When paramedics arrive on the scene of an accident, they engage in triage – assessing the treatments that are most urgent and important to provide. They check the injured for bleeding, breathing, and other vital signs in order to prioritize their response.
When it comes to assessing the health of Christian discipleship, the process is far more subtle. Grasping the key elements of discipleship requires understanding the Gospel, examining the witness of mature disciples, and reflecting on our own experience. My own efforts in that regard have led me to identify four dynamics at the heart of Christian discipleship: solitude, intimacy, outreach to those in need, and solidarity with the human family.
Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ use of solitude. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1:35) The Gospels portray the central role of prayerful solitude in Jesus’ life and ministry. In the midst of an intense ministry, he seeks out opportunities for solitude and prayer: “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” (Matt. 14:23) On the eve of his passion and death, prayer is at the heart of his acceptance and surrender. (Luke 22: 39-46) Jesus’ spirituality is rooted in prayerful solitude, demonstrating that it is an essential dynamic of discipleship.
Solitude is rooted in daily disciplines that take us deeper into our life with God. These include prayer, contemplation, reading the scriptures, and spiritual reading. These disciplines open us to God’s presence – helping us recognize that presence within ourselves and in all that surrounds us. Such disciplines help us keep our egos in check and cultivate a spirit of surrender to the divine will: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Prayerful solitude is a wellspring that nourishes and sustains our life in God, giving us the staying power to live out our call and commitment.
Martin Luther captured the essential role of prayerful solitude in Christian discipleship: “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Prayer is the breath that animates our life in God,
Discipleship is an intentional commitment to live in an intimate relationship with God and one another. As disciples, we are drawn ever deeper into that intimacy. It transforms our understanding of God, the way we see ourselves, and our relationship with others.
Not surprisingly, my childhood images of God were parental. At times, I saw God as a loving father, but I also viewed God as a critical parent: stern, judgmental, and sometimes condemning. Over time, those childhood images of God gave way to seeing Jesus as a merciful redeemer and appreciating God as Trinity – a dynamic love relationship, a gracious outpouring of mercy, forgiveness, and love. The early desert mothers and fathers used the image of a circle dance of love to capture the relational nature of God. A waterwheel is another image that attempts to describe God as an unending flow of love. Such images help express that love is at the heart of the divine relationship, and they draw us toward a more intimate relationship with God.
As our understanding of God evolves, so does our self-understanding and our relationship with others. We are invited to claim our identity as daughters and sons of God, join the circle dance of love, and live in the intimacy of that relationship. We begin to move beyond any notion of earning or deserving that relationship. None of us are worthy of it. As we accept our relationship with God as the amazing and undeserved gift that it is, it urges us to live with gratitude and generosity.
Outreach to Those in Need
When John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, he responds: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matt. 11:4-5) Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation reveals his identity in God and demonstrate an essential dynamic of discipleship: the outpouring of love on those in need.
Those of us who have received the gift of healing and reconciliation are called to extend that gift to others. We are called to join the flow of the waterwheel of unending love. We are called to extend the Trinity’s circle dance of love to others. In doing so, we are called to reach out to those in need. Sharing the energy of healing and reconciliation multiplies it. Hoarding that gift weakens and diminishes it.
Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation builds on the wisdom and tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. It calls us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – the definitive Scriptural examples of those who are poor and most vulnerable. Nowhere is this call more strongly emphasized than in Jesus’ description of the ultimate judgment. The litmus test of authentic discipleship is: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25: 40) Jesus identifies so intimately with the poor and the vulnerable that the way we respond to them is the way we respond to him.
Solidarity with the Human Family
Discipleship leads to a radically expansive view of God’s presence and redemptive love. It urges us beyond the narrow view that God’s healing and reconciling power is limited to a chosen few – however we might define who the few are.
When the centurion begs Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus offers to come and do so. The centurion responds: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” Jesus marvels at the man’s faith. “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I will tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 8: 10-11) Jesus clearly proclaims that God’s healing and redemptive action extends beyond the people of Israel. His kingdom vision is far more expansive.
Paul also embodies this expansive view of God’s outpouring of love. His ministry to the gentiles exemplifies it, and his understanding of being “in Christ” is radically inclusive. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal: 3: 28)
Authentic discipleship continually breaks down barriers, eliminates divisions, and expands our horizon. It urges us to grasp that in Christ, there is no “other.” We are all daughters and sons of the one God. We are called to live in solidarity with the entire human family.
The dynamics of solitude, intimacy, outreach, and solidarity are at the heart of authentic Christian discipleship. They pose a daunting challenge for our lifelong spiritual journey – urging us to pray more deeply, love more fully, serve more generously, and reach across the divides that separate us. Embracing these dynamics opens us to ongoing conversion – abandoning the narrow categories that divide and separate. We are called to ever more fully embrace our identity as daughters and sons of the God whose healing and redemptive power knows no boundaries and limits.
Questions to Ponder
Here are some questions to reflect on as you assess yourself on the four dynamics of discipleship described above.
- What is your experience of prayerful solitude? What role does it play in your life?
- How is your experience of intimacy with God and with others? How do you cultivate it as a vital dimension of your commitment as a disciple?
- In what way are you being called to reach out to those in need? How could you extend the Trinity’s circle dance of love to those who are poor and most vulnerable?
- What opportunities do you have to expand your solidarity with the human family – reaching across differences and divides to connect with those who are often viewed as “other?”
- What simple steps could you take – now, today, this week – to deepen one or more of these dynamics of Christian discipleship?
- Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, Pennsylvania, Whitaker House, 2016), p. 27.