By Dee Dee Risher (Philly, PA)
*This is the fifth installation of a year-long series of posts from contributors all over North America each answering the question, “How would you define radical discipleship?” We will be posting responses regularly on Mondays during 2019.
Discipleship is hard enough without the “radical” word in front of it. Often when I hear the phrase unpacked, there is a focus on radical (“root”), and what it entails. In our current context, community, and point of history, how should the taproot of our faith look?
That is a beautiful and rich question, but I find myself grappling with the word “discipleship” instead, pondering that ragtag band of twelve that followed the bold, enigmatic teacher around the backwaters of Galilee in Palestine.
Discipleship goes deeper than being a follower. It assumes a teacher and a doctrine. It is devoted allegiance to the teachings of one chosen as a master.
Which is to say that discipleship starts with our own choice and agency. Following the way of Jesus always begins with choice. Having chosen, however, there are some difficult rubs that I do not like to talk about. Specifically, obedience–the “following” part.
Let’s face it: the idea of radical–being prophetic, speaking truth to power, and resisting—is appealing. Equally heady is the careful analysis that leads many of us to take a different, more countercultural path. I’ve played games of radical one-upmanship—tallying up points of cred; parrying another’s brilliant thought with a keen, incisive counter-insight; and trying to be more purist in the cause than my neighbor. (This is how, especially on the left, we split our communities and relationships into smaller and smaller shards. Sometimes we cannibalize ourselves with critique.)
These dynamics are concerned with individualism and ego more than they are concerned with community. As a person raised in modern, U.S., individualistic culture (perhaps the most individualistic culture in history), these are dynamics toward which I can easily gravitate. Radical discipleship will stay a mind game unless I grow a different, more laborious, root.
That root is formed in silent, dark earth. It comes from the places pride does not visit. It understands obedience, compromise, grace, and brokenness. It has received forgiveness and so is able to offer it to others authentically. It allows people to change without forever pinioning them to past sins. It values community over certainty. Just as a teacher is patient with his students, this root is patient–always listening, learning, and changing as the Spirit leads.
The core of this discipleship is listening closely, and then obeying what is heard. It hinges on a discipline of constant communication and attentiveness to God. It requires that I develop an inner life which is as robust and cultivated as my external actions for justice—very difficult to do in a busy, aching world.
For me, this means drawing from some of the gifts of my evangelical journey—daily disciplines around Scripture, belief in the presence and strong gifts of the Spirit, including tongues, healing, and other unconventional manifestations, and an orientation to prayer. It also means that I live with the conviction that God is present in every person, and that every person has some gift to offer me, even when I do not see it.
This discipleship I follow is stumbling and lives with a certain lack of clarity. Sometimes I yearn for that clear prophetic vision so sure of its positions. I crave the purging righteous anger offers—and there are times righteous anger is the best and truthful response.
Usually, however, I am trying to follow that Galilean teacher in the murky complications of human relationship with people who, like me, are a mixture of wisdom, beauty, brokenness, and sin. The “opponents” on the other side are that same mixture. Some also follow Jesus.
We find ourselves in direct and almost unresolvable disagreements over what Jesus taught, what in this world needs changing, and how to do it. Sometimes we don’t like each other, but we have to keep working on our relationship because we are disciples to the same Jesus. (Secretly, I hope those other people will come to see the light as I have! Right.)
When Jesus chose that band of twelve, he chose to build community between people who had very different ideas of what a Messiah meant. They clashed even in the daily company of Jesus.
Why would discipleship today be any different?
Dee Dee Risher lives at the Vine and Fig Tree community in Philadelphia. She is the author of The Soulmaking Room. She is always working on herself, and one day the Spirit is just going to snatch her home–with all her flaws.