A Long Obedience

By Jon Jordan

Carl was the only Lutheran in his little town of Catholics. That was okay, but the neighbors had a problem with his barbecuing venison every Friday. Since they couldn’t eat meat on Friday, the tempting aroma was getting the best of them. So the neighbors got together and went over and persuaded Carl to join their church. The big day came and the priest had Carl kneel. He put his hand on Carl’s head and said, “Carl, you were born a Lutheran, you were raised a Lutheran, and now,” he said as he sprinkled some holy water over Carl’s head, “now splash you are a Catholic!” Carl rose, and asked the priest if he could have a bit of holy water for home use, and the priest obliged.

Carl was happy and the neighbors were happy. But the following Friday evening at suppertime, there was once again that same aroma coming from Carl’s yard. The neighbors went to talk to him and as they approached the fence, they heard Carl saying: “You were born a whitetail deer, you were raised a whitetail deer, and now,” he said with a sprinkle of holy water, “now, splash you are a rainbow trout!”

This is probably my favorite kind of joke. To those who study literary tropes (primarily nerds or screenwriters), this one is known as “Comically missing the point.”

Another favorite scene of mine in this category is from Mary Chase’s play Harvey about a man who sees an invisible bunny, and the havoc these visions wreak on his social life.

One line from the main character models this “missing the point” well: “I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd.’ I turned, and there was this big white rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that, because when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.”

So far I have used NPR’s Prairie Home Companion and a Pulitzer Prize-winning theater production to illustrate this trope. But I am not really that sophisticated. So here’s an example from the great ’90s film Dumb and Dumber:

Lloyd finally has an opportunity to talk to the love of his life, Mary.

Lloyd begins: I want to ask you a question, straight out, flat out, and I want you to give me the honest answer. What do you think the chances are of a guy like you and a girl like me ending up together?

Mary responds: Well Lloyd, that’s difficult to say. We really don’t …

Lloyd interrupts: Hit me with it! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you Mary, just. … The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?

Mary: Not good.

Lloyd gulps, his mouth twitching: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?

Mary: I’d say more like one out of a million.

Lloyd pauses to process what he has heard, and then smiles: So you’re telling me there’s a chance.

“Comically missing the point.” This is a little how I feel reading today’s all-too-familiar Gospel passage.

There are a number of startling features scattered throughout today’s reading. This passage includes a ghost sighting and humans walking on water. If I was one of the disciples, those are moments I would never forget.

As I spend more and more time with this passage, I think the real surprise might just be found in verse 23: Jesus himself took time out of his day to pray.

Now I am too committed to reading the Bible on its own terms to pretend that this is the main point of the passage. It probably isn’t even one of the main points of the passage. In one sense, by focusing on this one part of the narrative today, we may be missing the point of the whole passage.

But this happens often enough throughout the Gospel narratives that it is worth spending some time considering today: The reality is that Jesus regularly stops what he is doing, goes off by himself, and prays. And he does this even when surrounded by crowds that desperately need his healing and teaching. And I, at times, find this surprising.

“And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.”

Jesus did this constantly.

In our Collect this morning we prayed for God to grant us “the spirit to think and do always those things that are right.”

We asked God, in other words, to give us the spirit of his Son. We asked God to make us like Jesus.

Sometimes when it comes to our faith, we simply lose the ability to reason clearly. I’m not just talking about snake handlers, or those who continually attempt to predict the return of Jesus. I mean you, and I mean me.

Let me give you an example of what I am talking about:

What does it take to become a great athlete?

A regimented diet. An exercise routine. A coach, or two, or three. A goal. Practice.

Gary Player, the great South African golfer, was once asked by a reporter after a particularly impressive round if he felt lucky that day.

“Sure,” he responded. “But I’ve noticed that the more I practice, the luckier I seem to be.”

We know that it takes a great deal of effort to become a successful athlete. The same is true of every other area of life.

How do you learn an instrument? A new skill? A new language? How do you learn to walk? To speak? To listen in a way that your wife knows you are actually listening? (No, seriously, I’m asking.)

None of these things “just happen.” They take work. They take effort. And sometimes they take a lifetime of work and effort to see any real fruit. This is simply how God has created us to learn and grow.

But here is where we sometimes stop thinking clearly about our faith:

What does it take to be a great Christian? In other words: What does it take to respond properly to the free grace we have been given in Christ?

Does it take work? Does it take effort? Does it take a regimented day? Or a coach, or two, or three?

Or does it just “happen”?

More often than not, I think you and I trick ourselves into thinking it just happens.

We have no reason to believe that God will answer our prayer to make us more like Jesus simply by zapping us with supernatural, no-effort-on-our-part holiness. We want convenience-store holiness. Conveyor belt holiness. Amazon Prime, two-hour free delivery holiness.

But the pages of the New Testament are full of calls to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” To “train ourselves for godliness.” That “faith without works is not weak faith, but dead faith.” You would have to search far and wide to find a command in Scripture to “sit and wait while God makes you holy through no effort of your own.”

And yet you and I still trick ourselves into thinking it can just happen.

Forty years ago Eugene Peterson wrote one of my favorite books, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Peterson was able to diagnose then one of our culture’s greatest collective diseases today: our preference for the cheap, and the casual, and the instantly available.

Peterson writes that “One aspect of our world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently.”

So if becoming like Jesus does not happen in an instant, how does it happen?

If it is not something that can be done quickly, and efficiently, how can it be done?

I have not read many recent authors who answer these questions better than the late Dallas Willard, who says this: “We can become like Jesus by doing one thing — by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself.”

