Living Christ Together:
Reflections on the Missional Life
by Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Chapter One: The Community Coming To Be Known As Missional
Chapter Two: What Is Missional To Me?
Chapter Three: A Walk Through The Neighbourhood
Chapter Four: Missional & Location
Chapter Five: Venting, Confession & Missional Integrity
Chapter Six: A Tale of Two Church Guests
Chapter Seven: The Heart of Prayer
Chapter Eight: Preach the Gospel at All Times
Chapter Nine: Missional Humility
Chapter Ten: Why We Love – A Monastic Parable
Chapter Eleven: Mona Lisa & Jesus
Chapter Twelve: Once Upon A Time in Mystery
Chapter Thirteen: Disciples, Not Volunteers
Chapter Fourteen: Architecture of Leadership
Chapter Fifteen: Gardening In Exile
Chapter Sixteen: The Poor Among You
Chapter Seventeen: St. Patrick & Missional Formation
Chapter Eighteen: Living The Gospel Daily
Chapter Nineteen: Missional Solidarity
Chapter Twenty: How Ugly Are The Feet Of Those
Chapter Twenty-One: The One That Got Away – An Urban Fish Story
Chapter Twenty-Two: Missional As Pilgrimage
Chapter Twenty-Three: Going Deeper
Chapter Twenty-Four: Another Adventure in the Land of Mystery
Chapter Twenty-Five: Following Jesus Together
Chapter Twenty-Six: We Never Come To The Bible Alone
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Imitation of Christ
Chapter Twenty-Eight: A People of Suffering
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Hospitality, Economics & the Suffering Church
Chapter Thirty: Convinced Is Not Converted
Chapter Thirty-One: Unpacking the Prodigal Son
Chapter Thirty-Two: Pretense – The Other Deadly Sin
Chapter Thirty-Three: The Table of Belonging
Chapter Thirty-Four: The Community Longing To Be The Church
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“Living Christ Together”
What does that mean? And what does it have to do with the missional life?
Central to the gospel message is that, as we die to self, we are resurrected with Jesus into His Body. In this sense, the saving work of the cross where sin is put to death is inseparable from the nature of what we are transformed into (together), which is Christ Himself. We decrease as He increases. This is the heart of the incarnation, for just as Jesus became man and entered meaningfully into our world, so too we become Christ’s Body and enter into His mission in our world. Through the unity and power of the Holy Spirit, we represent the incarnational presence of Jesus Christ in the world today. Further, as we functioning in our callings- both individual and communal- our giftings are expressed through language of functioning as members of His Body.
In some ways, it might have been more telling to call it “Becoming and Living Christ Together”. The emphasis on the worship of Christ, which is unquestionably essential to the faith, has too often overshadowed obedience to Christ (beyond what it takes to “be saved”). Because the redemptive work of the cross leads to the resurrection into His Body, then it follows that as we become like Him and share in His incarnational presence in the world today, then we are clearly called to live as Christ in all things too. This is not merely us following the example of Christ, but rather, through His Holy Spirit in us, living Christ as He directs in the world. Thus, an emphasis on justice, service, charity, hospitality are not distractions from the salvific work of Christ, but the inevitable fruit and evidence that work.
Finally, that this active incarnational nature happens primarily in the context of community is essential. While individuals can unquestionably live missionally, I would strongly argue that all true missionality is done through the power of the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit is what unites us as diverse members in one true Body. Therefore, I believe that individuals are missional only insofar as their individual obedience is expressed as the act of a member of a wider Body. While it might be said that, by simply being a Christian you are part of a Body (and this is true), I believe that the unity of the Spirit is made manifest in more than an abstract identification, but more primarily through genuine and active relational community.
To be missional is to enter into the invitation of God to participate in His work of redemption and restoration of all creation through the transformation into His Body through His death, resurrection and ascension. It is in the act of participating in Communion that this truth is most beautiful displayed. As we come in brokenness, we share in the brokenness of Christ at the cross. And through participating in His death, we also are unified in Him through His victory over death in resurrection. Even creation’s redemption is celebrated in the elements of bread and wine, life-giving fruit of the earth. It is here that I am thrilled by considering what it means to be missional.
That is why I entitled this collection of short reflections “Living Christ Together”. While it will likely be read by individuals, the implications of every piece must be considered in the context of community. However, whether you are reading it alone or along with others, my greatest hope is that it will inspire and challenge you to allow the transforming work of the Spirit transform you more and more into the nature of the One we follow.
Let me introduce you to The Community Coming To Be Known As Missional. There are millions of us, but even very few of us can change the world around us.
We are a community because it is the incarnational reflection of the Triune God in whose image we are created. We are a community that prefers walking rather than sitting, going where the Spirit has already gone before us, be it in our neighbourhood or ends of the earth. We are united by relationship and mission, not locations and buildings.
For us, generosity trumps obligation, for all that we have is God’s. We seek to give what we have, both financial and otherwise, because we cannot help but want to see His purposes come to fruition. We offer hospitality, opening our homes and our lives to welcome the other. 10 per cent is more likely the amount that remains than what is demanded, and in our mutual generosity, none of us goes without.
We are the Community Coming To Be Known As Missional. Our success is measured by our obedience to God’s calling, most evident in our love for Him, for others, for ourselves and for Creation. While we passionately work to build a Kingdom that will change the very course of history, we celebrate the transformation of even one life as though it were the greatest triumph of all, because it is.
