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Eugene Peterson on why he’s leaving public life and whether he fears death

Eugene Peterson lectures at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle in May 2009. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) After writing more than 30 best-selling books, 84-year-old Eugene Peterson has decided to hang it all up.

The theologian, pastor and writer is best known for “The Message Bible,” a contemporary paraphrase of the Christian scriptures, which has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide. Peterson just released his final book, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” and is no longer teaching or traveling to speak.

Given his immense popularity and immeasurable impact, I decided to speak with Peterson about a range of topics. And this week, I’ll publish a series of interviews in celebration of his storied career. Here, we discuss why he decided to leave public life now and whether he fears dying.

RNS: “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” is your last book and you’ve already stopped traveling and speaking. So this is really you walking away from public life? Why would you want to walk away from it all at this point?

Image courtesy of Waterbrook / Multnomah

EP: Well, I’ve written a lot of books. When I was writing this book, I was surprised at how it all came together. I’ve written the same book my whole life, but this was something different. I was just surprised at some of the stuff that came out. I think that’s why. The things that I had been writing and praying about and talking about and preaching about for 50 years just suddenly became very clear and fused together. It was something,

I use the word “congruence” quite a bit. It seemed like almost everything I’ve done now is congruent with everything else I’ve done. It’s not like they were separate subjects that were going on. There was a fitting together of different pieces of my life, my insights. That’s basically what it is.

RNS: But what about this book that made you say, “Okay, I can put down the pen now. My work is done.” What is it that convinced you that now was a good time to walk away?

EP: Well, I’m 84 years old. That’s one. I think I’ve pretty much mined everything I’ve learned and made art out of it. That’s basically it, I think.

RNS: I’ve spoken to others who have had robust careers like you’ve had, and by the time they reach your age, they say, “I’m tired.” What about you? Do you feel tired?

EP: No, I don’t feel tired. I just feel like there’s a sense of completion, or maybe satisfaction. I think I’ve done a better job of everything I’d done before in this book. I might do something else, but I don’t think so. These days, I write a lot of letters. I’m still keeping up with people and answering their questions or responding to what they are doing. I think it’s more just a sense of completion.

RNS: You’re 84. You’re approaching the final phase of life. Are you afraid of passing on? What are your feelings about dying?

EP: I guess basically it’s curiosity. I don’t think it’s anything to be afraid of. I have no idea how it’s going to work out. But I’m not afraid, I’ll tell you that. I’ve been with a lot of people who are dying. I think those conversations are some of the best I’ve ever had. These are people who have lived a good life and who have embraced their faith. They’re not afraid.

I have a son who’s a pastor. He has a congregation of 400 or 500. The thing he loves most is praying with and talking with people who are dying. I think it helps when people have a good pastor who knows what he’s doing and who is compassionate. A pastor who doesn’t talk about death in terms of something where we don’t know what’s going to happen. We do know what’s going to happen, those of us who believe in the Trinity. For us, there’s something quite… I don’t want to use the word “miraculous” in a sloppy way. But there are people who die well, and I want to be one.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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