discipleship

Show Up

"Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are Your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor, Who comes like a heron to fish in the creek, And the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike Fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing In the trees in the silence of the fisherman And the heron, and the trees that keep the land They stand upon as we too must keep it, or die." – Wendell Berry

Perhaps the most damning mark against Millennials—especially younger Millennials—is our reputation for flaking out on commitments. Multiple factors contribute to the general truth that when you’re making plans with a Millennial, there’s a good chance that they’ll fail to show up whether they’ve made a commitment or not. Included in these factors are FOMO (fear of missing out), economic anxiety, overwork and difficult to anticipate work schedules, and the ephemeral nature of plans made via text message or a Facebook invite, among others. Whatever the case may be, Millennials have a problem with showing up.

Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, who we call 'Lord.' If that's true then the question is, how do we expect to be formed as Disciples?

This is the first rule of Christian Discipleship: show up.

It is probably obvious that the words disciple and discipline are related. In order to become disciples we have to have discipline. More than that, we have to be disciplined.

Progressive Evangelical forms of Christianity in America, seeking to avoid the gravity of the word "discipline" have invented the neologism "discipled," as in, "I was discipled at The Radical Non-denominational Satellite Church of the New Covenant." But this cute trick of language misses the true relationship that must be developed in community if we are to be formed as Disciples of Christ.

Referring to discipline here, I'm not talking about harsh treatment or some kind of overly strict regimen which coerces someone into behavior they otherwise wouldn't engage in. Like grace, discipleship isn't the outcome of a formula. I'm talking about showing up: in community, in relationship, in service.

In community, showing up means acting like you belong to the place you meet your neighbors. Belonging means recognizing that a place may not be set up to give you anything, but it will form something new in you if you show up. Showing up means that being a mere spectator falls short of the demand of your place. Showing up means acknowledging that your place belongs to you as much as you belong to it.

In relationship, showing up means recognizing people who have traveled down the road a bit further than you and asking them to tell you what lies ahead. Showing up means looking over your shoulder and beckoning toward people on the path behind. Showing up means walking arm-in-arm, supporting people on the path with you. Showing up in relationship means living into the truth that two people have a claim on one another—they belong to one another.

In Christian mission showing up means arriving for service not just when it's convenient, not just once in awhile, but over and over again. Showing up means coming together with those who serve and those who are served to make a place together. Showing up regularly and sharing space with others is what transforms a space into a place and forms people as friends. A place, once made, forms the community that shows up there.

Discipleship flows naturally out of the disciplined practice of regularly sharing space, breaking bread, and giving ourselves to place. But first we have to show up.

It’s, Like, a Religion You Can Totally Buy, You Know?

Two comedians in London, England created a non-religion religion called Sunday Assembly. They wanted the feeling of religion without the God parts.

It's good to get together with people you might not otherwise meet and listen to music and maybe do a community project. That's what religion is about.

Right?

Theoretically I'm all for opportunities for people to take part in community, expand their horizons beyond their particular view, and get involved in their community. That's the opportunity Sunday Assembly is trying to provide. This is already being done in various ways by clubs, nonprofits, and community organizations already in existence, but if Sunday Assembly can attract people to what it offers, that's all to the good.

What bothers me, though, is the generalizing attitude toward religion among people quoted in the linked article. Those interviewed suggest that Sunday Assembly has isolated something about religion and offered it up to be practiced by secular people: church, you know, but without the hard religion parts.

Except they haven't jettisoned religion entirely.

Theology

The article claims "there's little God talk at Sunday Assembly." A member says they aren't out to critique or debunk religion. Pippa Evans, one of the group's two founders, says simply, "It's all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs." I'll admit, this is a refreshing change of pace from so-called New Atheist proselytizers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – especially Dawkins, with his half-baked philosophies and reductive fundamentalism.

That being said, while Ms. Evans may argue to the contrary, there is a theology at work behind the scenes at Sunday Assembly. The word "theology" simply means "God talk" (Theos: "God" + Logos: "Word" or "Talk"). Though the rejection of the divine may go unspoken at Sunday Assembly's meetings, this unspoken theological position is the grounding principle which speaks the group into existence. I found a short paragraph near the end of the story interesting. A New York chapter of Sunday Assembly has suffered a split over how much to emphasize their rejection of God. How much God talk is too much for a people who've rejected talk about God? Better hire a theologian to figure that one out. Maybe hire two.

Specifically

But I'm not a religionist. I'm a Christian. And as a Christian, all of the throwing around of the word "church" opens Sunday Assembly to critique.

Specifically troublesome is part of the quote from comedian Pippa Evans, above: "it's all the best bits of church." From what I can tell, "all the best bits" seem to be the parts that feel good. The word "feel," or a form of it, appears seven times in the roughly 920 word article. Often accompanying all of this feeling are references to belief (also appearing seven times).

Another comedian, Louis CK, has something to say about beliefs. Namely, that we hold "believies" that make us feel good just for having them and then there's the way we actually live.

I suppose it's an indictment of the Church in the West that the generalities Sunday Assembly isolates from the experience of church is "believing things," "doing good," and "feeling good." But, religion cannot be practiced generally, it must be practiced specifically. It must not simply be believed, it must primarily be lived. The best of Christian practice does not call people of faith in Christ to strive toward a poorly defined ideal of cultural “goodness" or to consume the good feelings that may come from being in community. No, a Christian is called to become a servant, to become not more but less, so that the mystery of grace may increase in one's life and work.

