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Discipleship as On-The-Job-Training


Before I went off to seminary to become a pastor I spent five years working in toxicology research as a Histotechnologist.  This picture is an image of a microtome, the machine I learned to use in order to section animal tissues (such as liver, kidney, brain, femur, and so on) into thin slices that would be mounted onto microscope slides, stained and read by a pathologist.

It took several years to learn the skills that were required for working in a histology lab.  What stains would be used for what tissues; what the techniques were to extract water out of tissues so it could be replaced by paraffin wax and embedded into a block of paraffin to be cut.  These are skills that not even doctors learn how to do when they go to medical school. Oh they read about it, but they don’t have time to master the techniques because there is so much else for them to learn.

I learned these intricate, precise skills by trial and error.  I learned by practice, practice, and more practice.  I learned by watching, trying, watching some more until I could do it alone.  I was good at what I did; I was fast too!  Interestingly they don’t teach this particular skill in college.  You can take “histology” in college but you cannot learn how to make the slides, only how to look at them.  You can go to school to be a med-tech, or a phlebotomist or an LPN, but for the most part you have to learn how to be a histotech in the laboratory, beside a mentor who coaches you along, for years.

We are not BORN disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are reborn by water and the Spirit, of course, but that does not guarantee that we will be DISCIPLES- followers, students, apprentices, trainees for the mission and ministry of our Lord.  Our baptism does not ensure that we will ever be capable, courageous, or passionate followers of Christ.  Discipleship is a learned skill.  Discipleship is mentored.  Discipleship is prodded, corrected, examined, tested, pushed, pulled, refined, honed, and encouraged. . . in other words it is taught in the school of hard knocks and faith.  The passion to follow Jesus is planted in us at our sacramental bath but then it must be nurtured and modeled for us to “get it.”  Sometimes we have to be thrown into ministry, the sink or swim method, so that something will be ignited within us– something that makes us want to know more about what it means to be a follower of Christ.  That happened to me when I was about 23 and was directed to teach a bunch of Junior High kids about the Gospel of John.  I had no clue what I was doing but apparently it started something that is still going today. . . a life of discipleship.  Before then, even though I was a baptized Christian since infancy, I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing other than going faithfully to hear another boring, irrelevant sermon that made no impact on life and certainly did not inspire anything remotely close to serving/loving/following.  I can’t remember one sermon from the age of 1-23.  Seriously!  How can a person who is in church every Sunday be that overlooked?  That disconnected?  That frozen?

So it was in my time in that laboratory as I cranked out microscope slides of eyes, optic nerves, esophagi, trachea, and small intestines that my passion for Christ began to bubble up to the surface.  Long conversations with co-workers about the bible, faith and what does this all mean happened while we cut tissues into sections thinner than tissue paper.  I wanted answers and I wanted a life with Christ, who I realized I didn’t really know.  And so like that on-the-job-training in the lab I began to receive my on-the-job-training from two special pastors in my life at another Lutheran church, not the Lutheran church of my childhood.

Why is this concept of discipleship as a way of life so hard to understand in the church?  Why have we failed so often in this regard?  Is it because we haven’t been paying attention to our baptismal vows as communities of faith?  Or perhaps we don’t want to be too pushy about getting folks to commit to something like Jesus the Savior of the world?  Let me just say that I think it’s pretty simple:  every disciple has the ability to mentor/coach/teach/walk with another person of faith in order to help them on this journey with Jesus.  In fact, we are commissioned to go and make disciples– or were those simply empty words that Matthew recorded just for the fun of it?  We are all entrusted with the task of on-the-job-training!  No one is exempt.  Don’t be afraid, don’t ever be afraid. . . just remember how you learned to be a follower of Christ and share that with someone else!  It’s really that simple.

Blessings on your journey,



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