A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Lenten Devotional – April 1, 1998
Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church, Dillon, Colorado
(Lord of the Mountains Lenten series consisted of 5 devotions on the theme “Welcome Home”, given by various members of the community. The first four were “Welcoming the Disabled”, “Welcoming the Immigrant”, “Welcoming the Homeless”, and “Welcoming the Adolescent”, “Welcoming the Orphan” by Deborah, was the last of the series.)
A reading from Matthew 9:34 – 38.
And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’
Welcoming the orphan needs to take place on many different levels. There is the international policy level, which requires that international ways be found to address the needs of the orphans on this earth. This is way beyond my ability to deal with, but certainly people have been called to work at this level. There is the national policy level, which requires that United States legislation be put into place to encourage countries to meet the needs of the orphans within their borders and to enable Americans to adopt orphans without it becoming a bureaucratic nightmare. This, too, is beyond my ability, though many have been called to put their time and energy into these worthwhile efforts. There is the local, community, congregational, activist level which encourages actively participating in the life of a particular orphanage overseas, raising money for a new roof or kitchen, gathering medical supplies, clothing and toys for the children. I have participated in that and it is rewarding, but it is not where I have put my greatest energy. There is the congregational level described in the “One Church, One Child” program. This, this congregation participated in without knowing it and before it became a national movement.
When we adopted James, Jesse and Amber, shortly after becoming members here, this congregation adopted us. We already had six children, some of them special needs, and when people realized we were adopting again they came up and said, “I cannot do what you are doing, but I can help you do it.” What a blessing everyone was to us. A shower was held, with cake and punch. We received gifts to help us meet the children’s needs and wants. We received money, bedding, skis, winter clothing, and dishes. We were even given a matched set of 12 dining room chairs to go around our 4 X 11 foot plywood table top! In short, Lord of the Mountains did exactly what is required of a “One Church, One Child” congregation, that is, raise up from amongst its members families who are able to make the emotional commitment to adopting a child and then making sure that family has the physical and financial resources to make it work. Since our adoption of James, Jesse and Amber, many more families have risen up and adopted children from all over the world and from all circumstances. This congregation continues to serve as a blessing in their lives and continues to truly “Welcome the Orphan” at this level.
Despite the needs of the children to have services provided at all these levels, those of you who know Paul and me, know that those were not the levels we operated on. We have chosen to work on the level of the parents who bring the children into their homes and raise them. Our vineyard is a small one, but we are working to reap a harvest from it.
As I begin to talk about what “Welcoming the Orphan” means to Paul and me I want to make sure that we don’t distinguish between “us” and “them”. We are all in this together. Almost all of us will lose our parents at some point or another and be orphaned. At some point, all of us are dependent on the kindness of strangers. Most of us temporarily have our parents to turn to. Some of us just have parents longer than others. Regardless of when we become parentless, our grief is unsurpassed and if we don’t understand the loss of our parents, we also can become very angry. Being parentless is a source of deep, emotional scarring and helping children and adults deal with it is the basis of my private therapeutic practice.
Parents are “God” in our lives. From our parents we learn unconditional love, trust of ourselves and others, a sense of our self and our gifts, a knowledge of our place in the universe…the same things we learn from God. Strictly speaking, being an orphan is a legally defined state. In a broader sense, however, being an orphan is a state of mind….not being an orphan is a state of grace. Some of our children have parents – us – and still see themselves and behave as if, they were orphans. Disconnected, rootless, valueless, no sense of their place in the universe. Many people with parents, but without the presence of God in their lives, are the same. Summit County, with its vast numbers of resort workers can almost be seen as a community of orphans. Young people flock here from around the world, leaving their families behind, disconnecting themselves from their parents for one reason or another, to find an identity separate from the one their families gave them. Sounds like an orphan to me.
Lord of the Mountains then has the responsibility to step into their lives and welcome them home, providing them with a family that can embrace them and let them know their place in the world. For God places members of our congregation in the same tension as a family places its members. Both families and churches must find a way to provide unconditional love coupled with the demand for reciprocity. A family says, “Welcome home, we love you, help with the dishes.” God says, “Welcome home, I love you, feed my sheep.”
