One of my favorite books from years ago is Eugene Peterson’s masterpiece A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. As a society, we are no less obsessed with the immediate than when Eugene Peterson first wrote this Christian classic. If anything, email and text messaging may have intensified our quest for the quick fix. But Peterson reminds us that discipleship remains the same: a long obedience in the same direction.
The eBook that we just made available from Prof. N.T. Wright, A New Way of Thinking, reminded me of my own theological formation. Yes, I did the obligatory formal schooling. I still treasure those years of grueling, yet wonderful study under the guidance of brilliant men and women.
But I cannot ignore the profound information about which Prof. Wright speaks in the eBook which comes into the midst of the community of dedicated followers of King Jesus.
I began my pastoral career under the guidance of D. Stuart Briscoe. He was the Senior Pastor at Elmbrook Church, where I spent 30 years as an associate pastor. For the first 17 years I served at Elmbrook, my Mondays were always the same. No pastor took Monday as a ‘day off’. We spent time from 9:00-10:45 AM every Monday studying Scripture, reading important theological, sociological, even psychological books that would help us understand God, the world, and the people we shepherded.
Imagine that! Nearly two hours every week for 17 years was spent in a community of 12 to 18 pastors prayerfully engaging in study and discussion about the relevance of what we happened to be reading at the time. We would talk ‘local church issues’ from 11:00-12:00. We often would go out to lunch together to continue our discussions.
My colleagues were from very different backgrounds. Some were profoundly gifted pastors who had no formal theological training. Some were seminary trained from various traditions. Some of us had PhDs. But what we shared was passion for the local church, a deep desire for learning to be better shepherds, and a quest for learning in the midst of community.
Part of the joy of those years was the laughter that was never more than a few minutes away. We would catch one another in foibles of trying to describe something. We would laugh together when a colleague would change his or her mind by the end of the discussion. It was a love-filled environment where people could speak and be heard (and sometimes teased!).
What I realize, now that I am 36 years from the beginning of started my pastoral role, is that I was profoundly formed by the collegial style insisted upon by my first Senior Pastor. In fact, the Senior Pastor seldom led the discussion. The role was passed around so that all had a chance to suggest topics, books, Scripture sections, or magazine articles. And we all had a chance to try to corral the men and women involved in the discussion.
Theology was formed in community amongst people who care deeply about the task of shepherding the flock of God faithfully in the quest of unity and holiness. That is what happened during those years. I am sure some of my former colleagues would remind me that it wasn’t always easy or enjoyable. But it was formative. We were a diverse group of people with diverse theological backgrounds and opinions. But on the basics, we were firm. Trying to minister to an ever-changing theological and cultural environment requires such discipline.
I had a very long obedience in the same direction on Monday mornings for around 17 years.
The rhythm of Mondays changed. But I still look back to the manner in which we consistently pursued rigorous theological discussion which affected the local church and I am amazed at the transformative effect it had on me.
I think this is the direction that Prof. N.T. Wright is suggesting with this fascinating eBook.
A Warning: The eBook is not an easy read.
A Promise: If you digest it, you will be formed theologically for the better.