Discipleship and the Evolution of the Hamburger

Once upon a time, if you wanted a hamburger, you had to raise a cow first. Later it became a little easier, you could acquire a slab of beef and just had to grind it up prior to cooking. Eventually you could drive to the market and buy meat that had been already ground. Even later, you could drive across town where someone would cook it for you and even bring it to your table. Then, someone comes up with the idea that you can drive past a window where someone will hand a hamburger out to you. Now, it is possible to be seated in your living room and tell Alexa to have a hamburger delivered to your front door.

 We could argue the good and the bad about all of this. We could focus on how smart we have become or about how lazy. We have certainly become more efficient in the hamburger business.

 One of the problems with such a way of thinking is we start to think that if this is a good thing to do with a burger, maybe it’s a good way to do everything. Even religion. We might start to wonder if we can make following Jesus a little bit easier. We can be certain there are people out there who are trying to make that happen. After all, if we can do it with a burger, maybe we can do it with discipleship.

 But the Bible isn’t interested in making this any easier. There are no suggestions about a more efficient way to get there. There is no Whole 30 for discipleship. No five ways to find salvation without the troubles that come with following Jesus. Instead, we follow Jesus on Sunday and the next phase of the plan is – follow Jesus on Monday. You can’t ask Alexa for that.

One Opinion

The older I get the more I realize how opinionated I am becoming. I even form strong opinions about things that don’t matter much. One of these is about award shows. (Seriously, does anyone else think this is simply marketing disguised as entertainment)? I have friends who love them. I know people who throw parties on award show night. I am that guy sitting in the corner wondering when real entertainment will ever make a comeback. 

If there have to be award shows, why do we give so many? Let’s just give awards that matter. I think we can narrow it down to one award. One hit song will not get you mentioned. One great performance will not earn you a nomination. Let’s give the award to someone who has done it again and again. Someone who has given years of performance that shapes, influences, and entertains. I understand that no one would go for this idea, we can’t just give the awards to Betty White and Willie Nelson every year. 

I realize that some may think my opinions are a bit over the top. But I do struggle with the people that are put in front of us as people to admire and imitate. I can’t understand what makes the masses stand in line to be amused by trivial stuff that will be out of season next year. 

There are people to admire. There are people it would be worthwhile to imitate. But these people do not get invited to news shows, they don’t become internet sensations, they aren’t interviewed by journalists. No one gives out awards to people for their integrity or humility or their ability to do the right thing for a long time. 

On wiser days, we might check to see what the Bible says. As it turns out, the Bible is full of people who aren’t very heroic. Check the resumes of these people, they lie and cheat and commit adultery. It almost seems like the Bible does this on purpose. We don’t get a lot of people to admire. Instead, what we find in the Bible is a lot of God. When one of these people fall, God picks them up. We start to realize these stories aren’t about floods and giants and lions and big fish, these are stories about God. 

The Bible doesn’t want us to become roadies for some heroic spiritual superstars. The Bible doesn’t let us celebrate one good hit along the way or allow us to follow religious celebrities. Instead, we are encouraged for a long-haul journey with God.

Rule of Life – Strengthen My Corporate Spirituality

My times of solitude must be in balance with corporate responsibilities. It will not do to try and convince myself I am growing spiritually if I am not among the people of God and not in service to the world God so loved. So I must look for ways to grow alongside my sisters and brothers in Christ. Perhaps even spending time with others who do not come from my own faith tradition that we might become acquainted with the strengths of one another’s church. We want to walk together in this adventure called church. This is a corporate adventure and I want to take seriously what happens when two or three of us gather together in His name.

I will participate in corporate life and enjoy that I belong to a large family. I will pursue balance in Christian living. I will be reminded that I am to love God AND love my neighbor. Worship will be an enactment that spills over into everyday life. This will help me to shape my responses toward others. I will carefully deal with those who have different opinions than I do. I will attempt to reconcile those who do not get along on account of political persuasion and remind them that our relationship with one another is stronger than partisan views. I will bless my sisters and brothers, bless those who do not deserve blessing, and I will recognize that I have been blessed.

I want to bridge the gap between those of differing political persuasions. I desire to be a gentle reminder that the kingdom of God is bigger than the current political landscape, the Good News is better than the current political rhetoric, and that King Jesus rules no matter who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue. I desire to be a flesh and blood reminder of the living Jesus.

Living among others is one of the struggles of being human; this is the reality of the matter. Humans come in all different sizes and shapes and shades. Some sound like me, others do not. We have an assortment of eye colors, hairstyles and adorn ourselves in multiple ways. Some of us are noisy, some are quiet. We all think differently, have different levels of hope, and get excited about different things. In fact, something that excites one may infuriate another. So many of us, all different, yet all created in the image of God. May I recognize that these “two leggers”, these hominids created with the dust of Eden and filled with the breath of God, all wear the mark of their Maker.

