This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Costly Discipleship.” For more stories on this theme, see the June issue of The Mennonite, available here.
The candles were lit. The lights were out. The eerie, beautiful voices echoed through the tall ceilings. By candle light, I could make out the same faces I’ve been praying this Easter vigil with since I was in utero. I felt a tug at my hand and my 5-year-old, Isaac, looked up at me and whispered, “Mommy, I want to be like Jesus.” It was one of the only sweet moments of the night, for following this moment, my 2-year-old, Cedar, started running around with lit candles; they chased each other around the altar, and ended up knocking over the giant cross. But amidst the chaos and loss of parental control, I felt both the sweetness and the weight of his words.
A couple years ago, I found myself struggling with how to explain Easter to my then 3-year-old. The past year had been filled with lessons of death. We had buried and ritualized the death of his first fish. He had helped cover his great grandma’s ashes with dirt. There was a sacredness and ordinariness to it all that he was learning. He had songs to sing and words to speak and a face of sadness. In a culture so addicted to violence and yet in denial and avoidance of grief, it was important to us that he could touch and honor the reality of death. But then Easter came, and I realized that while I didn’t have any trouble telling him that Jesus died or even that he resurrected, I struggle to explain to him that Jesus was killed. I wanted death to be sad and sacred a little longer before he realized we humans actually intentionally took the lives of other people.
Two years have passed since then. Easter was back, and this time Isaac knew about killing. We had just walked the streets of Detroit in the March For Our Lives, where his message was clear: “not less guns, no guns.” In preschool, he practices hiding in bathrooms. He has grown up at Black Lives Matter protests and is digesting the reality of police shootings. So, this year, it wasn’t hard to say that Jesus was killed. We spent Good Friday walking through the city carrying a cross and reflecting on the places crucifixion continues today. We sang those same songs, spoke the words and grieved for yet another death. But I realized this year, the question I feared from his lips was, “Why was Jesus killed?” And my answer would have to be, “For doing all the things we want you to do.” Was it already time to explain the cost of discipleship?
Yes, we want to raise these beautiful boys to stand with community and grab hold of that arc and help bend it toward justice. We want them to help shake these walls of patriarchy and white supremacy until the walls come crumbling down. We want them to hold earth in their hands, beg forgiveness and become disciples to her living in a new way. We want them to lift their songs, their voice, their beauty, their gifts, their dance, their bodies, their lives in the work of building the beloved community. But how do we say, we want you to do this hard, counter-cultural work that is internal and systemic–oh and by the way, there are risks and costs and you could even be killed?
My parents wrestled with these questions of discipleship and parenting. In an article for The Christian Ministry 20 years ago, my dad reflected on baptism: “Sure, I could confess without hesitation God’s inclusive grace, which named them, beyond any effort of their own, as members of the beloved community… This seemed the easy part of the bargain. But I paused each time I was asked to ‘live a life that becomes the gospel.’ Would I as a father come forward publicly to ‘renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, evil and oppression’? … I knew these to be no idle queries but risky and costly matters… I understood that to reaffirm them before the lives of our children was not merely to pass my faith along as some fatherly responsibility, but to draw them unwittingly into the path of discipleship. Did I really want to be the one giving them their first nudge down the path to the cross?”
They worried about our psyches and hearts as we watched them both be dragged off to jail countless times, as our bikes were stolen from under us and as gun shots rang on our street. They had a vocational commitment to Detroit. Looking back, I give thanks for the choices and risks my parents made. I am mindful how amidst the risk and cost, we were held so tightly with abundant love, and I think that made all the difference. The beauty of this place, the joy of community and the daily knowledge of injustice summoned my own heart and calling. And here I am four houses down, raising my own kids with these same questions and hopes and fears.
So we place our roots in this soil and immerse ourselves in the baptism of the Detroit River. We craft signs for vigils, we put our bodies in the street, we know our neighbors, we teach the old stories, we imagine the generations yet to come, and we love one another with fierce abundance.
So, yes, I delight in my child’s desire to be like Jesus. But sweet boys, I echo my dad’s words to me and my sister when I say, Be Isaac. Be Cedar. Be all that you are summoned in this life to be. Nothing more. And nothing less. Amen.
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann lives with her partner and two sons in Detroit, Michigan. She is the co-editor of www.RadicalDiscipleship.net.
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