The Top Guns in My Life – Disciples Who Discipled Me. Episode 1: “Sly”

Meet one of my mentors in Christ – Ken “Sly” Fox. He was my boss at the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing when we were flying together in the US Air Force. That’s Ken climbing in to his F-15 Eagle – the world’s legacy air superiority fighter. Ken is one of the Jedi Knights of the F-15 – a fighter pilot you do not want to be flying against, lest your own “Goose” get cooked. Ken was known and respected – very good at his work, gracious in his style and going for it with great enthusiasm. As a new arrival to the fighter wing I was afraid of him, frankly. Then one day he walked up to me and said “I want you to come to work for me.” Yikes….

Life working for Ken was kinda terrifying – I really felt like I was in over my head, but oh-so rewarding to be there. I could watch and learn from him as he did his magic in the air, a fantastic benefit all by itself. But beyond our aerial calling, I now had access – to be up close and personal alongside him on the ground – dealing with people, with the challenges and the not-very-small egos that accompany a bunch of testosterone-saturated 20 and 30 year-old lieutenants and captains flying the world’s greatest fighter jet. (Snarky remarks about the “world’s greatest fighter jet” phrase may be emailed to YouknowIamrightanduarejealous@discipleme.con.)

Wait. Where was I? Oh right, talking about my boss Ken.

Ken is a disciple. He’s winsome, someone you’d want to be with, whether in the office, at home or around town. In living my life alongside Ken I was able to observe how, with grace, he showed himself to be a servant of Christ in so many ways. There was an enlisted woman with an attitude problem, working in our office. Ken was unusual – a powerful and well-respected officer who could have easily ditched this young woman’s ‘tude to HR and picked another assistant. But he didn’t. He showed me that imago dei (the image of God) is that worth and dignity for all people, even the nettlesome ones. Sly, with grace and respect began to transform her into a question-asker and faith-curious person. Her performance and attitude changed to the amazement of all around. From close aboard I would watch Sly wrestle with complex policy, strategy and managerial issues – and it strengthened my understanding of the calling and excellence required in a disciple’s work life from then on. I would watch how Ken treated his bride Jean, with delight and joy, how he handled his teenage kids, and of course I could watch all the usual messes and frazzled moments that come with being a believer who is also a husband, dad and servant of Christ in the military. Ken, over time, would slowly peel me away from my death grip on father-avoidance. He would press me hard on being a better husband, on looking deeper into my faith through the lens of Scripture. Ken pushed me in my work too – into being a better worker in my vocation, in ways I could never have experienced without him pointing me to Christ saying “be better – go big for Christ”.  I now realize how many of my spiritual reflexes were formed and honed by the guy that the F-15 community calls “Sly”.  He discipled me at work, he discipled me in his home – he even discipled me with his teenagers buzzing around. He did “you – come and follow me” and he still does that today. It was regular life, two regular people, in close formation so I could watch and he could show, and talk through life in Christ. You came away from Sly with a trajectory shift that you usually did not instantly recognize, but soon enough realized.

I got to do that for two years until we were each sent to different places in God’s designs. But Ken’s discipling profoundly changed me. He did discipling the same way Paul did and Jesus did it – alongside, up close, personal. And at a distance, he is still part of my life and phone calls when I need counsel.

I don’t remember every minute spent with my disciplers. But boy, do I remember the ways they changed my thinking, and improved my walk with Christ. They pulled me in to their orbit and lives, so a disciple could be deeply influenced in their “follow” of Jesus, the Christ.

Some of my disciplers were professional pastors, but most were not. They were disciples doing precisely what Christ mapped out for every one of us to do as disciples – to live a “regular” life, and to especially do that alongside one or two others, in whatever vocational callings and community settings they live in. And when you were with them you got a sunburn as you encountered the splendor and proximity of the risen Christ in these lives.

That’s what all disciples are to do – invite people of all types, believers and not, older, younger, smarter, or not, to come with them to check out Christ. The formula for disciplers is not magic, and from the outside maybe not even obvious. Disciples would never hint they had “arrived” or were the pinnacle of all things to someone else. No guru credentials are required to do what disciples do for others. It is time, talk and trucking through days together in the real world. It might be conversation about dating, or sex, or integrity or it might be a football game, or watching them work, maybe even, like Sly, working for them. Disciples establish a “culture” of discipleship – to help another person encounter Christ, and for believers they are alongside, to  develop, think, act and then go out likewise to invite others along.

In the weeks ahead I want to introduce you to some of these people that were the “flight leaders” to my “wingman” position in discipling. I’ll introduce you to men and women in my life who gave a disciple in progress (me) a substantial lift. I want to tell you how they lead, what they do, and how they affect me. My hope? That you’d ask yourself “Do I have anyone like that?” “Does my Christian community offer anything like that for my own development following Christ?” And, that you can ponder the biblical certainty that you are supposed to be that same kind of person to others, and do that for the rest of your life.

You do not have to be the Messiah or a world-renowned fighter pilot to be a good discipler. But we are all supposed to be going up to folks in gracious ways and saying “Come check out Christ.” A lot of people will opt out. A few will take you up on that deal. It’s a biblical thing. Every disciple is called to live life alongside a few other people – all through our lives. So, whether you’re a pastor, parent, plumber or proctologist, you’re called – to be a disciple, and to make disciples – which literally means to “make yourself and others progress as disciples”. This discipling thing is not an optional gig. Nor is it perfection-first then get started discipling. It is not a job reserved for the amazing few, and it is not waived off for you because you just don’t feel like it. Team up with others, run the race set before you to invite people to “Come with me.”

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 28.19 (ESV)

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