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Posts Tagged ‘discipleship’

At the present time I serve with others of a similar mind who are trying to be intentional about what Jesus taught. For centuries followers and disciples have taken these teachings seriously. We are following the same steps and praying the same prayers as these early followers. These are the people walking with me as I learn to be a grandparent and learn how to deal with the loss of my father. We break bread together and remember who called us. We walk through the church year with the understanding we are on a journey.

Early in my relationship with this body, I was called to a meeting held in the downstairs of the building. Some referred to this as the dungeon. I was ok with this description since some of the church’s best stuff has come from out of dungeons. We discussed details during the meeting.  But what I remember most was the way the meeting concluded. We joined hands and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I felt like part of something big. I felt like we belonged to a long history of people who have prayed these words in dungeons and church basements.

Of all the things that have contributed to my own spiritual formation, among the greatest is a sense of belonging. Being loved and belonging to something that is bigger than any individual effort may be the most sustaining force in my own discipleship. Such belonging is most evident when we gather together. We open the word and pray together. We practice silence and song together. We pass the peace and join one another at the Lord’s Table. It is our intention that this activity will spill over into our weekday lives where we are trying to love others. It is our intention that our Sunday liturgies will influence our weekday liturgies also. Once one begins to view themself as an active participant in the plan of God, our worldview is guaranteed to change. Once one begins to recognize the significant role we play in the community of Christ and in larger segments of creation, there is impetus to grow, to be faithful, and to complete the mission.

I cannot deny having growth spurts in what seem like unlikely places. I have discovered that I grow when I spend time in the nursing home, the rehabilitation center, the hospital, or at a funeral. I have grown on account of time spent in the home of one struggling with borderline personality disorder or reactive attachment disorder. Situations like these help me to recognize the privilege to spend time with people who struggle. Friendship may not seem a spiritual practice to some but I cannot deny the way friends have influenced and shaped me. The list of those who have helped to shape me is long and I cannot help but recognize that to have a friend is privilege as well. Friendships continue to pour grace into my life. These situations and relationships remind me I am not only to love God and others, I am dependent on them as well. Discipleship is not a solo venture.

The path of spiritual formation is not easily put into words and not easily diagrammed. It is not easy to state with certainty how we became who we are. It is easier to write about where one is, what he is up to, and who he is with when it occurs. Things that are good for the soul are usually things that take time to develop. There is no instantaneous event or practice that shapes us into a mature disciple. The list of things that continue to nurture my own soul cannot be overestimated. Such things help me to pause and allow space for God to perform His work.

Yet, soul work is always done best in the midst of the community of God’s people. The list of people who have influenced my own discipleship is significant. Some of these are further along than I am. Some are contemporary allies. Others have challenged me. Some have ministered alongside me. Some have reminded me of wonder. Others have reminded me that I am unfinished. Some continue to love me while I continue the journey. I need them all. This is a group project, a corporate adventure.

There is a strong connection between our identity as individuals and our role in the church. We become who we are not only by our spiritual practices but by those we travel with as well. When we talk about relationship, we know that basic relationship is imitative. To learn to relate lovingly, we live in loving community and we copy the most loving members. To learn to become forgiving people, we live among forgiving people and we copy the most forgiving members. We could go on. As James K. A. Smith says “Such dispositions are not natural… virtues are learned and acquired, through imitation and practice.” I have been fortunate to have belonged to a people where these skills are demonstrated.

I am beginning to understand the church for what it is – an adventure. I have not experienced an Egyptian slave camp, a Babylonian furnace, a Jerusalem stoning, or a Roman imprisonment. But I belong to a people who have. I have been shaped by these people. I have learned from the words of this people. I am a disciple.

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Reading had become more than a data collecting exercise. It began to open me up for new possibility. Interestingly, movies began to do similar things and I became a lover of plot. It was becoming easier to recognize the plot of everyday life and my role in it. Part of my daily work began to include serving as a mental health professional. I am who I am in part because of time spent working in this field. The ways I engage others, the things I listen for, even the way I work with others has been influenced by time spent in mental health. My spiritual practices evolved as I learned to be patient with others. I had opportunity to work with people who suffered from serious challenges and with others who attempted to exploit the system. I had opportunity to learn from these people and am better on account of it.

It was during this time that writing became a more consistent spiritual practice for me. This helped me to articulate some things and to allow for regular feedback from others. Another significant source of spiritual support came to me from a golden aged group that I joined for a Sunday morning class. Though they called me the teacher, it was I who learned much about church in that room with those people. There is great benefit to spend time with those who are further along the journey than we are.

