How Faith is Formed

“What curriculum do you use?” is the questioned I am asked most about disciple-making. I want to tie this to the question “where did we do wrong?” asked by brokenhearted parents who raised their children in church but who now as adults want nothing to do with Christianity. I believe both of these questions reveal a misconception on how faith is cultivated in the life of a person.

Since God created us like him and therefore he has a understanding of how we work, I believe we should look closely at what the Lord instructed Israel on the spiritual formation of their children and at how Jesus taught his disciples. Looking not only at what was to be learned but the means by which it was to be taught.

The book of Exodus is the account of God delivering Israel from bondage to freedom. The story begins with the birth of Moses and then flows seamlessly through nine plagues until a hard stop at the plague of “The Death of the Firstborn” where the Lord breaks from the narrative to establish the commemoration of the Passover. This parenthesis in the storyline signals the importance of what is taking place and invites the reader to no longer be a spectator but to join in the redemptive story through the Passover practices (Exodus 12-13).

The instructions for the Passover are given to the parents to be celebrated as a family in their home as a means of conveying the redemptive story of God from one generation to the next. Everett Fox points out that “ . . . memory is clearly important here, with two passages stressing the continuity of commemoration through the following generations (Exodus 13: 8-10 and 14-16).”[1]

A couple of observations:

  • The redemptive nature of God is foundational to disciple-making.
  • Children were a key consideration for the Passover.

Exodus 12:26-27“And it will be when your children say to you: What does this service (mean) to you? Then say: It is the slaughter-meal of Passover to YHWH, who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt, when he dealt-the blow to Egypt and our houses he rescued.”

  • The family is the optimal place to teach the redemptive story of God.

Exodus 12:3 “On the tenth day after this new-Moon they are to take them, each-man, a lamb, according to their Fathers’ House, a lamb per household.”

  • Stories and symbols play an important role in remembering the redemptive nature of God.
  • The means and method of the Passover were to insure the retelling of the redemptive story of God for generations.

Exodus 12:42 “It is a night of keeping-watch for YGWH, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that is this night for YHWH, a keeping-watch of all the Children of Israel, throughout their generations.”

 

 



[1] Everett Fox, “The Five Books of Moses”, (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), p. 322.

Relating to Your Children and Grandchildren

As Sansui, my brother-in-law, called out in a loud voice to his son inviting him from boyhood to manhood I was reminded of the baptism of Jesus and the heavenly Father calling out to Jesus telling him that he was loved and that he was pleased with him. Although I am sure that Jesus knew of his Father’s love and that the message could have been communicated telepathically, it is significant that the Father chose to express his affection and delight for Jesus publically for others to hear. Perhaps the reason why I was deeply moved at my nephew’s “Calling Out” ceremony was the Godlikeness of Sansui declaring before many witnesses his love and pleasure in his son.

For the ceremony Sansui read publically letters that he and dee, my sister, had written to my nephew explaining how the meanings of each of his five names were tied back to his paternal and maternal genealogy. (Again I was reminded of how the story of Jesus begins with his detailed genealogy.) For my nephew an understanding of his ascendants will form his identity and also prepare him on how to relate to his children and grandchildren.

There are two tribal ceremonies for a Nigerian child. The first is the naming ceremony eight days after his/her birth. Here the five names of the child are whispered in the baby’s ear so that he/she is the first to hear the names. The parents then declare the baby’s name to the gathering and explain the meaning behind each of the names.  In a Christian home the child is then given a life’s bible verse and the parents and community pray a blessing over the baby.

The second ceremony is the “Calling Out” from childhood to adulthood at age thirteen. Here the parents reiterate publically the meanings of his names to remind the child of his heritage as they launch him into adulthood. In both ceremonies the tribe/community is involved.

It has been said that our attitude towards our ascendants will be the same that we will have for our descendants. Could it be that our inability to connect to our own children and grandchildren, especially as they get older, is a direct reflection of our own attitude towards our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents? In other words our children have picked up the same attitude towards us that we have had for our ascendants, which may simply be called indifference.

