By Rev. Joanna Lawrence Shenk
*This is part of a series of pieces 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.
A version of this article was first preached at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco on March 31, 2019
During Lent this year I experienced a stripping away, a reorientation in a vulnerable and uncomfortable way. I recognized my need for God and guidance by the Spirit anew. It has led to questions such as:
Where is the Spirit at work?
Am I attentive enough to follow the Spirit’s leading?
Am I courageous enough to follow?
Do I actually need God or do I think I’m okay with my analysis and intention to do good in the world?
In this time prayer has become a central practice.
In times past when stressful or painful or overwhelming things would happen, I would seek comfort and also move quickly into fix-it mode… how do I figure this out? Thinking I have the capacity to figure it out… to solve the problem.
Prayer did not come to mind. I humbly confess that other than times when I was asked to pray, or it was part of my job, I didn’t have a regular prayer practice. It is disturbing to me… and I know the ambivalence came from not wanting to perpetuate a form of prayer from previous chapters of my life that diminishes the complexity of the world or makes truth claims I no longer believe.
In my pastoral role I’ve felt comfortable leading Prayers of the People, and offering prayers when requested or needed… but it’s only been in the last 6 months that prayer has become a central part of my life. And it is changing my life.
The discipline of prayer is providing a clarity and courage–a resiliency–I have not experienced before. The question shifts from “is this too hard or complicated” to “is this what the Spirit wants me to do? Am I following the Spirit?”
The practice allows me to be present. I pray when I’m anxious, angry, scared. And ask others for prayer.
I feel like the Spirit is calling me into a depth of discernment because the needs in this world are so great and the temptation to just keep going in a way that benefits me is too easy… or at least a way that prioritizes my comfort.
And my analysis related to systems of oppression is not enough… it can leave me demoralized.
In Luke 4:1-13 Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. This testing was from God. Am I willing to be tested? It is painful and scary… I have to go through it… and the outcome is unknown.
Jesus was there for forty days like the Hebrew people were in the wilderness for forty years, getting detoxed from empire. They were getting free.
The devil was wily and insidious and knew just how to tempt him. The devil is the spirit of all that is not God. These were not easy tests. Jesus was not predestined to pass them. This is the calling of anyone who follows Jesus–that we’re tested (because the world we live in is always vying to control us through systems of oppression) and we don’t know if we’ll make it through. We need God’s help and vision and wisdom. We’re not going to make it otherwise.
That’s why prayer is so liberating. Because we can say, “I don’t know what to do God… Help me. I need your vision and guidance.” My analysis and critical thinking skills only extend so far and since we battle against principalities and powers of sin, like white supremacy, we need to have spiritual vision. I know I am too wrapped up in those systems to solely trust my critical thinking skills and my commitment to undoing oppression.
Luke 4:4, “One does not live by bread alone” is a reference to Deuteronomy 8:2-3. Jesus’ sustenance is to fulfill the mission he has been assigned by God. Bread of Egypt vs. manna from God. Just because I can be sustained by the oppressive status quo doesn’t mean God wants me to eat it. But that is a scary call…. to trust that God will actually provide. Do I need to trust God or can I take care of my own needs?
This is a call to draw sustenance from God’s word, trusting that God will show the way, and not eat the bread of oppression.
In the second temptation the devil knew that Jesus was called to bring about liberation to the oppressed and upset the status quo. How better to accomplish this than to be given power over all the kingdoms of the world? But Jesus was clear that was not the way to accomplish his calling and nor was he willing to worship or serve anyone but God.
He quotes Deut. 6:12-13 which are God’s words to the Hebrew people liberated from slavery in Egypt. God was exhorting the people to stay free, to not forget their liberation.
This question of who I worship and serve is very real. Is my obedience to the way of Jesus, to loving God and loving neighbor, or am I straight-jacketed by systems of oppression that convince me I can’t (or don’t need to reach out) to the person I walk by on the street who is being crushed. God have mercy on me.
In this season of discernment I am haunted by the question of who I am serving. I’m scared by what it would actually cost to follow Jesus. But the alternative is a numbed out life. One of my prayers these days is “God give me the courage to be alive.”
In the third temptation, the devil is quoting Psalm 91:11-12 and Jesus responds with Deut. 6:16-17. The devil is saying, “prove that you are God and then people will believe your message.” This is not the only time Jesus is tested in this way. Even when he’s on the cross he is challenged to prove his divinity by coming down off the cross. He does not. He knows that his calling is costly and only wants disciples who can count that cost, even unto death.
In the wilderness Jesus was discerning. He was full of the Holy Spirit, he was mightily tested and he made it through. The next thing he does preach his first sermon.
With all of this in mind I feel empowered to pray in the powerful name of Jesus because Jesus was someone with spiritual power and clarity. He endured the testing. He stayed true to his call. I can grow toward that kind of spiritual power… that kind of clarity, if I am committed to disciplined prayerful discernment.
If I choose to be sustained by God rather than the bread of oppression.
If I choose to worship the Living God and not bow to the idols of my analysis or comfortable religious practice.
If I choose the costly path of discipleship.
Although we each have our own testing (wilderness experiences), we are not alone. I have felt this so much in the recent weeks and months as I’ve shared about this time of discernment in my life. I am so glad to be in a community where I can ask for prayer… where I know people are praying for me. And many friends beyond this community who are praying for me too.
I know I need your prayers in this time of discernment… I feel like I am being called to something deeper, so I’m praying all the time. I don’t know how else to get through. I know that I need God. It’s humbling and freeing at the same time.
Joanna Lawrence Shenk is energized to be on the journey of transformation with First Mennonite Church of San Francisco. In addition to being a pastor, she is an author (including, Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship and The Movement Makes Us Human), networker, podcast producer (the Iconocast) and facilitator. She invites others to be in prayer, seek the Spirit’s calling on their lives and recognize their deepest identity as God’s beloved. She enjoys riding her bike, making popcorn on the stovetop, creating jewelry (especially with spirals), learning about Bay Area history and working for justice with Faith in Action. She also loves living with her family in the Mission District.