One year ago, I participated in a Lenten study centering around the idea of “calling.” The essence of the study was that we all are called, each of us, to some participation in God’s purpose. Calling is not just for clergy, for the ordained, for those who go to seminary and receive blessings and ordination services and robes and stoles. Each of us is called.

As a part of that study – and in recognition that God calls us not because we are perfect but because we are God’s – we each took a blank sheet of paper, and wrote on it our faults. Not our skills, which we might be tempted to think of first as that which God might use. But our faults. I wrote my faults, in faith that God works through our weaknesses and imperfections to give voice to God’s greater grace and strength.

I wrote my faults. I wrote: I talk too quickly. Opinionated. Proud. Social moth (drawn to the brightest lights, the hottest burning fire, in any circle of people). Distractable. Undisciplined. Impatient.

Over the past year, I would have added more to the list of my faults: Fearful. Too much in need of praise and reassurance. Spotlight hog. And in November, I mentally added several more specific faults and shortcomings: Ignorant of my faith history. Unpracticed and unable to speak about my beliefs and traditions. Lacking a sense of my own journey and purpose. Biblically only semi-literate (at best).  Most damning: Never been to seminary. Untrained, unprepared, anxious, nauseous, painfully self-conscious, terrified.

I named these as my faults and shortcomings, because in November my pastor asked me to jump off a cliff. In all fairness, he didn’t know it was a cliff. It probably didn’t look big or threatening to him at all. I knew what it was, though; it was an endless fall, a fiery furnace, the lion’s den. My pastor asked me to join a conversation about discipleship, and to lead a discipleship-focused ministry.

I barely knew how to articulate any difference between “discipleship” and “being a good church member”. I showed up every Sunday, sang in the choir, did my share of church work and went to study groups. Wasn’t that the point? Wasn’t I doing all the right things? …And yet. When I heard others speak of the greater mission of the church, the transformation of the world, I could feel something deep within me respond. Sometimes, that something squirmed in discomfort. Sometimes it leapt for joy. Always it reminded me that I was missing something – a deeper path. Discipleship. An intentional, disciplined (disciplined? me? did you see my list of faults?) living out of the faith that I could at that time only barely speak of.

A deep breath. Sleepless nights. Prayer and reading, and hard workouts to burn off the nervousness, and long walks to clear my head of the circling swirling fears. Deciding to claim and cling to God’s promise not to leave me alone – and yes, I will jump off that cliff, I will walk into that fire, I will grab hold of that snake’s tail, with God’s help and my pastor’s support, I will begin and I will lead a discipleship group.

It started with one conversation, over coffee with a friend. Then a second conversation, on a walk with two friends. I’m going to start this. I don’t know what it will be like. Will you join me? Yes, saying yes, out of trust and out of friendship, and I believe out of their own shared sense of something deep within calling them to more. Weekly, we meet now. First one group, now a second, meeting before we had a full plan, trusting that we would learn along the way and that it was better to start than to put it off until we were “ready”.

We meet, weekly, in homes so we can have privacy. We open and close with prayer, taking turns in who leads. Our covenant follows Wesley’s General Rules: Do good, Do no harm, and participate in the means of grace – prayer, scripture study, worship, communion, and fasting. The questions which guide our conversations are variations on a core theme: Where have you encountered God this week? How do you feel God may be calling or pushing you in the week to come? With what are you struggling? In what ways are you living out our covenant? How is it with your soul? If the conversation stalls or falters, we look more deeply into our covenant: what does it mean to do good? What harm might we be doing, without being aware? What good is being left undone? Which parts of Jesus’ instructions to us are we failing to live out? I am regularly inspired and humbled by my covenant partners; each one has their own journey and their own challenges; each one brings something unique to the conversation. As the facilitator, I seek always two types of balance: a balance between sharing my own journey and keeping the focus on the group as a whole, and a balance between personal growth and missional focus for the conversation. I believe God calls us to look outside ourselves, beyond ourselves – thus, our covenant groups are not support groups. Our goal is not to feel better about ourselves, but rather to more closely follow Jesus – to follow him into the world, to the side of the poor and the sick and the lonely and the lost, to forgiveness and mercy and service and selflessness. To follow him to joy, not because we cast our cares aside but because we share each other’s cares.

We might talk about parenting, or our jobs – but not as we might chat with our social friends; we talk from a perspective of faith. We talk about forgiving those who have hurt us. We talk about strained relationships, and issues of justice. We talk about composting and recycling and what we spend money on and what we eat (or don’t eat). We experiment with fasting…and surprise ourselves with what we learn. We learn to experience worship as worship, not as Sunday Morning Social and Choir Hour. We aim for a closer relationship with scripture and a more regular prayer life…in a variety of ways. We ask each other to hold us accountable for certain things we struggle with. Sometimes we take small steps. And sometimes we take bold steps – like exploring prison ministry. Not because we want to or know how, but because Jesus told us to visit the imprisoned, and we can see that this is one big area where our larger church falls short. And always we strive to make it more than just talk, to ask and encourage and nudge each other so that it is our lives and our community which are transformed, not just our words for one hour each week.

In a congregation, especially a large congregation such as the one we share, it is tempting to say “the church should do something” – clothe the naked, care for the children, feed the hungry, visit the sick. And it may be true, but for “the church” to do a thing involves meetings, committees, budget, and often dissension from those who think “the church” should be doing something else instead. As disciples of Jesus, once we see ourselves that way, we are free to act on the needs we see, to respond to the hurts we encounter, to reach out to the lost and the estranged and the lonely without having to drag an institution behind us. As part of a discipleship group, we can remind each other to keep our eyes and hearts open, and encourage and support each other to take the first frightening steps in new directions. With a covenant to strengthen us, we grow in faithfulness.

Some things that our participants have done, that we likely would not otherwise have done: Brought food to shut-in neighbors. Offered to help shovel snow after a blizzard. Trained to volunteer at a community homeless shelter. Written letters to prisoners. Prayed for bosses who fired us. Ordered food for strangers protesting for justice in another state. Chosen to eat differently, more sustainably. Listened more carefully to someone who is hurting. Developed a practice of reading the Bible, nightly, with a young son. Talked and wrote about our faith with less hesitation, with friends and on our blogs and Facebook.

Our groups are young, in months and in maturity. They are small – eight members, one leader. We have much room for growth. But we are here, we are learning, and we are growing in faithfulness. I envision a time when our numbers will increase, when others see what we are about and join us, and each member now becomes a future leader. I envision other groups, gatherings of people who are not sure of their faith, wary of the church, not ready to enter a covenant, but who crave a place to talk and explore and learn; I believe our covenant participants will be gracious and nurturing mentors for these wandering souls. I give thanks now for my weaknesses, for my faults, for my never having been to seminary, for my impatience and my impulsiveness; God is using these very flaws to give shape to my leadership. And I give thanks for my pastor who asked me to jump, and for my covenant partners who took the leap with me.

We are all called. We can all grow in discipleship. Who will go with you on your journey?

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