The Calling Out

This past weekend was the “Calling Out” ceremony for my nephew. Sansui, my brother-in-law, is Nigerian and it is their tribal custom for the father, joined by the other men of the tribe, to “call out” a son from boyhood to manhood when he turns 13. It is a rite of passage of love, belonging, responsibility, accountability, and identity. Now living in the States Sansui has adapted the ceremony to include the significant men who make up their family’s American tribe. The men ranged in age from 83 down to 15.

The ceremony began with my nephew sitting among his peers wearing a colorful woven hat that identified the tribe to which he belongs. Sansui asked his son to rise and then in a loud voice called out his name inviting him to leave boyhood and to join the other men in the room to manhood.  My nephew acknowledged the call and expressed his desire to enter manhood.

He then moved to a designated seat where each man read to him a letter he had written concerning manhood and gave to him a gift that correlated to his letter.  The letters were autobiographical in nature drawing from the unique spiritual pilgrimage of each man. (Unexpectedly I was moved by what the 15-year-old men had to say.)  Woven together these letters made up a beautiful collection of wisdom, counsel, love, but also warning.

The clear messages from the 2-hour ceremony were: (1) you are loved and (2) you belong to us and we belong to you.

A couple of observations:

  • The “Calling Out” was initiated and led by a dad. It was a family event.
  • Although the ceremony was meaningful to my nephew, it also reinforced the importance of belonging for the adult participants. The older men were visibly moved as well as those still in their teens.
  • The ceremony made clear what in life is important and what is not.

 

 

 

 

Living Near One Another

Ed is a Jewish friend of mine here in Chicago. Often what to him is a simple side comment is a profound insight to me. Recently he said in passing, “It is unthinkable for a Jew not to live within walking distance of his community.” I stopped him and said, “Ed, wait a minute! What did you mean by that last statement?” He explained that in Judaism the value of community is expressed by a commitment to live within walking distance of one another. The children can play with one another, dads gather in the local park, and wives share a cup of coffee in one another’s kitchens.

Ed’s comment resonated with me because after being involved in disciple-making for 30 years I am convinced that living in close proximity is an essential element to making followers of Jesus. It is not enough just to have a weekly meeting together whether it is a church service, a one-on-one meeting, a small group meeting, or a house church. Living life together plays an indispensable role in making disciples because it is in the “doing life together” that your disciple has the opportunity to experience what it means to belong both in a nuclear family and a spiritual family.  You are also able to observe your disciple in various scenarios with different people and it gives him the opportunity to observe you among your family and friends.

Most anyone can sham love for a while whether in a service, a class, a small group meeting, or having coffee at Starbucks, but it is in the daily routine with our mates, children, siblings, parents, friends, co-workers, and neighbors where love engages with reality.  I am not advocating that Christianity should stop having services, bible studies, or small groups but I am seeking to raise our awareness to the importance of living in close proximity to one another in making followers of Jesus.

Jesus did not remove his twelve disciples from their hometown of Capernaum but rather he discipled them among their family and friends in the familiar context in which they had been raised.

 

Untangling Fear

Veterinarians at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium regularly run blood tests on their dolphins to check for disease since a dolphin conceals its illness because in the wild a dolphin that appears sick becomes at target for lunch to its predators.  In a similar way people mask their fears to avoid becoming the emotional prey in unsafe schools, homes, jobs, and churches.