To become an athlete, you need to live the way an athlete lives: dedicating hour after hour each day to practicing mundane physical actions, submitting your desires for food, for entertainment, and for sleep to your true desire to become a great athlete.

To become a musician, you need to live the way a musician lives: dedicating hour after hour each day to the practice of mundane physical actions, sacrificing time with family and friends to study music theory, committing to spend more time practicing music this year than you did last year.

This is actually how “conversion” worked all throughout the Old Testament. How did you become a “believer” in the Old Testament? How did you go from “outside” to “inside” the covenant family of God?

You were not asked to mentally assent to a list of doctrines. You did not sign off on a statement of faith. What did you do? You began to live the way the Israelites lived. You adopted their diet, and you participated in their rituals. Your minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years were shaped by your identity as God’s child.

There was no such thing as an Israelite who did not celebrate the Passover. There was no such thing as an Israelite who “wasn’t really into praying.” To be an Israelite was to celebrate Passover, and to pray. If you wanted to join God’s family, you could: but it involved following the overall lifestyle of the people of Israel.

“We can become like Jesus by doing one thing — by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself.”

And while there is so much more to this “overall style of life that Jesus chose for himself,” we know for sure that this style of life was one that was permeated by prayer.

Like any good Jew in first-century Palestine, Jesus’ day was shaped by regular moments of prayer, fixed moments in time when he would pause from his day to spend time in prayer.

This is not a new concept. It is something that we have lost, and that we desperately need to rediscover if we have any hope of living a Jesus-shaped life in our 21st-century American context.

The earliest Christians continued this Jewish practice, and within a few centuries even began to expand it a bit. Christians who were called to a monastic life would actually participate in nine different prayer services a day. Each of these services involved serious time reading Scripture and praying. Most of them could last up to an hour.

If you are doing the math, you are realizing what I am realizing: for those living in a monastery, nine of their waking hours were spent in prayer. This saves little room for doing important and valuable work in the world, for caring well for a family, for leisure and rest and countless other good things that we are called to do. It works well if you are a monk. But most of us are not monks.

In the 16th century, Thomas Cranmer thought the same thing. During the English Reformation, he did the difficult work of translating, compiling, and writing what would become the first English Book of Common Prayer. His vision was that all English-speaking Christians could participate in fixed-hour prayer throughout the week. Instead of nine services, there were now four. Instead of being up to an hour each, he recognized that some needed to be really short if they were to be done faithfully.

What we have inherited today in the 1979 prayer book is four daily services: Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. Morning and Evening, if all the Scripture readings are included, might take 20 to 45 minutes each. Noonday prayer and Compline, I have found, each take about five minutes. (There is even a single-page version of each on page 137).

Each of these services includes prayers and at least some Scripture readings. They are meant to be read in community. (The “Common” in Book of Common Prayer does not mean “ordinary” but rather “communal.”) But they can be read on your own as well. Cranmer envisioned an English Church that extended beyond the Sunday service. By pausing throughout each of our days throughout the entire week, the Daily Office prepares God’s people to encounter Jesus in the Scriptures day after day.

This, perhaps more than anything else, is what drew me to the Anglican Communion. But here is the harsh reality: when I got here I realized something: nobody really does this.

That is certainly an overgeneralization, and I would be thrilled to discover that I am wrong about this. But I don’t think I am. I think that most of us (including me) are missing out on one of the great gems of the Christian faith, and of our specific Anglican heritage. And it disappoints me to think about it. Not because I faithfully practice the Daily Office, and I wish all you heathens did as well: it disappoints me because I don’t always regularly do so. I knew coming into this tradition that I am not the most naturally disciplined person out there. I was hoping for a sort of “holy peer pressure” to force me to do these things I knew I needed to do.

So, along with me and my family, consider today and this week what it would look like to work toward entering more fully into this practice.

You will likely not find it instantly refreshing, though you may. It will be awkward for a while. You will probably need a guide the first few times. The fact that it takes help to navigate the prayer book is a feature, not a bug.

I cannot promise that the days when you spend time in Morning Prayer will prove to be better days than those in which you don’t. This is an exercise, a practice. And few exercises produce instant results.

But I do know this: if I begin to run a few miles every day, I will be in better shape a month from now. And if I continue that practice for a year, I will see some sort of result. The mundane daily grind offers little more than mental satisfaction that I am not as lazy as I think I am. But the cumulation of this daily act of running — “a long obedience in the same direction” — simply does produce results.

The same is true, I have found, of praying the Daily Office.

Begin and end every day of your life with a mundane confession of your sin to God and you will eventually begin to have more compassion on that annoying coworker, or that otherwise wonderful spouse.

Read Psalm 121 every day during lunch and you will eventually begin to look to God for help when you need it most, and begin to recognize the ways in which he already watches over you.

Here is where to start:

Pray more this week than you did last week.

Use the Daily Office as a guide. Use the single-page version of the Daily Office as training wheels if you need to. There is no shame in baby steps.

Because we will not become more like Jesus if we do not adopt the overall life of prayer that he chose for himself.

Before I close I want to make sure that something is clear:

Because of the work of Christ, the door to God’s family is wide open. There’s nothing you can do that will get you in that door. God’s grace is amazing, free, and offered through no merit of our own. Those who least deserve it actually receive it most fully. No exceptions. Full stop.

But once you are in the family of God, you are not finished, and God is not finished with you. “Getting in” is not the only goal. In a sense, once you are in God’s family, your real work begins.

It is difficult work, but there is nothing more rewarding, both in this life and in the next, than slowly and steadily becoming more like Jesus.

“And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.”

The Rev. Jon Jordan is a priest at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, and serves as head of Coram Deo Academy’s Dallas campus.


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