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Eugene Peterson, pastor and author of layman’s version of Bible, dies at 85

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 23, 2018

The Rev. Eugene H. Peterson pratices his banjo on a deck of his home on the shore of Flathead Lake, near Lakeside, Mont., Wednesday, July 24, 2002. A common-language version of the Bible by Peterson has hit bookstores this month. (ROBIN LOZNAK / AP)
The Rev. Eugene H. Peterson pratices his banjo on a deck of his home on the shore of Flathead Lake, near Lakeside, Mont., Wednesday, July 24, 2002. A common-language version of the Bible by Peterson has hit bookstores this month. (ROBIN LOZNAK / AP)

The Rev. Eugene Peterson, a “rock star” Presbyterian pastor with Pacific Northwest roots and author of “The Message,” a bestselling idiomatic translation of the Bible, died Monday, Christianity Today reported.

In a statement released by his family, among his last words were “Let’s go,” according to Christianity Today.

“On Saturday we celebrated a prayerful time with his wife Jan and assurance that her dear and light-exuding husband is in the presence of our precious Lord and Savior,” said Kelly Swenson, Peterson’s neighbor in Lakeside, Montana. “Now, we know that his legend really lives on in his writings, mainly, but the thing that strikes us most about him is that he was a very warm and hospitable person.”

Peterson was born in Stanwood, Washington, but grew up in Kalispell. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Seattle Pacific University. The university acknowledged Peterson’s death on its Facebook page, including a link to an article he wrote for Response, Seattle Pacific University’s magazine.

Swenson said Peterson’s son, Eric Peterson, is a Presbyterian pastor in the Spokane area. Eric Peterson is listed as pastor at Colbert Presbyterian Church, and described growing up in Maryland, where Eugene was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church. He served there for nearly 30 years. The Spokesman-Review was unable to reach his son Tuesday.

“The Pastor” was Eugene Peterson’s main memoir.

In May 2006, Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene hosted Peterson in a public event, “A Conversation with Eugene Peterson.”

Now-retired Pastor Chuck Wilkes, who was the teaching pastor who helped organize the event, said Peterson was extremely gracious. The congregation wrote down questions for him on 3-by-5 index cards, and Wilkes shuffled through them to decide which questions to pose to Peterson. One of the most common questions touched on the biggest controversy of Peterson’s career: Whether “The Message” was a translation or paraphrase of the Bible.

“(Peterson) said, ‘Well, you have to understand that every translation is a paraphrase, you cannot translate from one language to another exactly word for word, so every translator has to use their best judgment about the translation,’” Wilkes said. “It was interesting to watch the people respond as he said it. He said it in such a gracious way you could just feel a lot of the tension about that issue in the room just dissipate.”

Swenson also commented on the nature of “The Message.” She said it was a paraphrase and commentary because it was Peterson’s words, and is best read devotionally alongside a study Bible, which is how it was read most commonly in the neighborhood women’s devotional group Swenson was a part of with Peterson’s wife, Janice. Janice’s first book, “Becoming Gertrude: How Our Friendships Shape Our Faith,” will be published on Nov. 6.

“They can’t refute ‘The Message’ when they know the author of the book in same way we would not refute the Bible once we know God, the author,” Swenson said.

During Peterson’s Spokane visit, Wilkes interacted with him over breakfast in a smaller group. Though Peterson is best known for his books, Wilkes believes his most meaningful legacy will be as a pastor to fellow pastors.

“The pastors particularly who read his stuff are feeling his loss on a personal level as much as probably we have of anybody in a long time,” Wilkes said. “This is a man who really knew what pastors were going through, and was an encourager and a beacon of hope to them. They’re really feeling his loss at a deeper level than normal.”

Wilkes said he believed Peterson lived in a remote area in Montana to avoid his celebrity status.

“He spoke of his challenge of maintaining his own life in the midst of kind of a celebrity life,” Wilkes said. “He had to pace himself and keep his identity as a pastor, scholar, theologian, in the midst of a – this is my word, not his – a kind of rock star life.”

Swenson said most of Peterson’s writing was done in the lake area where they live.

“His life and his works all point towards a need for connectivity with people,” she said. “It’s not about just being a preacher. He was a teacher and a real people person. He wanted people to live a life of Christ and not just know about who Christ is.”

In a YouTube video posted in 2016 by Peterson’s publisher, NavPress, Peterson reflected on his pastor philosophy. He told the story of a Kingfisher bird he had observed one summer. Gazing out at a lake, he gestured toward the tree the Kingfisher had landed on every day to catch fish.

“I started looking at that Kingfisher, and then I started counting, and I counted 37 dives before he got the first fish,” Peterson said in the video. “And I thought, wow, he’s the Kingfisher …That Kingfisher became an icon for me for what pastors do.”

Peterson’s final book, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” was published in May 2017. Swenson described the book of sermons as “priceless.”

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