We are ruthlessly committed to people over programs, demanding that the latter always serve the former or it will be abandoned. We cooperate, not compete, seeking not to win the praise or demand the submission of others. Neither do we serve buildings and budgets, but they must serve us as we serve God through serving others. We seek our greatness in our pursuit of becoming servants.
We are the Community Coming To Be Known As Missional. Each of us is our leader, each of us is led, mutually submitting to one another as circumstances require. We honour the diversity of our community by leading from alongside or beneath, not from above. Every gifting, perspective, experience and individual is valued equally, not according to position or power. Each of us is our teacher, each among us a student. We honour the wisdom of every individual, especially mindful of those on the margins, as Christ Himself identified with them.
We celebrate the differences among us, even that which we cannot reconcile, not in denial of the absolute, but in the gift of humility that those differences require of us. Without denying our differences, we no longer allow them to categorize us or divide us. It is in the diversity that the image of God is most fully reflected in and through us.
We are the Community Coming To Be Known As Missional, but we are not there yet. We acknowledge our weakness and foolishness, as it is the weakness and foolishness of God. We are flawed, broken, proud and afraid. While we are committed to becoming this community without apology, we acknowledge that our becoming is dependent on the whole Body of Christ. While we believe we have something to offer the whole Church- something critical and prophetic- we also acknowledge that we need them equally as much. Above all, we need God- Father, Son and Spirit- to complete in us what we are created to be.
We are The Community Coming To Be Known As Missional.
What does it mean to be missional?
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that question, I’d a far wealthier person. It is a loaded question for which many books have been written. It is not my intention to answer this question definitively here. Rather, what I can do is share with you some of what it has come to mean to my through my own understanding and experience.
The beautiful thing about the word “missional” is that it is an adjective, meaning it is a descriptive word, a word that describes a noun. As insignificant as this may seem, when mission or missions is a noun, it is a specific thing or field, but as an adjective it is liberated to broaden its scope to define the fullness of our lives. I truly believe that being missional is a centrally defining aspect of Christianity. It is written in the DNA of our faith
Too often we talk about missions or missionaries as though it is a specialized for the chosen few rather than the universal vocation of every believer. This is not unlike the emergence of many monastic communities. With the rise of nominal Christianity, those who felt called to live obediently to the teachings of Christ were consider especially “called”, having a unique vocation. While never wanting to diminish the commitments of those men and women, like them, we’ve diminished the universal calling of all Christians to live missionally, attributing it to a select, “called” few.
Of course, not every Christian is called to be a “career missionary” in the sense of it being their full-time, defining job. I genuinely believe that some are called to this kind of ministry, but most Christians are called to be “missionaries” within their owns contexts of their jobs, communities, etc. And that is the beauty of “missional”- it allows us to describe, to redefine, to re-envision the seemingly mundane with the divine purposes to which God is leading all of Creation.
Neither does this understanding of missional negate the importance of cross-cultural, “foreign” missions. While the local church (worldwide) does need to invest more time, energy and resources into truly participating in their neighbourhoods, I also believe that we live in an age of dangerous ethnocentrism and individualism. The church, now more than ever, needs to embrace our global diversity. Being missional embraces the whole mission of God to all peoples.
Being missional can express itself in many different ways. While the missional conversation has pushed back against an over-emphasis on programming, this is not to say that programs (or projects or outreaches) cannot be missional- or at least, they can serve missional ends. The point is this: being missional begins as a change in the heart that leads to changes in behaviour. Attempting to be missional by adopting programs or activities might help, but ultimately will not achieve the desired end.
One thing that every truly missional expression has in common is that it is born out of community. This is not to say that individuals cannot be missional or act missionally. However, just as our identity as Christians is directly tied to our relationship with God, so too must it be tied to the Body into which His redemptive work necessarily resurrects us into. The very nature of the communities we participate in, the very way in which we relate to each other and to those around us, must be missional. Just as God exists in His perfect Oneness as Three-In-One, so too we make manifest the Good News by living in redemptive unity with each other. Being in community is not simply an incidental to have faith in Christ in common, but a central realization of the work of God in His people, making us His Body.
Throughout this book, when talking about missional, the working assumption will be that we are seeking to live His mission in that context of genuine, Christ-shaped community. Through that lens, we will flesh out, more and more, what it means to be missional.
Take a few minutes a write down a few ideas of what missional means to you. You might find it helpful to write it out by describing what it might look like in your context.
Despite the challenges inherent to any inner city community, I truly love my neighbourhood. Having grown up on a forested plot of land on the shores of a particularly broad and beautiful river, ten miles from the nearest town, I never imagined that I would live in an urban setting, let alone truly at home there. And yet, as I walked down the block, I sighed the deep breath of the happily contented. In just a short walk around the block, the uniqueness of the area was apparent.
In that one block stretch alone, the homes reflect the diversity of our neighbours- cultural, socio-economic and personal. As the downtown is one of the older parts of the city, many wonderful character homes can still be found, some kept in remarkable condition, others holding together, it seems, by chance alone. A few low-rise apartment buildings spot the landscape, again varying in their state of repair. Lawns, side by side in their narrow lots, spring up at all different lengths, from the exacting perfection of an elderly Polish resident, to the waist high weeds of a rental house, home to a very committed, but over-busy Cree single mother of five children. There is even the grassless, pristine crushed rock frontage of our Chinese neighbours.
