I'm a bit stunned this morning that I have never yet included a "readings"
review of a Eugene Peterson book. His writings and teachings have
shaped me profoundly as a pastor and as a theologian. At Regent
College, I was privileged to take 3 courses with him and to have him as
our small group host for two years- while he was working on the Old
Testament translations for The Message. My favorite book of his is Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Most impacting is the pastoral series beginning with Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work.
So, you can see, I'm a bit surprised that I have never yet offered a
review of any of his works. I'm correcting that omission today.
light of some (more) recent pastoral scandals in North America, I
picked up a book that every pastor should read. Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
(IVP). It was first published in 1980 while Peterson was pastoring in
Maryland, prior to his days of fame as the translator of The Message.
He was still just tinkering with translations back then… and I was
just coming to know Jesus as an eight-year old kid in Indiana.
title and theme is based upon a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: "The
essential think 'in heaven and earth' is… that there should be a long
obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always
resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."
launches from this quote into a study of the life-patter of successive
Psalms (120-134) that enable us to live in obedience to God for the
length of our days. The book is about traveling the long road of true
discipleship; following Jesus persistently and passionately. The book
recognizes the subtle temptations that lure many people off of the road
and offers a map and an alignment that, if used, will keep us free from
One conviction that under-girds the book, Peterson
notes in the 20th anniversary edition, is this: "That everything in the
gospel is livable and that my pastoral task was to get it lived."
(201) In this conviction, Peterson learned that this was "going to
take some time" so he "settled in for the long haul." (202) The
second under-girding conviction is this: "Scripture and Prayer." This
conviction works our practically by recognizing that a person is
"neither capable nor competent to form Christ in another person, to
shape a life discipleship in a man, woman or child. That is
supernatural work," Peterson notes, "and I am not supernatural. Mine
was a more modest work of Scripture and prayer- helping people listen
to God speak to them from the Scriptures and then joining them in
answering God as personally and honestly as we could in lives of
prayer." Peterson recalls that "this turned out to be slow work" and
in his impatience he would often get in the way of the Holy Spirit.
I'm at an age now that Peterson was when he wrote the
book. I'm recognizing now the need for longevity and sustained
righteousness in ministry that I had not recognized before. In my more
youthful days, the zeal of ministry overwhelmed everything, even my
pursuit of persistent holiness. Now, I sense I'm moving into a phase
of necessary consistency, of demonstrated endurance, of prolonged
depth, of experienced passion. As a pastor, I'm recognizing that one
of the greatest witnesses I can give is to exercise obedience to God
over the every-day course of my life; to declare as possible a pattern
of joyous endurance of faith. This book helps remind me of that and
helps teach me to live it.
Peterson concludes the 20th anniversary edition with this imaginative scene that reveals the power behind this book:
"I sometimes amuse myself by imagining Friedrich Nietzsche, who
announced the death of God and who is now long dead himself, showing up
in my study as I'm writing my books. He looks over my bookshelves and
sees part of a sentence he wrote as a title on one of my books. He
learns that I wrote teh book. He beams (although I do have trouble
imagining Nietzshe beaming). How pleased he is to find that I have
kept his wonderful sentence "A long obedience in the same direction" in
circulation into the third Christian millennium.
takes the book off the shelf and looks through it. His face furrows
into an angry frown. The old atheist was convinced that Christians, by
promoting the weak and ineffectual Jesus to keep the weakest,
spiritually diseased, morally unfit and inferior parts of the
population alive and reproducing, were a malign influence on
civilization and would be the ruin of us all. He thought he'd
delivered a death blow, and now he finds us still at it.
love imagining him standing there angry and appalled, beard smoking,
astonished that these weak, inadequate, ineffectual and unfit
Christians are alive still, and still reproducing." (206)
** Peterson, Eugene H. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2000.