(PNS) Two handmade containers — one a cradle, the other a casket — were on display Saturday during a memorial service for acclaimed author, scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson.
Peterson, author of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, a paraphrase of the Bible that sold more than 16 million copies, died Oct. 22 at his home along Flathead Lake in Montana. He was 85.
Peterson’s son Eric, pastor of Colbert Presbyterian Church near Spokane, Wash., constructed the casket for his father. Eugene Peterson built the cradle to hold Eric’s children and many other family members.
“These are the bookend containers of our lives,” Eric Peterson told mourners from around the world. The service was live-streamed from First Presbyterian Church in Kalispell, where his father grew up, preaching his first sermon there at age 19. Gatherings to watch the service included Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served 29 years, and Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., where he taught for six years.
Eric Peterson called heaven itself “a glorious container for all the saints,” a “city built by a master carpenter” with no need for the shims he and his father used to shore up the containers they built.
Eric’s brother Leif read a poem he wrote for his father, marveling at how people thought his father a magician in his long, black robe. “They only saw the magic — how you made the mysterious, ominous and holy into a cup of coffee. How you made God into something that could work for them . . . For 50 years you’ve been telling me the secret. It’s the same message over and over: God loves you and is on your side. God is coming after you, and He’s relentless.”
His father’s clear message, he said, was that “the Good News always plays out best in relationships.”
The Rev. Andy Wendle, pastor of the Eidsvold Lutheran Church in Somers, Montana, which Peterson and his wife, Jan, attended for the past five years, said visitors sometimes asked him, “I thought Eugene Peterson worshiped here.” Yes, Wendle would tell them — he was your usher today. “The irony is that we are living in a time when we need that Christ-inspired indwelling neighborliness now more than ever — for a good that is not our own, but is God’s,” Wendle said. “God’s work of living into the neighborhood of our lives is not done.”
Drew Peterson, one of the Petersons’ six grandchildren — all served Saturday as pallbearers — said as a child he assumed his grandfather had been alive forever. “He had that Morgan Freeman effect of looking that old for what I’m pretty sure has been all of his life,” he said, calling him “patient, pensive and present right up to the very end of his life.” He recalled Peterson’s “raspy Pete Seeger singalongs” strumming his banjo, his “long waves goodbye” from the driveway, and the masterful way the butcher’s son carved the Thanksgiving turkey. “I’m thankful we are able to commend his spirit to eternity, and that he indeed does live on,” he said.
The Rev. Tracie Bullis, pastor at Old Scotch Tualatin Plains Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro, Oregon, said she was “an energetic but clueless lay pastor” who hadn’t read any of Peterson’s more than 30 books during the time they served together at the Maryland church Peterson founded. The Message “helped us learn to understand the Word in a way our contemporary ears could hear,” she said, quoting Peterson’s rendering of Psalm 27: “Light, space, zest — that’s God! When besieged, I’m calm as a baby. When all hell breaks loose, I’m collected and cool.”
“We learned to spot the holy in the ordinary,” she said. “We learned to love the people we served. We learned to get out of God’s way,” recalling this job description from Peterson: “A pastor’s job is to find out what God is doing in a person’s life — and then get in on it.”
In a video, Peterson said he’s grateful “that I’ve been able to live my life feeling like Eugene, not somebody else.” Jan said the two will “hold hands and walk into heaven together. That’s what we would like.”
Eric Peterson said he was “deeply grateful to have grown up with a man whose life was so integrated,” noting the man who served up mashed potatoes on Saturday night “was exactly the same man who served up the Word of God Sunday morning.”
Even the many books his father penned were containers, he said, “words we will treasure for many years.”
Eugene Peterson wrote the lyrics for two hymns sung during the service — “Shalom” and “Maranatha.” The composer was Benjamin Brody, who also provided much of the music during the service.
Following a brief committal service, Peterson was buried at Conrad Cemetery, dressed in a clerical shirt and collar and his Geneva preaching gown.
by Mike Ferguson, Presbyterian News Service