This week we look at chapter 14 in Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, which deals with Psalm 132 on the subject of Obedience.
“We want a Christian faith that has stability but is not petrified, that has vision but is not hallucinatory.” (p. 163) Peterson asserts that many experience religion as something “to help them with their fears but that is forgotten when the fears are taken care of; a religion made of moments of craziness but that is remote and shadowy in the clear light of the sun and the routines of every day.” (p. 162) He suggests, based on this assessment that the most religious places are “battlefields and mental hospitals,” (p. 162) but that “what most Christians do is come to church, a place that is fairly safe and moderately predictable.” (p. 163) So, while its true that we are careful to avoid the extremes mentioned, we don’t want a faith that is too safe–we want not the lukewarm middle, but the dynamic center.
Psalm 132 “roots obedience in fact and keeps our feet on the ground.” (p. 164) So, given this desire for a dynamic center from which to live the Christian life, we hear in this psalm (and in the Christian Tradition) “obedience as a lively, adventurous response of faith that is rooted in historical fact.” (p. 164) In remembering Israel’s experience with the ark of the covenant, the embodiment of God’s presence with them, they/we recall important facts about faith–“the importance of having God with you and the danger of trying to use God or carry him around.” (p. 165) “Biblical history is a good memory for what doesn’t work… [and] for what does work.” (p. 167)
Psalm 132 “gets [our feet] off the ground…for obedience is not a stodgy plodding in the ruts of religion, it is a hopeful race toward God’s promises.” (p. 168) That desire for a dynamic center from which to live the Christian life, we also hear in this psalm (and in the Christian Tradition) “obedience as a lively, adventurous response of faith that…reaches into a promised hope.” (p. 164) In taking a next step of faith, we are usually if not always becoming more of what we’ve always been. In other words, we are taking the essential character God has molded in us as Christians and as a Church and re-appropriating that to the present situation in which we find ourselves. Peterson says it this way: “Psalm 132 cultivates a hope that gives wings to obedience, a hope that is consistent with the reality of what God has done in the past but is not confined to it.” (p. 169, italics mine)
“Psalm 132 cultivates the memory and nurtures the hope that lead to mature obedience.” (p. 170) One of my favorite quotations is the one that begins this chapter from John Calvin. Often, the followers of Calvin and Wesley find themselves in disagreements on theology, but I don’t think that’s true here: “True knowledge of God is born out of obedience.” At the end, Peterson sums it up in this: “What [Christian living requires] is obedience–the strength to stand and the willingness to leap, and the sense to know when to do which.” (p. 171)
The “sense to know when to do which” is the real sticking point, is it not? Seems to me that people fall by temperament towards either being standers or leapers, so it is a spiritual discipline and an activity of the community of faith to discern that all-important sense of “when to do which.”