Eugene Peterson, the best-selling author of “The Message” and longtime pastor praised as a “shepherd’s shepherd,” passed away Monday morning (Oct. 22) at age 85.
Among Peterson’s last words were, “Let’s go,” according to a statement from his family.
“During the previous days, it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between earth and heaven,” according to his family. “We overheard him speaking to people we can only presume were welcoming him into paradise. There may have even been a time or two when he accessed his Pentecostal roots and spoke in tongues as well.”
Peterson pastored Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation he founded in Bel Air, Md., for 30 years while also writing widely to encourage and develop other pastors.
He is best known for “The Message,” his popular paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language that made the Bible accessible to many Christians. Altogether, he wrote more than 30 books, including his 2011 memoir “The Pastor” and the Christian classic, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”
“Eugene Peterson has encouraged, formed, and often literally saved the ministry of more than one pastor over the years through his writing and thinking (I would include myself in that list),” wrote Truett Seminary professor Robert Creech in an Oct. 13 Facebook post.
“He has refreshed Scripture for many through his thoughtful paraphrase of the Bible published as The Message. He has taught us to pray.”
Creech encouraged prayer for Peterson and his family in that post as the author and pastor was placed in hospice care last week, facing the progression of dementia and heart failure.
Peterson was hospitalized Tuesday, Oct. 9, “when he took a sudden and dramatic turn in his health caused by an infection,” according to an email from his son Eric Peterson included in Creech’s post.
When the family shared with the author and pastor he was nearing the end of his life, Eric Peterson wrote, his father thoughtfully responded, “I feel good about that.”
He closed his email: “I’m not exactly sure what he meant by it, but one of the last things he said to me this evening was, ‘It just seems so sacred that they trust me so much.’
“Every moment in this man’s presence is sacred.”
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.
Peterson had retreated from public life last year after publishing his final book, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” but not before causing some controversy with his words to former Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt in one of his final interviews.
The longtime pastor told RNS at the time he would officiate a same-sex wedding if asked to do so today by a gay couple who were “Christians of good faith.” Later — after some backlash — he retracted that statement.
Peterson founded Christ Our King in 1963 after he was asked to start a church in Bel Air with the assistance of the Baltimore Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and First Presbyterian Church in Bel Air. He retired as pastor in 1991.
Without that experience as a pastor, he wouldn’t have been able to write “The Message,” he said. It took several requests from publishers to get him to agree to write the paraphrase and 12 years to complete it.
Even after it was finished, he said, he never felt like “The Message” was “my book.” Translating the words of the prophet Isaiah or the prolific Epistle writer Paul into the idioms of his congregation, he said, “I was just pleased I was able to get into their life and do it in my way.”