Monday, May 16, 2011

Spiritual Pacing

My toddler son, Copeland, is learning how to run, which means he loves having me chase him around the house. We laugh hysterically as we literally run in circles between our kitchen and living room. He's also figuring out how to climb our stairs upright, as opposed to crawling or scooting. He stands at the bottom step and holds out one hand in anticipation, asking for "help, please" in his uber-cute toddler voice. My firm grip offers a steady support and security so that he can ascend the stairs in his own strength without fear. He even walked with me to our neighborhood coffee shop all on his own the other day. Guess we're slowly outgrowing the stroller.

As I've watched my son learn to walk, I can't help but see the spiritual parallel with discipleship. Richard Dunn calls it pacing-then-leading in his fantastic book Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students. Here are a few connections I've found as I pace alongside both my son and teenagers:

Too fast. When I walk at my normal pace, I'm already going too fast for Copeland. If I absently walk ahead of him, he's going to get left behind. I could easily get frustrated with his slowness; or I could recognize that, developmentally, he's just not at my pace yet. I have to slow down, to watch his pace, to come alongside and be with him--his advocate, his encourager, his fellow pilgrim in our journey both to the neighborhood playground and our faith. The same is true in discipleship--spiritual pacing requires that we slow down, come alongside someone who is not at our pace, and lovingly be with them and for them. We see this perfectly modeled in Jesus, who has a spiritual pace that's faster than the speed of light, but came to earth to slowly walk alongside a group of followers for three years of ministry.

Too slow. On the other hand, Copeland often gets distracted when we walk together. If he sees an ant hill or a playground or notices a toy some neighborhood kid left out, I have to keep encouraging him to not get too distracted. He lollygags and meanders, wandering away from me and our chosen destination. In his stubborn toddler manner, sometimes he stops moving altogether for no apparent reason. In these cases, I continue to encourage forward movement while also gentle exhorting him to not get off track. In discipleship, people get off track or distracted or stay at the same slow pace for far longer than they require; they need exhortation, a loving kick in the butt to get them to keep moving towards Christ.

Holding hands. Unless we're chasing each other around the house, Copeland loves to hold my hand when we walk. I'm sure this will change someday, but for now I cherish it. Holding hands makes it abundantly clear to anyone around that this is my dad. I am his son. We're in this together. Holding hands also reveals a sense of security; Copeland trusts me enough to offer his tiny one-handed embrace, and also trusts that I will be his support if he stumbles. We must hold spiritual hands in discipleship, offering commitment and a depth of relational trust and security. Inherently, discipleship cannot be done with shallow relationships. Of course, it requires time and pacing just to get to this depth--one doesn't dive into the relational deep end immediately--but this should ultimately be the goal.

Defining success. With Copeland learning how to walk and run, success will not come with me holding his hand when he's a 16-year-old walking the halls of his school or a 35-year-old with a family of his own. Success can be celebrated in the short term--we made it to the coffee shop without falling down!--but ultimately needs to find its roots in the long haul. If Copeland is walking/running at the same pace in 10 years as he is now, then either a) something tragic has happened in his development, or b) I've completely missed something as a parent in raising my child. Success in discipleship must be defined in the long term; we celebrate the immediate victories, but the goal is that this person is following Jesus for a lifetime, not for a weekend retreat or a school semester.

I love walking with my son and I love walking with people in their spiritual journeys. What other parallels and connections can you find between literal and spiritual pacing?

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