Review: A Burning in My Bones

A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier. New York: WaterBrook, 2021.

Summary: The authorized biography of pastor-theologian and Bible translator Eugene Peterson.

He pastored a congregation for nearly thirty years. He preached thousands of sermons, wrote dozens of books, translated the Bible into vernacular English, welcomed hundreds, if not thousands into his and Jan’s home, including Bono. He never sought popularity or engaged in the polemics that roiled American evangelicalism. In the end, what mattered most was contemplating the wonders of God in the words of scripture and the beauty outside his Montana home, loving Jan and his children. That was Eugene Peterson.

I have roughly two feet of his books on my shelves. I cull many books. These remain. Why? Because, unlike many others, these seem to speak from a place beyond my generation. How did he come to write such works? Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson begins to give me some clues. Collier enjoyed access not only to Peterson during the last years of his life, but also to his papers. He is now the director of the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. He offers a rendering of Peterson’s life that probes the formative influences of his life, the decisions he came to about pastoral integrity in his own ministry, the continued quest for congruence in his life, and the beautiful soul he became, amid both his flaws and longings.

We begin with his Montana upbringing, his boyhood in the beautiful country, his Pentecostal preacher mother and distant butcher father. We learn of his running career at Seattle Pacific that eventually culminated in a Boston Marathon and the beginnings of his writing career. After an aborted effort to plant a Pentecostal church, he headed off to seminary at Biblical Seminary in New York, and really discovered scripture as a narrative in which we encounter the living God, not a sourcebook for talking points. Then on to Maryland, studies with William Albright, where he would not only encounter biblical languages and archaeology, but Jan Stubbs, who would become his wife.

It appeared Peterson was headed toward an academic career when he turned down the chance to study at Yale with Brevard Childs to begin a church in Bel Air, a suburb outside Baltimore. The next choices of pastoral integrity came as he dealt with the conflict between his biblically informed intuitions of the work of a pastor and how he was being taught to “run the damn church” as he expressed it in his frustrations that came to a head when he uttered these words in a session meeting. In the end, the elders agreed to run the church, while he prayed, studied scripture, and cared for souls–and finally began to take the time he needed to with Jan and his children.

Collier doesn’t engage in hagiography. He discusses the trouble Eric, Peterson’s eldest had with knowing his father’s love, a consequence of Peterson’s absence in his early childhood. Peterson saw glimpses of his own struggles with his father but struggled to heal this wound. Then we learn of an incident in Peterson’s late fifties when a relationship with a spiritual directee in his church became emotionally if not physically intimate. Jan recognized this with some of the hardest conversations in their marriage to follow. Peterson broke off the relationship. Even the best of marriages are flawed and tested, as this one was.

He had the wisdom to recognize when the good thing of his pastoral ministry was coming to an end, even as his passion for writing was growing. His growing restlessness led to his resignation in 1991 and the beginnings of what became The Message. Collier goes into Peterson’s growing conviction that a translation in vernacular English that captured the unvarnished unsanitized language of scripture. As he did so, he moved on to teach at Regent College. Collier describes his unconventional teaching style, the raspy voice, the long silences, and his growing notoriety.

Once more, congruence called, and the retreat to the family cabin they named Selah House that became a kind of monastery. As Peterson’s fame grew with the completion of The Message (along with controversy about the translation), Peterson felt and inward and upward call. It was a call to cherish Jan and family, while still welcoming many, including Bono who made their way to his door. More and more he felt he was getting ready to die.

There is beauty and pathos in this story. Contemplation of the lake and the mountains, a final camping trip, reflections on the Psalms, writing that slowly came to a trickle after his five books of spiritual theology. He suffered a fall and head injury from which he was never quite the same. His valedictory book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire was marred by the controversial end to his interview with Jonathan Merritt where he confessed some of his personal struggles with the issue of homosexuality and if approached as a pastor, that he would perform a same sex marriage, only to subsequently retract this statement. At this point, Peterson’s vascular dementia was already advancing and Collier’s assessment was that “Eugene should never have been doing interviews at all.”

His end came a few years later. It was a good end that I won’t spoil because Collier’s telling is so rich and poignant. At one point in the book, the observation came up that Peterson only had one sermon. I only heard Peterson speak once, and what he said was indeed congruent with his books. He spoke to InterVarsity’s national staff after one of our largest Urbana conventions. He warned of the danger of success and the temptations that come with it and the quiet path of integrity, the “long obedience in the same direction” for which he was known. Collier captures all of this and a life lived with that deep congruity of love for God that loved both words fitly spoken or written and the silence that allowed others to let down and become themselves. Even as was the case with the things Peterson said and wrote, I will carry this biography in my mind and my heart for a long time as a precious gift.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Love Big, Be Well

love big be well

Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017.

