13 August 2006

Three difficult things

There was a time when I actually wrote things for this blog - original things that, while perhaps not often insightful, were at least creative - and to be honest I miss that time. This is not going to be a return to those halcyon days. I need sleep more than I need to be creative right now.

Anyway, my thought for the day is this: I think there are three difficult things that a disciple of Jesus is called to do. I am of the opinion that these are things that all of Jesus's followers are called to do, but in saying that I'm aware that I'm making a universal statement and, lacking omniscience, am on shaky ground. Therefore, I invite your disagreement. Here are the three things:

1) Recognize that every baptized Christian is called to participate in the mission of the loving God in the world - the upshot of which is: "Oh, crap - that means me!" This is difficult because it goes against the grain of much of mainstream Christian culture. Isn't the point of faith to a) make sure I get to heaven when I die, or b) make sure that my needs for spiritual goods and services in this life are met, or c) both of the above?

Please don't misunderstand me, by the way: I'm quite explicitly saying that this mission of God we're supposed to discern our roles within is the mission of God in the world, not in the church. Some of us are called to vocations where we carry out this mission in the world through the church, and many others are called to missional roles in family, secular community, industry, education, government, etc. (Actually, for most of us it's "several of the above".)

2) Discern the shape of the role to which God is calling me in God's mission in the world. In my opinion, this is the hardest part. It involves: a) Discerning how God has made me - my talents, Spiritual gifts, personality, passions, etc. b) Discerning where God is at work around me, and where a hurting world needs love, leadership, healing, teaching, etc. And finally, c) matching up (a) and (b) through lots of prayer, community, and careful discernment of where the Spirit is calling me to go - and distinguishing the Spirit from all the other spirits (aka principalities and powers) that compete for our minds and hearts. And committing to keep on doing this, for the rest of our lives - because the Spirit ain't going to stop blowing just because we'd like to think we've now got our lives all figured out. This is hard on so many levels - it requires a great deal of openness, perseverence, and careful attention. Discerning spirits is a huge challenge - we all want to hear what we want to hear.

3) Actually go ahead, in faith, and act on that discernment. This is difficult because, though Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light - in practice, that's not always the case. Sometimes following Jesus faithfully requires very great sacrifice indeed - as it did for the first disciples, and for a great many Christians throughout history, including Jonathan Myrick Daniels, whose feast day begins in a half hour (HT: Susan). Even for those of us who won't be called to martydom, discipleship - really following where the Spirit leads us - can demand a great price. So what, was Jesus lying about the "easy yoke" thing? Or is it the case that, if you truly get to know Jesus, following where he leads isn't so hard after all, despite the cost? Hmm. I aim to find out.

So: here I go again, with one of my neat, carefully engineered constructs. Any child of the Enlightentment would be proud - I've got it all figured out: Christian discipleship in three easy steps. I should write a book, go on the lecture circuit - this could be the next Prayer of Jabez. I know that there are two problems when I do something like this: 1) I'm making simplistic, universal claims and am probably full of crap, and 2) most of my friends will be much less likely to engage a setup like this in which I'm forcing you to disagree with me (as opposed to a more open-ended question).

Despite all that, I'm forging ahead. :-) So: what do you think of all that? Is it true? Sorta true? True for some people, but not for others? If it is a somewhat accurate picture of what Christian discipleship is supposed to be like, do you think our churches act as if that were the case? If not, why not? Are there things on which our churches ought to be concentrating more than they do, to equip disciples for that kind of journey? Not-so-coincidentally, I think there are three analogous "difficult things" that all Christian congregations are called to do, as well....

OK, time for bed. Peace out.


Ross said...

Personally, I liked the ultra-hip-minimalist stock art that you used :-)

On a large scale, I agree with you Mike. But as they say, the devil is in the details. Go ahead and Google "nurturing equipping" or "equipping releasing" and you'll come across many of the frameworks that we tried to implement at my old church that try to direct/tame/manage the same vision as you are espousing. To me, the core "problem" is in your #2. This is typically the place where church staff (the paid professionals) try to plug workers into their flow charts. Sermons and Sunday school programs and bible study groups are created to try to motivate congregants to "recognize and act" on their spiritual gifts. (As long as their "gifts" line up with the published list of offerings :-)

I think (in my perfectly idealistic world) that to really trust the Spirit is to empower others. I guess my flow chart would look something like this:

- Love others (which involves the building of relationships at some level)
- Trust others (which means that you will actually humble yourself and acquiesce to someone else)
- Empower others (which means that you can let go of your friends, (read, "the opposite of manipulating them into following your personal agenda") and support them to follow God's leading, even if that takes them away from you)

I think that this roughly parallels the theology of the ancient Celtic church (where they actually believed (*gasp*) that God purposefully interacted with them through The Creation among other things) - I guess today that would mean attributing serendipitous acts to The Spirit... (Everything happens for a reason, etc.)

