Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part Five

I recently gave a looooooooooong talk on discipleship to the very accommodating folks at Forge Chicago. Here's part five. (Part one here, two here, three here, four here.)

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We want the glory of the Lord to fill the earth. We want the world to be set right according to the values of the kingdom of God. We want ourselves to be cruciform, both individually and collectively, to look increasingly like Jesus.

What we want by faith, and what we want in practice, however, are not always compatible with one another. That’s another key aspect of discipleship: the syncing up of what we believe we want with what we actually set out wanting.

The most effective discipline begins with a question: “What do you want?” Jesus asked that question, and by answering it people grew in faith and knowledge of God. Blind people came to see but also came to profess Jesus as Lord; sick people became well while becoming devoted to Jesus.

“What do you want?” happens also to be a key question for community organizers. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, advised organizers to gather people from the community and ask them questions that would lead to a kind of social epiphany, the realization of their oppression and the identification of what stood in the way of their liberation. Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals (the bible of community organizing), asked a similar question in an effort to tap into people’s self-interest as fuel for social change.

“What do you want?” is not as simple a question as it sounds like at first pass. Here’s the impact of it on a young Thomas Merton, before he became a monk, as he describes it in his memoir Seven Storey Mountain:

Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question: “What do you want to be, anyway?”

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:

“How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.

“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments."
The challenge of discipleship is at least in part to slow down enough to answer that question, “What do I want?” rightly, not as we think we should but also not in a way unbecoming of a child of God and a follower of Jesus.

Mark Scandrette, who leads the Jesus Dojo in San Francisco, does this as well as anyone I’ve met to date. He invites people to gather and sort through that question together, getting from the surfacey, circumstantial answers—“I want more money” or “I want more respect from my boss” or even “I want to be more like Jesus”—to answers that cut to the core and start each person on a journey. “I want to feel more in control of my life.” “I want to be free from money pressures.” “I want to no longer be an addict.” Even “I want to be more like Jesus.”

And then this gathered group works together to figure out ways to play with what they want. For example, when a group of friends decided they wanted to be less materialistic, they ran an experiment they called “Have2Give1,” described in his book Practicing the Way of Jesus. They noticed that John the Baptist had invited people to do exactly that in the gospels, and they discussed why he might have asked that of people. And then they gave away, sold or threw away half of their possessions, just to see what would happen.

It wasn’t dutiful, legalistic, cultic. It was play. Hard play, sure, and they needed a lot of persistent practice to prepare themselves for it—really taking ownership of John the Baptist’s logic, really opening up to one another about what they had and why they loved it, that sort of thing. But all that practice led soon enough to play, and when they’d liberated themselves from half their stuff, they found themselves freer to bless those around them while enjoying what they still had more.

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Next Monday, the grand finale of the series on missional discipleship, with a little help from G. K. Chesterton and Tim Morey.

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