Friday, May 31, 2013

Friday Five: The Essence of Discipleship

RevGalBlogPals is a blog I've started to read recently; online since 2005 its a "supportive community for women pastors and their friends, interdenominational, inter-generational, and international." They have a game called the Friday Five and I've decided to participate in it today, a first for me! Mary Beth posed this week’s question and I hope you will find my answers inspiring and timely. (Btw, there's a great picture of Paige Bradley's sculpture Expansion and a link to the amazing story of how she created it that you won't want to miss in Mary Beth's post.)

For today’s Friday Five, share five occasions or events in your life that have been turning points…when you have felt like a new thing was being born. You can refer to the birth of children, career, your kitchen garden, or whatever moves you.

Death, in many different ways and not always bodily, and resurrection make up the story of my life. Death turns my life upside down many times but resurrection always follows as day follows night. I have died and been raised up, always, overflowing with new life. Death and resurrection are also the essence of discipleship.

Strange as it may seem the first was the death of my mother when I was still a teenager which led to my own death and resurrection experience. A bone-lazy dreamer who had spent her entire childhood lost in the pages of a story book and biking along the sandy shores of a beach, I could not believe childhood had come to such an abrupt dead-end. God's grace given through the gifts of faith, hope, love and hard work lifted me up, out of the pit. Within days after my Mom's death, I who had done no kitchen work before, was co-managing the household with a gentle father and three younger strong-willed siblings competently, driving them to their schools joyfully, teaching them like my mother. My mother's death accomplished what she had failed to do in her life; I became totally focused, disciplined, ambitious, interested in my studies. Her tragic death not only shaped me into the woman I am today it brought me a whole lot closer to Jesus.

The second death was mine; the doctor later told me that he hadn't been sure that they could resuscitate me. It was my first childbirth and apparently, I lost a lot more blood than they realized. I gave birth, passed out and they couldn't bring me back for a long time. It took a whole year to gain my strength back; I would catch every minor infection around! Faith in Jesus raised me anew, this time giving me the wisdom and strength to care for my child, far away from all that was familiar and friendly.

I can never forget the pain or the entry in my diary: Today, I died.  Another child died unborn. His grace lovingly comforted me. I learned for the first time in my life to love a dog.  I'd never had a pet growing up and I will treasure my years with Scottie. Later, I learned to love Raja and Smokie (pet cats). Scottie passed away 10 years ago. Raja passed away last year.

The fourth death, another big turning point in my life, happened gradually. It was a very slow death and I did not realize how much of me had died until a personal family tragedy hit. Since the story is not fully mine to tell I share only partially here. After my third death, I had pursued my worldly ambitions, a PhD first, and then, a tenure-track academic faculty career. With worldly success came the loss of faith. The more I began to live in the world the less I could hear Jesus and the more conflicted my life became. This was an invisible, inner death; I lived a fantastic, enviable life on the outside. When the final killing thrust came it was quick and God, in His grace, was faithful. He brought me back to life in Christ. I quit academia, became a stay-at-home wife and mom, active and engaged, peacefully transformed, reborn again, in the process to restoration. Real life is so much stranger than fiction, isn't it? Days passing, dying, dying, dying, slowly. Then, suddenly, I am raised up, my freely given, abundant new life in Jesus Christ, making me a far happier person. The life I began to enjoy was far better than the one for which I had worked so hard before. Feeling led, little by little, I turned my scholarship skills to studying God's Word, teaching women's Bible study at first. I began to understand what Paul must have felt like after his own dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.

Jesus said to his disciples: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16. 24-25, ESV)

The final death, self-death and the resurrection, that followed the fourth were an overwhelming experience. I confessed my sins to God and experienced his forgiveness and love. I felt free for the very first time in my life, since childhood, when mother had died and I stepped up to the plate. This new found sense of freedom perplexed me for awhile. After all, I had enjoyed a lot more freedom growing up than any woman I know and for most of my life not only was I trying to follow Jesus, I tried to break chains and remain "free-spirited," as friends often called me. Why this liberated feeling only now?  Was it a natural part of growing older or had I been living in a prison of my own, ignorance and blind spots making me unaware of the chains? The divine interruption last summer started me thinking about the relationship between faith and biblical freedom. I'm also noticing that self-death followed by resurrection happens regularly now, in many small ways, as I've become more wholehearted in following Jesus. They may not be major turning points like the divine interruptions or sudden tragic deaths and traumas life throws at us but they've become critical and elements to watch out for in soul care - discipleship to Jesus - for me.  Phillips refers to self-death as "an absolute surrender to God," and Christ's calling an "all-demanding lifestyle, an all-consuming commitment." (Keith Phillips, The Making of A Disciple. Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming h. Russell, 1981, p. 17)

Following Jesus, obedience, surrender, self-death simply don't sound appealing and can even be scary. We can't help but remember what Bonhoeffer famously wrote, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." For Bonhoeffer, in the end, it meant a physical death. While there are many ways to die for Jesus I like to remember his promises accompanying self-death: Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but when it dies it bears much fruit (John 12. 24, ESV). This captures the beauty and the bounty of resurrection; the Pulitzer prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson calls it the "open thy hands wide" liberality of God (When I Was a Child, I Read Books, Feb. 2013 Picador Edition). Evey single death and loss in my life has gained me far better things in my new life in Christ. I learned to work hard for my dreams, seek wisdom for my family, love all creatures, care for the oppressed, poor and be a good steward of His creation, even as I pursued personal passions like gardening and dancing. Then, when I thought there was nothing more to learn about love, hope or serving Him, God surprised me yet again. This time he rekindled His gift of writing. Surrendering to God revitalizes and continues us on the journey to becoming more fully the person He originally created us to be.

What is Jesus calling you to surrender today?  How will you answer Him?

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Photographs and Credits: Pencil sketch of Paul's conversion experience by a young friend of mine who prefers to remain anonymous; photo of Scottie and Raja (our pets), yellow pear heirloom tomatoes in the Garden of Grace (the plant died down, re-seeded itself, and came alive this spring with this bounty!)

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Pr. Scott for encouraging me to write about Grace, Discipleship and Hospitality. I started with the series on Infinite Grace (one of which discusses Grace and Discipleship) and am so glad to do this one on Discipleship, thanks to MaryBeth's thoughtful question. If you would like to write a guest post on these topics (or others), please let me know. I'd love it!   

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