Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Discipleship: A Lifetime Journey of Transformation

Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf.  It is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation.  Nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death will do.  William Willimon

Laurie and I sometimes watch the show Extreme Weight Loss with Chris Powell.  Each week Chris Powell invites someone to embark on the “transformation of a lifetime”.  As the name of the show implies, the surface goal is weight loss, but most of the time, the weight doesn't really come off—and stay off—until the participant deals with a “deeper” issue.  He or she has to face an “old wound” in their lives that is still holding power over the individual, which they compensate for with compulsive overeating. 
Extreme Weight Loss participants are offered
the "transformation of a lifetime".
Chris has to bring the participants to the breaking point (usually via a very difficult workout, particularly for individuals that are so badly out of shape).  It’s a moment of choosing between fight or flight.  This is an important part of the process of transformation because it forces the participant to face up to the fundamental question: Do you really want to change or are you just playing at this?  

Occasionally the participant answers, “No”, and Chris has to accept that.  He can’t force a person to transform if they aren’t ready to do so.  Not every weight loss story ends happily.  For every happy ending we see on TV I’m sure there are many more that fail.  Honestly, the average person would probably choose flight when pushed to the breaking point. (I sometimes wonder what I would do if pushed to that point.)  This level of change is more than most of us are willing to bear.

It’s the rare individual that can reach down and say, “Yes.  I want this!  I want this so much I will push past all my excuse-making and commit to doing whatever it takes to change—not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually as well.  I will push on toward total transformation of my life.” 

The final scenes of a typical Extreme Weight Loss episode are a celebration as the participant reveals their “new look” to astonished friends and family.  There is a level of joy that comes not just from shedding a significant amount of weight but also from shedding the “weight” of old habits and old wounds we have been carrying and replacing them with something better.

This is the kind of change we’re aiming for as individual followers of Jesus and as worshipping communities. Like Chris Powell, Jesus is all about total transformation of our lives. Our life in Christ will be a lifetime journey of transformation.

Jesus comes to us and says come follow me—100%.  Take up your cross—in other words, expect it to be demanding.  Leave behind the ways you once knew and I will show you a new Way that offers the potential to usher in a new world. 

Body and mind are usually the first things we change. The Extreme Weight Loss participants usually begin losing weight before they are ready to confront the “deeper” issues.  Ultimately, however, changing our body and even our mind is not enough.  These changes are external; change that endures (total transformation) comes only as we change internally—as we “renovate” our heart. Our heart is the control center of all that we are—Proverbs 4:23. Heart change is deep and fundamental—and worthy of our best effort.  If the heart changes, our mind and body generally follow suite.  

On the whole, change is hard for human beings.  Sometimes our motivation to “want to change” only comes when circumstances in our life conspire to make not changing more uncomfortable than changing. 

Sometimes it takes being desperate to see things with clarity.  We finally glimpse a vision of a “better” life that is compelling enough to (at least temporarily) overcome the strong inertia of excuse-making.  We are now willing to do whatever it takes to make our vision a reality—pursuing whatever means are necessary to make it so. 

Participants in Extreme Weight Loss often find themselves in such a place.  They reach out for help from Chris Powell because they have, frankly, run out of options.  They realize that if they don’t make a radical change—and soon—there are likely to be severe consequences to their health. 

Just as Extreme Weight Loss is about more than just shedding physical weight, spiritual transformation is about much more than “giving up something for Lent”. 

“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s a question a lot of people will get these next few days. If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder fast is needed. This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. It will make room in ourselves to experience a love that can make us whole and set us free.  Time Magazine Article

A word cloud image for Lent and Holy Week
Image creditWhere the Wild Rose Grows.
This is not to say we shouldn't do the time-honored Lenten practice of self-denial as much as to suggest that the true work of Lent goes far deeper.  If we merely “give something up for Lent” (say, chocolate, soda, or social media) but then rush to pick it up again as soon as the season is done, we are kind of missing the point.  We are like the people on Extreme Weight Loss who lose the weight initially but never confront the deeper issues that they used food to cover up and caused them to gain weight in the first place—and thus struggle to keep the pounds off over the long haul.  Without a commitment to total transformation, the “old habit” we gave up is likely to come right back afterwards—maybe worse than before.

For the follower of Jesus, discipleship is not just a six-week exercise in self-denial but rather a commitment to a lifetime journey of transformation, following a spiraling path that leads ever closer to the heart of God.

If we sense God revealing an area that “weighs us down” and holds us back from taking the “next step” toward the deeper relationship with God we desire, Lent is certainly a good opportunity to begin to make a change.  We would be in the company of many saints that have walked the ancient Threefold Way of illumination, purgation, and contemplation (union) during this season.

If we are doing it right we make progress on our spiritual journey not just during Lent but at all times.  John Wesley would say we are always “moving on toward perfection”.  During Lent, however, we  intentionally focus on drawing closer to God in the days leading up to Holy Week.  The idea is that we arrive at Palm Sunday and "enter Jerusalem" with our soul less encumbered by the ”weight” of our “stuff”—our sin.  This should allow us to enter more fully into Jesus’ suffering and death during Holy Week—and then, precisely because of the 40-day intentional journey we took to the Cross before arriving at the Empty Tomb, our experience of the Resurrection should be all the more meaningful.

May it be so for all of us...

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