Clinically, the elements of bonding and attachment are touch, eye contact, smiles, movement and food. These are the physical attributes and actions which create the emotional response in our body which tells us we are loved. Not to be touched, smiled at, is to be an orphan. These elements are present both in the life of the family and the life of our congregation. We come together for food. We touch each other and share the peace. We look into each other’s eyes, searching for both joy and pain. We mingle and move amongst each other in a variety of settings. And, we smile. We smile in each other’s faces and wordlessly let each other know how glad we are to be together, in this place, sharing our lives with each other.
What needs to be present in all that sharing of food, eye contact, smiles, movement and touch? In order for it to be accepted and trusted it must be committed. It must be present day after day, month after month, year after year.
When James was about 18 he attended a youth group meeting here in the county and the topic for the evening’s discussion was the existence of hell. After listening to the arguments intended to irrefutably establish the reality of hell, James, stood up to present what was, obviously, the minority view. He said, “For years I have stolen from my parents and this community. I vandalized and destroyed property. I drove recklessly and endangered people’s lives. I have been in and out of jail. Yet, my mom and dad have never abandoned me. They have loved me, written me, been present whenever I had to go to court, visited me in jail. They have always welcomed me home. In order for me to believe in hell I would have to believe that God loves me less than my mom and dad.”
What is involved, then, in adoption, in welcoming the orphan, is commitment. During this Lenten series the needs of the immigrant, the disabled, teens, and the homeless have all been lifted up. Whether these needs are to be met at some international, national or local levels requires that a commitment be made to meet them. Discipleship in an instant society requires a long obedience in the same direction.
A book sits on my shelf where I can see the title on the spine. It is one I read 25 years ago and which helped me chart the course of my life. It is called, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson. I haven’t read it in years. It is enough for me to look up and see the title. When I do open it up, I just read the opening paragraph, which is a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote, “The essential thing in heaven and earth is ….that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
It is generally not difficult to pique people’s interest in adoption or the plight of the orphan. Or, for that matter, to arouse sympathy for the needs of the homeless, the immigrant, the disabled. It is, however, terrifically difficult to sustain interest long enough to make a difference.
When I was in graduate school getting my Master’s degree in Social Work this story was told.
There was once a community beside a river, at the base of a falls. Periodically men, women and children could be heard floundering in the river, drowning. The community put together a rescue plan which involved a look out tower and alarm system so that as soon as someone was seen in the river rescue operations could be put into place. They were very proud of the ropes and boats and training provided so that those in the river could be saved. One day it was suggested that, since so much time and energy was being spent rescuing people, perhaps it would be worthwhile to go above the falls and see what was causing so many people to fall into the river so it could be prevented. What was discovered was that the community was very crowded and poor and people going to the river to bathe and get water would get bumped, lose their footing, and because there were no railings or safe boardwalks, they would be swept over the falls.
The social worker telling the story would smile smugly as the role self-assigned to our profession is to seek out and correct societal ills. Truly a valuable endeavor. However, what I tell you today is that it doesn’t make any difference where we are standing in relation to the river. It doesn’t make any difference where on the bank each of is standing, which human need or human justice issue falls within our view. We are called to go to the river and address it. We can serve above the river and prevent the cries of the needy. We can cast a net over the top of the falls and catch them before they go over the edge. We can stand at the bottom and prevent them from drowning. The point is…We must get to the river. We must get to the river and stay there, committing ourselves to the task at hand over the long haul, staying with the harvest through the heat of the day.
And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’.
Twenty five years ago I read that passage and prayed that the orphans of the world would find a shepherd, that someone would go into that harvest and be the laborer that gathered them in. And God said to me, “Deborah, this must be your lucky day. I am going to answer your prayers. I am going to send a laborer into the harvest. I am sending you.”
Today, God is saying the same thing to everyone in this room who dares to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send laborers into his harvest. God says, “This must be your lucky day. I am going to answer your prayers. I am going to send a laborer into the harvest. I am sending you.”