I had always found music to be entertaining. Yet, my enjoyment expanded significantly and became more than pleasure. I became a fan of classical music, especially Johann Sebastian Bach. Whenever we have precipitation, I still listen to classical music, it always seems like an accompanying soundtrack to raindrops or falling snow. Rock bands became my fairer weather friends. But music had become more than entertainment. Music spoke to my soul. I wish I played. Maybe I will take up the mandolin.

My family was growing. Nothing puts one into the mode of twenty four hour discipleship like children in the home. If raising children is a discipleship course, raising adolescents is the advanced course. Just when a parent starts to think they have figured everything out along comes a teenager to remind us we are not finished in our own spiritual growth. That Jesus encouraged us to receive the kingdom as a child has led me to ask, “Why aren’t we following our children around more closely in an effort to learn the kingdom secrets… We should be serving as apprentices to our children in the hopes that we discover more wonder and enter the kingdom.” I have many memories of my daughters and me sharing story, song, and outdoor adventure. We wandered over the mountain and through the woods and I learned the secrets of the kingdom.

I continue to make efforts to improve my attentiveness in the world around me. The practice of paying attention is a lifelong pursuit. Sometimes I am more successful than others. Attention to the beauties of creation, the diversities of people, and the mysteries of God help to shape the soul. There is so much going on that feeds our souls. If only we could pay attention.

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I made the decision to enter grad school. The exhaustion from my prior experience was likely related to my youth and lack of experience as a spiritual guide of adults. The change was timely and the new relationships I formed were of mutual benefit. It became obvious to me that discipleship is rarely a one way enterprise. When we meet with others each of us have the opportunity to grow in spiritual maturity. But this was not accidental or coincidental. Some of my new friends and I began meeting for the purpose of supporting one another in our spiritual journey.

I began reading William Willimon and Eugene Peterson. In Resident Aliens, Willimon and co-author Stanley Hauerwas articulated church as an adventure in ways I had not heard before and it proved helpful for me personally and professionally. Peterson’s contemplative exegesis helped me make strong connections between a biblical theology and a practical pastoral theology. This changed my thinking and practice and helped me to see things in different ways. They were much more helpful than Peters and Waterman.

It was during this same time I began to become fascinated with the church year. Looking at the story that occurs from Advent through Easter, Pentecost and into Ordinary Time helped me to recognize my own role in the story. Time began to look different and I wanted to spend time differently. I really like what Dorothy Bass says about time. It “is a meeting place, a point of rendezvous with God.” Not only did I regain a sense of adventure, I had fallen deeper than ever into the story. I felt part of a “rendezvous.”

I began looking for ways to help those on the fringe. People on the periphery helped me to understand what the Kingdom of God looks like. I began seeking places where God was at work and attempted to join Him there. I began to see how my own spiritual growth benefits others in the body. The time I spent in activities that strengthened my own spiritual life was investment in the body of Christ. We are called to grow for the sake of others and for the sake of a broken world. There is a sense that to stay where we are and become stagnant is to cheat the body of Christ and to cheat a broken world.

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The spiritual change in Dad included a call to preach. We moved to upstate NY and suddenly I was a preacher’s kid. This resulted in a time of social and spiritual transition. While I never remember feeling external pressure about what to do or not to do in public, I often had internal conversations. It is possible that I made attempts to please others in the congregation, or to please my parents. This never resulted in undue stress that I can remember but this self-talk did become part of my personal spirituality.

Robert Mulholland Jr. suggests that spiritual growth occurs in similar ways to physical growth. He goes on to say that there may be growth spurts but those are not all there is to growth. My own experience tells me this is true. My early growth spurts occurred in the community of youth group and with a network of friends I met at youth camp. A bunch of us were even baptized together at the Hessler’s Pond. Other growth occurred through team sports and other sporting adventures. But often I would find myself wandering through the local forests alone. More than isolation, this was exploration. I became interested in what was living and growing around me. I ran up and down logging roads. I climbed trees just to get a different view. I entered posted land just to see what was on the other side of the sign. I sat quietly and listened. I began to learn to see and hear. The forest was my friend.

