When I’m in Africa, kids are usually either ignored or sternly warned to behave. Fathers love their children, but I don’t often see affectionate fathers. Children run with a posse of older siblings and friends from dawn to dusk. Babies ride on their mothers’ backs all day. Often kids are considered non-entities until they demonstrate that they will survive pandemic infant mortality and grow into an initiated adult. In fact, in some cultures, a child isn’t given a proper name for several years! Until then they are, “Hey you with the boogers hanging down!” (My experience in Ethiopia was the exception. There, I was surprised and encouraged to see parents who were both firm and affectionate.)
I believe the culture Jesus lived and taught in was more akin to your traditional African context where small children were assigned value only in relationship to their parents (which is why all the OT babies are given names relating to the stories of their parents.) So, when Jesus scooped up one of these free-ranging little ones and shouted, “Here’s the kingdom!” I think it was quite a statement indeed!
And the shock value is still there today in many traditional cultures. I don’t think the message is that we should think more highly of our children, but that we should think less highly of ourselves. Our culture idolizes our kids and in my opinion, we put a lot of pressure on our kids to continue to be “so cute, so talented, so wonderful.” But many societies are so rigidly structured around a top-down hierarchy–even in churches–that Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is intentionally lost so that we can focus on whether an apostle is more important than a pastor… or a female preacher is more valuable than a male deacon!
Not to pick on the African church too much. After all, American churches rarely have trouble filling volunteer roles that get the spotlight. And for full disclosure, this is usually where I end up: leading the music, garnering applause.
But I’m trying something new these days. I’m volunteering for the nursery. I think it’s healthy for me to be around 5-year-olds who won’t say, “wow, that was such a profound lesson today!” And I think I can learn a thing or two from them as well.
“9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:9-13)
What possessed Jesus to go to the wilderness to be tempted? Where did he get the courage to do such an uncomfortable thing? I’ll suggest it was an experience of the Father’s love and the Spirit’s presence at his baptism.
That moment in the Jordan must have been a moment of clarity for Jesus. God knew there were difficult tasks ahead so he gave Jesus 2 big “tools” for his tool belt. These two truths would carry him through the desert, through his ministry, and to the cross.
1. The Spirit is with me, leading and empowering me.
2. The Father loves me. I’m his son. And he’s proud of me.
So compelled by the Spirit’s presence and the Father’s love he went willingly into the desert, into hunger, deprivation, and temptation. Notice who’s in the desert? Angels, animals, the Holy Spirit, and the Devil. Notice who’s NOT there? People. I think Jesus went to the desert not just to say “no” to Satan and get clarity on his mission. I think he spent that time apart from civilization, apart from food, apart from human relationships, to learn how to rely on the Spirit and engage with spiritual realities around him. I think it was HERE in this place of total vulnerability that Jesus grew deeper into this “oneness”, this intimacy with the Father.
When I personally experience the Father’s love and the Holy Spirit’s active presence in my life, THEN I gain the power to do the scariest things imaginable. It’s not a pep talk or a kick in the pants or a biblical education that gives me courage. It’s a deep unshakeable knowledge that Daddy loves me and that His Presence is with me, that my life is no accident and that I am no orphan. When I can learn to HEAR the Father’s acceptance, and SEE the Spirit, that’s when I gain the courage to be vulnerable and to rely on Him every day.
This is changing the way I think about parenting. It’s tempting to focus on behavior modification or “winning battles” or protecting my kids or fostering their independence as the stuff that will help my children become courageous adults. But I’m beginning to see that it starts at a much deeper level. Before I do anything else as a parent I need my kids to know two things:
1. I love you. I’m proud of you. You are MY child.
2. Your life is no accident. You have great purpose.
We’re currently deciding whether to send our daughter to public or private school. Debra had an excellent experience in a small Christian school where she experienced a feeling of acceptance and belonging. The last thing we’d want for our 4-year-old is for her to be in a classroom (public OR private) where she feels she doesn’t belong or isn’t accepted. Given my daughter’s sensitivity to shame and rejection, we feel pressure to make the right decision from the get-go.
But as I look back on my childhood and think of MY most painful experiences with rejection, I’m realizing something profound. If I had felt comfortable enough to fall in my father’s arms, to embrace my mother’s acceptance, to grow deep in the knowledge that I have a place of nurture and love and belonging… then I could have dealt with those painful experiences with grace and courage. My parents are kind and caring people who sought to instill in me a sense of love and belonging. But no parent is perfect and I needed to make the choice to trust in their care.
So as I parent MY kids, my focus isn’t on keeping them from challenging or painful situations. My focus is on ensuring that every challenging or painful situation in their life is matched by countless experiences which show them that they are loved, that I am emotionally present for them, that they have a place in their father’s heart and in their father’s arms.
Researcher Brenee Brown nails it on the head. In this 20-minute talk, she discusses her research into what gives people the courage to live whole-hearted lives full of risk and vulnerability (or faith, if you like). She basically says that the courage to be vulnerable, to “risk it” with the people and situations in our lives, comes from an innate belief that one’s love and belonging are never on the line. Even if our endeavors fail, WE cannot become failures. Even if our relationships go south, we believe that we are worthy of receiving love. And that belief beyond anything else is what makes us brave.
I think the secret to Jesus’ obedience, his courage, his authoritative confidence, his willingness to do ANYTHING, stemmed from that moment in the Jordan, and other moments throughout his life when he could SEE the Spirit and HEAR the Father. Likewise, in our pursuit of maturity, in our passion to get “unstuck” and grow deeper in God, I think that’s where our focus should be: experiencing the Father’s love… and understanding the Spirit’s presence and purpose in our lives.
So I have come to understand that discipleship can be simply defined as this: Submitting to the Father’s authority and leadership, by following the words and ways of Jesus.
I shared Jesus’ command to a prospective disciple to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” in the last post because I think it gets to the heart of what it means to be a disciple. What’s fascinating is that as you begin to study Jesus you can see two stark themes emerge:
1) The good news announcing the nearness of God and his authority (The Kingdom of God)
2) The challenge to radically obey the words of Jesus, which are the words of the Father
Our response to the first theme is limited to two options, submit or rebel, humble submission or arrogant defiance. Jesus goes on to describe time and again that the kingdom belongs to the humble of heart, the meek, the poor in spirit…this is essentially the command to deny yourself. There could be an entire book written on this idea (oh right, there has been… it’s called the Bible).
Our response to the second is much the same, obey or disobey. Over and over again Jesus stresses the importance of obeying his words and that the Father is the source of his words and actions (Matt. 7:24; John 5:19, 7:16-17, 14:10). Jesus models this radical obedience as he goes to the garden and prays in anguish, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” There is no better place to look for how to take up your cross than this.
So the movements of discipleship are to submit and obey, deny yourself and take up your cross… there is no other way to follow Jesus. And the path that we follow him down is one where we must become more and more like Christ, or cease to follow him.
Is this the message that we preach in the Church today though? At WDA, it’s our unflinching claim that, in spite of what we may want to hear, maturity in Christ is what matters! We must become like Him, or what we are becoming is quite unbecoming. Take some time and ask yourself if you have made the commitment to being a disciple of Jesus and have counted the cost of what that means and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.