Monday, January 6, 2014

Operation: Discipleship

This will almost certainly shock most of you who know me, but I want to be a runner. Crazy, right? For those who don’t know me, I should tell you that I am not (nor have I ever been) built for speed…or even for slow. I have never been an athlete of any kind, but when I watch people run, I want to run too.

There’s a problem, though. Well, there are several, but one of the most significant ones is that nobody can just lace up their running shoes, step out their front door and start running. It takes careful practice and training so that the runner can reach their goal without injury.

So, there’s this program called C25K (Couch to 5 Kilometers) that claims to be able to take someone who has never trained to run and gradually build them up until they can run in a five kilometer event over a nine week period. When I read about the program I got really excited. It starts out having the person walk a certain amount of time and gradually adds in intervals of running. The week’s assignment, for example, is 
“Brisk five-minute warmup walk. Then alternate 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes.”[1]
I read through the nine week plan and decided to start the next week … and immediately hit my first road block. I couldn’t run for a full 60 seconds. That’s ok, I thought, everybody starts somewhere, if I have to, I’ll just repeat the first week, until I can run for 60 seconds at a stretch.

So, after about a week and a half, after asking everyone I knew who I thought might know something about how to run, I finally succeeded in running for a full 60 second stretch. At which point, I ran straight into the next road block – 90 seconds of walking was nowhere near enough time for me to recover enough to do it again – and certainly not for a total for 20 minutes.

I lasted about three weeks, at which point I got terribly discouraged and quit. I realized something very important. Wanting to run, reading about running, having the program on my phone and listening to someone tell me how to run, and actually trying to run are not enough, for me anyway. Without a living, breathing coach, teacher or mentor to help me and encouragement, I’m just banging my head against a wall.

That’s when something else occurred to me. How often do we tell people who want to improve their Christian experience to read such-and-such book or listen to this preacher, or follow this study schedule? We might even try that method ourselves.

Now, I realize that my analogy breaks down here because we have the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us into a saving relationship with Jesus. Even so, how often have we started a Bible reading plan or other type of study program, only to get bogged down and discouraged after a couple of weeks of trying to do it on our own? 
“Atul Gawande, a distinguished Harvard surgeon and author, argues that everyone needs a coach. After working eight years as a surgeon, he realized that his operating room success had slowly reached a plateau. Soon after that realization, he attended a medical meeting and had an afternoon free, and tried to track down someone to play in a game of tennis. Finally, he went to the local tennis club and was told that he could practice his ground strokes only if he paid for a lesson and hit with the club pro.
“Gawande writes what happened next: ‘He was in his early twenties, a recent graduate who'd played on his college team. We hit back and forth for a while. He went easy on me at first, and then started running me around. I served a few points, and the tennis coach in him came out. "You know," he said, "you could get more power from your serve." I was dubious. My serve had always been the best part of my game. But I listened. He had me pay attention to my feet as I served, and I gradually recognized that my legs weren't really underneath me when I swung my racquet up into the air.
“‘My right leg dragged a few inches behind my body …. With a few minutes of tinkering, he'd added at least ten miles an hour to my serve.’
“Not long afterward, Gawande was watching tennis star Rafael Nadal playing a tournament match on TV.
“‘The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does …. But doctors don't. I'd paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?
Coaching operates from the premise that “no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”’
“The apostle Paul knew that we need coaches in living as Christians. Watch me, he said. And let me give you some pointers. We learn by seeing truth lived out and modeled. We learn by imitation. Some things are caught, not taught. Some things are caught and taught.”[2]
The writer of Hebrews was led by the Holy Spirit to remind us that we need fellowship with people who believe the same way we do so that we can “hold tightly without wavering.”
“Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” Hebrews 10:23-25 (NLT)
Just like learning to run is a process, following Jesus is a process. Nobody wakes up one morning and runs five kilometers without training. As Christians we grow closer to Jesus as we study and share our experience with others –almost never in isolation.

There are some things we just can’t completely learn by just reading about them. I thought of it this week as my mom and I made candy together.

There’s something about candy like caramel and English toffee and divinity that goes beyond a recipe. It’s something that you have to learn by watching someone who has done it before and then practice while they watch you.

That’s how I believe being a Christian is. Jesus didn’t send His followers off to study the scriptures by themselves. He ate, slept, and lived with them for three and a half years. He talked to them and taught them and demonstrated to them the way that He wanted them to live. Then, Jesus’ disciples walked with, ate with, and taught the next generation of Christians and so on.

Don’t try to tough it out alone. This week, let’s pray that Jesus will show us each (if we don’t already have one) a mentor/friend/guide from whom we can learn to be better followers of Jesus, and someone we can encourage and walk beside as they grow into a more mature Christian.

[1] Cool Running,
[2] Tim Jones, Nashville, Tennessee; source: Atul Gawande, "Personal Best," The New Yorker (10-3-11)

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