Sometimes I would journal. Usually what I wrote down were quotes and facts. The first books I remember reading on a regular basis were the almanac and the encyclopedia. My first journal began on a piece of notebook paper when I wrote down a Chinese Proverb “The palest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.” I was not consistent with writing but this was the start of a practice I continue today. I also began to draw. I suspect I enjoyed life because I practiced things that nurture the soul.

The time I spent alone was not totally a self-generated idea. There were suggestions that made the Christian journey seem like it was intended to be a lone adventure. There was a strong implication that it was in our quiet places that we prepared ourselves for public witness in the congregation and the outside world. This was part of a “boot camp spirituality” that included abstaining from things like skating and smoking. It also included indulging in other things like prayer and scripture reading. These things were the secret to surviving the warfare of the real world. This mentality suited me fine. I enjoyed people, but I did not totally trust them with my own growth or success. I was trying to convince myself I could cover my own back. I was convinced there was nothing I could not do. I had memorized Philippians 4.13 early on.

Overall, I tended to be quiet in conversation. Looking back, I think I had fears of being wrong. It was easier to be quiet than to explain myself afterward. While this may not have been a good social move, it did help me learn to listen. Though I did not utilize silence as a spiritual discipline at the time, I know of its benefits. When silent, one is able to pay attention and listen.

I suppose most of us experience a significant transition during college. Perhaps many of us experience a spiritual transition as well. I can say with some certainty that I did. I entered college as an undeclared major. College only lasts so long but it seemed like we were raised together in that short period of time. I still talk with college friends regularly about things that matter. Camaraderie, as it turns out, is an excellent means of discipleship.

At the same time, I began to enjoy studies. I had always enjoyed reading but began to read very differently. I was introduced to new ways of thinking and began to think critically. Things became less black and white. Life began to feel more like an exploration. Reading began to feed this exploration, and in my case, this strengthened my spiritual experience.

Authors like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien fed my imagination and feeling of adventure. Along with Samwise Gamgee I began to ask “What sort of tale have we fallen into?” We talked about this adventure in the dormitory at night and my sense of adventure continued to grow. The parts of my spiritual life that had earlier been seeds or buds began to germinate. It was during this time that I suspect I changed most. Among other things, the way I prayed changed as well. Trips to the tree line or through the field or to the local lake were times to pray and contemplate scripture. Things I had read or heard or seen became things I wanted to share with others.

Soon I was actively preaching to local congregations. Life as story became clearer. There was a sense that I belonged to a story bigger than me and I became immersed in this story. I remember one clear winter night when I trudged through new snow. I stared at the sky and it dawned on me that the God who was keeping creation in order was also working on me. This was not a new insight, but it was very real. I did not wrestle an angel but I knew I was not alone. Somehow, unknowingly, I had bought into an idea later proposed by Brian Zahnd “It’s probably dangerous to do all of our theology in the close quarters of indoors. Theologians need to be outdoorsmen.”

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Is work something God is interested in? That was the question explored at a recent forum held at Evangelical Seminary. There is a popular theology of work that goes something like this; 1) Christians should go to work, 2) they should work hard, 3) they should be nice to co-workers (after all, they want to convert them), and 4) they should earn money (in order to give to the church, after all this is where the real work is).

This misses the mark in many ways. Notably, such a view causes a separation between work and church. Instead, Chris Armstrong suggests the following definition for work. 1) a summons 2) to meaningful work 3) in service to others. There are some things missing from this definition. Nothing is said about personal passion and nothing is said about personal strengths. This is intentional. The reality is we can be called to work we do not want. We can be called to things we are good at and things we are not. Our work is not about ladder climbing or personal success. As the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, just because it is not our gift does not make it ok to walk by on the other side.

We need to be honest about work. Work can be incredibly frustrating. Work can be dehumanizing and even violent. Not all work is for the good of others. Work can become an idol, it can separate us from God, separate us from creation, separate us from neighbors. We often tend to dismiss work that is not grand or heroic. But work is not about self-fulfillment, it is about being of value to others. We are made in the image of a working God. There is dignity in work. It is a blessing and gift.

I Thessalonians is helpful at this point. Abraham Malherbe reports that manual labor was held in low esteem by stoic philosophers. Converts to pagan philosophies abandoned their trades and quit their jobs. They spent their time waxing philosophical on the streets. Public perception was that these people were irresponsible and “busybodies who meddled in the affairs of others.”

