Discipling from the Bible

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Discipling and Disciple Making:

Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded of you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Matt 28: 18b-20.

When we read the Bible as disciples and disciple-makers, what is our goal?

The Bible is the story of God’s acts and people’s response.  It is helpful to think of this story as a continuing drama.  Act one was God’s good Creation followed immediately by the Fall.  Act two begins when God selected Abraham and Sarah and their descendants to form a people to serve him, a people by whom all the world would be blessed.  Act three is Jesus’ story, when everyone’s expectations were turned upside down, and God’s plan was fully revealed.  We are living in act four, as Jesus Disciples, followers of the risen Lord, until he comes again.  Until God’s story reaches its foreshadowed end with creation restored to God’s original purpose.

The Bible is the record of the action so far, and stage directions for the next part of the Drama.  Jesus’ Disciples use the Bible to understand God’s drama so well that we can play our proper role as fitting actors.  We are expected to improvise our parts so as to carry forward the action under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Improvising is a more difficult skill than following a script.  Successful improvising requires understanding the drama so well that we know what will work – what “comes next” when it is time to act.  Our actions must advance the story and conform exactly to the director’s intentions.

The way we gain this understanding is by steeping ourselves in the back story, the record of what has gone before.  Let’s take a very quick look at bits of that back story.

The Book of Jonah isn’t a simple myth, a “just so” story or a story like “how did the leopard get its spots?”  It is a deep meditation on what it is to be a faithful believer, and on how God works around and with the participation of believers.
Facticity is not the point of the tale, just as a historical novel, however accurate, is really about the deeper truths revealed in the interplay of characters.
In the Scripture, Jonah learns how God’s Word goes forward to accomplish its aims, regardless of human intentions.  The story is filled with tiny details about how believers, even wrong-headed believers, act and speak when they encounter God.  God’s acts are full of surprises, they are often mysterious, and always wonderful, but God’s Word is inexorable, and God’s promises are sure.

The four Gospels are a recorded history that provokes faith.  Jesus is what a completely faithful human looks like.  Jesus is also what God looks like when he walks among people.

Consider two of Jesus acts and watch how they shape the story:

Zaccheus was a Tax collector, he lived by collecting a forced levy from other citizens.  He made his fortune by overcharging, and pocketing the difference.
Jesus calls out to him, as a sinner, before Zaccheus has done anything except climb up in a tree to see the wonder worker.  Jesus invites himself into Zaccheus’ life.
For us, as sinners, this reveals the core of the Gospel, the Good News.  From Zaccheus behavior, we learn what one fitting response might be:  he welcomes Jesus into his home, promises to restore his illegal gains and to give half his wealth to the poor.  Zaccheus gives an appropriate response to Christ’s presence.  He receives God’s initiative, and makes a fitting “next move”.
There is another set of details in this story.  Look at it as one of Christ’s disciples.  Jesus doesn’t wait for Zaccheus to act first.  God acts first.  We, Jesus’ disciples, are called to act first.  Jesus doesn’t look for the crowd’s approval – everybody hated tax collectors – he looks to his Father’s approval.  God’s will is where our allegiance lies.
One story, many different lessons to take to heart.  When we’re called on to make a difference in somebody’s life, this may be the model we use to guide our own actions.

Now consider the woman taken in adultery.  We never find out if the woman Jesus saved from stoning went back to her husband, or her lover.  Or if she was repentant or simply grateful to still be alive.  Again, Jesus offers tremendous hope for us sinners, no strings attached.  Go, and sin no more.
But we, as Christian disciple makers, are also called to see ourselves in Jesus’ place.  And we’re called to put ourselves in the place of the crowd of the righteous, the ones with stones in their hands.  How much do we forgive?  How much value do we place on keeping God’s commandments?  What is our fitting response to encounters with our fellow sinners today, in the light of this story?  In our daily dramas, how do we know what our next move ought to be?

The Bible gives us accounts of God’s acts and the people of God certify that these specific stories, poems, histories and speeches, are authentic accounts of God’s actions and faithful records of the response of God’s people.  Christians study God’s acts portrayed in these stories, poems, histories and speeches, making their richness part of our experience, until we know, almost by instinct, what the “fitting next move” is going to be.  We immerse ourselves in the Bible to become part of the story.