The out-flowing of that theology is that of much deeper respect for both humanity and creation. You can't love, trust and empower people and also want to kill them (for example) because they disagree with you. You have to believe that God created people to be warriors and poets and nurses and yes, even Republicans, and that God is found and honored within that diversity. This ideal, of course, is that you end up with warriors who love Jesus and poets who love Jesus and nurses who love Jesus and yes, even Republicans who love Jesus, and in acting on their gifting, God is honored and the Kingdom is further revealed.

Can the church provide a large enough foundation to empower this diversity? I guess that's real servant leadership... to empower from below instead of stepping into God's seat with marionette strings.

Sonja Andrews said...

I was going to make some snarky comment about how if you use short sentences, large print and lots of smarmy illustrations you could probably get two book deals out of this idea. But then Ross had to go and write something profound. He's a bugger.

Will said...

Isn't part of the problem with the institutional church, its constant need to "direct, tame, and manage" the work of the Holy Spirit? God who is both in and outside the Church is the one who is to direct, tame, and manage us. A Cathedral Dean once passionately said to me "the Church is not God, for Pete's sake."

I agree with Mike's three statements particularly that discipleship is costly --- but rather than say sometimes, my impression is that it is always costly. We may not be killed for our faith but I think if we are following Jesus, we're likely to experience persecution in a variety of forms whether we are taunted or ignored, isolated or mis-represented. The Church when it is packaged and marketed in our contemporary culture often fails to convey the radical message --- the Good News often looks like Bad News. So the Church "tames and manages" discipleship --- "you don't need to leave your job building bombs that kill children" or "you don't really need to worry about buying that huge house" or "please don't worry about not forgiving your neighbor" or "loving your enemies".

What would a tv or radio ad for a church be like that was based on the scene of Jesus calling those fisher folks by the sea side? Or based on Jesus' conversation with the rich, young ruler? Would people go to a church that from the very beginning said "come follow Jesus, be part of a non-violent revolution and leave everything familiar behind --- your job, your family, your house." hmm....

Mike Croghan said...

Hmm. So: one of the things that makes discernment so gorram hard is that we get immediately into issues of control. The individual disciple wants to control his or her own destiny. The church wants to control the disciples and make sure their callings fit into the neat, pre-established categories that match the church's own power structure, habits, and priorities. Nobody really wants to relinquish control of their lives - or the lives of their "flock" - to the Spirit. Partly, that's because we have to admit that we don't really know how to be that open and free. Also, I think we know it's not quite as simple as "anything goes" - just love everybody and encourage them them do what seems best to them. So how do we really, intentionally, go about the hard work of discerning the what it means, for each of us, to follow Jesus? I think we need to strike a balance between a thorough grounding in scripture (what did Jesus say and do?) and community (including the deep community of church tradition, going back to biblical times) - and an oppenness to God doing a new (or at least new-to-us) thing. Like Ross says, trust others, and also trust God.

Even though we can point to a thousand places where the Church has done a spectacularly bad job at missional discernment, I think it's still necessary for us to try to find ways to do it intentionally, together, as brothers and sisters (not shepherds and sheep), without it degenerating into a control game. There's a place of tension between "whatever feels good to you is groovy, man" and "you must now choose from this list of seven pre-defined spiritual vocations (or three if you're a girl)." I guess we need to find ways to inhabit that tension.

When I was reading Ross's comment (and by the way, thanks to both Ross and Will for the thoughtful feedback - and to Sonja for the snarky one), I couldn't help but think of seeing Tina off to the Appalachian Trail this spring. I expected her to come back, but not for six months. We spent a lot of time before April 1st "equipping" her for the journey - planning meals, researching and buying lightweight gear, figuring out logistics, and mostly making sure we could spend a lot of time just spending time together before she went away for so long. Talking, planning, but most importantly, spending time with each other. Control didn't really enter into it, although I did insist that she take a light. "I can see just fine in the dark!" Crazy woman. :-)

This conversation is very relevant to me, because (unless they reject Fr. Rick's letter or something) I'm getting into the leadership ministry discernment process of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia this fall. It's the process that (as I understand it) used to be sort of a "will you be a priest? - thumbs up / thumbs down" sort of thing, but has recently been expanded to be much more open-ended. Still, I wonder what kinds of predetermined assumptions and categories come along with it.

Thanks, folks!