Spiritual Renewal Lessons From Eugene Peterson
Written by Peter Armstrong
April 13, 2021
Written by Peter Armstrong
April 13, 2021
Last week I read Winn Collier’s new book ‘Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson.” It is a wonderful book about a Godly man. Eugene’s life was all about spiritual growth, formation and renewal in the way of Jesus. Here are seven lessons I learned about renewal from reflecting on his spiritual journey.
Readers that only know him from ‘The Message’ will be surprised to learn that he spent thirty years pastoring a church in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. He planted that church, then spent the next three decades experiencing waves of challenge and growth. Much of his pastoral imagination was developed in the day-to-day work of pastoring, which he defined as 1) teaching people to pray and 2) teaching people to die a good death. His work of ministry in Maryland was very different from being a grad student in New York City, a seminary professor in Vancouver or a writer in Montana. And yet in each chapter of his life, people in his context experienced spiritual growth and transformation.
The title of the book comes from Eugene’s translation of Jeremiah 20:9, “The words are fire in my belly, a burning in my bones.” Clearly Eugene had a lifelong passion for God, His Word and His people. This continual fire of spiritual renewal was stoked in prayer. Eugene’s son, Eric, recounts a moment of “catching” his dad in prayer, early one morning. As a 9-year-old boy, his mother asked him to tell Eugene that breakfast was ready. He snuck down to his dad’s basement study and found Eugene on his knees in prayer, the Psalter before him and a candle representing the light of Christ. He knew he had seen something holy, and later called his dad “the holiest man I know.” Oh, that our children would bless us in that way and join us in worshiping our Holy God!
We’ve shared often in these newsletters and in the Renewal Lab, that most North American churches are in decline. “Normal” means that our churches will continue to experience decline and miss countless opportunities to share the gospel. But Eugene helps us to see that renewal must also be distinct from our secular culture as well. I sometimes dream that my church will be bursting at the seams and that our budget will double or triple. And that very well might be part of God’s renewing work in your church or mine. However, these are often lagging indicators that might even get in the way of what God wants to do in your church and community. A central renewal question must be ‘How can we join God in what He’s already doing?’ That is the only way for us not to slip into religious or secular thinking, but to discover that third way.
I am convinced that renewal will happen in churches as individuals commit to knowing Christ. That is our half of the process – opening our sails so that we’re ready when the wind of the Holy Spirit blows through. It is so easy to be distracted by the challenges of every season of life or discouraged by losses. Eugene journaled extensively about his desire to become a “saint,” someone who had an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and knew the contours of the abundant life He offers. It wasn’t the books, sermons or The Message that his friends – everyone from U2’s Bono to Regent College students to his kids and grandkids – spoke about after his death. It was the personal relationships, the pointing to Christ and the wisdom that comes from a life of being renewed by the Holy Spirit.
How does God bring about a renewal movement? It is often through people operating at the margins, such as artists, musicians, poets and others that are able to think outside the box. Artists were constantly drawn to Eugene and Jan Peterson. Many North American churches are traditional and conservative in nature. We have histories that we are proud of, and we thank God for that. But there is so much life on the margins. I subscribe to newsletters and listen to podcasts that stretch my thinking and get me thinking about the kind of Christian community my children (aged 6 and 2) will attend when they are my age. Two of my favorite resources are books and writings by Sean Benesh, professor at Multnomah Seminary and ‘This Cultural Moment,’ a podcast by Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer.
In engaging with this wonderful book, I was struck by the lifelong nature of spiritual renewal and growth. You can see how Eugene was swimming in an ocean of grace from his earliest days. God’s hand was upon all of the decisions he made; from where he went to school, to meeting his wife, to his ministry. You can also see how – when it’s grace – it just keeps getting better and better. As a 40-year-old, I can be frustrated by lack of growth in the Christian life. It feels like growth in midlife slows to a crawl. But I am encouraged by Eugene’s lifelong journey of grace. With Christ, your heart and mind are constantly being re-newed, and that is the beauty of a lifelong journey with Him.
After Eugene finished work on The Message, which would go on to sell more than 20 million copies, there was a barrage of criticism from all over the Christian world. People misunderstood his intentions, criticized his scholarship and misidentified the nature of his work. However, Eugene was secure in His Christian identity and was able to respond to critics graciously. Whenever we seek to make changes in church, there will be critics. May we all develop our identities in Christ, through prayer, so that we are able to weather the storm, learn from our critics and fulfill the calling God has given us