Let us pray:
As disciples and disciple makers, we are charged with retelling God’s story until it reaches all nations, teaching and baptizing in Jesus’ name, until he comes again.  Let us dedicate ourselves as Christians, as Disciples and as responsible members of the congregation, to take full advantage of the opportunity we have before us at St. Timothy’s to carry out Jesus’ Great Commission.  Amen, let it be so.

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Mission to Athos

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I’m slowly working my way through Kevin Vanhoozer’s “The Drama of Doctrine”.  This seminal work is about doing theology, doctrine and faith in a postmodern world.  Vanhoozer explores in considerable detail the problems of authority, “How do we know what Christians believe?”, scripture “What is the role of the Bible in Christian belief?”, the church “Is it the canon, or the way the church interprets the canon which is authoritative?” and a cluster of related questions about whence comes our faith, and to whose meaning do we owe allegiance.

It seems to me that questions of authority and the role of God’s Word and inspiration of the Holy Spirit are at the heart of the controversies among the various bodies which claim allegiance to Jesus Christ and which attempt to “walk in his way” in the 21st Century.  Vanhoozer offers a metaphor of faith as participation in a drama, with the scriptures forming both the story line of God’s redemptive acts and stage directions which allow us to participate as audience (receiving the message from prior scenes and acts) and actors using our knowledge of the Bible story to choose the appropriate acts and words to form our part in the continuing drama.  I think this metaphor, which seems so far to be internally consistent with modern communications theory in the social sciences, is useful in helping us sort out the ways that being Christian changes our actions and our lives.

In Vanhoozer’s metaphor, our mission is to absorb the elements of the Christian story so well that when a new scene begins we will know how to act as a disciple of Jesus Christ, Son of the only God.  Let me propose a thought experiment and see what you think.  I should warn you up front:  this experiment has no “answer”, and it is disturbing.  So forth.

In Lois McMasters Bujold’s science fiction universe there is a world called Athos.  Settled by a band of extreme misogynists, its inhabitants are only male.  The inhabitants’ stated reason for prohibiting women is to avoid the inevitable social discord and strife that male-female relationships bring.  Women are not even allowed to visit or communicate except with the government.  Children are conceived in vitro to parents who are registered partners and who have accumulated enough “social credits” to qualify.  The protagonist of her novel “Ethan of Athos” is an obstetrician at one of the hospitals where children are conceived, nurtured in a “replicator” until birthed and given to the parents.

Eggs for these births are cultured from a collection donated some centuries previous (some are becoming senescent and refusing to replicate, which forms the driving force of the novel’s plot).

Now, here is the thought experiment:  suppose we are members of the Galactic Missionary Society.  The inhabitants are consciously trying to create a peaceful, orderly, “virtuous” society somewhat along the pattern of Greek philosophical thought around the time of Plato.  As far as we know there are no Christians on Athos, but there is no prohibition of other faiths and practices, except that visitors and residents must be male.

What should our missionaries be like?  What kind of Gospel can they bring to Athos?  How should our first mission congregations be organized? What are the appropriate Words and Acts that a disciple of Jesus should say and do?  What has Jerusalem to say to Athos?  (I rarely resist puns.)

Confirmation

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Some years ago, I was one of the lay council members who led a small town congregation during the interim between pastors.  One responsibility, a pleasant experience as it turned out, was conducting a Confirmation class for our lone pre-confirmand, a boy whose primary interest in life was soccer, not religion.

Dan (all names are changed) was in many ways a typical mid-teen, extrovert, perhaps a bit more self-confident than most, as he was clearly our local High School’s best hope for a soccer championship in three more years.  He had an understandable reluctance to volunteer opinions and information to me or verbalize his thoughts and questions.  After all, our faith was obviously important to his parents and presumably to me and I was pretty much a stranger.  So opening up had no obvious up side and plenty of possibilities for trouble.

This was Dan’s second year of Confirmation class, and his relationship with our former paster, Tim, was good, but slightly perfunctory.  Pastor Tim had taken him through the Bible stories, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  Dan seems to have treated this as a required subject necessary to pass in order to qualify for the soccer team.   He knew the material and could answer the questions.  That was pretty much it.

