A Long Obedience in a [Tedious] Direction

December 17, 2013

The early excitement of entering into treatment for lung cancer has worn off, though the fire burns steady and bright in my spirit. This week I entered Round 2 of chemotherapy (all the while continuing with daily radiation), and there is nothing new to report. Dare I say it? I have the routine down now, and without any drama or new happenings or side effects of note (!), I have been grasping for ideas to write about!

Is it true for you, too, that life’s routine puts you in a pattern of activity and behavior that isn’t very exciting? Perhaps I am bringing this up at the wrong time of year. I talked with a family yesterday that was celebrating “Christmas Eve” early due to the work and travel schedules of the adult children—that was fun and unusual! Your party/open house schedule might be too crazy for you to even think about spiritual things, and you can guess what I would say about that, I’m sure.

But let’s say life is marching along predictable paths, requiring a daily slog through the snow of known responsibilities, none of which offers immediate reward, affirmation, or excitement. A nod here goes to Eugene Peterson, and his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Assuming the path we’re on is the right and righteous one—consistent with the call of our Savior and Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ—what is helpful for our persevering?

For answers to this question, I have been reflecting on the long trek of the Israelites, after the excitement of their escape across the Red Sea (Exodus 14) and after the manna discipline had settled in (Exodus 16). What I see is a wilderness fraught with temptations all the more alluring given the tedious nature of their task. How many of these lurk at the edges of our long obedience?

The Temptation to Go Back to the “Before” Life (Exodus 15:22–16:3). Once the heavy realities of life in the wilderness sank in, the Israelites actually entertained the idea that they had it better under slavery in Egypt! This temptation is based on the lie that it was actually that good back then; I mean, pots of meat in Egypt? I don’t think so! On my timeline, I now refer to BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis), and the BC days were sweet, energetic, celebratory, and productive. The devil would like me to believe that the AD days cannot be sweet, powerful, joyful, and even productive. But of course, I have enjoyed all those gifts the Lord has given, because God himself has been very present and generous with his love and the TLC of his people.

The Temptation to Grumble (Numbers 14). As the harsh wilderness realities became an everyday burden, the Israelites started turning on Moses and complaining about his leadership, about the conditions, about their hunger and thirst. They were not happy campers, literally; and Moses heard about it, night and day. Every pastor I know has dealt with a grumbling congregation at one time or another. One would hope that during the Christmas season parishioners would stand down and thoroughly enjoy whatever unfolds. But no-o-o, the Advent candles are the wrong color, and my daughter/son was not chosen for the lead role in the Christmas pageant, and who ever heard of a 10 p.m. Christmas Eve service, and why can’t we sing traditional Christmas carols, etc., etc., etc. If I were to grumble about nit-picky details of daily life (and there are certainly opportunities to do so), I am simply squandering the opportunities to return thanks and to meditate on God’s goodness and strength, while spurning the considerable resources gathered to achieve my healing.

The Temptation to Make Things Happen (Exodus 32). When Moses took off to climb Mount Sinai, his departure was not without some explanation and fanfare. He was going into the smoke, fire, and thunder of the peak to meet God. The people were told to keep a safe distance and to wait, presumably for some revelation when Moses returned. But gee, he’s been gone for forty days, and we think he has ditched us, and so here we are out in the middle of nowhere with no leader, no God, and no entertainment. Hearing their complaints, Aaron has a brilliant idea (later denied in the funniest quotation of the Old Testament, Ex. 32:24). He tells the people to throw all their gold into the fire to melt it, and then he fashions a “golden calf,” an idol that becomes the honored guest at one heck of a party. [I want to know where they got the mold.]  The real temptation when life gets predictable and boring is to elevate an idol around which something interesting might happen. I will leave it to your imagination what that idol might be in your life, but for me, the idol can become the predictable schedule itself, or my computer, or the food I can still taste, or Downton Abbey reruns. Whatever it is, if it competes for God’s exalted position in my life, it must be kept in its place through discipline and wisdom and a long obedience empowered by the ever-present Holy Spirit.

So on this new day, may the Lord help us to see the temptations before we fall into their traps. May we do what is necessary—avert a gaze, turn off a machine, address the needs of others, whatever—to walk toward the God who meets us on the road to keep us going in the right direction, no matter how tedious it seems.



3 Responses to “A Long Obedience in a [Tedious] Direction”

  1. Scharleston8@aol.com Says:

    Dear Rev Mary I have been following your posts now for two years and this is the first time I have responded. Your courage to face what you are going through is certainly fed through your belief in God. I know from experience how demanding this is, and I wish there were words that could ease the pain and suffering. I do realize though how important it is to have others there with you to encourage and support. I only wish others had the belief in God that you demonstrate and could have the feeling on truly knowing that God is leading the way. Know you have a friend in SC that prays for you. Charles D. McFaddin scharleston8@aol.com 803-983-5888

  2. Jeff Winter Says:

    Excellent Well written Thoughtful Christ-centered. Mary, you have an extraordinary gift of prose. Thanks for sharing your journey with all of us.

  3. emd5542 Says:

    Dec 30: Of all the November-December blogs, each of which I treasure and welcome to drift into my spirit or perhaps even puncture it, this blog sent me to my book shelves to find Eugene Peterson’s wonderful and updated “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” As I leafed through to the end I was a bit surprised to note that I had read, highlighted and marked it up three different times in 2008, a tough year in a number of ways. And now I’ve read it again and made more notes. So thank you, Mary, especially for this blog, and the reminders of the forks in the road that tempted not only the people Israel but tempt us as well. The Songs of Ascents have much to say to us today. You and The Message man put them in perspective.

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