In contrast, Paul tells the church to “lead a quiet life… attend to your own business… work with your hands… behave properly toward outsiders.” Paul even suggests himself as an example, “recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you… You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers.” And again later, “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you…”

Douglas A. Campbell offers, “Paul is especially concerned that some Thessalonians are mooching. They are participating in the communal meal but are not contributing to it, being too lazy to work.” Paul says it like this, “some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies…” Holy living requires those in the church not become burdens to others. To work toward some level of self-sufficiency is to demonstrate love for others. This love for one another is to spill over into larger society. Work becomes important for relationships in the body and for witness in the world.

Holiness is not only a work in the heart; it works to benefit the lives of others. We do not work in isolation, work is a social reality. John Wesley might say that personal holiness means little without an accompanying social holiness. Holiness must be externalized, including in one’s business practices. Our calling is relational and dynamic. The well-being of others depends on our work. The parable of the sheep and the goats make clear the importance of work as value to others. And it has eternal implications.

Christianity does not call for us to stop working. It does put our work to new use. It might be more accurate to say that work becomes a context for mission. Our work carries out our love for God and love for others. The rhythm and dance of everyday life is tied to everyday work. The sacred drama is grounded to the daily working world. Grand heavenly things are connected with practical earthly things like daily work. There is something sacred about the everyday and ordinary. Yes, work is definitely something God is interested in

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I was recently asked to speak at a retreat and given a dual assignment of addressing the family and a text from the gospels – a parable about a sower, seeds and soils. Other texts may come to mind more quickly or seem more appropriate when we think about family. Yet I rather like it when the church puts us in a conversation with the text that does not seem to naturally fit and then expects us to proceed.

The family may not be the first thing we think of when we read the parable, yet the family is always a context where we attempt to apply the text. The family is a field where we learn much about the Christian faith. In the family we scatter seed in the hope of growing fruit. The family is a field where we learn how to relate to one another and to the world and to God.

Perhaps the family is a perfect context to speak of people as soil. In a family we plant, nurture, feed, water and weed – all in the hope that growth might occur. This may be as good a place as any to point out that it is not our end goal to grow happy, productive people. Our end goal is not to turn you into awesome parents with successful marriages and perfect children. It’s not that we are opposed to such things. It’s just that this is a church retreat and we have much bigger goals. We are raising disciples.

It is basic thought about families and texts to be attentive to what is present and what is not. It is important to realize that the entire system is influenced by who is present or who is absent. This is important to know because the family is dependent on the way the individual pieces work together. Behaviors and actions and words of any one individual will significantly affect the others. The text works the same way. The presence of rocks, thorns, and birds make a difference. Shallow roots, worldly worries and the presence of Satan make a difference. This is not a chance adventure. This is a context where it is important to be intentional. This is where seed grows.

As an aside, it follows the family should be very careful about who is invited into the system. A pet, X Box, cell phones, Netflix, fantasy football, a Visa card, Jack Daniels… these things may seem like casual accessories. But they will fight to become influential in the family system.

A common theme in the family and the parable is growth. When one looks at the reasons for growth or lack of growth in the text it appears to be the type of soil and what is attracted to these soils. In the family it is not birds, rocks or weeds that prevent growth. That would be convenient. When things aren’t going well to blame it on the stinking rocks, lousy weeds, angry birds. Instead we must be intentional about who and what is invited into the family.

We do not want to overlook the cosmic struggle in the parable. In both parable and family we may be interacting with seed, thorns and rocky ground, but also Satan. In what we thought was an ordinary farmer’s field – Satan shows up. In what seems like the everyday activities of raising a family – Satan shows up. The fact is, Satan wants your family. There is a cosmic battle of supernatural forces engaged against one another for our families. If we ever have doubts about whether our families have value, that alone should convince us we are wrong.

While Jesus may not be talking explicitly about family here, he is not really talking about farming either. Jesus often seems to be talking about some subject and then we learn he is actually talking about the Good News of the kingdom. In fact, when Jesus starts talking in parables, Matthew tells us he is sharing secrets of the kingdom.

We do not want to forget the parable is a kingdom story. We read the parables and are put immediately into a context of competing kingdoms. Allegiance is an issue that we must wrestle with. We will be choosing a king. Even an examination of family is within the context of kingdom. It does not escape us that the parable follows a discussion about family. “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, Behold My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” This family discussion and the parable share space in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel. Yes, family is kingdom discussion. It is noteworthy that the bio family takes a backseat to the family that does the will of the Father in heaven. The text presents us with an unorthodox definition of family.

