Eugene grew up during the Great Depression. Much of his early life was spent in a cabin he helped his father built on the edge of Flathead Lake, Montana. When the sun shone and the lake was still, it glimmered with the reflection of a thousand trees and the backdrop of the towering Mission Mountains. It was a magical place for a boy birthed with a great imagination.
His father was a butcher and Eugene helped his father in the shop from the age of five and over the years he learnt a thing or two about slaughtered sheep and blood poured out. But the greatest influence of those days was his father’s compassionate care for people and his ability to be present with them. In that most unlikely place Eugene learned the gift of shepherding.
He headed into the academic world, becoming a professor of Greek and Hebrew. After he married, to help balance the budget, he took on part time work pastoring a church. Before long he realised that being involved in the messiness of human life, caring for people through their joys and sorrows, was much more fulfilling than standing on the sidelines of life as a professor.
He served as a Presbyterian pastor for 29 years and during those years he wrote 36 books. By far the best known of his work is his translation of the Bible called, The Message, which has sold over 16 million copies.
Eugene didn’t set out to write another translation of the Bible. He had a congregation who didn’t read much and the scriptures, written in another time, culture and language didn’t resonate with them; they just didn’t get it. After 6 years of sharing their lives he hit upon the idea of translating some of the scriptures into their vernacular. He wanted to wake them up to the wonder of the gospel. Beginning with Galatians he translated it just a page at a time and gradually saw the Word come alive to them.
If it hadn’t been for his training in Greek and Hebrew, the particular congregation he was pastoring and his struggle with the Psalms as a 13 year old boy when he first discovered the wonder of metaphor in making the invisible visible, The Message would never have been written.
He had his critics but for millions of people, the Word of God came alive with a freshness and understanding they’d never known.
Some years ago a friend of mine was struggling with severe anxiety. I suggested she read The Message. About two weeks later she rang to say that she couldn’t put it down, everything was coming together for her in a way it never had before, even though she’d been a believer for most of her life. She understood for the first time the love of Jesus and the glory of grace in relation to her everyday life.
Those who knew him well talk about the deep joy of his life. Laughter was never far from him. He had a twinkle in his eye, an engaging smile, was playful, loved walking in nature, swimming, kayaking, gardening and hospitality. And although he called himself a loner, he had a passionate love for people.
He and his wife, Janice, chose a simple life, giving themselves away, their time, their energies, their love and their money, poured out for those in need, for mission, for students and pastors. They let go of this world’s trappings to follow closely in the footsteps of Jesus.
Eugene learned to live an unhurried life, to savour it, observe it and to notice what God was up to. He took time to think, to meditate, to choose his answers carefully. David Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller, put it this way, “I was anxious for him to get on with his lecture notes, but for him the silence, the praying, the singing, the listening, the waiting, the being present were the teaching,” He knew how to be still.
But what impacted me most was his humility and gentleness. A man who’d learned to be content to be himself and no one else, unpretentious and gracious to the end. Fame did not change him. He and his wife spent their retirement back in the cabin on the lake where he had grown up … a coming home.
His paraphrase of Romans 12:1 aptly describes the way he lived.
"So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out."
Eugene lived the Word.
My words feel totally inadequate to accurately portray the measure of this man so take a few minutes to enjoy and be inspired by this truly beautiful video, the photography, the scenery and a glimpse into his everyday life beside the lake. May his life challenge you as it has me.