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Growth by Imitation

October 29, 2020
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Is everyone out there brimming with confidence, or, like me, do you find the following exhortations of Paul hard to imagine saying to another disciple yourself? 

      I urge you to imitate me. (1 Cor. 4:16 NLT)

      Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine,
      and learn from those who follow our example. (Phi. 3:17)

Our adventures in discipling the young believers under our own roof frequently found us, as their parents, pleading the exact opposite. Some poor behavior or angry outburst would cause us to fervently hope we would not be imitated by our kids!

Context is important here. Paul was a first century rabbi, and what he pleads expresses the difference between Western and Hebrew thinking pretty perfectly. In our context we tend to think of training in the faith as a mastery of a particular content, a set of convictions to be whole-heartedly embraced. For Paul and rabbis in his day, including Jesus, faith was formed as the disciple literally followed his rabbi around, not just to listen to what he said, but to observe all he did and then imitate everything. Our teachers in Israel say that in Hebrew thinking it was more important to notice how the rabbi responded to stubbing his toe in the middle of the night than it was to absorb his theology. Genuine faith was more concerned with mastery of self than mastery of doctrine.

The same is still true for how the faith of the next generation is formed in our homes and in our church communities. Are we living imitable lives?

As a young parent and pastor’s wife, I remember the sobering thought that my girls would learn more about grace from the way I welcomed the unexpected visitor at the door than they might from my overt Bible lessons. I wondered if my son would come to anticipate, or fear, attitudes from a possible future wife which he saw in his mom.

This flows naturally from the principles of obedience and transparency we have already discussed. First, whose examples are we following, and then, who is learning from the shape of our lives? There are a few ways we have seen this principle of imitation work out in practice.

One great place to start is Christian biography. Famous missionary Elisabeth Elliot was radically formed as a young woman by learning about the life of Amy Carmichael and her work among the children of temple prostitutes in India. Elisabeth’s friendship, and her work, profoundly influenced us during our seminary years… and the beat goes on. Paul says that the disciples who imitated him, as he imitated Jesus, were in turn imitated by all of Greece! (1 Thes. 1:5-7) It’s a model frequently repeated in the Scriptures. Our daughter has the tweens in her church reading and talking together about Christian biographies, geared to their age group.

When we were parents with tweens ourselves, we read the late Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place, aloud to our kids. Corrie’s stunning faithfulness to Jesus in standing with the Jewish people in Nazi Europe deeply shaped our family’s trajectory in general, and sensitivity to anti-Semitism in particular. As well, Neil and I prayed frequently and fervently for the Lord to send other visible examples, influencers and friends into our kids’ lives, people with skin on as the kids used to say. This is a prayer God answered abundantly.

Braided together with this principle of imitation is the necessity of inclusion in ministry, but it’s an idea that gets very little air time. As with most exploits of the Christian life, it feels risky! Jesus ‘risked’ sending the new disciples out to imitate him. Sometimes they obeyed and sometimes they balked, but it’s how they became… the apostles.

Children can do more than acolyte in our churches. Trained, they can be readers and greeters and, teamed with an adult, prayer ministers. We have seen God do, and speak, amazing things through the ministry of children. When we had toddlers, our children’s prayers astonished us. We used to say that if you really needed something, it was best to get a three-year-old to pray for it! Our grandson asked his uncle how he could learn to pray for healing for people. His uncle took him on a prayer walk around their city and they prayed together for folks they met. Including the next generation of saints in the exercise of our gifts and callings is how the next generation is formed. It’s a Hebrew, a biblical, way to learn. The prophet Joel foresaw a day when the Spirit of God would be poured out and young people would prophesy and see visions. In our family, and in the church, we have observed children with discernable gifts of intercession, evangelism, and prophecy. If they are included, they will imitate, and sometimes even lead.

This is, however, an intergenerational principle. Paul was speaking to new adult disciples in Christian community. Ideally, no one in the church should be serving alone, but rather with someone from whom they can learn and who can learn from them.

But, back to where we started, what about when our lives are transparently not imitable? Then, others learn through our apologies. They learn to forgive us. And if we allow it, they will learn from how the Lord shows us mercy and helps us deal with our particular characteristic flaws. This is often the most powerful part of any sermon, when the preacher can let us see how the reading has actually connected with his or her own life. Can we include our children, and the next generation in the church, in our actual lives as disciples, both in the disciplines and in the delights? It’s how they, and we, are formed.

If you were to choose one or two specific ways to imitate Jesus, what would they be?

If you had been one of the disciples, what might you have noticed as you traveled together? What would top your list?  

Can you think of one specific way to intentionally imitate him?

(What always springs to mind for me is his willingness to treat every single interruption as ordained by God!)