It’s unusual to have deep affection for someone you’ve never met but we all have people whose writing has made us feel like kin. Eugene Peterson, the beloved theologian and author, who died last month at the age of 85 was one those people for me. So it seems fitting this Thanksgiving (since I won't be sitting around a turkey dinner tonight here in London which is also known as a normal Thursday) to express my gratitude for the gift Eugene’s words have been to me.
Last month, the day before leaving London for France, I went in search of one of Eugene’s books. I wanted to leave a second copy of The Message (Eugene’s translation of The Bible into contemporary language) at our new house in France. Too last minute for an Amazon order, I checked several local bookstores - none of which had a copy in stock. I aborted the search by early afternoon when I had to be in Regents Hall on Oxford Street for a school event. As it turns out, Regents Hall is an event venue AND the home of London’s Salvation Army Centre. And as providence would have it, there in the lobby was a small Salvation Army bookstore with exactly one copy of The Message left. My France bookshelves are mostly bare but Eugene is there. From Oxford Street to rural France.
It was only a few days later that I read in the news that Eugene was under hospice care. It was as if something in me knew that I would want his company in his last days.
I have learned a lot through Eugene’s writing but his most profound impact came from an interview I heard him do more than a year ago. In the interview he talked about his practice of reading the Psalms (the prayers and poems of the Bible). He described his attraction to the Psalms in this way: “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.”
Eugene had picked seven Psalms he described as “covering the waterfront” of what it means to be human in a spiritual world and committed himself to them - over his entire adult life. His practice wasn’t about figuring them out but rather “entering in” and allowing them to work on him. Over and over again. He spoke about his practice in what I can only describe as being a “small voice” - shy, humble, awestruck. There was no specific formula, no right way of doing it, only a commitment to listen ... and keep listening.
Stirred by his small voice in a time where loud voices dominant, I decided to give the practice a try. Since Eugene was far from prescriptive on which Psalm to use, I landed on Psalm 119. I picked it for the simple reason that it is the longest Psalm. I reasoned that it would both cover a lot of ground and do double duty in expanding my ever diminishing attention span. When my mind was regularly drifting during the solid 15 minutes to read the whole bit out loud (think of all the things you could accomplish in 15 minutes!), I thought I might have made a rookie mistake. That first month was mostly about staying awake. But somehow, I stayed with it.
I heard that same interview with Eugene rebroadcast this past September and when I went back through my journal, I couldn’t believe how much Psalm 119 has showed up. I’ve “entered into” Psalm 119 hundreds of times now. I read it, sometimes with attention and sometimes with lots of doubt. I listen to it as I walk or have it on in the background when I’m getting dressed or cleaning the house. When I’m feeling blah, I reach for it before I reach for anything else. And I really love coffee, chocolate and wine. It’s like Psalm 119 has become my secret best friend who always says what I need to hear even when I don’t know the question I’m asking.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that by allowing my mind to stretch over and over these words that have been spoken for generations, my heart now instinctually responds differently to things. The circumstances are the same but the way I relate to my own thoughts has changed. I know it sounds completely goofy but the words of Psalm 119 have become my new mantras. Now when I see something beautiful, my inner voice often responds with: “You are good and what you do is good.” Or when I’m feeling small and insignificant, my inner voice counters with: “Your hands made me and formed me.” Or when I’m dealing with a rude person, I hear: “Let your compassion come to me the I may live.” Or when I’m heading down a rabbit hole of wasted time and energy, I think “Turn my eyes away from worthless things.” Or when I think the world is a mess (I double down on that thought for another beat) but then the whisper always comes: “The earth is filled with your love.” And on and on ... because I still have a lot more listening left to do.
In the same way it’s unusual to have affection for someone you’ve never met, it’s also unusual to share a personal practice with a public audience. But it’s not every day you meet your secret best friend through the small voice of an 85 year old man on a podcast. Thank you Eugene for pointing me not to yourself, or to a program, but to deep truth and wisdom which you knew would do its gentle rehabilitation work if I allowed my imagination and heart to simply enter in.