Reflections on Discipleship – Horse Whispering

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Do not be like the horse or the mule,     which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle     or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32:9)

Paul’s use of the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘worldly’ in 1 Corinthians 3 allow us to believe that there are two kinds of Christians: those who really have got it, who are sold out on living wholeheartedly for Christ, who have as their highest value being disciples, and those who have not yet reached that stage and are trying to keep one foot in the world, treating their faith as an add-on to their lives and not the be-all-and-end-all. It isn’t a salvation issue, Paul explains in v 15: if you’re a Christian you will be saved, even though for some it will be with the smell of Hell in their nostrils. But it is a commitment issue, a discipleship issue. And whilst of course sanctification, or becoming more like Jesus, is a life-long journey, for many of us there does need to be a second conversion experience where we finally realise that love so amazing, so divine, really does demand my soul, my life, my all.

In my preaching in the past I have often referred to this point as ‘brokenness’. I try to keep as far away from real horses as I possibly can, but from my watching of cowboy films I believed that a wild horse had to be broken, a violent process whereby the master would basically ride the horse into submission, until it would do what he wanted it to. I’ve no idea whether real cowboys do this to real horses, but it looks great on the cinema screen. I know that in my experience I had to reach a point where I stopped trying to live my faith as an add-on and commit myself totally to my Lord. Of course this is a matter of will and choice, with actual behaviour lagging some way behind, but it is, I think, about our basic orientation towards God. It felt a great relief to stop fighting, submit, and dedicate my life wholly to God.

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But talking to a friend about this recently gave me a different outlook, when he asked instead of bucking broncos what was the role of the ‘Horse Whisperer’? Is God really the kind of rider who will sit on us, come what may, until we’re too broken and exhausted to resist any longer? Or does he come alongside us, whisper words of love and woo us until we want nothing more than to obey him in every way? To change the animal, does the ‘Hound of Heaven’ pursue us in the somewhat scary way Francis Thompson’s poem suggests, or does he wait quietly until we come to him?

I guess the answer is ‘both and’. God of course deals with us all as individuals, and some of us will respond better to one approach than to another. But that is secondary: the real point is that as disciples of Jesus Christ we come to that point of surrender, commitment, brokenness, whatever you want to call it. Recently in my diocese we committed ourselves to a year of discipleship using the words of the Methodist Covenant prayer. Powerful words indeed, and not for the faint-hearted or the compromised.

Lord, if you need to fight me, fight. If you need to whisper, then whisper. But whatever it takes, turn my heart and will completely to you.

Reflections on Discipleship – No longer my own

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

This week, in Methodist churches everywhere, Christians will be using the start of the New Year to renew their covenant with God, a kind of spiritual new year’s resolution. A wonderfully powerful prayer will be used, and I’m glad that the compilers of the Anglican Common Worship texts were able to nick it and make it part of our corpus too. You can see the text of the prayer here, but I want to reflect on just one line:

I am no longer my own, but yours …

Right there you’ve got a pretty good definition of discipleship: a disciple is someone who is no longer their own master or mistress, who belongs to someone else, and who therefore has surrendered the rights to their own lives, and living them their own way. The prayer continues:

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will …

Like slaves we have no rights of our own: we belong to a master who has full rights over us. Of course slavery is only a helpful metaphor if it is a redeemed one. We have not been stolen by a cruel trader who only wants to use us; he will not beat us up, mistreat us or overwork us to the point of death; we are not commodities to be bought and sold. But we have willingly surrendered our lives to the one whose yoke is well-fitting and whose burden is light, whose service is perfect freedom, and who employs us so that we can become all we have potential for within us. So slavery, yes, but not as we know it Jim. To this kind of ‘slavery’ disciples gladly submit, joyfully counting it the greatest privilege.

But there is another thought which comes out of this prayer. In fact it comes less out of the text of the prayer and more out of its use. The slavery picture again breaks down, because this covenant is one which needs renewing. I would guess that it was pretty rare to hear slaves revowing themselves to their masters once a year, as I suspect it is today to hear young girls trafficked for the sex trade pleading annual submission to their masters. The whole point is that once you’re in, you’re in. It’s getting out which is the issue, not deciding to stay in. But our heavenly master, whose service, we said, is perfect freedom, invites us to think about it and deliberately decide to stay. Our master does not captivate us against our wills: the door is always open, and has been ever since Jesus asked his disciples ‘You don’t want to leave too, do you?’ (John 6:67). Sadly many do take the long walk, so this time of year might be a good one to remind ourselves that only in Jesus are the words of eternal life to be found, and to commit ourselves to another year of following him, learning from him, and going in his name.