German Nihilism and Christian Practice (or, the most pretentious title I could think of)

I’m gonna open with a line that I stole from a guy named Eugene Peterson. Peterson, in turn, stole the line from noted German sadsack, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche claimed that “the essential thing in heaven and earth” is that there should be a “long obedience in the same direction.” Nietzsche believed that it was this sort of commitment that made a life worth living. Peterson, a pastor, most likely had very little in common with Nietzsche (himself an almost evangelical atheist). What Peterson found in this statement, though, was a truth that seemed to characterize the life of faith. Peterson’s own understanding of “true religion” was this long obedience.

This image of the “long obedience” has often been one of my favorite metaphors for my own faith journey. Direct. Consistent. Doggedly unromantic. Just my style. I tend to tire quickly of language that speaks of “big moments,” of the extremes of peaks and valleys. With no ill will intended towards such moments in the spiritual journeys of others, my own story has simply felt a great deal more ordinary.

So I attach myself to this picture: Tyler, on a road, walking toward Jesus. Hopefully He’ll see how hard I’m trying. If I’m lucky, He’ll be proud of me. I say to Jesus, in the incomparable words of the great Kris Kristofferson, “Tell me Lord if you think there’s a way I could try to repay all I’ve taken from you.” In short, I want to work. I want my faith to be on my shoulders, and maybe Jesus will take pity if he sees how much I’ve done.

Maybe some of you are here. Maybe you’ve seen Jesus as one testing you; as one who is waiting to see how much time you’ve spent with the poor before he doles out his blessings; as one who is waiting to see how you control your anger or your bitterness before he decides to make his face shine upon you.

But the problem with this whole enterprise is the Bible.

This morning I was reading the last bit of Psalm 139. Psalm 139 functions essentially as a treatise on God’s consistent presence and care in the lives of God’s children. David writes it this way:

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10 even there your hand will guide me,

It’s made clear from the beginning that, rather than our pursuit of God, the crux of the story seems to be God’s pursuit of us. In fact, the work required of us even rests upon this initiating work, this grace from God:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

24 See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

There is work to be done. There is a same direction in which we ought to practice a long obedience. But that road is marked first with surrender; with a daily acknowledgement that our thoughts are anxious; that within each of us lie offensive ways; that it is God who is leading us into the way everlasting.

Maybe you’re already there. Maybe grace is something that comes rather easily to you. If that is you, thank Jesus because that is beautiful. But for me, and I suspect for some of you, it’s a tough pill to swallow- that Jesus has been the initiator; that Jesus has chosen, before anything I may have done or left undone, to be for me.

See, I still believe deeply in a “long obedience in the same direction.” What I’ve been learning lately, though, is that Jesus is on the road with me. Jesus isn’t waiting at the end of the road; Jesus is the road. The way of Jesus is marked by the presence of Jesus. Jesus makes me able to forgive; Jesus makes me able to have an open heart instead of a closed one; Jesus makes me who I’m called to be. See, Jesus has come to find you and come to lead you in the way everlasting. If you’re worried about disappointing him, don’t be; he sees what you’ve done and what we’ve left undone and it doesn’t freak him out- in fact, he wants to carry it for you.
I pray that Jesus finds you today.


M. Tyler Ward, 1/8/16

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