Admirer or follower?

By Dan Webster
Posted Feb 21, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Here comes Lent. Again. My usual Lenten discipline is reading either Thomas Keating’s Journey to the Center or Martin L. Smith’s A Season for the Spirit. Both have offered me something new each Lent.

Last year I thought I’d try something new, and focused on the book Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. It includes wisdom from mystics from the past like Dorothy Day, C.S. Lewis, and Meister Eckhart as well as from those still among us, like Barbara Crafton, Kathleen Norris and Barbara Brown Taylor.

I got derailed on the eleventh day of Lent by a passage from theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who asks the reader; are you a follower of Jesus or an admirer?

Jesus “never asks for admirers, worshipers, or adherents,” wrote Kierkegaard. “No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for . . . .[Jesus’] whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible.”

If that Lent was to be authentic, then I had to grapple with the question. Maybe my heart and mind had been prepared to encounter this challenge because of the words invoked by my bishop, Eugene Sutton, before every sermon he preaches, “Lord tell us what we need to hear to become disciples of your Son Jesus Christ.”

The first time I really heard that, I thought to myself, hey, I’m a disciple. I gave up a pretty good career to go to seminary. I’m a disciple! And then, the internal debate began. Was I really a disciple?

Enter Kierkegaard’s words a few months later.

“A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached,” wrote Kierkegaard. “He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.”

I certainly have done the worship and adherent thing. The Seminary of the Southwest — any seminary, actually — does a pretty good job explaining the teachings of Jesus and how to lead worship.

“Admirers are only too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger,” says Kierkegaard. “They refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended by him.”

So Lent 2011 inspired an ongoing conversation for me. I’m still working on this. I’m still trying to discern whether I’m a disciple or just an admirer. Maybe I will always be one who lives a life of striving to become what I admire. I think I can live with that.

But I’m still going deeper, which is what Lent is all about. We’ll see what awaits me this Lent.

— The Rev. Canon Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland. He lives in Baltimore.