There are always people out this time of year, whether sitting on their front steps or walking (like me) up the long north-south block. A tiny white dog, sporting wildly curly hair and stained whiskers, launched itself off one deck to yap at me for a good three minutes. It’s elderly owner, trying to talk on her cordless phone, finally snapped, berating the noisy pup with shrieks that far outstripped the original offense. The dog, however, seemed not to even notice, proudly returning to her perch on the deck in wait for the next unsuspecting pedestrian.
Except for the odd rough looking house, the deep-rooted poverty of the community might be missed by the uninitiated. A sad trend we have discovered of late is the tendency for landlords to spend good money beautifying the exterior of their properties while their low-income tenants lived in unacceptable squalor within. Our harsh winter climate forces most overt examples of poverty behind closed doors, allowing others to remain ignorant (or ignore) the very real poverty that continues to cripple far too many.
Once at the end of the block, I reach the perpendicular cross street. A fairly busy hub made up of several restaurants—Italian, Indian, Ethiopia, Vietnamese, to name but a few—sit here, located right between the historic Portuguese community and the emerging African Central Park neighbourhood. Many of the businesses are brightly adorned with colourful murals, a hallmark of Winnipeg’s downtown revitalization. We love being located in what most people recognize as the most multicultural spot in the city.
The reality of poverty is more apparent here, however, especially in front of the building that once served as our used bookstore and community living room. From early morning until long after we’d close for the day, several local girls sell their bodies. Some do so to feed addictions, others to feed their children (or themselves), most often some combination of both. Ranging from as young as 14 and as old as 40 (though several appear far older than they are), these girls represent the more desperate, often “unpimped” sex trade, known for selling themselves cheaply, even willing to take violent abuse for a few extra bucks, all for the johns “enjoyment”.
We’ve come to know some of them though our relationship is inevitably tense and transiency is so common. Jewel, for example, is cheerful in her own coarse way, a master at the “free ride”, be it for lunch, smokes or tricks. However, when I found her dealing drugs to two eleven-year-old boys, I had to be more intentional about discouraging her activities on our stores doorstep (literally). The burden of building bridges with these girls weigh heavily on us all.
Throughout the day many people would drop in, some to browse for books, most for a free cup of fair trade Ethiopian coffee and a chat. A flow of regulars began to establish, a mix of wonderfully unique, but invariably lonely urban dwellers- the hypochondriac young woman who wants nothing more than for someone to listen to the tales of her many ailments to nervous old Ukrainian woman who, for all her sweetness, ruthlessly despises her Portuguese neighbours who she is determined are out to get her. Mental illness is an all too common thread we are noticing.
Above all, the neighbourhood kids were the most faithful to arrive. While they were understandably more sporadic over the summer, through the school year they arrive like clockwork several times a day, often staying hours at a time. With the local school requiring all kids to vacate the school over lunch, we were a welcome respite from the -40F weather, especially as we were one of the only welcoming places they could turn. We filled the hours reading, playing games and refereeing petty squabbles. It was wonderful. It was a safe place for many, so it is sad to realize that the store is no longer open. And yet, it was from that little store that our church, Little Flowers Community, was ultimately born.
As I return home, I consider the last ten years spent in this neighbourhood. It took a long time, but we are part of the fabric- familiar faces among many. In some ways, the community has changed a great deal since we first moved here, but in most ways it stays the same. The unique blend of poverty and community, racial tensions and celebrated diversity- this is where God has called us to “pitch our tent”. Here’s to another ten years!
As is apparent from the previous chapter, where we live is far from incidental to God’s calling on our lives. In our commitment to be missional, we knew that God was leading us to seek to be His incarnate presence in a neighbourhood more often characterized by the exodus of Christians out of the neighbourhood. The need for genuine Christian community was deeply apparent to us. It was a costly decision, in many ways, but one which has led us to more blessing than we could have ever imagined.
It is true that people can live missionally in any location. Being missional does not mean that every Christian should move from their neighbourhoods to a new place. Neither does it mean that any suburban (or rural) Christian must move to an inner city content in order to be truly missional. Far from it! In fact, I have long stated that the challenges of being truly missional in a suburban context are far greater in many ways than those we face in the inner city.
However, our location is never, ever incidental. The very nature of what it means to be missional is to be mindful and watchful of what God is doing and where He is calling us to participate with Him in His mission. If missionality was an abstract concept to be applied to a general, static faith, then location would not be as critical. However, we live within the singular story of history where God is at work, necessarily participating in ways in keeping with His character and mission. Thus, if a particular location is lacking the meaningful presence of a Christian community, His Spirit will be calling for His people to respond accordingly.
This does not place a hierarchy of importance of location, but rather requires us as believers to more dynamically consider the implications of missionality on our whole lives. I believe it is fair to say that a great many Christians live in their current location more based on preference or circumstance than explicitly because they have responded to God’s leading. While this does not devalue their presence in said locations, the question begs to be asked: What would be different if more Christians were to ask the question of location?
