At the first session of The District Church’s discipleship class, I began by posing the question,
How many of you know that we’re called to be like Jesus?
Everyone raised their hand. I followed up:
How many of you actually think that’s possible?
Only a handful.
We dug in a little further and discovered that many of us had this notion that disciples were the upper tier of Jesus-followers, with a higher level of commitment, a greater willingness to sacrifice, those who had answered not just the primary call of Jesus to believe he existed but also the subsequent call to do what he said. Ordinary Christians were just trying to figure out what to do on a day-to-day basis, let alone the call of discipleship!
Yet the first call of Jesus isn’t a cognitive-intellectual one, but a holistic, expansive, all-encompassing one, condensed into two words:
I’m not going to unpack what Jesus calls us to in this post, but there’s a foundational adjustment to be made simply by understanding what a disciple is. As the late, great Dallas Willard wrote,
A disciple [of Jesus] is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus. [emphasis added]
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes, meaning “learner.” By definition, a “perfect disciple” is one who is always learning. This flies in the face of our Western understandings of perfection (derived from Ancient Greek philosophical concepts of the ideal) as something that is unchanging and to which nothing can be added.
This perspective is damaging in that it causes us to think that as disciples of Jesus, we’re called to be perfect, i.e. never make mistakes, rather than perfect disciples, i.e. always learning from our mistakes. Philip Yancey wrote of (the also late, great) Brennan Manning,
he progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones.
This is true in the way we live our lives, in the way we relate to other people, in the way we raise our kids, in the way we work with one another–it’s not about doing everything right; it’s about responding well when things don’t go right, about always having an attitude that seeks to learn and to grow and to continue to be formed more and more like Jesus.
Being a disciple of Jesus takes time and intentionality and cultivation. Just like Babe Ruth couldn’t hit a home run the moment he was born, but grew in strength and ability and through training; just like Steve Jobs didn’t know how to program a computer from birth, but spent hours and hours experimenting and playing around with code and trying things out; even in Jesus’ case, we’re told that he “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52) … if the Son of God had to learn things, I shouldn’t be surprised that I do, too.
Being a disciple of Jesus is possible. It’s not some out-there achievement for the A-grade students, the ones who are supernaturally wired to accomplish things; it’s for anyone who decides to accept Jesus’ invitation–“Follow me”–and allows more of Jesus’ Spirit to live in and through him or her.
One day at a time, one hour at a time, one moment at a time.
Brennan Manning passed away early on Friday, April 12; he was 79 years old.
I am beyond thankful for the life and writings of Brennan Manning. I know he was a flawed and sinful man; everybody did–he never tried to hide it. He was always very transparent with the depth of his failings and, more importantly, the depth of God’s love and grace.
It was through one of Brennan’s books that grace truly broke through into my life while I was in college. I’d grown up in a Christian home, going to Sunday school every week, and learning what I had to do to get into heaven (which essentially boiled down to “being good”). But I found myself, more often than not, confessing the words of Paul in Romans 7:19, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Somehow, I stumbled across The Ragamuffin Gospel, and here’s what happened (as I wrote — and preached last summer):
Years ago, I read The Ragamuffin Gospel … and it changed my life. After years of guilt and shame at not being able to live up to the standard I thought I was ‘supposed to’ live up to, falling short in failing to always treat people kindly, in losing my temper (I was an angry teenager, too!), in struggling with issues of lust and pornography, in taking for granted the many blessings I had been given rather than accepting them with gratitude and using them to bless others, and in a hundred different other ways—for the first time, through the words of this book, I began to truly understand grace—amazing grace, the grace of Jesus Christ.
I realized—not just in my head but in the very core of my being—that I didn’t have to work to earn God’s favor any more. I realized that God wasn’t keeping track of the number of times I’d failed and fallen. I realized that God loves me, accepts me, and welcomes me, as I am. I realized what it means when Paul writes, in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Philip Yancey wrote in the foreword to Brennan’s memoir, All is Grace:
Like Christian, the everyman character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, [Brennan] progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones.
Thank you, Brennan, for walking the road you did, and for inviting so many others into the wideness of God’s mercy.
With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering into election season (i.e. that time when the general public begins to pay attention).
A couple friends who pastor churches in non-DC parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking–given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church–about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.
So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more–and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.
Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.
So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.
1. Offer Grace.
As Christians, we believe that–as Brennan Manning, Dorothy Day, and numerous others have put it–all is grace. Just as God has been gracious to us in giving us so much more than we deserve, so we are also called to extend that grace to others: don’t presume that just because someone disagrees with you, they’re somehow less clever or less informed; don’t assume that just because someone’s faith doesn’t work itself out the same way as yours, they must therefore not be a Christian. God’s grace is big enough to meet all of us where we are and move us on a journey toward him–that should always be the foundation on which we build.
