By Steven Norris
On Saturday morning, I have been granted the opportunity to gather in our church library for a public conversation about one of my spiritual heroes, Eugene Peterson. Peterson is probably best known for The Message, his translation of the Bible into modern language. While I never had the chance to meet Peterson in his lifetime, he has been a conversation partner with me through his 30 or more books on pastoral ministry and the Christian life.
One of those books is entitled, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, a title ironically borrowed from outspoken atheist, Frederich Nietzsche. In it, Peterson focuses his attention on a collection of 15 psalms known as the “Psalms of Ascents” and uses them as a framework for ongoing Christian discipleship.
In the 20th anniversary edition of the work, he was asked to reflect back on its writing and impact. He stated that his 30-year pastoral ministry was undergirded by the conviction that, “It was not enough that I announce the gospel, explain it or whip up enthusiasm for it. I wanted it lived — lived in detail, lived in the streets and on the job, lived in the bedrooms and kitchens, lived through cancer and divorce, lived with children and in marriage. Along the way I found that this also meant living it myself, which turned out to be a far more formidable assignment. I realized that this was going to take some time. I settled in for the long haul. That’s when the phrase ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ embedded itself in my imagination.…”
I am deeply convicted that the Good News of Jesus was meant to be lived. When I was nearing the end of my seminary education, numerous professors pushed me to consider enrolling in a Ph.D. program. I wrestled with the idea, but ultimately decided that I was not as interested in the minutiae of academic study as I was in the everyday wrestling of ordinary people with the realities of faith in action.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am glad that we have experts who have devoted their vocational lives to helping us better understand the nuance of theology, philosophy, biblical interpretation, ethics, and so on. However, I am much more interested in the lived expressions of our faith over hypothetical abstractions.
Writing to the Christians in Corinth, the Apostle Paul asserts, “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1). The Gospel message was never intended to merely reside in the pages of our Bibles or the copious volumes filling my bookshelves.
One of the biggest dangers that the church faces is the idolatry that results from exchanging lived obedience to the gospel for conversations and debates about the gospel. Jesus, the “Word made flesh,” meant for the life-giving message of faith to take on flesh in us as well.