I have been thinking about how wonderful it is that Circle of Hope has a few hundred people who have been committed for a long time. Whatever success we have in meeting our goals is based, to a large degree, on their capacity to stick with it over the long haul! In gratitude for them, I offer you a paraphrase of some parts of a good book on the subject of sticking with it: Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
One aspect of world I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired instantly. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by same-day delivery, instant messages and last-minute texts. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-second commercials and thirty-page abridgements.
It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in Jesus; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest, much more to build the church, live as a missional community and gain the prize of maturity in Christ! It is hard to achieve our goal of nurturing fifty-year-old radical Christians. Millions of people in our culture still make decisions to follow Jesus, but there is a huge attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.
Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen or anything Eastern, faith healing, Kabbalah, human potential, parapsychology, prosperity, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything–until something else comes along.
The aspect of world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analyzed as “today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.”1 Everyone is in a hurry. They want shortcuts. They want church leaders to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But the church is not a tour bus.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth at least with great clarity, wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”2 It is this “long obedience in the same direction” which the mood of the world does so much to discourage.
For recognizing and resisting the stream of the world’s ways there are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim.
- Disciples are people who spend their lives apprenticed to their master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.
- Pilgrims are people who spend their lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” and set out for “the Father’s house.” Abraham, who “went out,” is our archetype. Jesus, answering Thomas’s question “Master, we have no idea where you’re going. How do you expect us to know the road?” gives us directions: “I am the Way, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me” (Jn 14:5-6). The letter to the Hebrews defines our program: “Do you see what this means–all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running–and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in” (Heb 12:1-2).
We are disciples on pilgrimage. The pilgrim songs from Psalms 120-134 are helpful encouragements along our way. These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Topographically Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time ascending. But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity–what Paul described as “the goal, where God is beckoning us onward–to Jesus” (Phil 3:14).
This picture of the Hebrews singing these fifteen psalms as they left their routines of discipleship and made their way from towns and villages, farms and cities, as pilgrims up to Jerusalem has become embedded in the Christian devotional imagination. It is our best background for understanding life as a faith-journey.
Meanwhile the world whispers, “Why bother? There is plenty to enjoy without involving yourself in all that. The past is a graveyard–ignore it; the future is a holocaust–avoid it. There is no payoff for discipleship, there is no destination for pilgrimage. Get God the quick way; buy instant charisma.” But other voices speak–if not more attractively, at least more truly. Thomas Szasz, in his therapy and writing, has attempted to revive respect for what he calls the “simplest and most ancient of human truths: namely, that life is an arduous and tragic struggle; that what we call ‘sanity,’ what we mean by ‘not being schizophrenic,’ has a great deal to do with competence, earned by struggling for excellence; with compassion, hard won by confronting conflict; and with modesty and patience, acquired through silence and suffering.”3 His testimony validates the decision of disciples who commit themselves to make the climb as pilgrims and look for their true selves on the journey home.
1 Gore Vidal, Matters of Fact and Fiction (New York: Random House, 1977), p. 86.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimmern (London: 1907), sec. 188.
3 Thomas Szasz, Schizophrenia, the Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1978), p. 72.