Taking the Plunge: Thoughts on the Inner Life and 18 Years of Marriage

Tomorrow marks the day we celebrate our anniversary. 18 years ago on May 29th, we took the plunge. I had just turned 21 a month before we got married, and Amy was turning 21 in a couple more months. We didn’t know how young we were. We were in love, we knew we wanted to share life together, and we were willing to dive in! So we did it… head first. But unlike the picture shows, we jumped in with no gear… well, I guess I should say we had gear, but no where near the kind and of gear we needed to plunged the depths of the beauty and wonder of love we both longed and dreamt of.

I will speak for myself in this, that when I plunged in, I soon swam quickly back to the surface of the water as I metaphorically got water up my nose, my ear drums popped… the pain was unbearable, and I couldn’t see where I was going. I didn’t know how much pressure water could put on the body. I jumped in with great intentions and expectations, but as I swam around trying to do tricks in the water, I soon realized my limitations, “I need help!” There was way too much water to explore and the depths were intimidating. The current was intense, and some of the waves were bigger than they looked on the postcard. “I can’t tread water forever in this current!” “How could I go that deep?” “The water’s too cold, I need some kind of Jetson’s mobile to take me all the way to explore the bottom, and I’m no George Jetson.” “How in the world am I going to do this?” was my mantra, so I stayed far away from the thought of doing it. I didn’t like to explore the scary places. The dark places. The cold places. “Let’s leave those ones as they are… they don’t need to be bothered.” “It’s for better or worse, I get that, but let’s not help out the ‘worse’ part in that commitment.” So for years, I swam around in the kiddie part of the beach, protected by a rock wall, where the wave breaks couldn’t touch me and the current couldn’t pull me too far out. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the idea of talking about the deep, dark places, and often I’d jump on the other side of the rock wall and would put my face in the water to try and understand the landscape so I could talk about it with other people and not feel like I’m still a scared man trying to run from my pain. But that’s what I was. A scared man. Marriage had exposed all my sharp edges, all my misled desires, and proved that I was who I was afraid I would be; a fake. I was not a great catch like I had believed I was in high school. I was not as strong as I let on to be. I was not as brave as I appeared to be on the nights when I searched the house because I heard a window bang in the middle of the night. I had strong armor, but it wasn’t me. It was a good self-protective system I had created as a young child/man… but it couldn’t take me any farther. I was drowning in the armor, and the mask kept me from seeing clearly underwater. 

I can’t say it was one moment that forced me into the deeper waters. Maybe it was a series of events that kept exposing me, and my pride finally forced me to take the plunge again. Maybe it was the lies that I got caught in, the twists that didn’t work out in my favor to frame me as a better guy than I was. Maybe it was all of it, mixed with the pain of life and the reality of love that isn’t what I bargained for. I don’t know, but I did know that if I was going to experience the beauty and the longings of love and intimacy the way I always dreamt I would… if Amy was ever going to experience the kind of love she deserved from her husband… if my kids were going to have a father who could offer them something more than a good education and fun vacations, something had to change! 

I remember the day I first went to go see a counselor. I grew up thinking that if I need a counselor, then I’m not the Christian I’m supposed to be. Where in the hell does that kind of thinking come from? Sounds so crazy to even type those words, but that’s where I was. I needed help, and all my faith tricks had come to a crashing halt. I knew what I was supposed to do. I believed in a God who was big enough for my problems and who was called healer. I had scripture memorized and could navigate through the Bible better than most. I have an academic degree to prove I’m capable of handling divine written truth. I would’ve even said that I have experienced the divine, but if I did back then, most of it was a manufactured feeling that left me confused and longing for something more tangible. 

My days seeing a counselor were great, but even that wasn’t the answer… it was part of the answer. I needed others. I had built a great protective wall around my mind and my desires, that I needed help taking the wall down. It was brutal, and it was something I could’ve never done on my own. A mentor once told me, that we need help in life with that type of work in the same way someone training for the Iron Man needs help. On our own, we won’t (nor is it safe to) push our bodies to the point we need to get to day after day to be able to endure the toll of an Iron Man. We need trainers, support, community, and not just surface level, playing on the shore type community, but the deep water, big wave, intense current type community of friends and mentors, to be with us, to absorb some of the intense experiences of those moments. 

And it was at that moment when I began to realize, that the beginning of my journey had begun, and all the years of “doing stuff” for the good of the kingdom or whatever I would say I was doing, was all mostly for me, to prepare me to get to the point where I could actually be more useful than having good thoughts and right doctrine. I didn’t need another talking theologian who can wow me with great insights from scripture. I needed to experience scripture, I needed all the miracles I’ve read to become real in my own life. I didn’t need better thinking or a belief system that was waterproof. I needed to actually experience the deep waters. 

