Eugene Peterson: Location Matters

Burning in My Bones: Location Matters

We begin today a weekly series of conversations about the biography of Eugene Peterson. I never met him, well, I’m wrong: I shook his hand once when I was a young professor and I went into a room at a couple of events to hear him speak. But it’s personal for me because I’ve learned so much from his books over the years.

A true story: I was once asked to blurb his book The Jesus Way. I wrote to the editor who invited me to blurb the book that I wanted to say “Being asked to endorse a Eugene Peterson book is like an ordinary Catholic being asked to endorse the Pope.” The editor asked for something else. I gave them something else.

What really impressed me about these chapters (reading schedule here) in Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson (A Burning In My Bones) was the impact of location (Kalispell, Montana, and Flathead Lake) and family (mom and dad) on Eugene Peterson’s life and ministry.

How has your location impacted your calling?

How has your family impacted your calling?

For those of us who grew up in cities and maybe in the big cities, the world in which Peterson grew up may feel like a world away. I grew up in a city of just under 30,000 but we were surrounded by farms and farms of corn. Open vast expanses evoke home and a longing for me. Every now and then – not often – I dream of living in some wide expanse, but it doesn’t last long. Never long enough for us even to have had a conversation about it. But my past makes me want to defend farmers and workers from the kind of insults some toss out about the “flyover states.”

As I read Peterson I wondered often how the expanse of the Flathead shaped his idea of prayer and Bible reading and pastoring and writing and solitude and time with God.

Collier takes us there: “Late in life… it became clear how the land’s stark, solitary beauty shaped him, grounding him in a rich silence of soul. As Eugene saw it, to be a boy if Montana stock – birthed out of such grand country and immersed in the lives and histories of ordinary, hardworking people who lived close to the land without pretense – was not a mere biographical detail but an elemental piece of his life” (6). “Montana,” he says, “became his catechism” (7). All of this “would later fuel his revulsion toward the commodification of church, the abstractions of impersonal life and worship, and the disembodied, mechanized approaches to the pastoral vocation” (7).

His mother was a ball of fire, on fire for the Lord. She had a radio program and a growing SS class and formed a few small Sunday evening assemblies. Mostly men listening to a woman teach and preach and pray. She had a knack for connecting the Bible to the hardscrabble life of her audience. She was known for her prayer life. Her devotion led to denials for the children. No birthday parties, no dancing, even no Christmas tree at one point. Collier: “No person – no theologian or intellectual or luminary – influenced Eugene more than his mother, this woman of prayer and fire and compassion” (15).

And his father, the butcher. The story brushes up against similar stories: a man dedicated to his work more than his family, a man with little emotional connection to his son, a son looking for father’s approval, a life chasing that approval. He learned lots about life working alongside his father in the butcher’s shop. He learned, he says, about congregational life from those who entered the shop. They were not customers. His pastor didn’t seem to fit in the butcher’s shop. Did this not impact Peterson’s love of the type who did fit in?

You are welcome to drop a comment in the comment box below about anything in our reading that stimulates your comment. Perhaps you have a favorite quotation you’d like to drop in the comment box. Perhaps a question for all of us about the chapter – this is an open conversation as long as people behave.

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His father never saw Peterson’s athletic competitions, and Peterson resented it. Did Peterson, however, become more like his father than he wanted to? (Yes.) Lots to think about here. “We often parent the way we were parented” (22). Collier tells the story of Peterson and his father building the cabin where he eventually lived. A tactile relationship.

As a youngster he was stirred by a pastor-like relationship with others, though at the time he didn’t recognize it. He cared for those on the fringes. He escaped a possible sexual abuse situation.

He began to explore the inner life. Philosophers, mystics, contemplatives, writers, storytellers. He also liked to roam. He was, as he came to realize, a loner, exiled in part by his sectarian faith and his inner world.

When he went to college at Seattle Pacific – after an illustrious high school life of leadership – he sensed he was leaving the holy land.

“Though Eugene could not yet name exactly what this fire was that burned in his bones, he sensed a magnetic pull toward the truth and beauty he felt must lie at the core of things” (40).
He longed for the real.