Happy New Year, Friends!
Lo, I have been absent from the blog these past few months. Intense school, touring and teaching schedules flowed right into the holidays–it’s been rich and good, but I have missed you. Here, tardily, is my most recent CT column. I plan to be around these parts much more frequently, and would love to hear your thoughts.
What really sticks when leading a friend to Christ.
[ posted on CT 10/22/2013 2:21PM ]
Tyron Swan, 23, is a strong and skillful surfer. “I could duct tape you to my back and surf,” he said to Pascale, 50. Pascale didn’t see why he couldn’t, and, armed with several rolls of tape, they set out to test their plan.
Pascale “can’t find the words to explain” what it’s like to move through the ocean, to feel like she’s “part of the water” after years of immobility. For his part, Tyron notes that surfing with an extra 88 pounds taped to his body is “a pretty good challenge.” But his nonchalance can’t mask the significance of his gift. “It’s changed her life in a way,” he admits.
Pascale and Tyron’s adventures have been chronicled in a short documentary, Duct Tape Surfing. It’s the sort of clip you think would take the Internet by storm, and that’s exactly what it has done. How could anyone not be moved by Pascale’s courage and Tyron’s tangible friendship?
If my fellow Christians are anything like me, I suspect they can’t watch the footage without seeing a powerful metaphor for spiritual friendship. Is there any more vivid embodiment of “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2, ESV) than a sturdy Tyron rising up on his surfboard with a grinning Pascale on his back? Is there any richer example of the way trust can make possible things once thought impossible? When we use words like evangelism and discipleship, are we not daring to dream that we who have already experienced the waves of God’s mercy might somehow lead a friend or two into the water?
I must resist the urge to reduce Pascale to a sermon illustration. But there is a detail in her story that I can’t help relating to the matter of spiritual friendships. It has to do with duct tape.
Wherever the Duct Tape Surfing documentary is posted, there is space for viewers to leave comments. Several folks have asked about having a company make a professional-grade harness, eliminating the need for the reams of silver tape that Tyron cuts off with a fishing knife after every outing.
“Pascale was sent a number of harnesses to try but realized that duct tape is the best as Ty needs her in a certain position,” explains Mark Tipple, the film director. “Too low, and he’s off balance, or if she’s too high, he can’t raise his head while paddling and can’t see. For now, duct tape is the best!”
Where prefabricated solutions have failed, duct tape lets Pascale and Tyron customize, adapt, and fit themselves together as needed. Here is where my mind makes the leap back to spiritual friendships. There are many evangelism and discipleship programs available, chock-full of great ideas. But I am learning, in my halting attempts at spiritual friendships, that no one believes, disbelieves, questions, or grows in exactly the same manner. There is no one way to share the faith or invite someone deeper into it. While programs give us ideas, successful spiritual friendships are built upon adaptive, responsive, trusting relationships as unique as the people who inhabit them.
As a teenager, I spent several weeks going through a life-changing discipleship program with my youth pastor’s wife, Pam Mitchell. Although I’m grateful for the material we worked through, I can’t remember anything about the curriculum we used. What I remember, above all, is our friendship—the way I could trust Pam completely with my hurts and hopes. As she lived out the Scriptures we were exploring, I longed to swim where she swam—to follow her as she followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
There is a give and take to discipleship, a discovery of how a would-be mentor’s strengths and experiences align with a friend’s questions and quandaries. Spiritual friendship should be as much listening as leading, as much discovery as discourse. Forcing that friendship into preconceived patterns will almost certainly sink it.
And so, whether I am the mentor or the mentee (or, often, both), I am trying to embrace something like duct-tape discipleship. It’s stickier, and messier, than some of the prefabricated solutions. But it takes an approach as adaptable—and tenacious—as duct tape to be the kind of friend who dives in deep and, like the Proverb says, “sticks closer than a brother” (18:24).