After all, I was already swimming in the water that held all of the good and the ugly in life. I was living off of the fruits that the waters gave out of it’s abundance. I was alive because the waters had kept me alive. And then “Bam!,” just like that, another moment of realization. I wasn’t the one keeping the waters going. I wasn’t in charge of making it happen. I was not “being blessed” because I was keeping it together or doing the right things. I just simply was blessed. Blessed to be in the waters. Blessed when my ears popped. Blessed when my eyes burned from too much water in them. Blessed when a friend offered to loan me their goggles, ear and nose plugs. And there it was, I was experiencing scripture. I was the recipient of a miracle, of many miracles. It was the goodness of God to have an unending source of water to give life. It was the unselfishness of my wife, the forgiveness of my children, the patience of my friends, the confrontation of my mentors, the corrections of my bosses. 

It was these moments of mercy and grace from those I could see, smell, touch, and hear that gave me a peak into eternity. It was those everyday normal miracles of love and compassion that was slowly growing me up. It was those experiences that helped me realized I was much more than just the “good” or “bad” stories about myself. I had been too narrow in my view of faith, that I lost view of my need for intimacy with people, and my wife was the first one to feel the let down of my promised love to her. I had been so eager to take the plunge and experience the joy of companionship, without any thought of what kind of companion I was going to be. 

I share all of this today, as I celebrate 18 years of marriage with my beautiful wife, because marriage is both a thing that makes us one, and also a product of two individuals who shape the landscape of the relationship, whether negatively or positively. And today, I felt the urge to share the more vulnerable side of me. I didn’t mean to… I meant for this post to be funny, but it kept moving towards this vulnerability. 

I guess I wanted to portray more of what it has really been like. We often share the best sides of ourselves, the best days, the great accomplishments, and frankly, that doesn’t match everyday life very well. Everyday there are let downs, fears, worries, lies, unmet longings, losses, griefs, that go along with the positives we like to lead with. I find beauty in both, in embracing the tension of the “good Jeff” and the “bad Jeff,” the “accomplished Jeff” and the “grand let-down Jeff.” So today, I wanted to share some of that which doesn’t define me, but is definitely a part of my story. So here’s what I do know today…

Today, I am not all better, and yet at least I know I’m not someone to be fixed. 

Today, I am not a great husband, although I like to think I’m less of a burden than I was 18 years ago. 

Today, I realize that joy is not completely depending on me, but that I’m not powerless to experience or offer joy either. 

Today, I realize that all my self-made identities that were born out of my hurts and insecurities aren’t defining me, and they aren’t anything to be ashamed of. 

Today, I realize that my life isn’t completely just about me, and yet it is not, not about me either. 

Today, I realize that when I get full of anxiety or fear and I feel the desire to play in the kiddie pool instead of facing the reality of what the deep waters are showing me, that it’s okay to admit it and be present with the fear and anxiety instead of denying what my body is saying is true. 

Today, I realize I don’t have to create my own body of water, but I do get to enjoy the comfort of the water and trust that it will always be there no matter what I do or believe. 

Today, I realize that the body of water is in me, and at the same time it is the water I am swimming in today. 

Today, I realize that taking the plunge into a committed marriage isn’t just about Amy and I, but it is part of a piece of art that is something much more beautiful and life giving than any ‘one’ relationship could ever be. 

Today, I realize the gift Amy has been in my life and the joys of having such a companion to swim the scary waters with me. 

Today, I realize what this poet has made clear through metaphor:

“We cannot trade for empty 

We must go to the waterfall

For there’s a break in the cup that holds love…

Inside all of us.” 

— David Wilcox

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An Ascent Towards Wisdom

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Peaceableness, justice, compassion, hospitality, simplicity, and community. These virtues are part of the soil of renewal, but there’s one last virtue I left for last, as it just may be what makes these other virtues stand out. Wisdom. I am not talking about high IQ’s, scholasticism, or technological know-how. Instead, what I mean by wisdom is the ability to discern when and where peace, justice, compassion, hospitality, simplicity, and community are most needed and how to go about modeling these virtues without a patriarchal, authoritarian, paternalistic, self-righteous mindset.

The proverbs teach us that wisdom is a gift from God (Prov. 2:6), and I do agree with that, but I also believe that it’s learned by those who are humble and teachable. Wisdom is also known in the proverbs as insight, or understanding (Prov. 3:13, 19), and understanding comes when one is willing to listen and learn in a posture of humility, especially when God speaks, for respect and reverence of God is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7). People who revere God will soon understand justice, compassion, etc.

In the book, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh state that “wisdom… is the ability to discern compassionate paths of justice and peace” (222). They conclude this because wisdom comes from God, and through wisdom God has created all things, and even worked out redemption for the brokenness of His creation, which as we learned in an earlier post, Jesus is the ultimate picture of compassion and justice wrapped up into one.

It’s God’s wisdom which is referred to as the master workman of creation (Prov. 8:30), and it was this same craftsman that saw the path towards renewal for creation as sacrificial and costly, something only His wisdom could know and understand. It’s God’s wisdom that was patient enough to listen to and know the deep recesses of the human heart and the fragmented realities of the earth, and it’s His wisdom that offers paths back towards God after we have burned all of our supposed bridges.