In other words, the possibility of relocation must be a critical implication considered by every Christian seeking to live missionally. I suspect many, in asking the question, would be led to remain where they are. Sometimes people must stay by the necessity of their choices, but even then God will work redemptively through them in that place. However, there is a clear imbalance in the distribution and presence of Christians in most Western communities, bringing with it an imbalance of resources and leadership. This much be challenged and changed.
Implicit in these statements is another conviction about being missional: meaningful proximity is essential. While it might work in some circumstances for Christians to live in one community and minister/serve in another, the model of the incarnation calls us to “pitch our tents” among those we are called to serve. In my neighbourhood, for example, commuting creates issues of trust for many locals. Even the privilege of affording a car in which to commute differentiates those individuals from many of the local residents. Further, coming in to work “professionally” as a Christian worker can also reinforce an unintentional, but pervasive paternalism that is further bolstered by the social services provided by the state and other non-profits.
On the other hand, being a local earns you respect, a voice, a credibility that goes a long way into building the kinds of relationships where the gospel can be lived and proclaimed in relevant ways. While we still ran programs and offered services for the early years in the community, it took us nearly 6 years to gain the level of credibility needed to begin to effect real change (and we were the ones largely changed in those 6 years).
Relocation is not an absolute necessity for being missional Christians though far too few Christian communities are willing to ask the question. That reticence- that hesitancy is understandable. After all, when families have build relationships, planted roots and invested in their own communities, it is not only costly to change but could potentially disrupt the missional dynamics already at work there.
However, no sacrifice was more costly (or more necessary) than Jesus choosing to enter into creation as a human being, to live among us in order to proclaim and live out the good news. It cost Him His very life. Therefore, we must be willing to pay just as dearly for the sake of the gospel. Without question, many are being called but are not responding. The harvest is indeed plentiful, but the workers are few- not for a lack of Christians or resources, but because of a lack of attentiveness and obedience.
Have you considered this question of location? If you are in the right location, are you challenging those in your community to consider it as well? Are you raising your children with this value in place? Consider how you can be more intentional about seeking God’s will with respect to where He calls us to live as His people.
If you have been in any position of leadership for any amount of time, it is fair to say that you have had to sit through situations where people simply want to “vent”. That is, they want to spew forth, uncensored and uncritically, every frustration, fear, confusion and angry impulse at you. I am not talking about being the object of a person’s angst (though as a pastor, I have many stories of that variety as well), but rather situations where the person upset at someone else, but doesn’t want to do the hard work of addressing it directly, but needs the release. Thus, you become their emotional toilet. Of course, if we are honest, we’ve all been guilty of doing this to someone at one time or another.
Seeing the unhealthy nature of this dynamic, I have tried to gently, but firmly encourage people who do this to consider more healthy ways to process and deal with the challenges they are facing. Sadly, more often than not, such suggestions are met with replies that go something like this:
“I am just being honest with how I am feeling! Can’t I be real with you? Would you prefer I just ignore things and pretend my feelings aren’t there?”
In the midst of their rebuttal, there is an important question: How can they be real about how they are feeling without resorting to the bitterness-producing impulse to vent? A psychologist friend once told me that, there are biochemical changes that happen in the brain when a person gives into these impulses enough. In other words, their bodies almost become addicted to the release that such venting provides. It gives them a brief, but marked relief, thus further justifying the method. Further, changing such behaviour is difficult, in part, because those biochemical changes are much harder to “undo” than to create in the first place. Long story short, people become captive to their own emotional impulses.
To change this, people need to find ways in which they can resist these unhealthy impulses, yet still appropriately process what is on their hearts and minds. This would require separating (though not ignoring) the feelings we have about a situation/person from the situation/person itself. This does not mean denying the truth, but recognizing the nature of truth. Jesus teaches us that He is the Truth- not that He merely has it or knows it, but embodies it. Since Jesus is the incarnation of the God of love and grace, we realize that truth is therefore also always loving and gracious (even if difficult). Where speaking the facts about something might be accurate, if it does not ultimately lead to life, is it ultimately truth? Venting generally brings anything but life to the speaker, listener or the object of the anger. So how can we be honest with where we are at while remaining truthful in how we do so?
As I considered an alternative, I realized that the practice of confession offers an important opportunity. Not only does it provide an appropriate means by which people can process their anger, but it also encourages them to place their focus where it necessarily needs to be- on themselves. This is critical, as it is rooted in the teaching of Christ, calling us to resist judgment and focus instead on our own brokenness.
“The disciples are not to judge because any judgment that needs to be made has been made. For those who follow Jesus as if they can, on their own, determine what is good and what is evil is to betray the work of Christ. Therefore, the appropriate stance for the acknowledgement of evil is the confession of sin. We quite literally cannot see clearly unless we have been trained to see “the log that is in [our] eye.” But it is not possible for us to see what is in our eye because the eye cannot see itself. That is why we are able to see ourselves only through the vision made possible by Jesus—a vision made possible by our participation in a community of forgiveness that allows us to name our sins.”
What does it mean to practice confession? It is a big and complex topic, but for the purposes of this chapter I am looking at confession in three basic ways:
-Confession is to acknowledge one’s belief or faith in something (Romans 10:9)
-Confession is to acknowledge one’s own moral failings/sin (James 5:15-16)
-Confession is to own or admit to something as being true (Ephesians 4:14-16)
While there is much overlap with the second point, it is to the third that I want to focus most of our attention at this stage. Owning something as true means accurately assessing a situation, including (primarily) taking responsibility for ourselves. While this does not deny that we can be wronged by others and that such wrong should be addressed, it recognizes that in our anger we are first and foremost (and most often exclusively) responsible for our own hearts. Here is a simple example of the difference:
Venting: “John is such a jerk! He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. He never listens to anything. I could just slap him when he does that!”
