“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”

This week, Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message version of the Bible, closed his eyes in Montana and opened them up in heaven. No one else has been more important to me for how I understand what it means to be a follower of Christ and a pastor.

I met Peterson once, many years ago, at a conference in Montreat, NC. But mostly, he has been my spiritual director through his writing.

My copy of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work is so marked up, the pages fall out. From Peterson’s study of selected Psalms, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, I learned that the most important accomplishment in life is faithfulness. In Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was encouraged to stay true to my calling. And his most recent book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places – almost by its title alone, a line from a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem – made me look more closely at what it means to follow the way of Jesus.

I pulled that last one off my shelf today and flipped through it again. One passage near the end of the book reminded me of something Danny, one of my friends in ministry for over 30 years, shared with a group of us last week.

Back when Danny was a young man and still in seminary, he was very impatient to deepen his walk with Christ. Much like the young ruler who went to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17), Danny went to a seminary professor and asked, “What one thing should I be doing right now to become more wise and spiritually mature?” And the professor said, “Well, you could go out and suffer.” Now, three decades later, Danny says if he could give one piece of advice to his younger self, it would be, Be kind and gentle with yourself.

Here is perhaps how Eugene Peterson might have answered Danny, and what he might say to us today:

“The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence — congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it…

“So what I want to say is, patience is prerequisite. Formation of spirit, cultivation of soul, realizing a lived congruence between the way and the truth — all this is slow work requiring endless patience. Unfortunately, patience is not held in high regard in our American society. We are in a hurry; we are addicted to shortcuts; we love fast cars and fast food. One of the most appreciated features of our vaunted technology is how fast we can get things and get things done.

“But human life is endlessly complex, intricate, mysterious. There are no shortcuts to becoming the persons we are created to be.”

That piece of wisdom makes me breathe easier right now, invites me to slow down and pay attention to the remainder of this day, and gives me a sense of expectation and hope for what God’s patient, cultivating Spirit will yet do in and through my life.

Thanks once again, Eugene.


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