The second half of Confirmation is where we try to connect the dots between what we say we believe and what difference it makes.  I didn’t have an ongoing familiarity with Dan, so I gave some thought to what resources were available.  For one thing, he seems to have been mildly curious as to why I, a lay person with a whole other life, should care about my faith.  I knew that wouldn’t last very long – young men are fully aware that adults do all sorts of strange things for unfathomable reasons, and don’t look very far for motives and explanations.

My best resources were his mother, Elena and his father, Bill.  Both wanted him to finish and be confirmed in the church.  It was important to both, and Dan knew it.  His older brother, now a Sacramento firefighter, had been confirmed a few years back, and Dan clearly saw Kevin as a powerful role model.  I decided to leverage this, and asked Bill and Elena to attend each week’s class “until Dan gets used to me”.  They agreed that one or both would be there – not a real chore because someone had to drive him to and from the church and it gave them something to do until we were done.  That was probably the best move I made all year.

There was a Confirmation text book Tim recommended I use, but, frankly, it was pretty twinkie.  The topics and structure were useful, but the text was dumbed down to the point of vacuity.  I couldn’t bring myself to use it directly, especially as Dan was pretty bright, though most unscholarly, and if I’d been assigned it at his age, I would probably have concluded the class was a waste of time.  Why do we do this to our kids?

Anyway, I went with my old standby.  At the first meeting, I told Elena and Dan that our study this year would explore one question, “OK, I’m a Christian.  What difference does that make?”  That he should read the text book, a chapter at a time, and bring me one question that occurs to him, and we would start off with that question.  And bring a Bible every week, because we’d be referring to it often.

I also said his question didn’t have to relate to the text, if something else he wanted to know seemed more important.  As long as it had to do with his faith or what we believed, any question was fine with me.  In effect, Dan was in charge of the syllabus and his parents and I were his information resources.  I did point out that we might not be able to answer the question with a clean answer – some questions are like that.  I told them that one of the important reasons I was a Lutheran Christian is that Luther emphasized that if we didn’t know something, we should leave it a mystery.  If God thought it was critical to our faith, he’d have told us.

It turned out that Elena and Bill were absolutely essential to the success of our class.  We talked about why they were Christians.  I offered my own basic commitment – Out of the whole Bible, if only the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt and the Crucifixion were true, the rest of Christianity made sense.  I find it impossible to look at the sweep of history and not conclude that those incidents were too improbable to be fabrications. The effects on all humankind have been too great to be the result of some mythic invention.  If we believe Jesus was real, and was raised from the dead, we are a part of “Holy History” whether we will or not, and the question becomes “What do we do about it?”  Elena’s reasons were less cerebral.  She had never had serious doubts, being a Christian “just seemed right”.

Bill and Elena also talked about why they were Lutherans.  Bill was raised in the Roman Catholic church, Elena in a Lutheran family.  As is typically the case in my experience, the one who was more firmly grounded chose the denomination.  This was made inevitable by Bill’s priest’s insistence on Elena’s “conversion”.  Since her parents were stanch members of our congregation and Bill’s were in another part of California, that was that. Fortunately for the family, our Lutheran worship was very similar to Bill’s pre-Vatican sensibilities, so as many former Roman Catholics do, he thought of us as “Catholic lite”.  Whoever linked our worship practices with our core beliefs has the right of it.

In the fullness of time we talked about all kinds of things.  Bill was a volunteer firefighter.  We spent one evening exploring why he took this risk, and what it means in terms of “loving your neighbor as yourself”.  Elena talked about work with the Food Bank, and we took advantage of an ill-timed “away game” to substitute a shift at the Food Bank for a class Dan couldn’t make.  He did well, and the staff seemed to love him.

Dan’s faith instruction still took a back seat to soccer.  Three or four months into this, however, Dan converted a blocked kick into a broken arm, and our class time became more predictable.  By this time we were using the Bible to ground most of our discussions and Bill and Elena were both present more often than not.  Having topics to discuss which didn’t have “right” answers and where Dan’s thoughts were as valuable as anyone else’s opened him up considerably.

