In the New Testament Christian faith is presented as a dynamic way of life. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christians are being transformed into the likeness of Christ ‘from one degree of glory to another.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18) Images that foster this sense of growth and dynamism include pilgrim and journey. It is often pointed out that baptism is only the beginning of the Christian life and this profound mark of belonging means that as disciples of Jesus we are called to follow him and to grow in our faith. Spiritual growth involves a mixture of planned activity and facing whatever life throws at us with the help of God’s life within us.
The study introduces the concept of spiritual growth to begin and the offers opportunity for sharing experience of being disciples in the context of Luke 6: 1-11. The study then focuses on the writings of Alison Morgan whose emphasis on word and spirit reflect the picture of the New Testament’s understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Anne Lamott records her personal struggles in the context of God’s faithfulness no matter what and demonstrate God’s grace to all who turn to him for help. This leads into the restoration of Peter in John 21 with questions and action points for further insights into spiritual growth.
Many congregations are encouraged to read and study the Bible, be faithful in private and corporate prayer and meet regularly with other Christians for worship. How much emphasis does your church place on planned programmes of discipleship? A number of writers in Twelve great spiritual writers address the question of discipleship clearly and directly while others approach it more implicitly as they explore how we react and change to life’s ups and downs. Alison Morgan’s books are almost handbooks of discipleship for example with clear explanations of what it means to know and follow Jesus. She has much to say about the Church as God intends her to be. Barbara Brown Taylor, on the other hand, found she needed to step away from immersion in church life in order to rediscover what mattered to her as a believer. Sister Margaret Magdalen’s writing focuses on a very personal spiritual check-up to keep track of how Christ is being formed in us and Anne Lamott keeps bringing us back to grace even in the midst of life’s muddle and mess.
Depending on time, encourage one or two members of the group to share how they first became disciples.
Alison is a passionate writer with a special gift with words that bring faith to life through vivid imagery. She believes that the Christian message is world-transforming and wants to wake her readers up to its vitality and importance. Her books are full of human stories of finding faith and she includes her own testimony:
‘For me it has been like a pebble dropped into a pond: it lands, splash. In the centre, clear and visible, at the moment of first encounter with Jesus; and yet its arrival is a beginning, not an end, for from the point of impact spring concentric ripples which slowly move over the surface of the pond in ever increasing and interdependent circles. God is at the centre; but then it turns out that God is at the circumference also. …. From the moment of impact there begins a dialogue, a dialogue between you and God, a dialogue which never ends, a dialogue which if honestly conducted will spread out into all areas of your life…… ‘(The wild Gospel: bringing truth to life, Monarch, 2004, p4.
Two key themes to which Alison returns are Word and Spirit. She has confidence in the power of words to create and reflect reality and her heartfelt cry is for the Church to wake up to the truth that sets people free. In The wild Gospel, she examines the encounters Jesus had with individuals in the Gospel accounts as well as his teaching to highlight the values that Jesus invites us to live by that are counter-cultural and life-giving in ways that are world-transforming. We do not become disciples by going on a course, she argues, but by making a whole life response to Jesus, getting out of our heads and into learning how to embody the good news of the Gospel. If this sounds daunting, Alison wrote a third volume in her series, Following Jesus. The plural of disciple is church (ReSource, 2015), which reminds us that we are not meant to do this on our own. ‘The plural of disciple is church’ is the central tenet of the book.
Anne Lamott, like Alison Morgan pays attention to the craft of writing and part of her aim is to encourage and challenge her readers to discover the presence and activity of God in their daily lives. They are two very different personalities, however, with very different life experiences and this is reflected in their writing styles. Anne came to faith in Jesus against all the odds and slowly learned to find healing in her image of herself. She shares her vulnerabilities in her writing in what we might call doing theology by heart. Many people find her approach resonates with their own struggles and attempts to make sense of things. Life is a paradox she says and there are no easy answers. ‘My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers.’ (Travelling mercies. Some thoughts on faith, Riverhead Books, 2000, p3) Grace. (Eventually) is a kind of primer of faith that is both funny and poignant, focusing on episodes from her life that illustrate both the muddles and the grace that finds her even when she is in the depths of despair (Riverhead Books, 2007). She writes:
‘Scootch, scootch, stall; scotch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch. I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kinds of things; also that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in silence, in the dark. (Grace. (Eventually), p51).
Anne wants us to learn to recognise, embrace, rely on and rejoice in grace. This, she states, is the whole point of being alive. In Anne’s world, discipleship is learned down there in the mess, as we learn again and again, like Peter, to find forgiveness and a fresh start where we can trust once more. She has learned the truth of the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 5:20 that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
In contrast to the Luke passage, this incident comes at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and recounts an incident between Jesus and Peter after he has been a disciple for some time. What light does Anne Lamott’s description of life as ‘forgiveness school’ shed on Peter’s experience here?
In exploring what it means to be a writer, Anne examines what it means to find our voice. The search also applies to prayer, a key aspect of being a follower of Jesus. Here is her voice in prayer:
‘Hi God. I’m just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me if I were you, but miraculously you are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, you will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon – say two-ish? Thank you in advance for your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen. (Help, thanks, wow, Hodder & Stoughton, 2013, p34).