A key component of disciple-making is addressing your disciple’s fear. It is not possible for him to follow Jesus and to fear because fear will inhibit him from forming a love relationship with God and others and it will keep him from obeying the Lord.  (Jesus leads his followers into the teeth of their fear.) But to come along side of your disciple to help him face his fears is one of the more difficult and challenging aspects of making a disciple for a couple of reasons:

1. People avoid fear.

Your disciple will avoid whomever or whatever he fears to the point that he would rather lie than face his fear even if it means his demise.  (As illustrated by the Priests and Elders lying to Jesus when he confronted their fear of people. For them to have followed Jesus would have meant that they would have to face their fear of people, which was the core of their existence. Matthew 21:23-27) Your disciple imagines that irreparable harm will come to him if he faces his fear when in reality calamity will mark his life and the lives of those whom he touches if he does not confront his fear.

2. To untangle fears requires perseverance and patience.

Your disciple has masked his fears for so long that it can be difficult for him to discern reality from a lie. One fear led to a lie, which led to the dread of getting caught, which led to another lie, and so the tangled knot was formed.  Although love, grace, and belonging, will provide a new perspective for him, you cannot expect him to be able to untangle years of fear in a short time.

 

 

Meet the Parents 2

One way to get know your disciple is by getting to know his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents through family stories. Here you are looking for relational tendencies, values, character traits, and dysfunctions that have been passed down through the generations. Most people I disciple have given little consideration to their parent’s relationship to their grandparents, or their grandparent’s relationship to their great-grandparents, even though we are all products of preceding generations. Family stories are a mirror for your disciple to see himself.

Several years ago I wanted to get to know my dad and mom better so I set out to discover some of their childhood stories. My dad is from upstate New York so one summer I loaded him in the car and film in my camera and we toured the places of his youth. Later I did the same with my mom visiting her old stomping grounds in the Indiana Harbor. In both cases they were almost compelled to tell the stories of the past as memories were stirred by revisiting the houses, schools, neighborhoods, cemeteries, and churches of their childhood. I learned about people and events that I would have never known about apart from these trips down memory lane with my parents. Dad told me how as a boy on cold Sunday mornings he would build a fire in the woodstove at the Emory Chapel, which was built in 1833, so that the church would be warm when the congregation arrived since his family lived nearest to the country chapel. Mom told of her Yugoslavian neighbor, Mrs. Horvat, who taught my grandmother how to make stuff cabbage, which to this day is my favorite meal.

The best way to gather information about a person is through stories rather than asking direct questions. Story telling unlocks the memories of the heart. Often I have had a disciple say, “I just don’t remember much from my childhood”, but as you get him telling stories he will start remembering things and then say, “I haven’t thought of that in years!” or “I had totally forgotten about that.”

A couple points in closing:

  • Memories can be locked up by fear and shame. Story telling is a backdoor entrance to your disciple’s heart.
  • Telling his childhood stories can be emotional for your disciple. Just yesterday a guy got choked up as he was telling me about his childhood.
  • Together my disciple and I build a timeline of his life, which helps him remember the stories of his youth and helps me keep his story straight.
  • When possible visit the hometown of your disciple. I find it intriguing that most of Jesus’ disciples were from around the town of Capernaum, which was the base of operation for Jesus’ ministry. Jesus would have known some of his disciples’ families.

Meet the Parents

A helpful piece of advice for making followers of Jesus is to meet the family of your disciple, no matter his age. Within minutes of meeting his dad, mom, brothers, and sisters you will have a deeper understanding of his behavior because it was within the context of these relationships that he developed his approach in relating to others.

Jesus told his disciples: “Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) To follow Jesus is to love others, which means a large part of the disciple making process is teaching your disciple how to love and how to receive love.

For many of your disciples the home was not a place of love. He developed dysfunctional ways of relating to men through his dad and brothers and dysfunctional patterns with women through his mom and sisters. His framework for all relationships was formed by his parent’s treatment of one another, their treatment of him, and how they guided the children in relating to one another or in many cases how they neglected to guide the children.

Usually any façade, concealment, or pretense by your disciple, whether intentional or unintentional, will be exposed by meeting his family. I am often humored at how a person’s disposition can immediately change in the presence of his mom, or dad, or sibling. More than once I have been surprised when I have met the family of one of my disciples. The sooner you can meet your disciple’s family the deeper your relationship will be with him and the more effective your counsel.

