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A patient Peterson

Lifestyle/Technology | The pastoral author and his wife lead a quiet life

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

When I sat down with Eugene Peterson to ask him what he did all day-what his life looked like and how its rhythms had been shaped by his study of spiritual theology-he turned the question around: What does your life look like these days?

That question and the attentiveness with which he waited for an answer shows that though he may not still be serving as the pastor of a Presbyterian church in suburban Baltimore, he's still a pastor at heart.

Peterson is the author of 35 books (all still in print) and translator of the bestselling The Message, the Bible in modern American English. With his gray beard and weathered face he looks like a grandfather from Montana, which he also is.

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Peterson lives in a house that his father built in 1947. It began as a cabin on a mountain lake near Glacier Park, on land that was part of a larger parcel developed by Lutherans as a camp. Peterson's father, a butcher, retired to the cabin, where Peterson and his family, living in Maryland, came back to visit every summer for a month or two.

Place is important to Peterson: The Montana valley has become part of his psyche. He remembers as a child how he liked to roam with his bicycle and backpack, hunting for Indians and pretending to be the biblical David hunting bears.

He could tell his friends that the sidewalks they walked on in Kalispell had been built by his grandfather, an immigrant from Norway, who came with a wife and 10 children, and had two more children in America, including Peterson's mother.

Peterson grew up among many aunts and uncles, and it pleases him that his own three children, when they graduated from high school, returned to the Northwest. All now live within four hours of the enlarged and remodeled cabin, where Peterson and his wife live year round.

His sister and her husband live next door. "We like them. We get along together," Peterson says. He attends the same small Lutheran church his parents attended, so he's among his parents' friends and people with whom he went to school.

At his suburban church in Maryland, Peterson pastored people who "were rootless," lacking "generational continuity where they lived." So he spent a lot of time "thinking about, praying about how to make this a place where people feel relationally connected." Instead of offering non-stop activities, Peterson's church had a "quiet order of worship" that sought to draw people into the gospel story. When newcomers asked what activities his church offered, he'd speak of worship on Sunday, and "if you'd let me be your pastor I'd help you learn not to want so much activity."

Peterson sympathizes with pastors who complain about the demands people make: "In this American culture they feel very competitive. Pastors feel that people want action." He challenges them: "Do you want to be their pastor or their cheerleader? It's a desecration of the pastoral vocation to commodify it, to turn the church into a consumer place."

Peterson and his wife Jan live out the patient and deliberate lifestyle he taught to his congregation. "We like quiet, we like rhythm," he says. The rituals of daily life give "a quality of sacredness to it."

Weekdays are alike. He's an early riser, up at five or six. He makes a pot of coffee and prepares a thermos for his wife. He takes it to her and then goes up to his study. For the next hour and a half they are "by ourselves, separately in prayer, reading Scripture."

At 7:30 he gets dressed and takes "a lovely walk" a quarter-mile down the country road to where the newspaper tubes are. He walks past firs and Ponderosa pines, hearing and identifying birds-even if he can't see them-and often seeing white-tailed deer. Walking throughout the year, despite the weather, keeps him in touch with the seasons and the animals.

When Peterson gets back about 8:00, he and his wife prepare breakfast together. During the week they have oatmeal, but on Saturday he prepares breakfast-bacon and eggs, or pancakes. After breakfast he writes, working until 1:00 in his study. "I work as hard as I ever worked . . . very few interruptions. No email." (He writes and receives lots of letters, but "emails just pass on information I'm not interested in.")

They eat lunch and take a nap ("a liturgical nap," he says): "Then we either walk trails, or we cross-country ski, or we kayak or canoe. We're pretty much outside in the afternoon."

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