Confessing: “I was really hurt by what John said and did. I feel like he doesn’t care about what I have to say. It makes me very angry when he does that.”
I acknowledge this is something of an oversimplification (if a little cheesy), but the difference is critical. The speaker can only definitively express what they are feeling. They avoid the extreme language of “never” and “always”. They resist living out, even in their hearts, the retaliation they know to be wrong. This shift does not deny that John may have made mistakes, but returns the speakers focus onto themselves, the only person they ultimately are who they can correct.
Anyone who is in a healthy marriage will tell you that culpability in an argument cannot be broken into percentages. Even if the other person initiated or heightened the fight, if you have done anything wrong, that is your 100%. You are just as responsible for that as the other person is for their 100%. This is an act of discipline- one that does not deny the fault of others but relinquishes the right to be right and focus on our own heart and actions first and foremost.
Hebrews 12:14-15 tells us: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” The imagery around the phrase “bitter root” is vivid- something small beneath the surface that grows over time, digging deeper and deeper, harder to remove as time goes by and that eventually produces fruit in its own nature. While we need to work at reconciliation, many times when we are treated wrongfully, the other person(s) will not acknowledge it. Most of us will, at some point or another, be the victim of major wounding and/or injustice that will never be made right by the offender. This even further illustrates why we must own and admit our own failings, release grace and forgiveness to others rather than entertaining and spewing the anger we feel inside.
To whom do we confess? First and foremost, God. God is the only one who can hear our venting without being tainted by it. However, because of how it can harm us, venting is still not advisable. We need to bring things to God first and foremost. However, we should also bring them to one another as fellow Christians. This can be tricky as it often quickly becomes gossip. It is, therefore, wisest to only share such confession with a trusted, mature Christian friend who has enough distance from the situation. “Confessing” to a dozen different friends is hardly going to be helpful for anyone. That is why having a pastor, mentor, spiritual director, confessor, etc.- essentially someone you see as a spiritual authority- a trusted, mutual friend in your life is a good option.
This kind of confession does not change the person(s) or circumstances you are angry with but invites the Spirit to do the transformation in your heart. When you are changed, then the situation is changed with it. While it won’t always be easier, it will continue to form you into the image of Christ. This is why this chapter also addresses missional integrity. How we relate to one another- how we respond to the way people treat us and how we deal with our own failings- is one of the most significant witnesses we have as believers. The world is watching, whether we want to admit it or not.
If churches were communities characterized by gracious forgiveness, patient confession and the acknowledgment of mutual brokenness, the world would look at us far differently than they often do now. Christians are stereotyped as self-righteous judges who can’t even get along with each other, let alone those outside the church. While this is not an entirely fair assessment of all Christians, it is true enough to force us to consider the implications of being a missional people in the world.
Do you practice confession in your community? How can you be more intentional about embracing these values?
Having lived in our inner city neighbourhood for so many years, we’ve learned many lessons that, while common enough for us, seem to slip past the uninitiated. When you build bridges of relationship to people on the margins, it comes with all of the blessings and challenges you would expect. We’ve signed up for it, so take it all in stride. Others, however, often don’t know what hit them. This story is one such occasion.
One Sunday evening, after our weekly shared meals (the centerpiece of our worship together as Little Flowers Community), a few of the smokers headed out the front door to get some “fresh air”. While there, an Ojibwe man cycled past. One of the smokers, a natural evangelist of the best possible kind, called out a greeting to him. When he came back, she invited him in for some food, welcoming him to stick around for the rest of our time together. Fairly drunk, he wobbled into the house to join us, introducing himself as Hector.
While a couple of our crew prepared a plate for him, our service got underway. Near the end of the group discussion, Hector kept interrupting to share his thoughts on the Scripture. Most of us who were regulars thought little of it, as this not that uncommon of an experience for us, but we did have a couple of other guests from out of town who were not used to these situations. They sat nervously, looking to me for reassurance. I just smiled back at them. After the service, Hector joined the smokers again outside for a drag or two, then promptly gave everyone a group hug, hopped on his bike and rode away.
It was just about that time, standing on the deck waving goodbye to Hector, that I heard the shouts from inside. I went in to discover that one of our guests was missing her digital camera, which had been sitting in the living room where we had been meeting. I really felt badly for her, as it was her boyfriends camera. She immediately wanted us to get Hector before he left and ask to search his bag. I asked if she had seen Hector take it, to which she said no. Gently, I informed her that there is no way that we could accuse him without any good reason. No one had seen him take it. I’m not shy to confront people when it is clear that someone has stolen something. However, neither would I presume guilt in this situation. Beside, Hector was long gone.
Not to be defeated so easily, she charged out of the house and down the block in a fruitless attempt to track Hector down. Thankfully she did not find him, as that would have turned out very poor indeed. We eventually talked her into coming home (as a single young woman- clearly a tourist- should not be wandering around our neighbourhood alone at night). In the end, she was frustrated, both with Hector and with our response, but she let it go. It could have become a really messy situation. And while I don’t try to avoid every such situation, to presume Hectors guilt would have ended any chance of a genuine relationship. Further, it would reinforced assumptions in him about white Christians.
