From intention to natural – the process of discipleship

It’s funny how things happen that make them seem like a coincidence has taken place.  For some reason, on Tuesday, I left my briefcase at home.  Unusually, I placed it on the cage over the herb gardens, walked down to the front gate to open it, walked back to the car, drove through the gate separating the house paddock from the shed paddock, got out of the car, opened the gate between the back paddock and the shed paddock (to let the sheep in), closed the gate between the shed paddock and the house paddock, got into the car drove through the front gate, got out of the car, closed the front gate, got back in the car and drove into work.  It wasn’t until I got to work, got out of the car, opened the back door to retrieve my briefcase, that I realised it wasn’t where I normally put it.  I knew instantly where it was.

It contained my mobile phone and my wallet, the latter I needed for the evening’s meeting.  Consequently, I had to drive back home to retrieve it.  But this meant I was able to listen to Books and Arts Daily on Radio national with Michael Cathcart interviewing Tony Simbert about his new book explaining how you can achieve some of the artist Turner’s methods as well as other great painters of the 19th century.  During that interview he used a metaphor from his martial arts training to explain how he had studied and learned Turner’s methods of painting that had enabled him to paint in his style.

There are 3 stages of apprenticeship in Japanese thought, he said.  A bit like when we were learning to drive a car, it was all unfamiliar and we had to think about everything we did, but now we don’t even really notice the car, it has become a part of us.  In stage 1 you mimic the teacher entirely and it all feels unnatural and unfamiliar.  In stage 2 that which was unnatural and unfamiliar become natural and familiar and you begin to see what it is that the teacher didn’t show you.  In stage 3 you begin to do something original, there is an expression of who you are within the discipline.  It seems to me that this is a very helpful description of discipleship.  And, if I hadn’t left my briefcase at home I would not have heard this metaphor describing something of what Jesus is trying to teach his disciples in the gospel today.

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’

But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.[1]

The things of the sinful nature[2]: ‘evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander’[3] naturally come out of the heart, it is also true that the things of the Spirit[4] should naturally come out of the heart.

In speaking specifically of the heart and not the mind, Jesus is referring to the place of our feelings, desires and passions; what comes naturally to us, rather than the intellectual and act of the will.  In other words, we can be religious in our observance of laws, morality and customs, having to think about what we ought and ought not do, in contrast to a life of faith where our words, thoughts and deeds are naturally, instinctively aligned to the things of the Spirit.

The problem, of course, is that we are not naturally aligned to the things of the Spirit.  We have been conditioned to the things of the world.  We are naturally inclined; if you give me leave to paraphrase Jesus’ words, we choose to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, we do act in ways which deny others the same fullness of life we have, we do betray the relationships we have with others, especially God, we do treat sexuality as a power issue, we do procure things at the expense of others, we do tell lies about others to make ourselves look better, and we do speak about others in order to have power over them.

To change our nature from these things of the world to the things of the Spirit is what being a disciple is all about.  I know discipleship means learning, but that seems to imply an intellectual, mind process.

In beginning as a disciple there is something about copying Jesus.  Many books have been written about imitating Christ[5]; literally and in attitude.  I am sure I was pain in the butt when I first became a Christian, and I often feel the need to give a wry smile as I watch new Christians begin their journey.  Such enthusiasm, such zealousness, such holiness and purity.  For those who look upon them from the world view this appears a drastic change.

After a time, however, the imitation doesn’t become so important.  There are aspects to our modern life that Jesus was not aware of and, therefore, the Bible does not address.  We begin to move into an understanding of being in relationship with Christ rather than imitating him.  We find ourselves beginning to work out for ourselves what is spiritually healthy and what is not.

Then, as we develop in our discipleship, we move into expressing that relationship we have with Christ, not as a clone of him or of any other person, but we discover who we are, who God created us to be, in relationship with him.  We find new and unique ways of being a part of the transforming of this world to reveal the kingdom of God.

What has happened is a move from having to be intentional, having to work, at being faithful to it being a natural process.  We don’t need to think about what we need to do, we will respond instinctively and uniquely.  When this happens we have moved from a religion of the mind to a faith proceeding from the heart.

Of course, discipleship is like learning to drive a car, or use a computer, or cook.  It begins with discipline.  We learn by doing.  It is on-the-job training: talking about things with God, worshipping, hanging out with others who can challenge and encourage, reading the Bible to hear what those who were present have to tell us, and undertaking activities we think God is inviting us to do, we have a passion for and skills to offer.

[1] Matthew  15:10-11, 15-18

[2]cf.  Galatians 5:19-21

[3] Matthew 15:19

[4] cf. Galatians 5:22-23

[5] eg, Kempis, Thomas A, The Imitation of Christ.  Burns & Oates:1959

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