It is at this starting point that one can begin to possess the ability to be for all of creation in the fullest sense. Wisdom is needed to live an alternative life in the midst of a culture that rarely considers healthy limits. Wisdom is needed to stand against habits that have been acceptable to society, but destructive to the earth and humans. Wisdom is needed to navigate right living in the midst of competing philosophies and conflicting interests. It will also be wisdom that holds back unhelpful anger for those who are destructive towards universal peace and flourishing.

What wisdom can offer leaders, policy makers, pastors, professors, bosses, and parents, is how to think about and plan for what’s best not just for today or tomorrow, but what’s best for the next seven generations. Considering prosperity for the long-haul, even if we are not going to be immediately benefited by our decisions, is birthed out of wisdom, not folly.

We need more wise stewards of the earth and of people. We need an awakening of wise women and men who critically think through the issues of our day, and live in light of the next seven generations. Wisdom gives us holy imaginations to consider what a city or neighborhood could look like if we took seriously the story we are called to live in; God’s story of redemption and renewal, for humans and for the whole earth. We need mothers and fathers who are wise, who can offer themselves to the fatherless and the motherless and be givers not takers.

Dr. Michael Goheen, a wise and godly professor from Vancouver, Canada, comprised an unpublished list (posted below which I adapted from a personal lecture/powerpoint) of what a community of faith could look like if it took seriously it’s call to live in light of God’s redemptive and renewing narrative. I find this a fitting way to wrap up this series of posts about church renewal with an imagination of what kingdom life could look like on earth, as it is in heaven:

What if the church was known as…
– a community of self-control and marital fidelity in a world saturated by sex.

– a community of generosity and “enough” in world of consumption.

– a community of forgiveness in a world of hatred, competition, grudges, and revenge.

– a community of thankfulness in a world of entitlement.

– a community of God-worship in a world of narcissism.

– a community of sacrificial love in a world of selfishness and self-gratification.

– a community of wisdom in a world of proliferating knowledge and information technology.

– a community of humility in a world of arrogant self-interest.

– a community of patience in a world of immediate gratification.

– a community of compassion in a world numbed by overexposure to violence, tragedy and abuse.

– a community that uses language positively in a world of destructive communication.

– a community of joy in a world dominated by a frantic and hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.
- a community of depth in a culture of superficiality.

– a community of cheerful seriousness in a culture of triviality.

– a community committed to the important issues of our globe in a culture of apathy and indifference.

– a community of selflessness in a culture of self-absorption and entitlement.

– a community of joyful purpose in a culture “amusing ourselves to death.”

– a community of ecological and economic stewardship in a world that has been raped ecologically and economically.

The Ethos of Community

Renewal takes a tribe, or in modern day terms, a community. Now this is another a loaded word! The first question that comes to mind when I hear the word community is, “What in the world do you mean when you say ‘community’?” Everyone has a different idea of what it is, and for every idea of what community is, there are hundreds of different ways that each idea could be lived out.

So I am not going to give my opinion of what community is supposed to look like; that task is impossible because of all the various contexts and cultures that exist. What I hope to do though, is to paint a mental ethos of community and lay a foundation of some of the earmarks of healthy communities.

Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher turned theologian, in 1964 founded a community called L’Arche in France. L’Arche communities are intentional places of living where those with intellectual disabilities are able to have a safe place to live and share life with others who have intellectual disabilities as well as those who do not.

A core ethos of L’Arche communities is for each community to display the “reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.” They desire to explicitly display “the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.” (see http://www.larcheusa.org/)

So as to not reinvent the wheel, I want to use the inherent qualities of L’Arche values as a means to lay a foundation or a framework for healthy communities, which I believe is a vital element of church renewal.

Welcome: an instance or manner of greeting someone with pleasure and approval.

Greeting someone with love and warmth is an acquired gift, especially when we’re greeting someone who is radically different than we are, and possibly offensive in the way they live. Community takes a welcoming spirit, or maybe as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, a spirit of hospitality. I was a Young Life leader for over a decade, and I have been associated with Young Life at an intimate level since 1994.

Young Life leaders (at least in my area in Phoenix) are some of the best “welcomers” I know. The spirit that Young Life exudes to kids in jr. and sr. high is one that is opposite of our everyday culture. Mainstream culture (Christian and non-Christian) typically says, “You can belong to our group once you behave a certain way and believe what we believe.” Young Life flips that cultural script and says, “You belong with us regardless of your behavior and beliefs.” This is risky business, but I believe it’s the right kind of business to be about.

For community to work and be healthy, it must start with a welcoming spirit that says, “You belong here, even though there are big differences between us.” Belonging precedes behavior and belief. This world view is at the heart of community.

Wonderment: a state of awed admiration or respect.

In the Christian, Judaic, and Sufi Islam world views, all humans have inherent value and worth because of the belief that we are all created in God’s image, which was later coined in it’s Latin form as the “Imago Dei.” If this doctrine were to be properly understood and fully believed, self-righteousness, biases, judgements, and racism would eventually fade away, and we will begin celebrating the beauty of our differences, rather than fighting about them.

Being thrilled about the gifts we bring to one another and respecting and valuing the differences of ourselves and other people is an essential element of healthy community. It is easy for us to be in a state of judgement and criticalness of each other, but to begin to be awed and amazed at the uniqueness and diversity of humanity is a part of every thriving community.