I can see why Sunday Assembly hasn't repackaged this bit of church. It doesn't necessarily feel good. It downplays the ever-present "Self," so precious to us, in favor of servitude to the neighbor and to God.

That this call to become less embraces death makes the glossing over of the particularities of church even more predictable in a culture that worships at the altar of eternal vitality. Indeed, to lay down one's life is what leads to a becoming in the self that is greater than servanthood. But only after becoming empty shall one be filled.

Believe what you want though, you know. I don't want to push my beliefs on you. It's not like it matters or whatever.

Bilbo's Discipleship

Generally, I'm not a fan of posts that use some artifact from current pop culture as a source upon which to reflect. But here I go anyway.

I saw an early screening of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (one of the benefits of being an under-employed MDiv grad working at a movie theater) and read the book quickly in preparation for the film. Peter Jackson has pulled the first 102 pages of a 271 page (according to my edition) children's book into a two hour and fifty minute epic – the first of three. This is an exercise I disagree with on principle, but the movie was fine. I saw it in 48 frames per second (as opposed to the traditional 24) which was stunning. But I don't mean to write a film review.

It is common wisdom among church folk that discipleship ought to be taken on step-wise. Beginning with giving a little money in the collection plate, soon one might buy a few socks, toiletries, hats and gloves and bring them to the church to be donated to the needy. Then, a person could serve a night or two at a local shelter or meal program – maybe just on Thanksgiving and Christmas to start. Perhaps regular service in a community organization follows. Then a mission trip to some less well-to-do country – but not one too violent. And on, and on.

I have found that often this progression has implicitly in mind the privileged, affluent suburbanite. The logic goes that one must be eased into service among the homeless, the poor, the margins of society, places where the Gospels tell us Jesus dwelt and dwells still. I usually find myself nodding along with this logic. But in the past few days, reading The Hobbit and viewing the film, I have not found myself convinced by the common wisdom.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a profoundly Christian man. Indeed, he acted as midwife in C.S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity. If one is reading for it, and not just for escapist fantasy, one finds much in Tolkien's tale that lends itself to the life of Christian discipleship.

Bilbo

Bilbo Baggins, as the protagonist of The Hobbit, is an affluent Halfling. He lives in a beautiful, warm, well-stocked Hobbit hole. He has plenty to eat, plenty of friends, and his good health. He is happy. He loves food, books, his antiques, a good story, and his peace and quiet. He has never been on an adventure, and indeed, the idea of going on one is baffling to him.

When a wizard named Gandalf and twelve homeless Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield come to his home one night and call him on such an adventure, he stubbornly refuses. And yet, even after such a refusal, something about the call moves him to action. Bilbo lies behind the veil of ignorance before his adventure begins. He remains there when he sets off on a path guided by Thorin and the Grey Pilgrim, Gandalf.

Discipleship

It is no mistake that Gandalf's call to Bilbo parallels Christ's call to his disciples as portrayed by the Gospels. Christ calls and the disciples follow. They do not know where he goes. Christ does not lead them to safety but to death, and to new life. And yet they follow. Neither Bilbo nor the disciples tread their new path with foreknowledge of what awaits them. They have no experience with the road they travel. But they are compelled to follow, not by coercion but by something within.

Common wisdom calls this vision of discipleship foolishness. And so it is. But it is the call the Gospel makes to each of us, whoever hears it. We are not called into a step-wise progression into discipleship, but into discipleship wherever we are, in whatever we do, and whenever we can. We are called to leap, Soren Kierkegaard would say, and not to leap into a logical stepwise progression, but into relationship with Christ. And where is Christ? He is among the poor, with the alien, the stranger, the addicted, and the prisoner. This is the clearest thing in the world but common wisdom cannot see it. The Gospel message claims us but our lives often make us blind to it.

Fellowship

Making this call less foolish, perhaps, is the expectation that in answering the call we enter into a community of others. Our society, in its worship of the individual, discounts the power of community. Lincoln, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., for example, are valorized as individual heroes, as if their accomplishments were possible without the help and work of others. Yes, they were brave. But to illustrate them as lone heroes, when it is not a nefarious re-writing of history, simply misses the mark. The Christian call to discipleship is a communal call, a fellowship call. As Christians, the individuals who make up the party we join may be equally foolish as we. But each member of the newly formed body is called together to do remarkable work, as Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves do. We bear each other up to that end and encourage each other in times of trial. One member may face their own challenges, but they meet such challenges with the courage learned as part of a wider body. The leap remains the leap of an individual, but we take heart at leaping into relationship.

The church could do worse than to emulate that foolish group of homeless wanderers made up by the Dwarves and Gandalf. They represent hope, fellowship, love, and the brazen desire to see some good come out of a desperate situation. They do so not out of a need to provide marketable and achievable goals, but out of a Dwarven fire in the belly for a life they hardly know. Yes, there are practical concerns. There always are. But the Dwarves face a dragon. In so many ways we face one too, if we could only open our eyes to see it. The Dwarves offer Bilbo the chance to face this dragon, and Bilbo takes it. More of our churches should be so foolish.

Run, Ye!

In both the book and the movie, Bilbo runs—he does not walk—to catch the company of homeless Dwarves for fear they will depart before he can join them. The movie does a lovely job of illustrating Bilbo's foolishness in the eyes of his neighbors. Anyone who has heard the call is challenged to follow Bilbo's lead.