I just started re-reading a great book called, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene H. Peterson (translator of The Message). Given our commercial-driven culture, going in any direction for a long period of time may seem a bit daunting – but it may be just the exercise we need. The subject of this book is one of discipline and discipleship. These two words will probably not send a thrill up your leg – they are increasingly unpopular commodities in our instant society, but healthy discipline remains the best means by which we can accomplish both ordinary and extraordinary tasks with excellence. Even so, it is difficult exercising discipline because it often means telling ourselves no, or worse yet, wait.
Discipleship also seems a foreign concept, as it carries with it the task of looking to another for guidance and potentially being that person’s apprentice. In loose terms this means, “I don’t work for me. I don’t call the shots.” While discipline and discipleship are words that I use everyday with my children, they garner less and less attention from our world. But do we ever outgrow our need for discipline?
Shows like The Apprentice propose to give us a picture of this old model, but fail miserably as hopefuls, looking to get on the fast track to corporate America, appear more like divas then disciples. Peterson suggests that we have little regard for discipline and this exists in every part of our society. In step with the culture religious people have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist seeking entertainment and instant gratification. He writes:
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.
I love this statement. It reminds me that most things of value really don’t come easily, but take time, patience and perseverance. Watching the Olympics has reminded me of this truth and of the incredible amount of skill and discipline necessary to even be called a part of the Olympic team.
Now we are all subject to whims and passing fancies, my self, included. For instance a few days ago a friend and I began toying with the idea of an Olympic bid, ourselves, in 2014 – sport TBD. Ill-fated dreams aside, the reality is you don’t simply toy around with making the Olympic team. You set a very specific goal and work toward it. These athletes have a disciplined regimen which requires that they train hours each day for years at a time in their specialty with narrow hopes of making the team.
While not everyone is suited for the Olympics this model of discipline is one to be considered if not admired. Most Olympians train and apprentice themselves to a coach/athlete who competed in the past. They train, study and attempt to follow in their footsteps. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer who are willing to become an apprentice and submit to the discipleship of another.
We aren’t the first generation or society to experience this conflict – the allure of that which is quick and easy versus the steady and applied discipline has been around since the fall of man. The struggle isn’t new. Only the distractions are different. Human nature is constantly striving to do more and more, faster and faster. Conversely, Peterson points out that the healthy Christian life is not lived by taking shortcuts; rather, it is a pilgrimage of sorts. So through the chapters of this book, he takes us on a meditative journey through 14 Psalms. These Songs of Ascent represent a literal and figurative pilgrimage that the Israelites made as they traveled up to Jerusalem from the surrounding regions.
Through the Psalms we are reminded that the journey of faith is not for the faint of heart, but that it likely begins when we come to the end of ourselves and our belief that we can fix what is wrong with ourselves and our world. Peterson writes:
A person has to be totally disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.
It’s funny how some things never change. This could have been written yesterday, whereas, it was written 30 years ago. We are still hoping for the same things, disappointed when our officials don’t live up to our expectations, and frustrated when our best laid plans don’t work out. When we place hopes for our salvation in men, women and technology they will always let us down.
I find the Songs of Ascent and the discipline they offer comforting. They remind me that there are many who have traveled this path before me and those who still choose to make this pilgrimage. Some call this faith a crutch, but it is much worse – it is a death to our self and the ways of the world. But what we get in exchange for our lives is more than apprenticeship. We gain Sonship as we are adopted by God as sons and daughters with all of the rights guaranteed an heir.
I take great delight in knowing that the answers to my problems are not found in the mountains of the earth or the depths of the sea. My salvation does not rest in a man or a technology but in the Lord, my God, maker of heaven and earth.