Summary: Letters written through the seasons of the church year by Jonas McAnn to the people of Granby Presbyterian Church on the varying facets of believing and living as a church, the warmth of friendship and the dark nights of doubt, each ending with the words “love big, be well.”

It is still early in the year, but I think this book is going to end up on my “best of 2018” list. Perhaps it is because I resonate with so much here, and because it is written so well.

A disillusioned pastor making his living selling insurance receives a letter written by Amy Quitman and signed by rest of the search committee at Granby Presbyterian Church. In it, she writes:

“Here are our questions. We’d like to know if you are going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience?…Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church-thing straight? Or might we hope that our church could be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us? 

In other words, the question we want answered is very simple. Do you actually want to be our pastor?”

Jonas writes a long and frank response about why he’d packed it in as a pastor, and why he started looking to serve a church again. He confesses, “The truth is, my give-a-shit’s broke.” But he concludes,

“This letter is too long, just like my sermons. I’m working on it. But all this is to say that if our conversation leads anywhere and I were to join your motley band, being your pastor is the only thing I’d know how to do. I’m at an utter loss on anything else.” 

And then he adds,

” If I were your pastor, I’d want to continue this letter-writing thing. We’re on to something.

Love big. Be well.

Jonas McAnn

The church agrees and this is the first of many letters from 2008 to 2014, when he takes a sabbatical. The letters sparkle with the warmth of his growing friendships with the people of this church, notably big Don Brady, a hulk of a man who came to faith later in life, and who later experiences a recurrence of a cancer that had been in remission. He reflects on the nature of this thing they call church and the high-blown language and cant that obscures the reality of friends on a journey together in a place. He honestly confesses to the mystery in much of which he preaches, and his own struggles to believe the things he proclaims from the scriptures–how often he preaches, prays, and lives into things when the feeling of confidence is absent.

The letters continue when the honeymoon is over and they wrestle with the hard realities of this relationship between church and pastor. Toward the end, he includes a letter from Luther, chair of their elder board, the lone black, and what it is like to “represent” his people when he is just Luther, and yet how he does in feeling the pain and the disjuncts of racial history, even in their own congregation.

One of the letters that summed up the ordinary and yet compelling vision of church being worked out in this book is titled “The People Who Bury You.” It concludes,

“As the church, we’re the people (whenever we live true to ourselves) who will welcome you into this world, who will join you in marriage and in friendship, who will bless your coming and your going. We will pray for you to prosper and know love’s depths even if you think our prayers are foolish or offered in vain, and we will mourn you when you leave us. We will bless the land and the nations we share, and we will grieve together through tragedy and heartache. We will celebrate, with you, everything beautiful and good, everything that comes from the hand of mercy. And then, when your days conclude, we will bury you. We will return you to the earth and pray God’s kindness over you.

This is who we are. This is who I hope we will continue to be.”

This was one of a number of passages that caught my breath with the beauty, or the blunt acknowledgement of things for which I did not have nearly the words. I’ve been in a church for twenty-eight years that has been doing all these things, groping, imperfectly to be sure, to live out the realities of what it means to live in Christ both through the seasons of the church year, and all the seasons of life. We’ve been through vision and church growth processes, the products of which mostly reside in a file drawer somewhere. We’re not a large bunch but we are blessed with a pastor who reminds me of Jonas McAnn. We celebrate births, seek to teach our children well, revel in marriages and housewarmings and summer barbecues. We’ve marveled as we’ve walked alongside saints like Betty, whose life seemed to burn brighter and brighter as cancer consumed her body. And we’ve sat with families in times of loss.

Winn Collier describes a reality both of pastoral ministry and church life that seems from another time, what with all our language of “missional communities,” all our strategies, and what not. In a society of virtual relationships, of celebrity pastors, and transience, I wonder how many find places like Granby Presbyterian? And I wonder how many simply want to be pastors of such places?

Perhaps some will read this book, and it will feel like waking from a dream, and wondering if the good stuff here really can be so. My hunch is that there are places like Granby Presbyterian in neighborhoods and small towns that you have driven past many times. Maybe it is our church building you’ve driven past, oblivious to the beautiful and good that is happening among our people. The only thing that I’d ask if you decide to stop in is that things will work a lot better if you leave your grandiose dreams and “flaming visions” at the door.