2. Be Humble.
With grace comes humility–the understanding that there is a God and it is not us, the recognition that there is far more that we do not know than that we do, the attitude of not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3) but of thinking of others as better than us (Philippians 2:3). When we recognize that grace is a gift from God and that the God we serve is far bigger than any disagreements we might have–or even the greatest challenges we might face as a nation and as a world–we are free to work as hard as we can, speak as passionately as we can, and do as much as we can, to change the world for the better, all the while remembering that it does not all depend on us, and that God brings good out of even the most awful things. And so we may walk humbly with our God and interact humbly with one another.
3. Be Civil.
Rich Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary) has written a tremendous book called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (that was republished recently), and last year did an interview with NPR about “Restoring Political Civility.” He talks often about the need for civility in discourse even as we maintain our convictions–to paraphrase: believing something strongly doesn’t mean you need to be a jerk about it, nor does getting along with people mean you have to check your beliefs at the door to find the lowest common denominator.
Grace and humility necessitate civility.
4. Work with Facts.
Jon Huntsman, Jr. (one of the Republican presidential candidates this year) said in a recent interview that one of the problems is that everyone appears to have their own facts, which means we’re not even starting from the same point!
Sadly, we live in a time when we can’t just take politicians at their word–there’s just too much spin (and even outright lying). So starting with the facts is always a good thing to do. Factcheck.org and Politifact are two non-partisan groups that do a great job running political claims and statements through the Truth-o-Meter.
Also, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post has a very helpful blog–“Wonkblog”–that keeps me up-to-date with summaries of the latest goings-on.
5. Read and (Carefully) Apply Scripture.
Of course, facts aren’t the whole picture and focusing on individual facets of policy–even if they’re true–can sometimes obscure the larger picture; and we must always view everything through the lens of Scripture and the larger narrative of God.
Just this morning, I was reading Jeremiah 22 and was reminded of the standard to which God called the kings of Judah (and, by implication and extrapolation, any political leader):
Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (v.3)
Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. (vv.15-16)
According to this standard, neither of the standard-bearers for the major parties matches up particularly well. The middle class has gotten a lot of attention, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the size and health of the middle class is one gauge of the health of our society.
But a better measure is the welfare of the those who have the least. Scripture is full of references to the poor, and how God is particularly concerned with their plight; for instance, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Prov. 14:31).
This is the standard to which we should be calling our leaders: doing justice and righteousness; protecting the oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable; and upholding the cause of the poor and needy–those whom Jesus referred to in Matthew 25 as “the least of these.”
[Brief aside: check out “The Line,” a new documentary from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association, that highlights this very issue. Trailer below.]
6. Be Prayerful
Ultimately, it comes back to God. As the people of God, it has to.
Prayer is not simply a way for us to petition God on the things we’d like to see happen, or to try to get God on our side: “Please let (insert presidential candidate) win!” or “Please keep (insert presidential candidate) from winning!”
It is also, and more importantly, the place where we come to meet with God, and to have our thoughts, our desires, and our wills, transformed by God to be more in line with who he is and what he desires–and reading and understanding Scripture is a good step toward being able to discern those things. Prayer is where we are changed, first–before that person with whom we’re disagreeing, before the policies and structures of our country, before the ossified injustices of our world. Prayer is where we grow our roots in God in order that we may bear fruit in the world.
In prayer, we are likely to be challenged to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God; to lower the accusing finger, to replace the vitriolic Facebook post with a civil one, to refrain from posting that oh-so-funny-but-not-particularly-gracious tweet; to truly love our enemies–that is, any who are opposed to us–and to seek their good.
I wonder if we could truly make this “the most important election of our lifetime,” as so many are wont to say, by showing the world that, as Christians, we are beholden not to a certain political ideology or party, nor to a particular economic or social philosophy, but that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God, who live out our faith with the love and graciousness and conviction and humility that are characteristic of our family.
That would be pretty awesome.
[Photo credits: Romney & Obama, Joe Raedle & Olivier Douliery / Getty Images; Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary website]
I’ve been reading again through one of the books that changed my life, Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. One of his chapters talks about wonder, and he quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said on his deathbed, “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”
Both Heschel and Manning lament that, “As civilization advances, [our] sense of wonder declines.” Because we get so caught up in our plans and projects, our busyness and activity, with ourselves, that we forget to take time to bask, to celebrate God’s glorious creation–“We grow complacent and lead practical lives. We miss the experience of awe, reverence, and wonder.”
The video below is an absolutely stunning time-lapse video from Yosemite, taken by Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty. It was a reminder to me that there is so much beauty in the world, if I’ll only take a second to step back, open my eyes, and look up.
A trip to Yosemite has definitely been added (bold and underlined) to my bucket list.
Brennan Manning, who never ceases to challenge me with reminders of God:
If you took the love of all the best mothers and fathers who have lived in the course of human history, all their goodness, kindness, patience, fidelity, wisdom, tenderness, strength, and love and united all those qualities in a single person, that person’s love would only be a faint shadow of the furious love and mercy in the heart of God the Father addressed to you and me at this moment.