Wonderment ought to follow welcoming, yet this is a virtue that is mostly only attained after the church is caught up into the heavenly dimensions of the eucharistic life, which is the regaining of the mystery and the divine nature of the Lord’s table, and learning to see all of life as a liturgy of worship to God.

Spirituality: matters concerning the human soul (heart, mind).

To respect and admire someone and not care about the deeper parts of their heart and mind (the soul), are to not fully love and respect someone. As much as we can talk about being a community of welcoming and wonderment, we must not neglect being a community who cares for souls. With that said, welcoming people and finding wonder in our diversity is not an invitation to turn a blind eye to unhealthy living and destructive behavior. Much abuse is birthed inside the middle of tight knit communities, as the desire of a euphoric community becomes more important than individual human dignity.

In caring for the spirituality of a person and a community, we will be able to explore the deep parts of our hearts and minds and be changed in the midst of a welcoming community of wonder. It is in this context where behaviors are not coerced to get in proper formation, but challenged to promote peace and welfare for the individual and the whole. Caring for someone’s healing (body and soul) begins to be a natural corrective part of healthy communities, which will be able to offer space to those who need it. This type of community will respect boundaries, honors bodies and souls, and have self-respect and sincerity towards others.

Healthy communities labor towards minds being renewed, which leads to destructive habits and thoughts being challenged in love, and proper accountability that seeks the welfare of individual bodies and souls, as well as the corporate body. This might be the hardest value to embody in community, but we must labor towards this end, as spiritual realities always affect material realities.

As one is continually drawn into the presence of God on earth, it is clear to see that there is a spirit at work in this world other than the Spirit of God. It is a dark spirit that seeks to destroy body and soul (individually and communally). It hates diversity and destroys all creativity in community. It is a perverted spirit that seeks to twist and distort love, and it only has the the power to usurp, not to build up. This must be recognized in the spirit realm and addressed in community as the spirituality of individuals and the community is shaped.

Friendship: a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.

There are many forms of friendship that we could talk about, but at the most basic level, I take friendship to be a place where relationships are rooted, meaning, they do not run away after conflict and disappointments ensue. In our culture, where cars can take us far away from our neighborhoods and friendships, we have lost the sense of being rooted, and “sticking it out” with friends when trials come has not been a popular communal value among many believers.

In the local church context, it is easy with the advent of cars to find a new church community when friends and leaders stop giving us what we want, or stop serving our needs, seen only through the lens of what’s best for me. Friendship inside neighborhoods and communities seem to be difficult as well, since walking to stores and appointments isn’t part of our everyday culture. We get into our hollow metal shells and drive past neighbors daily, and most of our friends live a cars drive away.

A lack of rootedness in a particular place has made many friendships a shallow, social media type friendship that can cut you off if you offend, rather than a friendship that stays when things blow up. Friendship in healthy communities ought to include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, selflessness, mutual submission, compassion, confrontation, and the ability to royally “blow it” without losing the friendship. Friendships give, receive, and protect.

A lack of friendship may just kill community. When we love the idea of community more than we love people and desire true friendship, community will not thrive. Many seek community because of the good feeling they have in the beginning and the comforts than can be experienced. But for those who love the idea of community more than people, they will quickly run from community when the aura or people within the community stop offering what was desired. Love people more than your idea of community.

I believe church renewal depends on healthy expressions of communities in particular places and neighborhoods. I believe church renewal is dependent on new forms of community rising up being called “the church”. I believe church renewal will birth many forms of organic communities that embody the L’Arche values of community, that break bread together, regularly meet and gather and care for each other’s bodies and souls, and are a place of intimacy within the eucharistic life.

This is how fabrics of care can be created inside blighted hoods or disconnected suburbs, as neighbors form communities to band together to care for one another and for the needs of the under-served. Renewal happens holistically and organically, and until people know that there is a community to belong to, programs and organizations will not be able to have a sustainable impact.

I believe many Christ followers today are experiencing a “disorienting” call to step out of their current church expression and into something much more authentic and mysterious. And within this disorienting call, many of us struggle because we know of no other way to “do” or “be” church besides the modern, institutional approach. In addition, new believers are not embracing the formal way of “doing” church because in many ways it conflicts with their values, and they too are being called into something much more authentic and mysterious. I believe that new expressions of these types of ancient communities will lead the way in church renewal in the 21st century, as families, homes, businesses, and cities of those desiring to regain the life of the kingdom are transformed, and organic expressions of church communities become more of a norm.

I’m thankful for communities such as L’Arche, and leaders such as Jean Vanier, who have humbly and lovingly stepped out of the norm and allowed new forms of community to critique our old forms, and energize us to regain a new/old and prophetic way to live together.

The Power of the Simple Life

Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) is remembered for being one of the most powerful and influential Pope’s in Catholic church history, but he is also known for promoting and organizing crusades against Muslim rulers in Spain and in the Holy Land, and against heretics in southern France. This is not a great feat to be known for, but something about this Pope goes mostly unspoken of, is that he once had a vision.