I want to keep incarnation in the forefront. What a mystery that God became one like us. Heaven came to earth and God became earthling. If this does nothing else, it surely adds some dignity to the rest of us earthlings. I only hope that I am wise enough to step out of the way often enough to learn from others in the Body who think differently. I desire to bless those of like mind and those who aren’t. To be a blessing sounds easy enough. But Barbara Brown Taylor claims that the world needs us to do this, because “there is a real shortage of people” willing to do it. To bless another, whether we are authorized or not, is evidence we ourselves have been blessed. She goes on “That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.” I pray for a spirit of hospitality toward those who are difficult for me to spend time with. I want to be intentional at understanding the people whose opinions differ from my own. I want to develop a posture of humility instead of one that is defensive. I desire to “stagger the stars.”

In the coming season of my spiritual journey, I will ask questions that matter. Are there relationships that I should nurture? Would new relationships spark my spirituality? Should I initiate more interaction with non-believers? Should I look for new places of service? Can I support the community where I am called to serve in new ways? Is there something that may stretch me a little? Is there a conference I should attend? Questions like these will help keep me from stagnation. I will ask them often. I want to consider such questions with seriousness, remembering I do not wish to crowd my schedule with more to do unless it has spiritual benefit. Otherwise, I defeat my purpose. I have already been shedding obligations deemed less necessary that were crowding my spiritual formation.

Thomas Merton writes that he entered the monastery and a writer walked in behind him. It makes me wonder, who is following me around? What identities do I carry with me that are unnecessary? If I identify myself as democrat or republican how does that strengthen my spiritual formation? What things are neutral, good, or bad depending on the way I choose to implement them? What things enslave me? Am I asking for stones when God is trying to give me bread? Are there things to be pruned so that I might be more fruitful?

This rule of life is not intended to be a guilt producing exercise, but a guide to help keep me on a path of growth. It is not intended to give me something more to do, but an assistant to help me focus on spiritual formation. It is not designed for me to master anything or figure God out. In fact, it does quite the opposite. The rule of life is intended to keep reminding me that  my role in relationship with Jesus is to follow.

Rule of Life – Practice Solitude and Attentiveness

I will make time for solitude and will practice paying attention. Walking will slow me down and I will take time to notice what is there with me. I will explore the forests and other contexts of creation. As with reading, walking often gives me new energy. I have learned there is a great deal of similarity to exploring a neighborhood, a forest, or the printed page. A healthy spirituality for a preacher does include an exegesis of the text, but it is also helpful to exegete our surroundings. One becomes practice for the other. God is active in the text and in the neighborhood. I desire to be faithful to both as contexts for me to be with God.

I hope to continue developing the skill of attentiveness. May I be attentive to birdsong and plant life. May I discover the holy in the particular. Thomas Merton saw a collie with a feathery tail and the blank side of a frame house and found beauty. He listened as all day long the frogs sing and stated it might be the one of the best days he has ever known. The sun, dead grass, snowflakes, fire, soup, toast, hills, pines, and books prompt for him holy thoughts. I desire to become more attentive and to recognize the presence of the holy.

Wendell Berry practices attentiveness. He has a knack of starting with what is obvious. He might be talking about trees or birds or a farmer’s field. Suddenly these things become windows to other things like love, amazement, and blessing. Perhaps I should schedule a retreat. Or schedule a regular practice of retreat. Perhaps I should spend more time in the forest, perhaps an overnight or a series of hikes. How can I distinguish what I do for pleasure and what I do to feed my soul?

In our tradition it is common to raise our hands as a hallelujah. It is not unusual to say it out loud. Can a hike serve as a hallelujah? Can one step become Hallelujah and the next Amen? Can a journey through the forest be a celebration of praise? Annie Dillard seems to think so. “I go my way, and my left foot says Glory and my right foot says Amen; in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”

Can creation’s grandeur make my soul sing? Can I be attentive enough to see the handiwork of God for what it is? Am I able to recognize creation as gift? Perhaps the forest canopy is a good place to listen to Genesis 1 or to Job 38. Perhaps a mountain stream is a place where I can practice seeing? I want to put myself in places where I can see and hear what is going on around me. I want to wake in the forest to the dawn chorus. Even though I may not recognize every singer, I can enjoy every song. Interestingly, the morning song of birds is sometimes referred to as matins, the same word used for the first prayer of the day. Even when seeking solitude one is never alone and I will join creation for morning prayers.

In order to become more attentive, I will pick up field guides and take them into the wild in order to learn to identify berries and trees by sight, birds and insects by sound. Perhaps this will help me to slow down and enjoy creation’s goodness. Will I ever be alert enough to hear the moment that cicadas sing the last notes of their day time song as katydids begin their evening chorus? Will I ever hear that moment when they overlap in harmony together?

