Ode to the Message
The woman I was counseling was a jagged-edged, hard-bitten woman who looked 60 though she had only turned 40 a week before this conversation. She held a small book in her hands that initially looked like a tract on steroids. I saw the word Psalms upside down but I couldn’t tell what version. Her sister was fronting her financially to see me, and I suspected it was her largesse that put the small book in her hands.
Janie had been on a rampage of pills and cheap swill for a few years since her husband and daughter had died in a car accident. She had glanced off a few inpatient treatment centers to no avail. She trusted me as much as she would a carny in a roadside circus. It was our 3rd session, and the first two she had spent casually dropping expletives, especially the one fronted by F, in variations and permutations that were inventive and compelling. I was not offended. I am seldom offended by anyone questioning me or testing my capacity to bear brokenness.
She looked up and said, “Do you know this man?” I had no idea who she was referring to. I asked, “What man?” “The dude who wrote this book?” She showed me the book and I saw for the first time, The Message. I said, “Well, many of the Psalms are written by King David.” She looked me square in the face and smirked. “I am not as ignorant as you think. Who is this dude Eugene Peterson?”
I smiled. She leaned forward and said, “Do you know him . . . why did you smile?” I answered, “No, I have never met him; but I have friends who translate the Bible, and they consider him a hero.” She pressed, “Yeah, so why that Cheshire cat grin?” I was caught. For the sake of integrity, I couldn’t make up a ruse, so I told her the truth. Most translations are a team effort paid for by publishing house. Translators get a decent salary for their effort, but no one in the history of humanity has ever published the Bible and received royalties off their sale. Bibles are the best-selling books for most publishing houses.
She smiled, “You’re envious. Your books have never sold as well as his, huh?”
We both knew in that moment we could work together as two foiled, broken people. But her curiosity about this man was not finished. She said, “What do you know about this man?”
I told her that my friends who know him say he is a kind, playful, generous man who loves the truth and delights in his wife and children. I told her he is the real deal.
She said, “I read Psalm 44, and he knows sick-to-your-stomach-God-awful betrayal or he couldn’t have written what he wrote.” She read the words to me:
But now you’ve walked off and left us,
You’ve disgraced us and won’t fight for us.
You made us turn tail and run,
Those who hate us have cleaned us out.
You delivered us as sheep to the butcher,
You scattered us to the four winds.
You sold your people at a discount—
You made nothing on the sale.
Her face was full of tears for the first time in our relationship. Her fury was no longer belligerent and self-annihilating; she was heartbroken in her fury and exhausted of her discontent. It is what well-spoken word brings to the heart. It lets the heart breathe and find the space in the presence of God to come back to our senses.
We worked together for well over 2 years before she was ready to depart. As we ended, she thanked me for our work, but then she leaned in and said, “Look, if you ever get a chance to meet that dude Eugene that saved my life, will you tell him for me, thank you.”
Who saves a life? It is not I. I am merely the conveyer of life offered to us through Jesus Christ as inscribed in the Word of God. Eugene didn’t save her life, but he willfully participated in the holy task of working out his own salvation in fear and trembling by faithfully hearing the bon mot spoken to us about the Word.
I have never met Eugene Peterson, nor will I likely meet him on this earth, but I can say as one envious, humbled man on behalf of a profoundly broken woman, “Thank you, dude, for writing the Bible.”
Dan Allender is a highly respected psychotherapist. He is the cofounder of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and The Allender Center, and he is the author of many books, including several with Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman, who served as a translation consultant on The Message.