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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Eugene Peterson is a pastor, author, scholar, and poet. He's written almost 30 books, but he's most famous for the Message. He writes a lot of books aimed at pastors, whom he sees as under-prepared and over-tempted, just as he felt that he was back in the day. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society was his second published book (1980).

Peterson has a pastorly way of writing. The text for this book are the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), which were Psalms that the Hebrew pilgrims sang on their trips up to Jerusalem to the great worship festivals. Not only were they actually ascending as they travelled (Jerusalem was the highest city in Palestine), but also metaphorically- the trip to Jerusalem represented a life lived upward toward God.

Peterson begins the book by expressing his sadness and confusion as to why Christians today typically do not pray through the Psalms...he says that in the past, that's been something very common and helpful in the life of the Christian. He hopes that by using these Psalms as a text for the book, he'll help some re-discover, or discover for the first time, the importance and deep connection with the Lord that praying through the Psalms brings.

Each chapter is written around a Psalm:

Psalm 120: Repentance
Psalm 121: Providence
Psalm 122: Worship
Psalm 123: Service
Psalm 124: Help
Psalm 125: Security
Psalm 126: Joy
Psalm 127: Work
Psalm 128: Happiness
Psalm 129: Perseverance
Psalm 130: Hope
Psalm 131: Humility
Psalm 132: Obedience
Psalm 133: Community
Psalm 134: Blessing

All of the chapters were really good, but I think the one that impacted me the most (i.e. the one that I reflect on, or that the Holy Spirit recalls to my mind on a weekly basis), is the chapter on Hope. Everyone suffers. No matter who you are, how much money you have, how many friends you have, or what your job is. This Psalm encourages us to wait and watch in the face of suffering. Suffering, for the Christian, is never ultimate-- it's never the bottom line. God is at the foundation, and he is at the boundaries. We can trust Him. By waiting and watching, we are showing that we believe and trust that "God is actively involved in his creation and vigorously at work in redemption."

What does living in the face of suffering with hope look like? It doesn't look like doing nothing. "It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions." It doesn't look like desperate manipulation. It doesn't look like scurrying or worrying. And it's not dreaming or spinning an illusion to protect us from our boredom or pain. "It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do... it is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time....it is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it."

I love this because it helps me to better understand what living out of hope looks like. Because I'm a type A personality (or maybe just because I'm human), I tend to both worry and quickly come up with a solution to whatever problem or difficulty or suffering that I am facing. Suffering is so uncomfortable that I often subconsciously think that suffering is the result of something that is wrong-- that I did something wrong, or someone else did something wrong-- and there is a quick solution out there that I just have to find, or something that I have to do, in order to relieve the suffering. Sometimes this looks frantic. Sometimes it makes things worse. Sometimes it relieves the suffering, but it also leaves a residue of shallowness.

The lesson here for me? To wait, to trust, to allow suffering to exist in my life by waiting and watching for what I need to do, if anything, and to live out of hope that God is indeed actively involved in my life, and that I need not worry that He has abandoned me in my time of need.