It is not that I am unsympathetic of our other guests loss. Living where we do, we’ve had many things damaged and stolen, including our vehicle been stolen & frequently damaged. Our house was even broken into, with evidence suggesting it was done by someone we knew. However, we have learned (and continue to learn) how to hold things lightly. “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”. Easier words to say, brutally difficult to mean them sincerely.
This situation highlighted some important lessons for us as a community. First, it reminded us of the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, who embraced his vow of poverty in part because, when one has nothing to lose, they do not need to spend time and energy protecting it. That time and energy can go instead towards loving God and others. Simplicity and divestment of material wealth are a slow-yet-constant journey we are all on.
Second, it reminded us that, while our community needs diversity, especially socio-economically, that introducing people from outside our neighbourhood has to be done carefully. The inner city context might be minutes from suburbia, but the cultural dynamics can be as foreign as though it were an ocean apart. Perhaps even more challenging because of the oft assumption of similarity. Building bridges between these two contexts take time, care and intentionality.
Years have past since those events unfolded that late Sunday afternoon. Many guests have come through our doors since that time, both those who live on the streets to those who live in relative luxury. I look back with gratitude on that early formative experience. Hector was a great teacher!
Does your community intentionally pursue a diversity of this kind? What might you do to encourage that in more intentional and appropriate ways? Commit to working at this with others in your community over the next month.
Shortly after his dramatic conversion, St. Francis of Assisi was working hard at rebuilding the dilapidated chapel of St. Damiano. His family—worried that he had lost his mind (and worried he would sully the respectability of the family name)—was searching for him everywhere. When his father learned that his son was living like a beggar while rebuilding an abandon old church, he was furiously angry and decided that he would drag his deranged son home and set him straight. Learning that his father was coming to take him home, Francis fled into hiding, residing in a cold, wet cave for a month with friends providing food and water.
During that month, Francis prayed with a great fervency that God would deliver him from his father and his wrath. He desired only to serve God, so prayed that God would save him. After a month, Francis was suddenly filled with a great peace. Leaving the cave, he went into Assisi and told his father, along with the whole community, that he had given his life in service of God, renouncing his wealth and privilege to live among the poor as their brother. This news with met with mockery, rejection and great anger, especially by his family. However, in the end, Francis felt free to continue his service to God.
This story highlights something fairly critical about prayer. As Francis prayed for God to intervene in the crisis, he asked God to make his father leave him alone to pursue his calling. God answered Francis’ prayer, but instead of changing his father’s heart, he changed Francis’ heart. The young saint was filled with the peace to face his enemies, even when mocked and abused. God did not change the circumstances to meet Francis’ needs or desires, but rather changed Francis’ heart to be able to face the true cost of his devotion.
For many of us, we dream of living more faithfully to God. We imagine ourselves living life and faith in radical and exciting ways. Yet, when confronted with the reality of our lives, we quickly convince ourselves it is impossible. We might pray and wait for God to change our circumstances, but will all too often fail to step out, using our circumstances (and God’s apparent inaction to change them) as excuses for remain where we are. This is unacceptable.
Rather than demand God to change our circumstances in order for us to more fully respond in missional obedience to His calling, pursue His Spirit to give you the wisdom, courage and willingness to sacrifice in the midst of where you are at even now. Obedience to Christ is costly. It cost Jesus His very life. How can we expect to pay any less?
What excuses have you been using to justify ‘status quo” faith? What will you do today to more intentionally embrace God’s call, even in the face of difficult circumstances?
“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
This is, perhaps, the best known and most commonly quoted statement made by St. Francis of Assisi. It might surprise some to discover that he did not, in fact, say this. At least not as far as we know. Whether he said it or not, the idea has taken hold of the imagination of many, some who embrace it as great wisdom and some who reject it as a compromise. While Francis never made the statement, it does reflect something of a Franciscan quality. However, the saint’s actual words were far more nuanced:
“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
“…As for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.”
From these words (and his example), it is hard to deny the deep commitment St. Francis had to both the proclamation and embodiment of the Gospel. He lived deep within the tension between the two. That tension is very much present in our current context. Some will be concerned by how the first quote might be too easily co-opted by the postmodern tendency to mistrust of words. Indeed, if the quote is used to diminish the importance of verbal preaching/proclamation, then it is a betrayal of the spirit of St. Francis. Yet others fear that too much of Christianity has become nothing more than a product of the Enlightenment, where belief is equated with the affirmation of propositional truths with little demand for lived expression.
Perhaps to better understand this quote and its underlying message we must better understand St. Francis himself. First, it must be noted that Francis lived in a largely pre-literate society -- that is, most of the population could not read or write. Therefore, the role of public preaching played an essential role in spiritual formation. While verbal proclamation is still essential today, we need to acknowledge the elevated importance of verbal communication as a means passing on knowledge and information in Francis' time. Further, the majority of those who heard his preaching were already nominal Christians, and thus passingly familiar with the faith.
