Meditation on discipleship

At our church over the past few weeks we’ve been doing a Lenten mid-week series.  The series revolves around a list of questions that our senior pastor came up with.   They were things like, “Are you lost?” “Can the blind lead the blind?” “Why are we afraid?”

When our SP first approached me to help out with the service by doing a mediation based on one of these questions, I was really excited.  It’s been my experience that when Pr. Doug has one of his holy hunches and decides to include me in it somehow, I always come out the other side of it feeling really blessed.  Always challenged, for sure, but also very blessed.  So when Doug told me that my question would be, “Why are we afraid to follow Jesus?” I was pleased.  I even thought to myself, “Hmm.  That actually sounds kind of easy.”  That should have been my first clue that there was more to this than what I was seeing on the surface.

In light of the question, I was reminded of Fear Factor.  I dont’ watch the show, myself.  I’ve seen it in bits and pieces, so I think I get the premise.  As I understand it, there’s a host and there are contestants, and the contestants stand to win money if they do whatever the host challenges them to.  And he’s always challenging them to do something outrageous, like sticking their faces into a box of live tarantulas or eating a steaming plate of horse entrails or something.  For my money, this has little to do with fear.  I think that they should change the title of the show to Gross and Creepy Factor.  Maybe that wouldn’t sell.  Perhaps they producers ought to just get serious about the title.  If they truly want to be real ab out the Fear Factor title, they should have our pastor show up with a clipboard and ask people to do a meditation during a Lenten mid-week service.  “Whatever happened to that box of tarantulas?  Can’t I just do that?”

The text that Pr. D. wanted me to use for the mediation was Matthew 8:18-27.  On reading the text in light of my assignment, I thought I had run into a problem.  The question and the text didn’t really seem to match.  I mean, in that passage, there are three discrete stories:  The first one is the scribe, and he didn’t seem afraid to follow Jesus at all.  If anything, he seemed a bit overzealous and Jesus had to put the brakes on him to some extent.  The second one is the guy who wanted to follow Jesus, but first wanted to go home and bury his father, and he didn’t really seem afraid, either, as much as he seemed to lack a sense of urgency.  The third example deals with the disciples in the boat, who are afraid, for sure – but their fear seems to have less to do with following Jesus than it does with dying in a storm on the sea.  I knew that, if I wanted answers from this text, I’d have to look below the surface.

It seemed that, if I wanted to get to the main question, “Why are we afraid to follow Jesus” then I’d need to ask some other questions of the text.  Mainly I wanted to focus on what each of the people in the three examples thought it meant to follow Jesus, to look at how Jesus set them straight, then to see if I could apply this to myself somehow.

The first guy is a scribe.  I had to do some research on scribes.  It’s clear that a scribe writes stuff, but beyond that basic bit of information – and beyond having seen scribes paired with Pharisees all over the New Testament – I had to claim ignorance.  It’s not critical to go into detail, but I did find that not all scribes were Pharisees, and that not all Pharisees were scribes, but that the two did share something in their basic “job descriptions,” namely that they both worked with the Law.  They studied the Law, interpreted the Law, taught the Law.  These jobs carried a great deal of prestige.

Armed with that bit of information, it became a bit easier to see what was going on with the scribe in this chapter.  If a scribe might be tempted to thrive on prestige, he’d definitely be drawn to Jesus’s ministry as described in Matthew, especially going back a couple of chapters to chapters 4 – 7.  There we see Jesus being followed by throngs of people: Judeans, Gallileans, people from the Decapolis, from Jerusalem, from the other side of the Jordan, etc.  There were so many that Jesus had to go to an elevated place to talk to them.  And when he came down he was blessing people left and right, healing people here, casting out demons over there, and the whole atmosphere was like a circus.  You can almost imagine this scribe saying, “How do I get a piece of that action?!”

But Jesus says, “The fox has a hole and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “If you think my ministry is about glitz & glamor or about creating a comfortable, presitgious environment for myself, you’ve got another thing coming.  If you want to follow me, you’d better forget the notion of adoration by the crowds.”  In fact, if you turn forward a few chapters to Matthew 10, this is where Jesus says that his followers need to deny themselves and take up their crosses.  Quite a bit removed from comfort, glamor or prestige, eh?