During a meeting Pope Innocent III had with John Bernadone, he recounted this vision where the Lateran basilica (a basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) was almost ready to fall down. It is then that he saw this little poor man, small and scorned, who was holding up the church with his own back bent underneath it, so that it would not fall. “I’m sure,” said Pope Innocent III, “he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.”

This little man, dressed in rags, who lived a simple life, was the model of reform Christ had for His church in the 13th century, who was also known as St. Francis of Assisi. This simple man who lived a very simple and unassuming life style, established the Order of Friar’s Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the 3rd Order of Saint Francis for men and women who weren’t able to live lives of being itinerant preachers, which was later followed by the Poor Clares. Many of those names might not mean much to most of our ears, but what all these orders represented were safe havens for the poor and for those who desired to care for the poor. This was before social services was popular and goodwill was highly dependent up on the goodwill of neighbors. St Francis was a good neighbor. All of these orders serve Christ’s body in simple ways, devoting their lives to serving the poor, the sick, and the dying.

Now fast forward with me over 700 years, and meet a women named Agnes Bojaxhiu, who joined a Catholic order for women that was birthed because of the simple work St. Francis committed himself to. In 1928 Agnes left her home at the age of 18, and joined the Sisters of Loreto, never again to see her mother or sisters.

Agnes was a teacher, and a good one at that, but she became more and more disturbed by the poverty that she experienced in her new home town. When a famine came to her city, death and misery followed, and violence broke out between Hindu’s and Muslim’s, leaving her city destitute, along with the people who lived there. This was the beginning of her next “calling within a call” to live simply, care for the sick, feed the poor, and befriend the dying as they await their last breath. All this was done with simple, unassuming means, and in the name of Christ.

Years later, and throughout more than 120 countries, her work is living and active, and lives beyond her life. Agnes is also known as Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, and leaves a legacy of simplicity, with a passion to be Christ to the vulnerable, the sick, and the marginalized. Mother Teresa inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world.

As I remember the lives of John Bernadone and Agnes Bojaxhiu, I am left with ambiguity, and I question the world view that has been erected in Western Christendom, where the victorious and prosperous church is given more prestige than the poor and suffering church; where Christian ministry is often a movement toward relevance, popularity, social acceptance, and power; where numeric growth is more celebrated than sacrificial living and solidarity with the poor.

Yes, Christian ministry is always wrapped in good deeds and god intentions, but the glamour of ministry and the lure of success seems to get more attention than the Catholic Cherokee Hermit-ess Midwife who most will never know, but lives simply and profoundly influences many people on the margins of society. These stories make us remember that more is often done with less. Bigger growth happens as we become smaller. More radical change happens when we work with less, and have less to distract us. But this is not in our DNA, and we are left asking the question, “How has one small poor man, and one small poor woman accomplished so much?”

The “Christian” answer is “By the power of God, of course,” but God’s power empowered this man and this woman to live a simple, unassuming life, stripped of ego and desire for worldly gain, with a posture of humility and listening as they served others.

Simplicity. Through a very brief observation of two very popular Catholic saints whose legacy’s go far beyond their lives lived on earth, we learn that simplicity of life is a powerful tool in the hand of God to bring about great change in any generation. Names of men and women who had great power but used it for sordid gain, are men and women who you and I have likely never heard of. But saints who have lived simple lives, serving others and caring not about material gain, are known and spoken of worldwide as a model of Christ-likeness.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating a movement towards poverty, and I’m aware that some will only see that. What I am advocating for is a life that is committed to living simply in the midst of so much ‘stuff.’ The age of global advancement is among us with opportunities of great wealth and power, as well as the technology age that gives us access to so much information and opportunities to fill our time in front of a cyber-world-lit-screen.

Consumption is over the top in the West. The good economics of Capitalism has been exploited and used for selfish and evil purposes with seemingly no boundaries. In this unchecked system, life has become complicated and the power and wealth that was given to bless, has been turned inward. Church growth has been more focused on building a healthy budget, acquiring the right property, in the right neighborhood, with the right building space to set one church up for more growth of “butts in seats,” since the business model trumps the Jesus model (no pun intended). I see the simple life as a means for Christ to be truly seen and known in an increasingly self-centered, complex, consumeristic church life.

For renewal to be a reality in the midst of out-of-control globalization, lives of simplicity must rise up all over the world. In our churches, there must be those who commit to living simply; those who are committed to slow and patient discipleship that helps lead and develop men and women to be a holistically alternative community within the machine of global advancement; those who are stepping out of the mainstream view of success, advancement, consumption, and individuality; those who live with less food, less trinkets, consume less resources; those who take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him.

In an excerpt from “Three Temptations of a Christian Leader,” Henri Nouwen prophetically states: “Jesus asks us to move from concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people… The leader of the future will be one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deeper solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and bring the light of Jesus there.

 

We must challenge our Western notion of what it looks like to be “leaders.” To follow Jesus in a culture committed to over-consumption, individualism, financial success, and “fast” everything, I believe it’s imperative for the simple life to be mainstream again, as people begin planting roots in particular neighborhoods, living radically different lives that are alternative to the Western story, and more in line with God’s story.

