The Passing Of The Hero

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Listen to “The Passing Of The Hero” by Fred Smith


Oswald Chambers wrote “Our soul’s history with God is frequently the history of the passing of the hero. It is not wrong for you to depend on your “Elijah” for as long as God gives him to you. But remember that the time will come when he must leave and will no longer be your guide and your leader because God does not intend for him to stay.”

When I read last week that Eugene Peterson had entered hospice care I felt bereft. It was not mourning although I know that will come soon. It was being left without a hero. Eugene would never have claimed hero status and was adamant about the snare of becoming a celebrity figure. He was especially suspicious of religious success that displaced the calling of a local pastor caring for the souls of individuals. How often did we all hear him say, “The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans” or “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches.”

The last time Eugene spoke at The Gathering he was our Bible teacher. When I invited him, I did not know what to expect. I was delighted when he accepted because in the times I had been with him over the years I had been impressed with his directness, practical application of poetic language, and his dedication to his own ordination as a pastor. When the trend seems to be two extremes lately – pastors are just ordinary folk like you and me or they are icons to be revered – Eugene is neither of those. He’s not ordinary and he’s not interested in being venerated. He’s a pastor who has spent his life deeply immersed in the lives of his congregation. Wendell Berry says this through the character of Jayber Crow: “And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place, had made it answerable to my life. Of course, you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose, it seems, without being chosen. For the place, in return, had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.” Eugene Peterson chose a place and people who had a claim on his life – and he on theirs.

I received this note from Eugene along with his agreement to speak. “As I prepare my soul for the conference it would help greatly if you would give me some sense of who these people are and the circumstances of their lives. I am a pastor and “congregation” is an important ingredient in what I say. I don’t have a “stump speech” that I give. So anything you could tell me that would help me in the months I have in prayer and imagining would help.” I responded by asking several Gathering participants if they would write Eugene directly and tell him where they are in their lives. I could have done it but I thought it would be far more helpful if he heard from them. It was. I know this – and I am not saying it to compare his response to any other speaker past, present or future – I had never had anyone ask me such a pastoral question about the participants. “How can I know something about their lives so I can pray, imagine and prepare?”

I’ve written before about my commitment to teaching Sunday School. For that, I can thank Eugene Peterson. Years ago, in Working The Angles he wrote about the vow of ordination. “This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularist hopes for something better. There are lots of things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working…we are going to end up living futile fantasy lives.”

Eugene Peterson has lived his vow and never given in to the demand to tell us something other than what he was ordained to speak and write. I know that God does not intend for him to stay forever but he will be missed by all who love him.


Collage by Mary McCleary
Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 16 comments
  • John Thomas

    Absolutely remarkable about Eugene and amazingly well written. Thank-you. John V Thomas

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, John. You, like Eugene, have fulfilled a vow.

  • Jack Modesett

    Those of us privileged to have been at that Gathering heard an authentic voice spoken from the heart of a pastor who preached with simple authority. Oswald Chambers is called the Unbribed Soul. So Peterson: he showed us the profundity that underlies true childlikeness. Thank you, Lord, that we have lived at the same time as this good man.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      I don’t know if I ever told you, Jack, about my asking him for his notes after he spoke. As you know, he works from a manuscript. He handed them to me – and they were printed on the back of his royalty statements for The Message. Do they call that transparency?

  • Keith Sparzak

    Well stated tribute, my friend. To quote Eugene from his own paraphrase of Ecclesiates 7:1-3:

    7 A good reputation is better than a fat bank account.
    Your death date tells more than your birth date.

    2 You learn more at a funeral than at a feast—
    After all, that’s where we’ll end up. We might discover
    something from it.

    3 Crying is better than laughing.
    It blotches the face but it scours the heart.


    Eugene has run a great race. We can learn much from his death, and from his life as a dedicated pastor of sheep-souls.

    A few scouring tears are appropriate and instructional in the moment.



  • Toni Hibbs

    Fred, Your “vocation” as my SS teacher is near and dear to my heart, forever. I will always treasure how you and Carol shepherded our family during some very “dark days”. The home visits, your prayers, and the prayers of Carol and both of your girls is a very warm spot in my soul. I will always remember you; and, I love you, my brother in Christ❤️

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Toni. It’s been the best thing I could have done.

  • Alyson Hinkie

    I have never met Pastor Peterson, nor have I had the privilege of hearing him speak in person, but his commitment to real, specific people comes alive in everything that he writes. His books have changed my life, changed me as a parent, a mentor, and as a writer. What a beautiful tribute!

  • Sam Jackson

    Thank you for giving us a good reminder of how much good Eugene Peterson has done. And more.

    I don’t normally attend the Gathering.

    Eugene Peterson keeps reminding me each time I see his book…. on a long walk in the sane direction, that’s on our bookshelf, just how long it sometimes feels and really is in our serving activities for Christ in this time. And with your helpful reflecting that it’s finished in a twinkling.

    We are so grateful for the many fine examples of what Christian living and serving are like in reality.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thank you, Sam. I suspect there will be a run on his books!

  • Lisa Wen

    It was an honor and great blessing to meet Eugene in Amelia Island. I’ll never forget his loving compassion, wisdom, and genuine concern for those he interacted with.

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