I did not learn discipleship in a book. Even the Bible is not intended to be a self-study course in discipleship. Instead, it contains sayings like this one from the Apostle Paul:
Imitate me as I imitate Christ.
Discipleship always comes with skin on (how blessed are even the feet of those who bear good news!), and in my case God sent Gifford Claiborne to make a disciple out of me.
Humorously (to Gifford, anyway), I was not much discipled when we met–this despite my having served for three years as an associate pastor just prior to our meeting for the first time. I had bumped up against discipleship practices a few times at the church I’d served, most particularly as we implemented an Every Member in Ministry campaign. But I prized Every Member in Ministry mostly as a volunteer activation approach. The idea of teaching others to obey everything Christ commanded? That seemed to me to be a call to use the lectionary when preaching. That was about as deep as it went for me.
So when I went to work for Gifford at the Los Angeles Mission, he began a systematic process of helping me take discipleship beyond my head and into my life. He referred to that systematic process as “life.” The process was never pretty. I went along kicking and screaming, and poorly. (Disciplers, if a disciple kicks and screams and goes poorly, rejoice! For so have disciples persecuted their disciplers before you.)
One time Gifford and I were walking the few blocks back to our development office from the main mission building. Gifford asked me nonchalantly, “So what do you think about demon possession?”
“Oh, I think there are a lot of contemporary ailments that in Jesus’ time would have been called demon possession,” I said, always happy when I sensed an intellectual conversation dawning.
“Ah,” said Gifford. “Then it will be interesting to see what you do about this.” And with that a homeless woman was upon us. Howling. Distorted. Menacing us against a wall. She was like an actual person made of Silly Putty. All stretched out–over us, against us, on top of us, beside us, all at once. My jaw dropped. My brain froze. This was not a person with a contemporary ailment. It was a person with a contemporary Legion. I looked at Gifford to see what he would do. He looked back at me with the face of an angel, perfectly content to let me obey everything that Christ had commanded with regard to Ms. Legion. If only I could remember what Christ had commanded in situations like this one…
And that was the way Gifford discipled. It was never next to life, or outside of life, or reflecting on life. It was always in life–in real time. Obeying Christ without warning in whatever situation arose. And oh, the situations that arose! I would have been lucky just one time to sit and philosophize idly about discipleship with Gifford over coffee!
Gifford would take me to meetings with the many famous and desperate Christian leaders who were always seeking him out because they badly needed his help, typically in fund raising but often in very personal and private issues ranging from marriage to addiction to lawsuits. They were always very excited to see him. But when Gifford would show up with 22-year old me in tow, their response was always somewhere between puzzlement and resentment. They wanted private time with Gifford. I knew that. They knew that. But Gifford seemed oblivious to it. “This is Eric Foley,” he would say. “He is a student who will one day surpass the teacher.” He’d chuckle. They’d frown. And then they’d really frown when they’d pour their heart out to Gifford and he would turn to me and say, “What do you think they should do, Eric?” My jaw was permanently slacked around Gifford.
Gifford opened up each element of his personal and professional life to me, as if a very important reason he had a personal and professional life at all was to use it to train me. I simultaneously smile and wince as I think back on all the bad advice and prayers and ministry I dispensed to Gifford’s friends and colleagues as Gifford subjected all of us to his training me. He truly withheld no opportunity from me that he felt would help me grow in Christ.
I marvel at it still. It simply is absolutely true that no project was ever more important to him than discipling me and the others whom God entrusted to his care. I learned to take the same approach in my own life, specifically because Gifford lived it out in front of me.
I drafted a lot of fundraising letters and marketing materials in those days, and every time–every time–I sent a piece to Gifford for his approval, he’d send it back to me marked up with more red marks than the previous version I’d corrected just as his red pen indicated I should.
One day I got fed up. “Why do you keep making new corrections on each version?” I sputtered. “Why can’t you just put all of your corrections on one version and I can make all the changes at once and we can get the work done on time? It’s piling up beyond belief.”
Gifford just chuckled. “You can stop submitting drafts to me at any point that you’re satisfied with whatever you happen to be writing,” he said gently, as always. “But every time you send me something, I will always look at it as if for the first time and ask, ‘How can I help him to become an even better proclaimer of the gospel?'”
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
–The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:12-17 (ESV)
Brothers, join in imitating me as I imitate Gifford imitating Christ. Make disciples in this way, the way of real life, drawing them out of their heads and into the craziest and scariest parts of the world God has made, for the sake of growing each of us, with the assistance of men like Gifford, to fullness in Christ.