This simplicity must penetrate the church systems and forms that arise in this next era of church planting, business development, and city engagement. The simple life has a powerfully corrective voice to those who only have one eye open to the problem of consumerism, materialism, and globalization. Jesus counter acts oppressive systems through small, simple acts of small, simple people.

This section is best summed up by the words of Tolkien via Gandalf, as he responds in Rivendale to Lorien’s question, “Why the halfling?” for the journey with the Dwarves:

“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small things… everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid and he gives me courage” (From the motion picture, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”).

Hospitality and the Social Gospel

The last few post I’ve written have been building a path towards understanding what kind of people we must be for renewal to be a reality in the Western church. I want to remind us of the two borders that are holding the contents of our trail: peaceableness and justice. These are the foundational elements that help us structure our path so that it isn’t just a bunch of loose gravel being laid down with no purpose or order. With those as our outside borders, we can continue unpacking the contents that help make up the rock we are laying to complete our path, which has led us to the virtue of hospitality.

When some of us think of hospitality, the phrase “entertaining angels” comes to mind. Believe it or not, this idiom comes from the Bible. The book entitled Hebrews in the Bible says this in chapter 13, verse 2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Entertaining angels, hospitality, can refer to the practice of treating all guests, whether they’re sojourners, kings, or common folk, as if they were visiting angels.

There is a movie that was made about Dorothy Day in 1996 called “Entertaining Angels.” Day was a Catholic social activist starting in the early 1930’s, and was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, which began by Day (also a journalist) starting a newspaper called Catholic Worker. In the first issue, it was clear that the Catholic Workers chief aim was to get the word out that the Catholic church was there to help those who have suffered the most in the heart of the Great Depression. A famous line from the first issue by Day says this: “…the Catholic Church has a social program… there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”

This movement has been tagged in a negative way as a “social gospel,” meaning that they were “Christians” wanting to help the suffering without caring for their souls (sharing the gospel with them). I am not going to get into the theology of that argument for now, but I do want to use this analogy to build a case for hospitality.

When people seek to care socially for a stranger who is weak, suffering, poor, hungry, sick, or in some other kind of great need, we ought to be slow to write them off as merely activists with no care for souls. Scripture has many calls for hospitality that has been neglected by a vast majority of Christians who are too worried about being labeled a “social-gospel Christian.” May we be reminded briefly of our biblical call to social action, and that the gospel is thoroughly social and spiritual at the same time:

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” Hebrews 13:3.

“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” Galatians 2:10.

“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” Romans 12:13.

“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” 1 Peter 4:9.

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” Matthew 25:37-40.

We could go on and speak of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, the rich man giving all he has to the poor, and on and on. Entertaining angels, hospitality, is meeting physical needs. When you see a stranger, welcome her in; clothe him, feed her, help them find shelter. Many people take this call to hospitality and put their own spin on it, and they say, “I only help those who want help,” or “It’s not right helping someone if they are going to take advantage of the system,” or “I will only help them if they’re willing to listen to me preach the gospel to them.”

Let me be clear, the gospel is word ‘and’ deed. The gospel is never detached from doing justice ‘and’ preaching grace. If we are to help a stranger, we do not have to try and cram the gospel into their brains, for the gospel is also seen and heard in our deeds.

As far as the concern of giving to those who deserve it, Jesus is clear that we are to give to strangers often, even before we learn if they are “worthy” of our help. This passage from Matthew 25 is clear that it’s the stranger that we are called to be hospitable to, because Christ is present in the un-welcomed “alien” and the naked stranger.

But still, hospitality is a very controversial endeavor. How far do we go to help the stranger? When does the stranger stop being a stranger and become someone who is known? After the first time you help them? Second time? What makes a stranger “worthy” of our help? Is there a litmus test to find out? Does giving to someone who is not “worthy” of help make someone a social-gospelist, on the verge of breaking down the Capitalistic structure of our nation? Many Christians don’t agree on what hospitality is, even though Scripture, throughout the Old and the New Testament is very clear.

I didn’t site any Old Testament references above, but it is filled with commands for Israel to display the heart and character of God through being especially hospitable to widows, orphans, and aliens. In the New Testament, Jesus modeled hospitality to a ragamuffin band of social outcasts, spiritual rejects, and political losers. Jesus showed hospitality to all of us by entering into our vulnerability and suffering and giving us an invitation to feast at his table. He, a God who knows us, came close to us in our despair, and made Himself knowable, touchable, and shared His resources when we were totally unworthy candidates, who selfishly took advantage of the system.

The late Henri Nouwen says that hospitality is welcoming the stranger and allowing him to “lay aside his strangeness and become a friend… That’s what true hospitality is all about, to offer a safe place, where the stranger can become a friend.” Reaching Out, 66.

Hospitality allows one to belong before they believe or behave properly. In our religious systems we often require right belief and behavior before someone is ‘allowed’ to belong. This is not God’s idea, but man’s. When we were strangers and alienated from God, Christ came near and was hospitable to us. Before we believed in Him or behaved properly, He showed us that we belong with Him. God created space for us to belong with Him; that’s divine hospitality, and church renewal depends, in part, on the hospitality of the citizens of heaven. Belonging precedes “right” belief or “proper” behavior.

