A Long Obedience, and Other Lessons Learned at Nineteen

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Photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash

Running, Galloping, or Anything with Horses

I didn’t want to run with the horses. A neighbor’s horse had once run under a tree branch in our back field, with me on his back, full intending to knock me off. I’d hit the branch. I had not fallen.

Another horse, a supposedly docile being on a trail ride, had been bitten by the beast behind him and reared up, again, with me on his back. The height of it is probably greatly exaggerated in my ten-year-old memory, but I remember the fear.

Our cousins’ ponies tried to bite me. Leaders of Girl Scout rides believed, erroneously, that we would all love to gallop. My best friend inducted me into typical elementary-schoolgirl horse fever, and I created an elaborate ranch on my bedroom wall of paper horses, all different, with names and histories. I loved my horses. I just didn’t love real ones.

My history with the equine family is sketchy.

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Photo by Florin-Alin Beudean on Unsplash

But Eugene Peterson said that Jeremiah said that God said—I had to run with the horses. At that point in my life, I trusted all three, although I remained a little unclear on who Jeremiah was.

Halls of Fame

An author rarely makes it into my mental Hall of Literary Fame. It takes excellence of storytelling, language, argument, depth, and truth to attain that level. Like a preacher who sits in the pews and can’t listen for unintentionally  critiquing (that is who I am), I admit only authors who take hold of my literary imagination. Pushing me theologically earns bonus points.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, who is certainly well-ensconced near the apex of my Hall, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished writers. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” 

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We lost Eugene Peterson in October. We lost—he gained. He is said to have passed with joy in his heart and greeting on his lips for the One he was going to meet but already knew well.

I met Peterson (through his work) at a crucial time in my development, literarily and theologically. A new freshman at Washington University, I was also a new Christian, stumbling and uncertain exactly what I had signed up for and if it had been the great idea I believed at the time.

As a new believer in a highly unbelieving university, it seemed the thing to join InterVarsity, and there I learned of an entire publishing house devoted to making me a smarter Christian. You can assume by the alma mater that I enjoyed being smarter. This has not changed.

A Long Obedience

Peterson stayed with me while others faded. He taught me early in my faith about a long obedience in the same direction and how to run with horses. He taught me what most nineteen-year-olds need to learn yet rarely can—how to allow for failure, to expect slowness rather than instant effectiveness. He taught me that discipleship was a hard road that required perseverance, not five-point plans.

Of course, I didn’t know I needed to know all that.

You can see how old the book is by the photo. I no longer go by that name. Haven’t for decades. I no longer mark my belongings with unicorn stamps either, although given the magic of books, it’s not amiss.

There are arrows and asterisks and a few underlines in the text of A Long Obedience. Not many. I was still at an age where I believed books were not to be written in, sacred pages that should remain virgin white because someone in a library had told me that probably.

I didn’t know that a book is made more sacred by its highlighting, underlining, exclamation points, and creases. I bet Peterson could have taught me that, too.

The chapter that contains most all the underlining is called “Joy: Our Mouth Was Filled with Laughter.” I clearly felt the need for joy at that point. Not surprising, since my college years were flooded with grief at my mother’s passing a few weeks before high school graduation, my dad’s descent into alcoholism, and a close friend’s suicide. Peterson met me when I needed joy, and I didn’t know how to acquire it on my own.

“One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find. We come to God because none of us has it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. We try to get it through entertainment. Society is a bored, gluttonous king, employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal.

But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing.”

Did Peterson pave the way in my soul to be one of those who would not rest without excavating what God was doing? Did he play a role in my decision not to pursue law school but ministry instead?

I know, from my note-taking, that he offered me a way to find the joy that had evaporated from my heart. Choosing joy is a decision I would have to make over and over, given my propensity to be more negative than the average bear. Somewhere in that long obedience, the joy stuck, and the negativity is what evaporated, though it’s always a beast that requires patrolling of the borders.

Peterson found me when I needed a wise pastor, and that he was. I hope he helped make me a wise pastor in return. Thank you, good brother, for being who you were and for speaking words that will not die with you.