I have come to realize that spiritual growth does not occur only in activities labeled as “spiritual.” I admit the wilderness has a tug on me. It is always pulling me in its direction. I have a natural preference to wade in streams, stare at sky, and hike the forests. However, I often find myself surrounded by tall buildings, concrete sidewalks, and asphalt lots. No matter the different places we find ourselves, it is important to keep our eyes open in order to capture the stories that may be found there. We cannot stop looking when walking alleys, sitting in coffee shops, talking on the street. We are always exploring beauty, searching for wonder, and looking for ways that God is at work. No matter the context, whether wading through creeks or concrete, whether surrounded by humans or other wildlife, may I recognize them all as gift.

Rule of Life – Slow Down

In some ways a rule of life is a personal protest against the way things are. A rule of life is a statement that status quo is not the goal. It is a step toward growth in spirituality that serves as a mild rebellion against the dominant spirituality’s of culture. I like things to be as convenient as the next person, but I recognize that ease is not always progress. Perhaps we would do well to slow down and make an effort to simplify. Perhaps a rule of life ought to include ways to create space in order to allow the presence of God to be more recognizable.

I desire to be a counter to the majority, a one man resistance movement who is constantly inviting others to sign up. This will occur by an intentional slowing down. This will allow activities that help me to see process without rushing straight to conclusions. I intend to do this by practicing Sabbath and participating in activities that cannot be rushed. Therefore, my rule of life tries to slow things down and to accept that efficiency will not be my religion of choice. I brew my own tea, make my own soup, bake my own bread, and grow my own vegetables. These things take time but something becomes clear in the process. For example, as I have discovered before, “Soup making is worthwhile activity. It provides time to play, experiment, talk, listen, laugh, taste, and smell. Soup making reminds us that meal preparation is not simply the prelude to putting food into your mouth. It is a valuable part of the whole experience of eating.”

Gardening slows us down. What you plant today cannot be harvested tomorrow. It requires time in the soil. Time in the soil is not only beneficial for those of us trying to slow down, it connects us with our beginnings. “I roll up my sleeves. I breath in the smell. I reach into the earth. It gets under my nails. In my hair. It’s caked on my knees. I call it dirt. But I think about the sixth day when God first formed a human from this stuff and all I can say is ‘wow.’”

I will practice Sabbath. Sabbath is a gift for those who are tired. Sabbath is a gift that reminds us we are not in control. Sabbath reminds us we can take the day off and still wake the next day with everything we need. Sabbath reminds us that God has provided, still provides, and will continue to provide. We do not have to collect manna again on Sabbath; God has already blessed us with enough to make it through another day.

Practicing Sabbath is rebellion. Practicing Sabbath is what people of the resistance do to protest the rhythms of culture that drive us to do more, get more, and nurture the lie that we must take care of ourselves. To practice Sabbath is to promote that God is in charge around here. Silence is a mini Sabbath, and we are reminded there is a time and place for quiet and listening.

Rule of Life – Pray and Read Regularly

Perhaps any conversation about spiritual formation includes prayer. My personal prayer life has been influenced by my faith tradition. We have encouraged prayer while seated, while standing, and while kneeling. Prayer is encouraged as both an individual act and as a corporate act. Of course, sometimes prayer seems to break out unexpectedly and during unlikely activities. However it occurs, I hope to view my daily schedule as a context for prayer. While some space is specifically set aside for the purpose of prayer, I hope for prayer to become as natural as walking or breathing. Perhaps this is what the apostle had in mind when he writes to “pray without ceasing.”

It is not enough to carve space for prayer. Prayer itself is not the goal, but a tool to help us grow in God. An activity that often unexpectedly becomes prayer for me is reading. Sometimes this is the reading of scripture but not always. I often find myself in dialogue with an author and God becomes part of the conversation. Currently, my reading tends to include an assortment of theology, nature, and some classics. As I write, I am thinking that reading authors who are more contemplative might benefit me on my journey. I can benefit from those who have walked with God and have shared their experience about intimacy with the divine. I have already made plans to read more from Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr. I plan to acquaint myself with Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. I would also benefit from re visiting some of the works that have shaped my spiritual life in the past. I am intrigued that John Wesley in “Letter to a Friend” emphasizes reading as a means of nurturing the soul. “Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily… Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”

Eugene Peterson suggests that we have been given an old prayer book known as Psalms. In fact, he claims these are the best tools for working on our faith. Just as a gardener picks up a rake or a hoe on the way to the vegetable garden, he claims people of faith should pick up the Psalms. I will read the Psalms multiple times in multiple translations during the coming year, all the while listening for the voice of God. I will be open to prayer in new ways by listening to these old prayers.