We need more Catholic Worker type movements within our churches. We need more Dorothy Day’s willing to be persecuted and called social-gospelists because they are passionate about being hospitable to those suffering, even unworthy sufferers, or maybe angels who are looking to be entertained.

The Foolishness of Compassion

When many of us hear the word compassion we are filled with good feelings and thoughts of love and joy by the mention of it. We like to think of ourselves as compassionate people, after all who wouldn’t have compassion on a “poor” old man whose body has broken down, a malnourished child, a woman who has been sold into sex slavery, or a family on the streets.

The problem we have here is a semantic one. What Western Christianity understands compassion to be and what it has always truly meant are worlds apart. Compassion isn’t the same as having sad feelings for someone’s situation, or thoughts of pity for those who are poor or oppressed. Those thoughts are just that; thoughts of pity. This is not compassion. For many of us, when real opportunities of com-passion present themselves, we are too gripped by fear of loss and pain, or frozen by feelings of not being able to do anything about the situation, so we often never enter into compassion.

At the root of the word compassion are two Latin words, pati (with) and cum (to suffer); meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion happens when love intentionally moves you into the suffering and brokenness of others; it is to allow your love to meet someone’s worst moment. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts… to be weak with those who are weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.” Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison, 3-4.

Feelings and thoughts of sadness and pity is not compassion, however, they can be the beginnings of us moving into compassion.

This is fully seen and realized in the New Testament account of Jesus’ final week before he was crucified. Many people call the week before the crucifixion, “Passion Week.” We learn in the gospel narratives that Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem, the very place where he would suffer intentionally, where he would move into our place of sin and brokenness, so that we would receive the fruits of his compassion; light shining out “of the darkness”, offering a divine presence in the midst of our brokenness. Maybe we should call the Holy week, “Compassion Week,” since his suffered was for our sake.

Thus, compassion is not a natural human virtue as is sometimes understood to be. If compassion were to be seen as a front and center virtue of the Christ follower’s life, we might begin to question the fruitfulness of compassion because of the cost it would place on our lives. A society governed by compassion may very well be seen as a foolish and weak society, and indeed, Christ was seen as foolish and weak. Nationalistic movements among Christianity have historically not cared for the weak or foolish within their societies, and view the call “to suffer with” as a death wish that destroys healthy progress in society.

Many people may even say or think to themselves, “Our world will not survive if compassion is a chief virtue.” This thinking would be especially true in a society like ours today, where our greatest ideals are to maximize our satisfaction and limit the amount of loss and pain we experience. We see this is in our business ventures, in start-up ministries/churches, in the way we pick neighborhoods to live in, how we choose to raise our children, in the laws we legislate, etc.

This is not all bad. In fact, much good comes out of limiting loss and pain, but in the process of longing for a better society, we forget that there is still suffering, and those who are on the margins of society likely do not have the ability to choose differently. In our pursuit of our own “right” to happiness, we have lost sight of those who have been robbed of theirs. Thus, on this side of redemption, compassion is a necessary and central virtue among God’s people.

We would do well to turn our ears on to the moment Jesus calls us to compassion: “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” Luke 6:36. This, in the context of real compassion, is a daunting call to sacrifice. This is a call to renewal within a “Christian” system that seeks to protect number oneself or one’s nation as “first” priority. This is a call that we ought not take too lightly.

As Jesus has first died to offer us life within these decaying bodies, he is now our example and leader in sacrificial living. Salvation for the Christ follower is not merely a cognitive belief that places them in the security of the heavenly realms with no earthly commitment to good. Salvation is a call to a whole new way of being human; a call to living out the upside down economy of God’s kingdom on earth; a call to be willing to lose it all for the sake of God’s kingdom being realized and embraced by those who are in darkness; a call to be the liturgy of the church and not merely partaking in liturgical acts.

To the Christ follower, Jesus’ life is not the exception, but the norm. My prayer is that Christ followers would begin to take seriously the implications of the life of Jesus and allow God’s Spirit, who lives in his people, to move them into compassion, not for approval’s sake, but for obedience’s sake. After all, Christ, our savior and leader, learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and we are not exempt from this learning method. The renewal of the Western Church is dependent on the compassion of Christ followers. No compassion, no true renewal.

“In a poem entitled ‘The Good Samaritan,’ Mark Littleton captures the essence of compassion”:

Compassion.
The stoop of a listening father.
The touch and wink of a passing nurse.
The gnarled fingers of a grandmother steadying a swing.
The clench of a surgeons teeth as he begins his cut.
The open hand and pocketbook of a traveling Samaritan.
The dew of heaven on dry lips.
Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Prediger and Walsh, 221.

The call to compassion, to suffer with others, is not a call to induce suffering in your life, but a call to courageously stand, sit, walk, or crawl with those whose lives are fragile, broken, in tragedy, emotionally distraught, hopeless, diseased… you get the point. Christ came to us in our death moment, we are called to presence ourselves to others in their death moments.