Bill and I talked about Kevin and the way he made his Dad’s volunteer service into his profession.  I offered my service as a peace officer and as a soldier as a more ambiguous example of serving others. We talked about what made sense to Dan about our faith and what he couldn’t understand.  Then we all volunteered our thoughts, if not always our answers, to whatever questions he had this week.

We all agreed that some things about the world didn’t make sense and the answers we found in the Bible didn’t always cover the whole question.  That’s fine with me – someday we’ll grow into the answer as we gain wisdom, or, at fifth and last, we’ll be able to ask God directly.  Some kids need to think they have all the answers.  For Dan, knowing the next steps to take to find out the answers seemed to be enough for now.

In retrospect, I think the opportunity we gave Dan to engage in really serious, really safe, conversation with his parents was the most valuable thing to come out of the year.  How many teens get this chance?  Not very many, I suspect.  How many parents would like for their children to open up, but don’t know how to make it happen?  Probably a lot more than find a way to make it happen.

Finally, our Class of One finished, and, come September, Dan was confirmed in front of the confirmation, stuffed with cake, congratulated by everyone and took his place in the congregation as an “official adult”.   His grandparents, Bill and Elena, and I were very proud.  Kevin made a rare visit.

I met my own Confirmation pastor many years later.  He didn’t remember me, as I was in a huge Baby Boomer class and we moved away soon after.  When I told him how much his teaching meant to me, he remarked wryly, “Many pastors count their time to retirement by how many Confirmation classes they have yet to teach.”  Confirmation teaching is a difficult, unsung job, but I can think of few things more satisfying than to have a part in shaping a young Christian’s soul.

What’s going on here?

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Cradle Lutheran is my attempt to connect with people who are trying to make sense of being a Christian today.

Ever since my Aunt Reike dragged us all off the farm to her congregation in Olathe, KS, I’ve been a Lutheran.  Like nearly all my generation my Pastor made a valiant attempt to help me understand what that meant when I was an early teen.  I’m still at it.  Pastor Waltz impressed on us that being a Christian ought to be something people noticed, without us having to “show off”.  One of two thoughts I took to heart.

The other is there’s no reason to be a Lutheran if it doesn’t mean we have something worth saying to the rest of Christianity.  There’s no virtue in being just another “denomination”.  Finding out what a Lutheran Evangelical actually stands for has been a lifelong quest.

I’m not a church professional, though I did serve as lay worship leader for a pastor-less congregation for more than two years, and I’ve taught Confirmation to two tiny waves of kids.  Mostly I spent my time at a smorgasbord of middle America jobs common to a lot of my peers:  soldier, peace officer, fireman, administrative assistant, database programmer and manager, marketing assistant, document security specialist, strategic analyst, graphic designer, office manager.  A bit of this and that.

In the middle of all this, I had an opportunity to return to university and take a Masters in Theological Studies from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.  That is a wonderful degree for a lay person, you can craft it into whatever you’d like, nearly.  I specialized in Church History, and wrote my thesis on the Lutheran Episcopal Dialogs then going on between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.  It was my first introduction to church politics.

Nowadays I teach adult Sunday School when I get the chance and write.  My first book, adapted from a class I taught in 2012, is “Praying the Psalms – Learning to Pray God’s Words”.  Its an assay at teaching some classic Christian prayer methods to people who may not have thought much about prayer before. More on that, later.

My current congregation is St. Timothy’s Lutheran, a North American Lutheran Church congregation in San Jose CA, where I have a number of fine friends, including three excellent pastors and some committed Christians to talk to.  We should all be so lucky.

In this blog, my vision is to explore the two questions Pastor Waltz asked so many years ago:  “What difference does it make that I’m a Christian?” and, “What do Lutheran Christians bring to Christianity that you can’t get some other way?”  Along the way we’ll look at various historical and Confessional issues that interest me.

As we go along, I invite anyone with an opinion or a tentative answer to join in.  This is an exploration, not an explication of The Answer.  Welcome to the conversation.

Lawrence Duffield

A couple of ground rules:  dissent and argument, within limits of politeness, is encouraged.  Polemic will be exorcised with extreme prejudice and without apology.  We’re all Christians here, or at least tolerant seekers.