How I View My Disciple #4

Each Tuesday evening our group of disciples has dinner together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This past week during our table discussion there was a frank honesty about our childhoods and how each of us had felt like we had not belonged anywhere while growing up. We had lived a detached existence.

Making followers of Jesus must be done in a group. A large part of the disciple making process is accomplished through my disciple learning how to interrelate with his brothers and sisters in the family of God.  I have wondered how much of Jesus’ training of the twelve was achieved through the disciples learning how to live together for three years vs. the “classroom” instruction of Jesus. I have also wondered how much of the teaching of Jesus flowed out of the conflicts between the disciples not too dissimilar from a parent using sibling discord as a teaching moment for his children.

The essence of our God is the familial interconnectedness of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Their identity is found in the eternal love bond to the other persons of the Godhead. Because we are created in the image of God a disciple can only come to understand his identity and purpose by integrating into a family context with his heavenly Father and his spiritual siblings. In contrast, our culture pushes him toward individualism and independence, which can only lead to confusion and ultimately self-destruction.

Just as a my disciple cannot know himself or understand his giftedness apart from being in this family context, so I cannot know my disciple apart from seeing him interact with his spiritual siblings.  His relationship with God is not visible to me which means he can deceive me into thinking he has a good relationship with God when in reality he may not.  One way I can get a glimpse into my disciple’s relationship with the heavenly Father is through seeing how he relates to others and how others relate to him.

Symbol Usage

Recently a Christian told me that there was nothing he enjoyed more than lighting up a cigarette in front of other Christians just to make a statement.  Cigarette smoking has become for him a symbol that he uses to disassociate himself from a certain “brand” of Christianity.  Cigarette smoking in itself is not a symbol but when smoking is used to convey a message it becomes a symbol.

Whatever the motive behind your disciple’s symbols it is important for you to investigate them in order to know and understand him.  He may not even be aware that he has embraced certain symbols let alone what the motive is behind them and so it is your job to help him explore the reasoning in each of his symbols.  Some symbols are noble while others are self-destructive.

There are several ways that your disciple may use a symbol:

  1. Identification.  He chooses symbols to identify to whom or what he belongs.  Neal’s room is decorated in team pennants from the Bulls, Cubs, Bears, and Black Hawks as he unabashedly declares himself a Chicagoan.
  2. Disassociation.  Another use of a symbol is to distance oneself from a particular person, group, or ideology as seen in the cigarette illustration above.
  3. A Weapon.  Symbols can be used as a weapon to hurt others.  A child knows exactly which symbols will upset his parents or “get his parent’s goat” as the saying goes.  A child can also target his parents by desecrating a symbol that his parents hold dear.
  4. A Cry for help.  Your disciple may have cried out for help for years to his parents, friends, teachers, and to fellow believers to no avail, and so in desperation he turns to a “flare gun” symbol that he hopes will get someone’s attention.

Love Limits

Love limits.  When a man says “I do” to his wife, he says “I don’t” to all other women and when a couple decides to have children they choose a lifestyle that is limiting in comparison to their childless friends.  Recently I attended my nephew’s wedding. Both sets of his grandparents are still living whose combined years of marriage is 114.  I was moved at the sight of a room full of their direct descendants who all love and enjoy one another. We willingly set margins around our family so that love will multiply to future generations. To neglect a marriage leads to divorce and to neglect a child results in a wounded person, which both break the love continuum.

Christianity accepts the setting of boundaries to effectively love our families but for some reason we do not apply that same principle to our ministries.  I can only love a limited number of people, so to choose a disciple making approach to ministry (which in a word is love) means to limit the number of people to whom I can minister.  To not limit the number of people in my ministry is to actually hinder the gospel multiplication process, but if I can remain disciplined and love my few disciples well, in the long run there will be a continual multiplication of love for generations to come.