The parable carries some significance for Matthew, Mark and Luke all include it. And it is always the out front parable. We are challenged to “Listen.” It may be noteworthy that Jesus starts telling us to listen in the gospel and in Revelation he is still telling us to listen. Perhaps it is implied that we are not only to start listening but are then to never stop listening.

Listening is a big concern in both text and family. Perhaps a tangent is in order; let us talk about the discipline of listening. Let me guess, your children do not listen. Let me guess again, you do not listen to your children. And again, you fall into a trap of thinking that listening to your child is the same as agreement. You feel that listening is the same as giving in to your child’s demands.

This is worthwhile conversation. While the text is interested in listening to words of Jesus, we want to acknowledge what I will call “spillover.” I hope the following helps with what I intend as spillover. 1) We are to love God. 2) We learn that spillover of loving God insists on loving one another. 3) This love is not to stop with loving other followers; we are to love our neighbors as well. 4) This spillover does not stop here; we are to even love our enemies. Thus, while there is not an explicit text that tells us to listen to one another, I suggest that the spillover causes us to listen to one another (including our children). I am suggesting that as followers of Jesus, we become respectful people who graciously are interested in what others have to say (even when we are not in agreement). When the text does not give an answer to the particular situations of our lives, the spillover can help us determine how we should respond. Listening becomes an activity of discipleship.

As this conversation concludes, I suggest the family is a laboratory for discipleship. I am glad we gather as church. For some reason the text is intent on an unorthodox view of family. The text may suggest then that we are gathered as family. We gather as those who desire to do the will of the Father in heaven. This unorthodox New Testament definition of family cannot help but spillover into our bio families. There we are to share the secrets of the kingdom.

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Richard Louv is a journalist who writes about nature. He can be rather convincing about getting outside. He explores the dangers of a sedentary indoor lifestyle. He takes readers into territory they may not think about on their own. Many have read Louv’s books. I suspect many have agreed with what he says about schedules and fresh air and things we take for granted. Yet I suspect many of them have not changed their lifestyles.

Michael Pollan writes about food. He discusses health of both body and the land. He can be rather convincing about eating differently. He explores the dangers of poor eating habits. He takes readers into territory that many do not think about on their own. Many have read Pollan’s books. I suspect many have agreed with much of what he says about food and nutrition. Yet I suspect many of them have not changed their ways with food.

I suspect this type of thing occurs all the time. Agreeing that health is important does not make one take steps to become healthy. Agreeing that practice makes perfect does not make one practice. Agreement does not always result in action. Thinking something is right does not cause us to behave differently. As convincing as Louv’s suggestions about changing lifestyle are, it is possible to love our current lifestyle of convenience more than his suggestions. As convincing as Pollan is about food, it is possible to love processed fatty foods more.

My interest is not really whether we watch television or eat sodium filled foods. I am more interested that many of us read the bible. I suspect many agree with what the bible has to say. I suspect we agree with loving God and loving our neighbor. I suspect many are pulled into the poetry and narratives and teaching we find there. I suspect many agree with the ideas about grace, forgiveness, generosity and sacrifice that are abundant. I suspect we are glad the bible takes us into territory to explore things we would never have thought about on our own. Yet I suspect that many have not changed their ways.

The danger is that we love our current appetites and lifestyle more than we love what God wants to give us. C.S. Lewis, in a sermon preached at Oxford one day, said this, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The danger is that we love these things more than we love God.

The problem is we have already been discipled. Everyone is in the discipleship business and some are very good at it. The democrats, the republicans, Wall Street, and Madison Avenue are all after your allegiance. The fact is, every commercial is an attempt to make you a disciple. Advertisers do not give information about the products they sell; they spend their resources to appeal to our loves. There is no getting around it – the world wants your soul. Our allegiance says a lot about us. We are disciples of what we love. This is what Jesus meant when he said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Discipleship is all about being attentive to and being intentional about what we love.

We sometimes try to make discipleship a cognitive exercise. We convince ourselves that enough knowledge will help us become who we ought to be. However, we are simply not a sum of what we know. We are not driven by information; we are driven by what we treasure. We like to tell ourselves we love the right things. We like to think we are immune to becoming disciples of the world. Perhaps we should check our closets and garages for evidence. We cannot avoid the idea we are driven by treasure. Acknowledging this is but the first step of beginning to change our lives and not just our ideas. Because to be a disciple of Jesus is to learn to love the right things.

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