For Francis, then, the quote would need to be understood in the context in which it was said and not, for example, as a universal truth where words should always be of secondary in importance to actions. Instead, it is a context-specific corrective to an age and culture that gave lip-service, verbal allegiance to the faith, but whose actions betrayed entirely different beliefs and values. In this way, our own increasingly post-Christian context is at risk of making the same mistakes, where we can all too often worship God without actually following Jesus.
While not a priest, St. Francis was given a dispensation by Rome to preach. However, more often than not, he did choose to do so outside the context of a church, the formal place of worship. He became widely known for his extra-liturgical preaching, with sermons being delivered in the open air of piazzas and pastures. He used styles and tactics borrowed from the troubadours of his day, both through romantic prose and foolish frolicking. Without rejecting the traditional liturgies of the Church, he broke past the norms and conventions of both the church and the culture to preach in ways that caught people’s attention.
Even when he did preach in churches, he would use living examples and props to bring life to the message. One of the most well-known traditions popularized by St. Francis is the live nativity. While we might see this as a creative and sentimental example, it was, in fact, a powerfully prophetic gesture. He brought into the heart of the church and the Scriptures the messy reality of the nature of the incarnation (cow manure and all). He saw the story of Scripture to be something to be lived and experienced, not merely commemorated. So, while we can defend that preaching is central to Francis’ example, we cannot do so without recognizing that he preached in ways that were intentionally disruptive to nominal faith, pointing instead to active participation in the Communion of Christ as His Body.
St. Francis never sought to elevate action over speaking in the task of bringing the Gospel, but neither did he believe that Gospel was only a message to be communicated. Francis recognized that the Gospel was all consuming, the work of God to restore all of Creation unto Himself for His glory. He embraced the truth that the authority of the Gospel he proclaimed with his mouth was given authority by the nature and character of the life he led. And in the same way, he knew that, in spite of his own failings (and that of other Christians), the proclaimed message of hope and love would find fertile soil in the hearts of others, and so that Gospel must be proclaimed.
The example of St. Francis of Assisi stands as a challenge to Christians today. In the face of our increasingly post-Christian context, we must resist the temptation to fight to sustain our place of power and privilege. In truth, such a position has largely compromised our authority and credibility before a watching world. Instead, let us rediscover the radical life of peace, grace, and love that was characterized by Christ and seek to live it. Perhaps then, in the light of a community of believers known for humility and love (rather than self-righteousness and bigotry), the words we proclaim will carry the credibility and authority worthy of the Christ we follow.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this Scripture quoted. Most often it is used to challenge us to greater boldness in respect to evangelism, to stating and defending our beliefs, to argue for more direct apologetics. It is a powerful verse and one that many of us struggle to practice. Often quote alongside Romans 1:16,17, any lack of “boldness” (which often translates not being obnoxious enough) is read as being ashamed of the Gospel. It usually left me uncomfortably aware of how often I pussy-footed around the issues of faith in different circumstances.
In fairness, however, the quote above is not a verse, but a partial verse in a much broader context. In fact, one does not have to include much of the of the surrounding text for some significant meaning to be added to this commonly played sound bite:
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” – 1 Peter 3:15-16
In contrast to the way the first quote is often used to stir up more bold and even aggressive proclamation of the Gospel, this Scripture, while still calling for readiness and boldness, links the key to our authority with gentleness and respect. This is the heart of a Franciscan response to sin, to let our own humble submission to Christ be a living rebuke to others, summed up well by Richard Rohr, OFM: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better” . How wonderfully this contrasts with the judgmental superiority we so often display in our critique of the world while simultaneously requiring of us active obedience and genuine humility.
Indeed, we should be bold in our declaration of the Gospel and have much to learn in that respect. However, it is not the Gospel I am ashamed of, it is the way in which we have represented and distorted that Gospel as Christians. A multitude of examples, both historical and current, should be enough to make it clear that much is done in the name of Christ by us, His genuine followers, that we should be contrite and broken over. Too often, in our zeal to protect the Gospel, we make excuses, justifications and even denials to cover over the myriad of failings we have accomplished.
And yet this not only denies an opportunity for the grace of God to be realized in our own lives and communities, it robs a waiting and watching world the chance to see us demonstrate that grace by humbling acknowledging our failings and dependence upon His forgiveness, which came at so high a price. The expression of both individual and collective humility and repentance does not weaken the power of the Gospel we are called to proclaim, but rather lends living and active authority to the words that too often seem like hypocrisy to those who see the disparity between our words and our deeds. To discover this way of open brokenness will be a powerful force in our success as missional Christians and communities.
How do we do this? Who can we turn to in order to learn to appropriately embrace this humility? In my years of life and service among the urban poor, I have had the opportunity to see brokenness of broad variety and devastation. It has also given me the opportunity to participate in the restoration of life as they embrace Christ and face their demons, especially those facing addiction. Few communities better embody what I am exploring here than the 12 step programs and support groups for those who have hit bottom. While I never want to undervalue or under-appreciate the importance of those in church leadership with significant education and training. However, we must be humble enough to sit under the unpolished wisdom to the least of these. For in them we will truly discover Christ.
Have you seen this kind of humility practiced with missional impact? If so, tell us about it below.
One day, a young monk knocked quietly on the door to the abbots study. The old abbot smiled in welcome to the new brother who had just made his permanent vows several months earlier. The abbot knew immediately that the young man was troubled, so he invited him to sit and share what was bothering him.
