Friday, November 28, 2014

How to Follow

    Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
-John 21:18-19 (NIV)

A stray dog from Ecuador knows what following is all about.
    A few weeks ago, the dog chanced to meet up with a team of Swedish athletes in the Amazon rain forest. They were there on purpose, believe it or not, competing in a 430-mile endurance race called the Adventure Racing World Championship. The dog, which the team named Arthur, isn’t saying why he was there. He was pretty bedraggled, and had a nasty wound on his back, so who knows how long he had been surviving alone in the rain forest. But he accepted a meatball from one of the team members, Mikael Lindnord. And then he decided just to hang with them for the rest of the race.
    Keep in mind, this was a long-distance endurance race. As the team hiked and biked through the rain forest, Arthur stayed by their side. When the team got to the kayak leg of the race, though, event organizers told them they should leave Arthur behind. “A dog in the kayak didn’t seem like a great idea,” the team later posted on their Facebook page. So they shoved off, reluctantly leaving Arthur on shore.
    So Arthur started swimming. No kayak? No problem. He dog-paddled faithfully after them through the Amazon rapids. Lindnord helped the impromptu team mascot into his kayak, and Arthur finished the race with the team. (They finished 12th, in case you were wondering.)
    After the race, Lindnord mounted a Twitter campaign to raise money to bring Arthur back home to Sweden. Currently, he’s in Stockholm waiting out a mandatory 120-day quarantine, but when that’s over he’ll go to live with the Lindnord family in the town of Örnsköldsvik.
    Seems as though that was as much Arthur’s decision than the Lindnords’.
    At least 16 times in the Gospels, Jesus says “Follow me” to someone or the other. An obvious conclusion might be that Jesus wanted more than polite interest. He was looking for more than casual, comfortable associations. Jesus never told anyone to join anything, he never seemed interested in starting a religion or a sect or a political movement. He wanted people who would walk where he walked, go where he went, do what he did, and were willing to tie their lives and their fates inextricably to his own. He wanted followers, not out of egotism, like celebrities today accumulate Twitter followers, but out of the conviction that the way he was walking was the way of life, peace, and renewal. He was blazing the trails of his Father’s kingdom, and so he wanted people to walk those paths behind him.
    He told some who thought they wanted to follow him to sell everything they had and give it to the poor. He told some that following him couldn’t wait until after a family funeral. For some, following meant giving up their livelihood. He said that anyone who followed him would have to be willing to deny themselves, that it might mean not knowing where you’d sleep or what you’d eat. He said following him involved taking up a cross, carrying along the looming reality of suffering and death. He out and out told a few that they would die for following him.
    Jesus has never been unclear about the costs of following him. He’s always upfront about the conditions. It’s an endurance race through hardship and suffering. It’s a good life, full of hope and promise and peace, but it’s not an easy or comfortable life.
    Strange that the church has made following him seem to much easier than he ever did.
    The church through the centuries has tried to commodify discipleship. We’ve made it into a hobby. We’ve made it convenient, fun, and easy. Whether by dispensing grace in easily-affordable doses, or compacting a life of following him into Sunday morning installments, or turning it into studying and learning a book, we’ve taken all the messiness out of following Jesus. There’s no mud to slog through. No treks to endure. No hardship or pain or self-denial. Show up at church, write a check, serve at a soup kitchen, memorize some Bible verses, and you’re all set.
    Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that following Jesus makes us purebreds, living in a comfortable house, eating gourmet food and sleeping on soft beds.
    Truth is, we’re Arthurs, every one of us: wounded, mongrel strays with no hope but staying on the heels of the One who has welcomed us and accepted us and invited us to go with him.
    You could argue that Arthur didn’t really have many options other than to follow the people who would take care of him. Truthfully, though, neither do we. In the end, we follow Jesus because we need to, and if we don’t understand that then we don’t understand what it means to follow him at all. We’re like Peter, maybe more than we’d like to admit; when faced with the option of turning back and not following him any longer, we can only say “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” It’s hardly a ringing declaration of faith, when you think about it, but it’s painfully honest. Where else would we go? Who else would care for us like Jesus, bind up our wounds, reach out for us when we’re barely staying afloat, and bring us home with him at the end of the journey?
    Let’s recapture in our lives, and in the lives of our communities of faith, what it really means to follow Jesus. Let’s learn together to put aside our self-interest for his interests, our chosen paths for his footprints, our comfortable lives for the difficulties of his. Let’s be where he is, loving the people he loves, serving them as he would. It may be a hard life sometimes, but it’s lived with him, in his presence, with the energy of his Spirit and the community of his people. It may be a hard life, but it isn’t a lonely one. It’s filled with joys as well as sorrows, and the joys are sure and true and lasting. It promises that when we’re cold and hungry, the One we follow will draw us near and fill us and warm us with his own life and love and sacrifice.
    Why would we not follow? Why wouldn’t we brave anything we have to so that we can stay close to him?
    Don’t be afraid. Stay close to your Master. You’re not home yet, but stay on his heels and one day you will be.

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