A Long Obedience...Does it Matter?

 Do you remember the sloganAll the sugar and twice the caffeine?   During an era when less was more, CJ Rapp witnessed fellow college students concocting drinks designed to help them fight off sleep late at night while writing papers or studying for exams. He saw a potential niche in the beverage market but it would require bucking the current trend at the time.  His drink was named "Jolt" and it contained a lot of sugar and a lot of caffeine. It became quite the hit, landing Jolt's creator on the David Letterman Show as well as followup appearances on "Good Morning America and CNN. Today, after undergoing numerous restructures, the company produces 10 drinks sold in 22 countries.  Why its popularity?

I would characterize the culture in which we now live as the “jolt” culture.  Last night, I watched a few minutes of the popular show “Bachelorette” while catching a few minutes of “So You Think You Can Dance.”  It struck me again how everyone, especially the younger generation, is looking for something instantaneous, some jolt to make one feel alive, feel like life has purpose or that my life has meaning.  I suspect this struggle is not isolated to the present generation though I would argue that it seems more prevalent.  And I would also argue that it is not conducive to healthy spirituality.  Eugene Peterson prophesied about this trend nearly 30 years ago when he wrote these words:

    One aspect of our culture 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.  Our attention spans have been conditioned by 30-second commercials.  Our sense of reality has been flattened by 30-page abridgments. There is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier Christians called [faithfulness].

We have an aversion today to boredom, ordinariness, and the normal routines of life.  They don’t, we wrongly assume,  seem to offer us much.  Because of this aversion, it seems to me that faithfulness is at stake.  Peterson, borrowing from Nietzsche, defines faithfulness as “a long obedience in the same direction,” authoring a book by that sentence.  Our culture has implicitly as well as explicitly devalued faithfulness.  But God places a premium on it.  The wise king of proverbial fame once asked, a faithful man who can find?  He also emphasized its importance in words like these:  Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.  And then this admonition: Let not your heart envy sinners but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.—or with a perseverance.  Surely there is a future and your hope will not be cut off.  One more example from Proverbs:  Steadfast love and faithfulness preserve a king.  At one point, Solomon exhorts us to go and observe the ant, who needs no leader or prodding, to busily be about life in a steady faithfulness.  The ant teaches us the importance of a long obedience in the same direction.

I doubt this comes as a surprise to you but that doesn’t make it any easier in our jolt society.  Did you know that anything of deep, lasting and eternal value comes from a steady, slow march over an extended period of time?  Did you know that $25 set aside each week for 40 years, at a modest return rate, yields nearly a half of million dollars at retirement?  Did you know that buying a house requires faithful monthly payments for 30 years, provided you don’t refinance, before you can burn the mortgage and call it your own?  Did you know that a good marriage is built on walking the peeks and valleys of life together, forgiving, laughing and faithfully taking care of the boring business of life together over 30+ years?  Did you know that parenting requires a learning curve of 20 years and then only changes, perhaps making it possible for us to be decent grandparents?  Did you know that good church community requires more than a 12-week small group or occasional attendance on a Sunday morning but a long journey together, bearing with one another, forgiving and being forgiven, learning compassion, helping each other, and worshiping together weekly in times that are occasionally exciting, often routine, and sometimes quite boring?

The allure of the jolt is “now."  The payoff is immediate, not knowing that it really leads to death of the soul. But then we have a proverb for that as well:  there is a way that seems like life that in the end leads to death.  The fool is seduced by the seductress, by her beauty and her inviting eyes only to discover later that he was an ox being led to slaughter, having taken burning coals into his lap.

The allure of faithfulness is later, much later.  It requires faith (since that word is part of faithfulness:-) ) to believe something better is down the road that makes enduing the routine and the boredom worth it. In fact, faithfulness doesn’t just endure routine and boredom but understands its value in cultivating character. The faithful man also lives embracing a thirst for something more than this life can provide.  He is not fooled by a promise of “now" that cannot deliver later. I cannot lie.  Faithfulness is not exciting.  But it is pleasing, pleasing to our God who rewards it, a bit now in ways we can’t much see but certainly when we stand before him and enter His eternal joy with the words Well done, good and faithful servant.

Faithfulness matters to God. A long obedience in the same direction matters because it is where wisdom is discovered and character developed and we are a society badly in need of solid people of character.  Thinking about this topic and watching TV last night reminded me of the words of God through the prophet Jeremiah.  He basically suggested that those who pursue worthless idols become worthless individuals.  In other words, addicted to jolts, we become superficial people who have little to no substance to offer a world desperately looking for stability, looking for something to lean into that won’t crumble.  

Faithfulness matters.  I recently got into a funk and had a meltdown at our last elders' meeting.  I will spare you the details but it centered around this notion of wondering if what I was doing as a pastor mattered at all.  I have been walking a long time with a group of people, hopefully obediently and patiently.  But I lost my bearings.  I wondered if it matters, if this whole thing of faith is but a cosmic joke.  I could not see any effect of my faithfulness and heard little to nothing except the occasional time I wasn’t doing it right.  But one of the elders reminded me of what I am now writing about and how our faithfulness matters to each other, to the next generation and perhaps to the generation that follows this one, mostly in ways undetected and that will most likely remain so.  For we--right now, today—are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that kept going even though they did not receive what was promised, even though they could have settled but didn’t, even though they were terribly thirsty for something, some place, Someone.  They are cheering us on, reminding us that it is possible to be faithful (not perfectly, mind you) even when the pull otherwise is strong.  So, what if my walking a long obedience in the same direction matters a great deal to God, to you, to my son/daughter, to your son or daughter?  Take the question out of that last sentence because it DOES matter! 

I can’t guarantee you much but there is one thing from the Bible that I am sure of:  God rewards those who are faithful, those willing to be about a long obedience in the same direction, not turning left or right, or doing a u-turn when others are because it doesn’t seem to be paying off NOW. So, persevere.  Keep going.  To each of the 7 churches, Jesus said, To him who overcomes….  It doesn’t mean we arrived at some level of flawlessness.  It means we persevered, we didn’t settle and we didn’t quit.  We kept walking toward God, trusting that He was and is doing the good work of making us like Jesus and doing what is necessary to get us home.

So, get up and do what you know you should do.  Go to work tomorrow.  Brush your teeth and floss.  Help you neighbor.  Go to church and participate meaningfully in whatever way the Spirit prompts you no matter how much you might dislike something happening in your Fellowship.  Pay your bills and help your kids and take out the trash.  Do this over and over again, all under the belief that God sees, takes notice, and uses it all to mature us.

The best is yet to come!  Live under God’s peace and grace.

Kent