Thoughts About Justice and the Christian Life…

There is no peace without justice while we are living “east of Eden.” If shalom (universal peace and flourishing ) is the end goal of all of creation (human and non-human), then peaceableness is the top floor of shalom and justice is the bottom floor, the foundation; they are book ends if you will (read my thoughts about peace here).

So what is justice? In the Greek culture, justice most likely referred to the Greek goddess Dike, who would have been the personification of the virtue. This is where the Greek (and biblical) word díkaios would have come from, which means, “to be just, or right.” In the biblical sense, the word justice would imply not only the just execution of the law of goodness, but right living on behalf of those who cry out for justice.

The words “righteous” and “justice” seem to go hand in hand in the biblical narrative, and they actually could be defined by the term justification. In salvation terms, to be justified, is to be declared “right and good” before God and having been justly acquitted of one’s rebellion and brokenness because Jesus paid for what we deserved (justice) with his sacrifice.

So justice, in part, means to be free and forgiven of one’s inner and outer brokenness, and empowered to do what is right based on the freedom one has received. This is the long and difficult way of simply saying: justice is that state in which everyone receives what is rightful and appropriate. Since humans are created with certain rights (food, clothing, work), then a society is just when everyone in the society enjoys the goods that everyone has rights to. But a society is also just when there are consequences for those who have disregarded or kept others from these certain rights as well. A city that is just is a city that respects the dignity of every human, especially within the Christian worldview that believes that every human is created in the image of God.

At the least, in the talk of renewal, justice is absent whenever basic needs go unmet. This means that liberation from in-justice and repairs made because of the wrongs done are at the very core of justice. If one skimmed the Old Testament to search out who were some of the people whom God had special concern for in view of justice, you would see that it is the most vulnerable of society: widows, orphans, aliens, sojourners, the homeless, the naked, the hungry and the afflicted. And this justice was never a nationalistic priority that made one nation or one people group more important than another. Actually, we can see in the narrative of Scripture, when Israel took their nationality too seriously, or saw themselves as more important or elite and selfish, correction swiftly followed. Humans, universally, who are a part of the demographics of God’s special concern are to be an integral part of our every day relationships.

If we followed this theme throughout the Old Testament, it would be hard to ignore the loud and clear message that justice happens when the marginal ones are no longer marginal. And this Old Testament understanding of justice is fully embodied in Jesus, who was very concerned with those who were on the margins of society, those who were vulnerable and exploited by people who had the power, and in many cases, Western Christendom has been more about law and power than justice and service.

This can also be teased out to include all who have ever come to Jesus for salvation (the forgiveness of one’s sin and being declared right before God). We are all marginalized because of our brokenness, cut off from God, but because of God’s mercy and love for us, Jesus became one of us, to once and for all, deal with the rebellion and tyranny that we created, both internally and externally. God brought justice to humanity through the advent, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The righteous demands of the law, or in other words, the legal expression of God’s justice, were satisfied when Christ was put to death and suffered the torment of separation from God, in our place. In simpler terms, it is because the “just” paid for the “unjust,” that we can be granted mercy and grace as people on the margins, and be brought near to God (no longer making our home in the margins).

This is justice, which flies in the face of a Western view of justice, condemns all of us, if we indeed held ourselves to the standard of justice that we hold others to. Justice does not make sense to a world committed to the four P’s: power, progress, profit, and pursuit of happiness, and within this world view, many forms of churches in the West have been engrafted.

When we see injustice happening in our city, it usually means that we will have to miss out on one or all of the four P’s if we’re going to stand against it. There’s no money in it for those who want to plead the case of the widow, feed and clothe the naked, or stand against oppressive systems and structures that abuse and exploit the weak. Actually, downward mobility is to be expected if one is going to give their lives to this kind of justice, and it’s hard to build a church when downward mobility is one of the chief engines of church growth. This new ethos must be present in the renewal of the Western church.

The result of living a life of justice in the biblical sense in our 21st century Western society, most of the time, means that we lose ground on the four P’s of our culture and this is not very attractive, at least not long term. To see renewal happen in churches then, I am convinced that we will need an uprising of men and women who are willing to not be controlled by the P’s within the old institutional church model, and begin courageously living as an alternative community in the midst of our over-indulgences and commitments to the bottom line and financial sustainability of church business.

This will not be an easy lot for the pioneers of renewal, but justice has never been an easy virtue to live by. After all, justice on God’s part was very costly. The promise of comfort is very seductive, especially when faced with needed changes in lifestyle to begin standing against injustice. Ultimately, justice will always prevail, with or without us, but we do have a choice to get in on the fight for “justice.” It’s not attractive nor easy these days to stand for what is just and right, nor is it always clear what we should be fighting for.

I hope in this short article I gave you the beginnings of a blueprint with which to pray and meditate about what justice looks life in your life and among those around you. We are living within a contemporary Christian culture that has lost much of the ancient orthodox faith that has painstakingly been passed down to us and made Christian worship more about events, projects, and business, but not justice. I believe this “norm” must be renewed to have not just a biblical view of justice, but a biblical life of lived justice.