A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
I spoke Sunday at Gresham Bible Church, a recently-formed fellowship with lots of “former-kids” in their mid-twenties. It was Father’s Day, and my daughter Angela introduced me. Her kind words brought tears to my eyes. (No matter who says what about my books or my life, I always care most what my wife and daughters think, because next to God they know best who I really am.)
As I spoke, I looked out at these people thinking how thirty years ago Nanci and I were in the brand new Good Shepherd Community Church (in Boring, Oregon, believe it or not—the local ministerial group was called The Boring Pastors’ Fellowship.) Our first service was May 1, 1977. I was a twenty-two year old pastor, who didn’t know beans.
Thirty years later, I’ve still got a lot more to learn, but I’ve got a little more to offer, some of it learned the hard way. (Have you had the experience of spending so many years being the young guy, that you’re sometimes shocked to look around the room and realize you’re the oldest? Okay, I turn 53 next week, so I’m not a fossil, but you get the idea.)
So anyway, I offered some fatherly advice to these twenty-somethings, including Paul’s five word purpose statement from Philippians 3, “I want to know Christ.” Then I shared more fatherly advice from the aged John who wrote in the final sentence of his first letter, “Little children, keep yourself from idols.”
We talked about our cultural idols of Materialism and Sexual Impurity, and how these are broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:11-13). They will never satisfy. Jesus is the Headwaters of Joy and Fulfillment, from Whom the lesser streams of delight flow: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:37-38).
Last month Nanci and I attended a thirty year reunion of our old church college group from Powell Valley Covenant Church, less than a mile from where we live. About forty of us came. We sang the old songs. And I mean old. See those colorful song sheets in the picture?
I came to Christ in 1969, as a sophomore in high school. If you were in a church youth group in the late sixties and early seventies, do you remember “He’s Everything to Me” and “Do Lord” and, preserve us, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and yes, the unforgettable “Kum By Yah”? But the best songs were straight from Scripture, such as “God is my Refuge,” from Psalm 46.
So here Nanci and I were with these old friends, some of whom we see at church, others we hadn’t seen in decades. (Check out my old buddy Larry Gadbaugh leading worship. He’s now director of Portland Pregnancy Resource Centers, and still plays a mean guitar.) Several I didn’t recognize, then suddenly a name was shared, and then came a flood of memories of high school group retreats and Bible studies and Sunday nights at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor in Portland. We were kids again.
It struck me how incredibly quickly those thirty years had passed. And how we could pick right up where we left off. And how much suffering and loss was represented in that room. Check out Nanci and me with our parents on our wedding day in 1975. We’re orphans now—all four of our parents are with Jesus. (I can’t say that without praising God again for the miracle of my father’s conversion. I tell his story in my book In Light of Eternity. Father’s Day means so much to know I’ll see him again.)
At least four kids in our youth group have died, a few tragically. One woman’s husband had died; another’s sister; my best friend from childhood, Jerry Hardin, died in 1992 at age 38. (His story is also In Light of Eternity, and Finney’s death in my novel Deadline was modeled after Jerry’s—I was with him when he died, reading Revelation 22, and had just wiped tears from his eyes.)
Some marriages had died too, a couple had gone through mental breakdowns, others had financial meltdowns. Some had grown children on drugs and in jail, some had cancer and other illnesses. (I’ve got one of my own—insulin dependent diabetes, a thorn in the flesh that is God’s gracious gift to me.)
But it wasn’t a depressing evening – it was exactly the opposite. Here we were, laughing and crying and repeatedly saying “God has been faithful.” One woman who’d lost a child was struggling with depression. She almost didn’t come, but that night was therapy for her. We lingered late, and sounds of crying were buried under sounds of laughter. I thought of the promise of Jesus: “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21).
When we sang the biblical songs, instead of being disillusioned because they hadn’t proven true, we were encouraged because they were truer than we’d known back then. God had indeed been our refuge and our strength, a very present help in the time of trouble. He alone is worthy of the full weight of our trust.
It was exhilarating to look around and realize that by God’s grace, a number of us in the room had experienced what Eugene Peterson called, in his book title, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. We left that night, encouraged to finish well. Of course, death is not a hole but a doorway, and finishing well here will start us well in the life that will go on forever in the next world. What will it mean to hear our Savior and Master and Best Friend say to us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into Your Master’s Joy”?
Some of our old friends who love Jesus couldn’t make it to our college group reunion, due to distance, health or schedule conflicts. But there was one shadow on that wonderful evening: there were a number of others who could have come, but didn’t, for another reason. They aren’t walking with Jesus. So they didn’t want to be in a room of Jesus-followers. They didn’t want to feel guilty and out of place. Thirty years ago they fit. But because of the cumulative daily choices made between then and now, they no longer fit, nor perhaps would they want to.
So I challenged those young people at church on Sunday: Understand how quickly your life will pass. And if God gives you another thirty years here, live them in such a way so that when you receive an invitation to your church’s 30-year reunion, you will want to come instead of stay away.
Nanci and I thank God that we don’t just love Jesus as much as we used to, we love Him more. That is to His credit, and we’re deeply grateful. He’s what makes it so exciting and so worthwhile, and He’s the one who empowers us to walk “a long obedience in the same direction.”
More than ever, I want to know Christ.
How about you?