My wife and I recently decided to “clean house.” It’s not like we’re hoarders (unless you count books and organ music), but we’ve lived at the same address for 15 years, experienced the invasion of “things” as our parents’ homes were closed, helped our daughter and son-in-law move in and out of multiple college dwellings and their first apartment (with the standing offer of “temporary” storage)—you get the idea. We were motivated to action now by the realization that if we both were on the same plane when it went down or in the same car when the truck failed to stop, we wanted whoever got stuck with the chore of closing out our house to still love us when all was said and done.
The process went pretty well at first. We attacked the “less disturbed” areas with the ferocity of a New Year’s resolution at midnight December 31. These were things we could easily let go, and we were thrilled to see immediate evidence of our hard work and good intentions. We slowed down a bit when we got to the more dubious discards, like the tie I haven’t worn in 12 years but just know I will want for some special occasion. Then we got to the things we just couldn’t bear to part with even though keeping them made very little sense.
Why is it so hard to let things go?
Standing on the threshold of another Lent, followers of Jesus face the same challenge we did as we started into our decluttering binge. Some things that are easy to give up for Lent—chocolate, caffeine, and Netflix top the list for a lot of us. Like cleaning up the “less disturbed” areas of our basement, we can experience encouraging initial success. But what have we really given up (especially if you use the “Sundays are free days” cop out for your Lenten “fast”)?
Like the 12 year old tie, there are other things we know we should be focusing on, meditating more deeply on God’s Word, allocating more time for intentional prayer, making that phone call we’ve put off far too long, but we have all kinds of “necessary” things that keep getting in our way, and, as long as we know we need to get to these things, we know we will—some day.
But for followers of Jesus, the Season of Lent is not really about the easy give-ups or the “really shoulds.” We encounter the hard work of following Jesus, discipleship, in the places where it hurts most because, like those things that are hardest to let go, following Jesus really does cost us something deep and meaningful.
I recently posted a two-part article by Mike Breen suggesting that the Missional Movement in the church may well fail because it is still not addressing the root issue of discipleship. “Missional” conversation has become focused on “doing” not “being” and as Breen suggests mission (doing) without discipleship (being) is like a car without an engine. Discipleship is an investment in following Jesus: learning his words and his ways and slowly but surely imitating him more and more until his ways become our ways.
It’s been interesting to see the reactions to the Breen articles. Some people pounced, reposting with enthusiasm. Others pounced equally fast, but decrying the articles as hard edged and discouraging.
I wonder if Mike Breen may have hit a little too close to home.
Most of us have been reared in a world where personal growth is measured by acquisition, achievement, and accomplishment. In our culture, at least, that world has shaped the Church. As Breen says, “The truth about discipleship is that it’s never hip and it’s never in style – it’s the call to come and die; a long obedience in the same direction…. It’s humbling. There’s often no glory in it. It’s for the long haul.”
When we were visioning The Fellowship Community we sought the advice and counsel of many mentors. One comment really stuck with me. “We don’t have an ‘idea’ problem in the church–there are always new and sexy ideas. We have a doing problem, and, until we fix that, we will remain stuck in the ceaseless cycle of good intentions with limited results.”
The call of Jesus to discipleship is the call to come and follow. Following Jesus is costly because as we grow in his likeness we have to clean out our own house. The first bits are easy: show up at church, treat other people nicely, give when you can, pray a little. But soon true discipleship meets us next to the more beloved parts of our self-made identity and asks, “Really? Are you really hanging on to that?”
The call to discipleship, as Tim Keller is fond of saying, begins when we make an honest assessment of our willingness to surrender whatever we must to follow Jesus wherever he leads. As Keller says, complete the sentence, “I’ll follow you Jesus if_________” and, like it or not, you’ll identify your true god—the reigning lord of your life, the thing whose disciple you have become.
But this is the point of Lent: praying “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” and actually expecting Divine cardiac surgery. This is the point of “giving up” for Lent, not a 46-day sprint to Easter morning when we finally gulp down Reeses Cups with a coffee chaser guilt free, but taking the chance to really clean out our spiritual house, letting go of whatever it is that keeps us from following the Savior, mirroring his words, attitudes, and actions until they become our own.
So here’s to observing a good Lent—not a surface Lent, certainly not an easy Lent—but a meaningful 40 days of wilderness soul searching in the company of the One who is crazy in love with us and who is calling us to be, more and more, the people he created and redeemed us to be.