The Christian life is a journey lived over the long haul. It took the children of Israel 40 years to get to the Promised Land, and Jesus lived 30 years in Nazareth before starting his active ministry.
We followers of Jesus do not run a sprint; we walk humbly with God, and that takes awhile. Many years ago, Catholic priest, peace activist and writer Daniel Berrigan came up with “Ten Commandments for the Long Haul.” After 27 years of ministry with one small congregation, I’ve come up with my own list:
1. Know where you’re going. Or as our sisters and brothers in the black church used to sing: “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.” Over the long haul, it is easy to go off on detours or become distracted or end up on roads that initially looked like the correct route, so it is essential to keep our eyes on Jesus Christ and his kingdom.
We are to be centered in Jesus and only Jesus—not political leaders, not celebrities, not wealth, nor influence, nor power. As a result, many will consider us eccentric—literally, off-center—and we are. It’s just that our center is different from others. We are centered in Christ and keep our eyes on him.
2. Get in shape. Long-haul journeying means getting in proper condition so we can make it to the end. For those of us following Jesus, it means deepening our lives in Christ through corporate worship, prayer, Bible-reading, serving others and other classic spiritual disciplines.
When an old friend of mine was a young man, he told a veteran Catholic nun he was having trouble praying and asked if she might have advice for him. She said: “First, you need to shut up. And second, it ain’t about you.” In other words, deepening our lives in Christ means sometimes we must learn to listen to Christ and put aside our own jabbering and our own agendas.
3. Never travel alone. We Christians follow Jesus in community. There should be no isolated Christians going our own way. We have a guidebook—the Bible—but we are also to travel alongside others who help us read and interpret the guidebook, as well as remembering fellow disciples who’ve read the book and traveled the Way before us.
Traveling together is how the Holy Spirit works to encourage us, hold us accountable and transform us in becoming more Christ-like.
4. Make friends along the Way. Or to use New Testament language, we are to practice hospitality. Hospitality in the Bible is about receiving the stranger, the other, and being open to how God comes to us through unlikely friends.
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If we only have conversations with others like ourselves, live in our own bubbles and social media world, and do not listen and learn from aliens, outsiders and those who are different, we will be in danger of missing out on God and therefore losing our way and more, losing our souls. It also means providing safe spaces for anyone in need.
5. We are not in control. Most things going on in this world we can do nothing about. Berrigan suggested, “When traveling on an airplane, watch the movie, but don’t use the earphones. Then you’ll be able to see what’s going on, but not understand what’s happening, and so you’ll feel right at home, little different than you do on the ground.”
In other words, lighten up about trying to be in control and solve every problem. The world is confusing, chaotic and full of change. So be it and remember No. 1 above. Besides, part of following Jesus is learning that not everything is a problem to be solved. Some things are mysteries into which we are invited to enter and abide.
6. Learn to say “No.” After my ordination many years ago, the old and wise preacher whispered to me, “You’re going to have to learn to say ‘No,’ and ‘Hell, no!’” which startled my young pastor ears. After nearly 40 years, I know he was right.
And saying “no” is not about boundary-keeping and prioritizing time and tasks. It’s about speaking a loud “Hell no!” over injustice and racism, bigotry and violence, and meanness and fear. For example, No. 1, No. 3, and No. 4 will teach us when to say, “No” and “Hell no!”
7. Celebrate. Laugh, eat together as much as possible, play music and practice Sabbath. Jesus was accused by the Religious elite of being a drunkard and a glutton and hanging out and having a good time with people of questionable morals; every time we turn a page in the Gospels Jesus seems to be at a table eating with others, just leaving a table, or on his way to a table.
Meals and partying are ways we enjoy and give thanks for God’s gifts of good food, good friends and good music; along with practicing Sabbath are reminders that it is not all up to us. It’s up to God, and we can trust that God is at work, even when we’re not.
8. Think little. In a world consumed with “bigness,” Jesus did lots of little things, like breaking bread, listening to children, healing persons and talking about yeast and mustard seeds. His disciples worked little jobs and came from small towns. While the Powerful were obsessed with Rome, the salvation of the world comes through Jesus, who was born in a stable on the other side of the tracks in a tiny town.
The testimony of the faithful across the centuries is that God works through the little, the local, the ignored and the marginalized.
9. Embrace weakness. Related to No. 8 above, we learn to trust the power of weakness and to see through the weakness of power. There are some things we cannot do if we are faithful to the suffering servanthood of Jesus. Power constricts us from being like Jesus. Furthermore, when things are going well, we are careful and humble and remember that what looks like good news to the powerful is most likely not God’s good news in Christ.
At the same time, we do not give in to despair when things go badly because we know God is still at work and the end is not yet.
10. Learn to say “and.” My friend Sam Wells says we must learn to ask, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” He suggests we consider that question and come up with some answers, and accept them.
But then we always ask a second question: “And what would happen then?” Wells says this second question is God’s question. The story is not yet over; the journey is still in front of us. This small “and” is a word of hope that although things look bad and perhaps evil has done its worst, God still has one more word.
God gave the children of Israel the original Ten Commandments to help them become a different people, a people who worshiped God and treated each other and treated their neighbors differently from the Egyptian Empire because of God. The Ten Commandments were a survival guide to ensure they could get through 40 years of the desert and arrive at the land of promise and still be recognizable as God’s people.
Today, we need the church to survive the journey and still be the church. Over the long haul, the church can easily become something else, such as the religious wing of a political party or a market-driven religious corporation. Or we can be true to our calling—to embody Jesus Christ and his Way in this hurting world.
Kyle Childress is the pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches and is the co-author with Rodney Wallace Kennedy of Will Campbell, Preacher Man: Essays in the Spirit of a Divine Provocateur (Cascade Books, 2016).