Saturday, September 07, 2013

Biting Off More than You Can Chew

When you think of the Fourth of July I'm sure your mind fills with images and memories of fireworks, parades, Uncle Sam, summer picnics, John Philip Sousa and the "Stars and Stripes Forever." For the past couple decades, however, our American traditions for the Independence Day holiday have also included ESPN at around noon and Coney Island, New York. The annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is held every year and since a small eating machine from Japan, Takeru Koybayashi demolished the former record of 24 hot dogs by eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in 2001, a couple million viewers have made the Hot Dog Eating Contest a part of their tradition every July 4.

The current monster of the frankfurter, Joey Chestnut, has won the context the last seven years, setting a brand new record of 69 dogs just last year. And to look at Joey Chestnut or Koybayashi you wouldn't think they could eat 2 hot dogs, much less 69. There was a time that a big old schulb could just show up eat a dozen red hots and come away a winner. In fact for several years all it took was 9 to win the contest. That was before ESPN and before true professionals did daily, extensive training of their body and mastering their technique to consume dozens of Nathan's dogs at a sitting.

So don't look for me to join in on some hot dog eating contest. When you bite off more than you can chew, you just end up sick; with a dejected look on your face.

In many things in life its a whole lot better to train and prepare than to just step up to the plate and take your swings cold. It might look easy, but to be a success it takes dedication. The baseball image is an example. Likewise any child knows that riding a bike and learning to swim takes a whole lot of practice. A few years ago I tried cleaning a walleye after just watching a YouTube video.... It didn't work.  I gave up. Might we put living out a living faith in Jesus Christ in the same category?

I had an epiphany many years ago that while I believed I had been graciously forgiven and saved through the cross of Christ and my baptism into Christ, just a belief in an idea didn't in itself have the power to transform. That was the purpose of this blog: Love Christ Live Faith. Through a living faith in Jesus your life is transformed. Living faith, or discipleship, opens up the Kingdom of Heaven into your reality and gives you permission to live with love, freedom, hope, and joy.

Before my transformation, I saw being a Christian as simple as belong to a church and worshiping on a regular basis. Let God do the work and let me live my life. But something Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote struck a cord with me: "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ." And life without Christ is a life of darkness and death... and not because I was evil or that I was a sinner and now I'm not. No, instead a life without Christ is a life where hope is not real and cynicism rules. It's going to church and just coming home sick and with a dejected look on your face.

Jesus warned us about this. Living in the light of Christ and allowing that light to fuel you means giving up your own selfish ways and desires and trading them in for the ways of Jesus Christ our Lord. Sounds pretty costly: The ol' cost of discisipleship that Bonhoeffer made famous. There is no half-baked way of approaching discipleship and life in Jesus. In Luke 14 the message is put starkly when Jesus flat out says that you can't be married to your old priorities and desires and be open to the freedom of the Kingdom of Heaven. He says you need to "hate" family. You need to give up your possessions. You need to take up the cross. You need to follow me. There must be complete clarity of purpose in order to produce the hope-filled, light and free life Jesus wants for us.

Jesus puts this many ways in the Gospels. In Matthew 13 we are given two parables in three verses that say it quite well. The Kingdom of Heaven is like stumbling on a field that contains the most valuable thing you ever could imagine. Without out hesitation, and with complete clarity, you would sell everything you had to do what ever it takes to claim that field and make it yours. Or think of this way, its like searching for the most precious pearl in history, finding it, and giving everything up so it can be yours.

Joey Chestnut and Koybyashi made a life commitment to being a hot dog eating champion. They have succeeded and they have received their reward.

But the reward of a life of discipleship, a life following Jesus and wanting to live your life as he would live it, is what I desire more than hot dogs. It is a life in the Kingdom of Heaven that opens up to you the truth in a way that is not always revealed easily before our eyes. It is a life that reveals hope when others only cry despair. Life in the Kingdom is a life of joy while the world only projects misery. Such a life in the Kingdom opens you up to true greatness so that you can be more and do more than you could ever have imagined. As Jesus says so well and so often: "The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is among us and around us, so repent, change your life, give up your selfishness and follow the way of Jesus."

Committing yourself to a life of discipleship might sound like biting off more than you can chew... and with texts like Luke 14, Jesus is completely honest about how you will change. Your old priorities will not be your priorities any longer. Know this. Know what it takes. It's like a army preparing for war, or a church preparing for a building project. It's going to be big.

Ultimately, though, the truth is that the Kingdom of Heaven and the way of Jesus is actually easy. It becomes as easy as Joey Chestnut with a dozen hot dogs: no problem. It is easy because Jesus had trained you, the Spirit has encouraged you, and your friends in Christ are right by your side.  It is easy because you know the truth.

There are many spiritual exercises that we can use as we train, but it is the discipline of prayer and dwelling the Word are the best places to start. If going for a walk, a jog, or a bike ride is important first step for physical fitness, having a regular routine of communication with God through prayer is central to growing as a disciple. Jesus modeled this for us. He needed prayer and we need prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus puts the power of prayer this way: "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened for you." Made into a habit, prayer becomes a very "easy yoke" in our training to be disciples.

Dwelling in God's Word is just as easy once its a habit. And like a jogger longs to runs, a disciple hungers to dig into Scripture. We can see this in a favorite passage of Lutherans, John 8:31a-32, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Freedom... It's such a gift. Freedom to be you. Freedom from fear. Freedom from hate. Freedom to love and be a light for the world. This is why we come forward and follow Christ Jesus our Lord... our Master... our Teacher.

The cost of discipleship is great... Yes it is. But the cost of not being a disciple is greater. To not be a disciple is to be chained to the dark cynicism of this world. To not be a disciple to to be a Christian without Christ. To follow the way of Christ, though, is freedom.