When Following Your Passion Feels Like Failure

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I couldn’t explain the tug on my heart to work with refugees and immigrants. I just knew it was there, under the surface, staying strong through the years of raising kids and going to seminary.

But though I downloaded World Relief volunteer applications three times, I never filled them out.

I had those kids, after all. Three busy, zany little girls. Add part-time associate pastoring and a writing career, and – who had time?

The Passion and the Fear (Not a Novel)

Plus, there were the fears. Introvert fears. Some of you understand. I can speak in front of 500 people and barely sweat, but make me do a one-on-one with a stranger? Terror level 5. I am Mrs. Awkward when it comes to thinking of something – anything – to say in conversation. Especially conversation with a stranger who doesn’t know English.

So I left the passion on low burner for years. 

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Until the photo that jarred so many people – the one of the little boy drowned trying to escape unimaginable horror – jarred me, too.

His parents were scared of bombs and gunmen at the door. Then the worst thing that can possibly happen had happened to them – they lost their dearly loved child. Suddenly, my fears seemed pretty feeble, even to my well-rationalized mind.

When I downloaded and filled out that application to volunteer with World Relief though, I found out that finally following my passion wasn’t the straight line I thought it would be.

Sometimes you don’t find your passion on the first try.

I agreed to be a friendship partner for a woman who had been in the US five months. She knew little English, and she rarely left her house except for working the night shift. I went to be her friend, to chat and to help her acclimate to her new normal.

But every week, the same reluctance dragged me down on the drive over. I didn’t love it. Every minute was hard. I was glad when she had to cancel. I tried to teach ESL to another woman. The same thing happened. I was absolutely committed to doing what they needed, but why did I not feel joy over finally following that passion?

Why was I failing at this thing I knew I was called to?

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It’s OK to get it wrong.

What I was doing wrong wasn’t the volunteering or the organization. It was trying to fit into molds that weren’t “me.” I assumed that if I got out there and did it, God would provide me with the love of the job. He’d work his magic and all my awkwardness would disappear. As it happens, God wasn’t really interested in “making” me do something I’m bad at.

I tell my kids there are only a couple decisions that are final: getting pregnant and jumping out of a plane. The rest you can mostly back out of, and it doesn’t make you a terrible person.

It’s so easy to think, “I’ve failed, so I’m done. I was wrong about my calling – the end.”

We convince ourselves that one failure means we won’t ever get it right. And I failed twice. What I found out was that one, or two, failures don’t mean I wasn’t called. It meant I was learning. When I stopped blaming myself for not being good enough or loving enough to make those partnerships work, I could recognize they just weren’t good fits for me.

Something else would be.

It’s OK – it’s imperative for your heart and soul – to try again.

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I found my passion with World Relief completely by accident. I had also signed up as a driver who could bring people to appointments, welcome them at the airport, or, in this case, transport students to and from homework club. The volunteer coordinator told me I could stay at the club and help out or I could go somewhere else until it was time to bring the kids home – my choice. Planning to go and get other work done, I unintentionally ended up staying.

I never left. That first day, I remembered how much I had loved teaching high school and how deeply I connected with teens. These teens were funny, silly, and ambitious, much like most American teens I’ve met. I got hooked on homework club, and it’s where I know now God had planned for me all along.

It’s so tempting to think, in those detours that look so much like absolute failures, we just aren’t in the right place. We were wrong about our passion. We didn’t really understand God’s voice. What I discovered was that sometimes, the failures prepare us for the place we will succeed.

I was learning, in those awkward one-on-one experiences with adult refugees, how to understand their cultures and how to act in a way that respected where they were from. By the time I got to the high school, I could start on easy footing with the kids, unworried that I would culturally misstep because I’d practiced for this, unknowingly. I understood some of their home dynamic because I’d seen it from the inside. My gifts and experience match their needs.

I don’t drive to the high school reluctantly. I go with joy. I found my passion. It just required a few detours first.

Originally posted on The MOPS Blog