The second example from our Gospel reading deals with the guy who wants to follow Jesus, but says, “first let me go home and bury my father.”  Jesus has to tell him to let the dead bury their own.  In doing some research on this passage, I ran across some references questioning whether this man’s father was even dead yet.  It kind of makes sense to raise that question:  If they guy’s father is dead, why isn’t he already at home burying him instead of jabberjawing about how he needs to go do that?  The references I found suggest that maybe the man’s father was alive, but ailing or aging.  It’s not so much that the guy is trying to pull a fast one on Jesus;  in fact, he seems to be motivated by good intentions.  He’s thinking that it’s his familial duty to go home and take care of dad until he passes away.  Then he’ll be ready to follow Jesus.  (It kind of reminds me of Acquinas’ famous quote, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.”)

Jesus sets this guy straight by telling him to let the dead bury their own dead, or in other words, to get his priorities ironed out.  The man’s motivations might be good ones, but he’s putting other things in front of the importance of following Jesus.  Again in Matthew, chapter 10, Jesus says that anyone who loves their father or mother more than they love Jesus isn’t fit to follow him.

The last example in the Gospel reading has to do with the disciples who freak out in the storm.  Interestingly, they don’t seem to have a problem following Jesus.  When he says, “let’s get in the boat and go across,” they’re all over it.  Their problem doesn’t come up until their halfway across the sea and the storm arises.

A couple of points as kind of an aside:  Some of these disciples are fishermen.  It’s safe to assume, then, that they’ve been born and raised near/on the sea and that they’ve seen their fair share of storms.  We know, then, that a) this storm must be a big one if it’s swamping experienced boatsmen; b) the men in the boat will have done everything in their power to handle the storm on their own.  The second point comes home more clearly when we realize that these experienced fishermen are waking up the son of a carpenter to help them out of a boating crisis.  You can almost hear an announcement over a p.a. system, “Yeah, this is your captain speaking.  Um, smoke ’em if you got ’em, cuz we’re goin’ down.”

So, for the disciples in the boat, they thought they were OK following Jesus in a literal way.  Jesus says, “get in the boat,” so we get in the boat.  But panic sets in when things go awry, and they discover that following Jesus has a deeper meaning – it means trusting in Jesus – fully, completely.  That’s pretty tough.

What’s interesting about this collection of discipleship stories in the Gospel reading is that, while each of the examples displays a discontinuity in terms of specific roadblocks to discipleship, it also shows that each of us has an obstacle (or set of obstacles) that interfere with our willingness/ability to really follow Jesus.  It also shows that Jesus isn’t content to let us make our excuses.  He wants us to confront those things that stand between us and Him.

Speaking for myself, I resonate with each of the stories on some level, but that last one – the one about the guys in the boat – convicts me the most.  It’s fair to say that I have trust issues.  I’m not trying to make excuse, but instead I’m trying to confront my own obstacles when I say what I’m about to say.

People growing up in my type of environment typically find it difficult to trust.  In anybody.  We suffered all kinds of abuse and endured all kinds of pain.  It kind of led us to depend on ourselves and to build up protective shadow-selves, in a sense.  Let me explain this better, using myself as an example:

I was born in 1969 in suburban Detroit.  My dad had been a cop, lost his job, and was “reduced” to selling insurance.  In 1972, he committed suicide.  That year, my mom moved my sisters and me in with my maternal grandmother.  In 1974, one of those sisters went to a party on a Friday night – on Saturday morning they found her naked body dumped in some old guy’s yard.  Her clothes were neatly folded up 3 feet from her body.  She had been mauled by the old guy’s dog, post mortem.  (We discovered in subsequent years that my sister had been at a party where she ODed on drugs people don’t even do anymore, thank God.)  The following year, my surviving sister moved in with her boyfriend and my mother and I moved to the next town over.  As this was happening, my grandma came down with ovarian cancer and died within 8 months of diagnosis. 

Fast forward a couple of years.  My aunt – this is my dad’s sister – who was an alcoholic and very probably schizophrenic, had just gone through a divorce.  One day she came home, started up the car in the garage and killed herself with carbon monixide.  If that weren’t enough, the garage was attached to the house, where my cousin was sleeping.  The CO seeped under the door and killed him, the family dog, the guinea pigs – everything but the fish.

