He’s best known for writing The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (The Message was so popular that Bono quoted from it at U2 concerts.) He’s also written more than 30 other books. He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. In the words of Christianity Today, he is a “shepherd’s shepherd,” a guide and mentor to pastors who shepherd their congregational flocks.
And in addition to all of that, Eugene Peterson is a poet.
Over the course of many years, Peterson wrote poems and shared them with or gave them to friends and family. Two years ago, 70 of them were collected and published under the title of Holy Luck. The poems were an education in words, and what words can and should be. “I…learned that poets are caretakers of language,” he writes, “shepherds of words protecting them from desecration, exploitation, misuse. Words not only mean something, they are something, each with a sound an rhythm all its own.”
The poems are divided into three sections: “Holy Luck,” a series of poems based on the Beatitudes; “The Rustling Grass,” about finding God in the everyday; and “Smooth Stones,” the daily life of following Jesus. Not surprisingly, the poems are often from the perspective of the pastor, the shepherd, seeking to train, to educate, to explain, to encourage, to guide and to direct. They flow from scripture, often a single verse.
Here is “Tree,” taken from Isaiah 11:1 – “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, And a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Jesse’s roots, composted with carcasses
Of dove and lamb, parchments of ox and goat,
Centuries of dried up prayers and bloody
Sacrifice, now bear me gospel fruit.
David’s branch fed on kosher soil
Blossoms a messianic flower, and then
Ripens into a kingdom crop, conserving
The fragrance and warmth of spring for winter use.
Holy Spirit, shake our family tree;
Release your ripened fruit to our outstretched arms.
I’d like to see my children sink their teeth
Into promised land pomegranates
And Canaan grapes, bushel gifts of God,
While I skip a grace rope to a Christ tune.
"Tree" is generally typical of the poems in Holy Luck, based on scripture, a combination of the personal and theological, with a psalm-like quality (Peterson says that the psalms of David were one of his early introductions to poetry). The presence of God is seen is something as everyday and common as a tree, in this case a tree that will eventually bear a shoot that signifies first David and then Jesus.
The poems range across human experience and daily life – a kiss, a choir, prayer, friends, hospitality, silence, beauty, snow, pregnancy, war, a candle, and more. They flow from scripture, and from the shepherd’s understanding of scripture.
These are quiet poems, some to be read aloud and some to be read silently, some to extend understanding and some to simply be in the experience of scripture, and God.
Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.