But my reading of scripture shall not be limited to the Psalms. I shall read from the whole canon.  I will read texts from the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. I will read the New Testament narratives and the Letters. I will read them to be caught up in the ongoing story of God. This is not only to strengthen preaching and exegesis, but to listen to the voice of God and find my role in that story. We have tendencies to try to fit God into our stories; it is time to start looking for ourselves in God’s story.

It is easy to become content driven, what J. K. A. Smith calls “brains on a stick.” It is even easy for worship to become a cognitive exercise. But, it is not enough to articulate a position; I want to taste the sweet word of God even when it leaves me with a sour stomach (Revelation 10.9-10). Systematic statements may smooth out some rough edges, but we are a people who live on the edge. We want to acknowledge the rough parts and embrace them as important parts of the story. I will listen to the biblical writers talk about walking with Jesus. I will read out loud in order to hear differently. I benefit when I read scripture not as a scavenger for practical purposes, but in order to listen for the voice of God.

This conversation about prayer is only a beginning. I desire that prayer become something more, something like Robert Mulholland once described “prayer is not what we do, it is what we be.” It is important to know that prayer is more about becoming than it is about getting. Again, I am reminded of Mulholland who said, “it is one thing to be in the world for God, it is quite another thing to be in God for the world.” The former seems so “activist” while the latter takes us into unknown territory. My prayer is that I will follow Jesus into the unknown whatever we find out there.

Rule of Life – Spiritual Formation in the Daily Schedule

Marjorie Thompson suggests a structure is necessary because not all growth is equal. Without structure, we are likely to grow in undesired directions. I enjoy the way she points out that “The fruit of the Spirit in us gets tangled and is susceptible to corruption, and the beauty of our lives is diminished.” Hers is a helpful illustration that suggests that structure allows for maximum fruit. In light of this, perhaps one of the most spiritual things we can do is to arrange our schedules to include space for growth. I will utilize the calendar to order and prioritize activities of spiritual importance.

My calendar will reflect the plan for this particular soul, in this particular skin, and in this particular place. That is how God works in us. I would be different if I lived anywhere else. I would not be the same if I were raised anyplace but where I was raised. If I would have belonged to a different bio family, hung around with different people, and worked in different vocations, I would not be who I am today. God meets us on the path we are on.

I am reminded that Jacob set out and found himself in the middle of nowhere. One night, Jacob laid his head on a rock and met God. He called this place Bethel. In that place, Jacob realized his life was part of a bigger story. We can begin to understand what the psalmist meant when he sang “where can I go from your presence?” Perhaps we should not be surprised that Moses came across a burning bush. Perhaps we should have expected disciples to meet the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus and for Saul to meet Jesus on the Damascus road. There is no such place as nowhere, it’s all Bethel. Earth is crammed with heaven and every bush is a fire with God.

Making my schedule with spiritual formation in mind will help me to become more aware of the ways God is at work in the places I find myself. Putting this into print helps me realize I am unable to do too many things at once. I want to realistically enter a new season with specific goals. This does not grant permission to neglect other areas, but helps me become more intentional in some. While some things are deliberately added to the schedule for the purpose of spiritual formation, I hope I begin to see everything on my schedule as a way to know God.

Rule of Life – An Introduction

When I learned to drive I had to be very intentional about every move and decision. But nowadays I drive miles without thinking about what to do next. When I go for a walk I do not think about each step. I enjoy the benefits of breathing without deliberating about how it happens. I sit down and stand up without much thought. These things just happen. They have become a natural part of my life. This is the way James K. A. Smith talks about discipleship. This requires a regular enactment of what we want to occur, so that it spills out naturally into our everyday lives. That is a primary reason we keep gathering for worship. We hope that our worship activity might spillover into our weekdays.

I have little interest in a rule of life that adds to my schedule unnecessarily. It is important that a rule of life not become restrictive, but something that encourages discipleship to occur more naturally. What if gratitude became the natural response to a new day? What if grace became the natural response to wrongdoing? What if peace became the natural response to aggression? What if love became my natural response to enemies? I want things Jesus considers important to spill over into the situations I regularly find myself in.

I cannot help but notice that culture encourages something different. Traditional authorities like politics, science, education, even religion are suspect and being criticized. Core assumptions are up for grabs. The media has unleashed a surge of new authorities. Perhaps more accurately, due to social media, everyone has become an authority. Whatever our thoughts about the direction of culture, we can all agree that things are changing. Everything is coming at us with greater ease, convenience, speed and efficiency. While this is not necessarily bad, it does bring with it tendencies to crowd spirituality. Society values progress and achievement to such a degree that even one’s spiritual life can become reduced to convenience and efficiency. Perhaps that makes now the perfect time to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus.

Bio – Present Ministry

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.

Bio – More Transition

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.