Go forward another year or two.  The boyfriend that my sister had moved in with, though they had split up in the meantime hanged himself in his shop.

About my Junior year of high school, one of my best friends from grade school – the friend who dropped out of school and started hanging with the wrong crowd – killed himself, too, in a local park.  Just an aside: a few months after Bradley killed himself, on a whim I decided to stop by his family’s house and check in on them.  I hadn’t spoken to them in a couple years, but their house was on my way as I was returning from my karate class.  Bradley and I started karate together as 13-year-olds.  His mom thanked me for coming by, but mentioned how strange a coincidence it was that I came by in my karate uniform.  I asked why, and she said, “Well, Bradley hung himself with his purple belt.”  It was like that scene in Jaws, when Sherriff Brody learns that the shark is in the lagoon where his kids are boating:  the whole background kind of blurs and the moment comes into focus.  It was the same way with me at that moment.

These stories, sadly, don’t end here, but I won’t go any further.  The point is that, growing up, I had very little reason to trust anybody – if they could just “check out” like that – how could I rely on anyone?  I mentioned before that people in this type of situation tend to build a protective “shadow self.”  Maybe it’s more accurate to say that a person throws up protective walls and learns to count only on him/herself.  Initially this is a good thing, but it’s a false sense of security – and after a while, if we don’t confront our issues, the comfort and safety of that lie can transform into something that feels a lot like the truth.  When that happened to me, I gradually became skeptical…well, maybe not completely skeptical, but I did build up a reliance on empirical truth – things that are solid, hard and fast, not left to chance.  What kind of room does that leave for something like faith?  And with a broken faith, how could I follow Jesus the way he wanted me to?

The answer lies in the same thing that Jesus is asking the people from our Gospel reading to do:  we have to confront those issues that stand between us and Jesus.  That’s harder than any box full of tarantulas.  That’s scarier than hell.  In a way, that IS hell.  But that’s also where God meets us – when we’re at our lowest point, when we can rely on nobody else, when we’re out of options.  Jesus is there.

I want to end this meditation with something from Bishop N.T. Wright’s new book, Surprised by Hope.  Wright is talking about the Apostle Thomas, who kind of embodies this need for empirical proof.  “Thomas,” he says, “like a good historian, wants to see and touch.  Jesus presents himself to his sight and invites him to touch, but Thomas doesn’t.  He transcends the type of knowing he had intended to use and passes into a higher and richer one. […T]his is how it looks, in words from the Easter Oratorio.  Thomas begins with doubt:”

The sea is too deep
The heaven’s too high
I cannot swim
I cannot fly;
I must stay here
I must stay here
Here where I know
How I can know
Here where I know
What I can know.

Jesus then reappears and invites Thomas to see and touch.  Suddenly the new, giddying possibility appears before him:

The sea has parted.  Pharaoh’s hosts–
Despair, and doubt, and fear, and pride —
No longer frighten us.  We must
Cross over to the other side.
The heaven bows down.  With wounded hands
Our exiled God, our Lord of shame
Before us, living, breathing, stands;
The Word is near, and calls our name.
New knowing for the doubting mind,
New seeing out of blindness grows;
New trusting may the sceptic find
New hope through that which faith now knows.

And with that, Thomas [and I] takes a deep breath and brings hisotry and faith together in a rush.  “My Lord,” he says, “and my God.”

Amen.

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2 Responses to “Meditation on discipleship”

  1. I agree with your view on trust issues 100%. It’s so easy, as a child, to accept Jesus, as the adults tell you to. Children are naturally trusting. It’s totally another thing altogether to revisit salvation and trust as an adult who was an abused child. We do make our own walls and that causes problems with having a productive faith and relationship with God. It’s hard to wrap the mind around the idea to trust completely, wholly, because in the back of your mind a little voice is warning that you’re just going to be crushed, yet again. We keep thinking that there’s a catch. God knows that and understands that, but He still requires our total faith. I don’t know about you, but there are days when I have to work at it and ask forgiveness for my inability to trust Him to work things out. It’s comforting to know that Jesus referred to his own disciples as having little faith and they worked with Him in the flesh every day.

  2. I read your post and was deeply moved by your honesty and ability to let us peer a little bit into your heart. It is true that Jesus is the one who meets us in the midst of our struggles, in the midst of the seas, when nothing else makes sense.

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