Soldiers and Discipleship

Roger Oliver and his wife Marcy stopped by our house last night on their way home to Puebla, finishing up a lengthy trip that lasted over a month. On their way back, driving the whole way from Dallas, Texas, Roger was conference speaker in two regional events, where he spoke about being a peacemaker. Yesterday morning he spoke in a church here in Mexico City, and then he and his wife visited us for a strong cup of Starbucks and a conversation on their way out of town.

Roger is retired from the U.S. Army. He served as an Army major, and was stationed for a significant portion of his time in Honduras, where he learned Spanish. After taking early retirement he went back to school, earning a Masters degree later in life from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is one of the most well read men I know, and invariably much of our discussion when we are together rotates around various books and authors that we are both currently reading. I have periodically asked him for recommended reading lists, and my library reflects many of this choices. Books like The Twilight of Atheism, by Alister McGrath, What We Can’t Not Know, by J. Budziszewski, and The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge.

I remember shortly before going on home assignment, in August, 2003, I asked him to give me one of his valued books. I asked him to give me one that he would probably regret giving me, one that would cause him to remember me. He gave me The Revenge of Conscience, a book about how the conscience operates and a study of natural law, hardly bedtime reading. His copy was highlighted and underlined. Sure enough, Roger asked for the book back…he said he had bought another copy of the book, and would give me the new copy, but that he really missed his less-than-new, highlighted copy. Last night I gave it back to him, complete with my notes scribbled in the margins as well.

Later last night I began to think about a number of men that I know, men that I can count on without a shadow of doubt…men who are committed in a very deep way to what, in earlier times, was called The Way. Perhaps because Roger is a former soldier my mind began to think of this group of men that I highly esteem as some of the Lord’s best warriors; people with whom I deeply enjoy being with, and with whom I would enjoy fighting any battle. Many of these men are older then I am, indeed most are. But some are much younger than I am, men that I know would also be willing to lay their lives down for Christ, who would be, and are, willing to sacrifice their lives for me, and I for them.

Perhaps the analogy is best when put in the context of covert operations. We are more like secret agents, communicating a powerful, life-transforming message in often indirect, seemingly insignificant ways. Like Special Forces, we teach people how to improve their present and future state. The weapons of our warfare are not destructive, but rather instructive, not visible usually, but invisible, not overwhelming, but overcoming. What a curious commission…we transmit power through weakness; we carry in our own bodies the death of Christ, in order to transmit life-giving resurrection and hope. Love, not hate. Joy, not success. Jesus, not me.

I was struck by such a realization last Thursday night. David, my co-worker, and I had a Bible study with Trinidad at 7 p.m., then another Bible study with Manuel and Blanca at 8:30 p.m. At around 10 p.m. we stopped at Luz’s home (Israel’s mother) and picked up Israel. Israel and his wife Mayeli live 5 houses from us, and trusted Jesus back in June of last year. Since then, and this is pretty amazing, since then Israel’s mother, two of his four brothers and both their wives have also trusted Christ. A good part of our week is dedicated to discipling one extended family.

The three of us, David, Israel and I, then went to Ivan and Karen’s home. After three years, Ivan finally trusted Christ and was baptized with his wife last November. We met Ivan and Karen way back in 2003. They happened to own the house which we are currently buying to use as a church, the house where our church currently meets. The plan this night was to eat tacos, always a good plan! We waited for Ivan’s nephew, Edwin, to come. When Edwin showed up in his motorcycle we all piled in our van and headed a good 20 minutes away for some serious tacos.

The food of choice that night was called an alambre, a mixture of beef, pork, green pepper, onion and bacon covered abundantly with white cheese. At this particular restaurant, for 100 pesos, about $10, you were served a mountain of this delicious mixture (about a kilogram or 2.2 lbs.), with another pound or so of tortillas to eat it in. Needless to say, the five of us gulped down the alambre in short order, and began asking for more. I had an additional 3 intestine tacos. Others had beef and pork tacos. At last we were completely satisfied.

As I was sitting there with these men on all sides of me it dawned on me what I was witnessing. Four of us were now Christians, with both Israel and Ivan coming to the Lord within the last year. People who had no other reason to be sitting together other than God were sitting together and enjoying one another’s company. God was drawing each of them to Himself, then drawing each of them to each other. Only Edwin has yet to come to the cross. Covert operations.

