I’m reading the devotional classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene H. Peterson, and I thought it would be useful for me to blog my way through it as a way to return to regular blogging. I remember the books I write about. It’s as simple as that. I guess that means I’m doing this for myself more than for anyone else: wrestling with what Peterson has to say about discipleship, something I’ve for years felt to be lacking both in my own life and in the church world I have inhabited for over forty years. My aim is to publish my thoughts on one chapter a week until I finish the book. The posts will be published on Wednesday mornings. (I hope!)
Chapter one provides an overview of the entire book as a whole, as indicated by its title, “Discipleship.” He starts the book with this declaration: “The world is no friend to grace.” This gave me a start the first time I read it because I feel like grace is a word bandied about constantly. It’s difficult to read anything anywhere about living a Christian life without bumping into a phrase like “give yourself grace.” This makes me wonder–have things changed a lot since Peterson first published this book in 1980, or are we talking about two different things? In the preface to the twentieth anniversary edition, Peterson says that the book required very little updating from its original edition because, as he puts it,
God doesn’t change: he seeks and he saves. And our response to God as he reveals himself in Jesus doesn’t change: we listen and we follow. Or we don’t. When we are dealing with the basics–God and our need for God–we are at bedrock. We start each day at the beginning with no frills.A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, preface
So maybe what Peterson is getting at here IS something different than what we imply when we drop the word grace lightly. Something to think about.
This idea captures it, I think:
The world. . .is protean: each generation has the world to deal with in a new form. World is an atmosphere, a mood. It is nearly as hard for sinner to recognize the world’s temperature as it is for a fish to discover impurities in the water. There is a sense, a feeling, that things just aren’t right, that the environment is not whole, but just what it is eludes analysis. We know that the spiritual atmosphere in which we live erodes faith, dissipates hope and corrupts love, but it is hard to put our finger on what is wrong.A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, chapter 1, p. 15
We’re about something deeper here. He says, “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.”
It’s the very thing that I feel like I received a picture of in my growing up years in a Pentecostal Evangelical church. I, as well as anyone, can see the faults and spiritual weaknesses my upbringing bequeathed me. However, I can also see that we’ve lost something over the years, and I think what we have lost is this: the idea that living life as a disciple of Christ will cost us something. The part that might’ve been falsely advertised to my growing up self is that it’s something external to give up: the movies, or pants on women, or makeup. No, it’s something internal we give up—whatever it is that makes us grow away from God. It’s not something we can choose to wash off or put on. It’s not instant anything. I can’t help but be reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words:
The Cost of Discipleship
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction uses the Psalms of Ascent as a way to understand the Christian life. Peterson explains that the feasts of the Old Testament, which were the Jews’ motivations for making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, also speak to something of the Christian journey: Passover corresponds to salvation or redemption, Pentecost to the assurance of identity through God’s commandments, Tabernacles to the assurance of preservation through God’s blessings. We are pilgrims on a journey with a real destination in mind, not tourists visiting a strange country to see what it has to offer. It’s a very inviting way to think about the Christian life. My curiosity is piqued!