made the mistake of making the conference commitment while forgetting the timing of he and Jan’s 25th Anniversary. It was happening that week. I think Wednesday was the day. He referenced it in a talk in a way that was more self-deprecating than sympathy seeking.
On the day of the Anniversary we had a cake from a local bakery at the conference dinner and recognized them as best we could. Being a twenty-something Conference staffer I thought (now I think foolishly) they needed something more to mark and celebrate their day.
So, after the evening session, I arranged for a kidnapping. With the help of some summer staff members, we pulled Eugene and Jan away from the crowd and were off in two camp cars. I was in the first car, maybe a Ford Pinto (?), with the Peterson’s and a second car followed. We wandered town for a time as darkness set in. Eventually, we arrived at a restaurant that overlooked the city and the bay. We had made some arrangements with the management and all seemed to come together well.
I told Jan and Eugene that we were leaving them. I gave them directions back to the conference center, car keys and a credit card. I was soon out the door.
The next day Eugene was gracious and we transitioned the keys and the credit card. The only specifics I remember from the conversation was Eugene saying he hoped that the credit card owner didn’t mind paying for alcohol. An indication he understood our setting too well.
I have wondered if our antics were a fun addition to their truncated celebration or an annoying nuisance. I guess I’ll have to let it rest as a part of the mystique of Eugene Peterson.
We had occasional connections over the following years. The intensity of knowing him diminished as others helped me along my way. But Eugene Peterson was the just right connection at a time of life need and his influence has permeated in ways I may never realize. For me he was a living example of grace and wisdom. Something we all need and long for. Something to treasure and something to miss, deeply miss.