Discipleship – an exercise in unlearning.
In an attempt to maintain my fitness I am taking weekly swimming lessons at Ormskirk Park Pool – and finding them extremely difficult. The reason is that I can swim already. Something I have been meaning to do for some time. However, now that I have picked up two injuries to my knee and opposite foot, running is out for the time being. Tragic. The problem is that my default swimming style, like for everyone of my age group, is the breaststroke. It’s a problem because it is not good for your back. As a student I did teach myself a version of the front crawl (or freestyle) but as my daughter pointed out to me this summer I am doing it all wrong. “Dad, it would help if you breathed.” So I have decided to learn how to swim the freestyle properly. For my first attempt earlier this week I could not even make a length of the pool. As I found myself floundering and gasping for breath every muscle in my body pleaded to revert to my accustomed style. It may not be pretty but at least I wouldn’t drown. It’s one thing to learn how to swim; babies can do it. It something else to unlearn your familiar stroke and try to override your muscle memory. Incidentally I have just googled ‘muscle memory” to discover that it takes 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to burn a movement into your body's muscle memory. That’s a lot of swimming. It’s almost 50 years ago when I was first introduced to the concept of unlearning. It was my first supervision in economics and Mrs. Hahn informed me that I would now have to unlearn everything I had learnt at A level. Like when for the first time you drive a hire car in Europe. Each time you need to change gear your left hand repeatedly hits the door. You know the theory. You’ve read the book, seen the YouTube training film. No one needs to convince you that in a left-hand drive car you change gears with your right hand. But to change the practice of a lifetime is hugely difficult. It could take 3,000 to 5,000 gear changes before it becomes instinctive! “The first problem for all of us, men and women,” admits veteran feminist Gloria Steinem, “is not to learn, but to unlearn.” She probably swims with the breaststroke too. The New Testament is one long exercise in unlearning, such are the ramifications of the cross of Jesus. Particularly for those Christians with a Jewish background. Such as for Simon Peter. He knew that Jesus had set aside the elaborate Jewish food laws so as to enable full and unrestricted fellowship with everyone, even Gentiles. Peter knew all this but he found it extremely difficult to put aside a lifetime’s practice. So in Acts 10 he is given a vivid vision where God tells him to eat what he was brought up to consider ritually unclean. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” He is then told not once but three times: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” So in obedience Peter takes the Gospel to Gentiles with the startling result that the Holy Spirit falls on centurion Cornelius. You would have thought that this settled it for Peter – but no. Some time later in Antioch, to the apostle Paul’s dismay, he withdraws from table fellowship with Gentiles “for fear of the circumcision faction.” (Galatians 2:11-14). Clearly avoiding table fellowship with Gentiles is deeply ingrained in this first disciple. He has a lot of unlearning to do – but God is patient and, as we saw last week, unrelenting. But that’s true of the Christian life as a whole, particularly if you became a disciple of Jesus as an older person and especially if you have had a ‘difficult’ upbringing. There’s a lot of unlearning to do. For as a beloved child of God we are challenged to live in a totally new way. And this means unlearning a whole set of responses which have over the years become part and parcel of our personality. So someone hits you and your instinctive reaction is to hit them back. You have had a lifetime’s practice. Your parents may have modelled it. Your peer group may have practiced it. You may have watched too many episodes of the Sweeney. But all this has to be undone, your reactions reprogrammed. And it takes time and certainly many failures as your hand hits the car door yet again. We can become discouraged. But the one lesson we do need to unlearn is that God’s grace has its limits, that there comes a point when he just gives up on us. We gave the Christian life a try but it just didn't work out. But incredibly and against all common sense, God keeps at it, patiently and unperturbed by our repeated failure. God will never give up on us. As the apostle Paul proclaims “ There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.” (Philippians 1:6). Similarly I hope my swimming instructor does not give up on me, so that when I next fall into the canal I instinctively freestyle to the edge with elegance and élan.