I am told that communism prospered largely because of the communists’ commitment to discipleship. Adherents to that particular “faith” aggressively recruited others to do menial and almost insignificant tasks initially. Larger and more potentially dangerous exploits were expected of them later on. These “disciples” were never promised physical prosperity or security. Sacrifice was expected.

My son Daniel is learning karate, and attends an hour-long karate class three times a week. A student of karate starts out with no belt, then works his way up through a white belt, a purple belt, then yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown belts until he or she finally attains the coveted black belt. Even the black belts are distinguished by degrees, which are called “dans.”

A student of karate learns by example. He learns almost exclusively by example. He sees others who have progressed beyond him perform the choreographed exercises (called “katas”). He emulates, above all, the grace and precision of his karate teacher. He is the standard by which everybody measures themselves, but he is not the only standard. Everybody is learning. Everybody also is teaching.

It would seem to me that the church, the institution that practically invented discipleship and should be the supreme model of discipleship in our world, has radically departed from its roots. Christian discipleship is a demanding pursuit, one that requires faithfulness in both menial tasks and noble visions, one that will invariably require sacrifice. There is tremendous power in sacrifice. Sometimes I am inclined to think that some of the inexplicable power of a missionary’s life comes from the simple fact that in many cases he or she has sacrificed much. Are we calling people to carry their cross, calling people to die? Jesus’ command, simply, was to make disciples. The church is involved in so many pursuits today. Is disciple-making preeminent among them?

The second tragic mistake that the church everywhere continues to make is the nonsensical dichotomy between sacred and secular, between “full-time professional” and “lay Christian.” Everybody should be learning. Even as important, everybody should be continually and intentionally teaching. We should not be so “humble” as to think we cannot teach anyone anything. We can and we must. People are thirsty for truth, but if truth is not available they are more than happy to believe a lie. People are looking for mentors and teachers. The danger of hiding our talent in the ground is as real now as it was when Jesus related the parable to us.

There is a girl in Daniel’s karate class whose name is Carmen. Carmen only has her white belt, but knows all the moves and exercises probably up through at least the yellow or orange belt. She seems content with her white belt, however, and dedicates herself to training younger, more inexperienced students, students who almost inevitably surpass her in degrees. We need more Carmens in the church…people who ignore the temptation of external ranking that we have in the Body too (perhaps no so colorful, but felt nonetheless) and simply dedicate themselves to helping others grow into the image of the Son of God.

How can we fully appropriate such concepts as humility, courage and commitment if we do not see these traits fleshed out in a normal human being, someone like us? Why did God have to become a man? Obviously for our justification the incarnation was necessary, but also for our spiritual growth. He was, after all, tempted in all ways like us, yet without sin. The disciples saw God’s Will breathing and eating, laughing and crying. We will, of course, always be an imperfect representation of Jesus, but apparently that is o.k. with God. It was His plan, after all, to use us. It is pride that most often keeps us from God’s service, not humility.

Javier is a perfect example of this. I spoke to Javier this past Saturday, during a break at the Peacemakers conference. Javier is a member of the Tlalpan Bible Church, a church in the south side of Mexico City. Javier and I have become friends through the contact we’ve had at an adult training time that I’ve been involved with twice, at his church. He asked me if we could get together sometime soon, preferably this week. He is an architect, and apparently for a while he had many well-paying jobs, and was able to live a comfortable life. Recently, however, he has decided to not pay the bribes that are expected in his line of work, and the contracts have dropped off considerably. In addition, his wife does not know the Lord, and has been threatening to leave him if he continues in his “fanaticism.”

Javier is not a public speaker. He doesn’t sing very well or play an instrument. He’s the kind of Christian that is very nearly invisible in most of our churches. Yet he has something very valuable to offer, a powerful testimony of having the courage to go against a corrupt system, to follow Jesus in spite of potential loss, both in his professional and family life. What if his commitment to the Lord ends in separation and eventually divorce? Is the church wise enough to learn from people like him and compassionate enough to restore people like him? It is far too easy and far too common to prejudicially compartmentalize people. Javier is part of the body, and the body needs him.

What “gap” are we being called upon to fill? The gaps are widening, the need for disciples is greater than ever. What is my role, oh God? Whom can I learn from? Who can I teach? Can we follow Jesus together? Can we fight side by side? Can we even, just maybe, have fun doing it?

I think so.

R.Fry March, 2006

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