“Father Abbot, I know that living with the other brothers is not always easy- that it is not meant to be easy. However, it is Brother Anselm. It seems that nothing I can do is good enough for him. He finds fault in everything I do. What should I do, Father?”
“How long has this been going on, Brother?” asked the abbot.
“For more than 4 months. Every day of every week of each long month!” At this, the old man smiled a sympathetic and understanding smile, patting the young man’s folded hands.
“Here is what you must do: You must love Brother Anselm- every day of every week of each long month. After a time, if you feel you must, come and talk to me again. In the meantime, love him.”
The young man left the abbot’s study pondering these words of simple wisdom. His zeal renewed, he dedicated himself to loving Brother Anselm every day of every week of each long month. And so the months pass, as did the seasons.
Some time later, the young monk returned the abbots study, again exasperated by the unending complaints and criticisms of Brother Anselm. He had done his best to love him, but nothing had changed. Pleadingly, he asked the abbot for wisdom.
“How long has this been going on, Brother?” asked the abbot.
“For more than 3 years. Every day of every week of every month for all these years!”
“Here is what you must do: You must love Brother Anselm- every day of every week of every month of every year. After a time, if you feel you must, come and talk to me again. In the meantime, love him.”
Again the young brother left the abbot. While his fervor had cooled, his vow of obedience was clear. So he rededicated himself to loving Brother Anselm every day of every week of every month of every year. And again, nothing changed in Brother Anselm’s behavior. Every few years the monk would return to the abbot for wisdom and every year the abbot would say the same thing:
“Here is what you must do: You must love Brother Anselm- every day of every week of every month of every year. After a time, if you feel you must, come and talk to me again. In the meantime, love him.”
One day, the monk returned again, no longer a young man, but now himself as old as the abbot had been when he had first made his profession. The abbot, aged beyond imagination, welcomed him in, inviting him to sit with him. He no longer had to ask what was bothering the brother.
“Father Abbot, I know that living with the other brothers is not always easy- that it is not meant to be easy. Brother Anselm will not be moved! For so long I have tried to love him as you have directed but to no avail. It seems that the harder I seek to love him, the harder his heart becomes. I am at a loss! What should I do, Father?”
“How long has this been going on, Brother?” asked the abbot.
“Father abbot, it has been more than 40 years!” At this, the old man smiled a sympathetic and understanding smile, patting the other monks folded hands and said:
“And after 40 years, you still expect him to change?”
(Inspired by writings of Jon Sweeney in “Cloister Talks”)
Few paintings throughout the world are as well known as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (or La Gioconda, as the Italians refer to her). The image is also one of the most reproduced of any other, not only in literal copies but it all manner of creative “twists” on the original. With up to 6 million people visiting her in the Louvre every year, she is considered the most famous painting in the world.
It is surprising for many viewers, then, when they find themselves underwhelmed by the experience. Guides at the Louvre have noticed many people walk away confused, perplexed and even frustrated. Many go home, complaining that they didn’t get out of the experience what they had hoped. “What was all the hoopla, anyway?”, they wonder. And many never give the mysterious lady another thought.
The reasons for this are fascinating. Her very popularity (and the resulting mass reproduction) actually contributes to this over-familiarity. In an odd twist, the very fame that leads to the many copies makes the original unremarkable. Yet, people still buy the posters and t-shirts because the fame associated with the picture has become more of a draw than the artwork itself. You doubt that is true? Consider this: When the Mona Lisa was stolen years ago, thousands upon thousands of people lined up to stare at the empty space on the museum wall where the painting once hung.
Jesus all too often suffers the same fate in our Christendom-shaped world. Do an internet image search for Jesus and you’ll find tens of millions of results. Whether to a Christian or otherwise, His name and image surround people in one form or another (or a million others) every day, but once they pause to take a closer look, many are unimpressed. His fame is often more famous than His actual life and teachings. And so, many move on, giving Him very little thought again. Yet, as Christendom begins to wane, people are starting to look again at Jesus with fresh eyes. This is an opportunity for Christians to share Jesus anew. But how?
On the occasions that disillusioned Louvre visitors ask their guide why they feel such disappointment with their experience, the good guides will take them around the museum to show them other paintings from the same era as the Mona Lisa. When they return to her, and the guide points out the differences- such as the ground-breaking use of subtle shading known as sfumato- the brilliance begins to become clearer. In other words, in the context of her time, Mona Lisa’s beauty is seen to be undeniably deserved.
In the same way, when people see Jesus in light of His context, the radical nature of His teachings and example come to life- even more so, when we, the Church, live the incarnational truth of Jesus’ life and teachings- people can begin to see His truth in their own context. How authentically we do so will impact the clarity with which people will positively re-encounter Jesus. The question is: Are we ready to do what is necessary to walk this out in our lives together?
Once upon a time in the land of Mystery, there lived a people who had forgotten the light. The entire kingdom existed in perpetual darkness, but the people of Mystery had long ago learned to live without any light. While they could not travel far, avoiding unfamiliar landscapes, they were able to move about quite confidently close to home. Content, the people of Mystery went about their simple lives.
One day, a rumour started to spread among the people. Someone had found the light! Wanting to see this wonder for themselves, the people of Mystery began to rush to the site. Even while still miles away, their breath was stolen from them as they caught sight of the flickering of the fire. Soon all had gathered around the warm blaze of the dancing flames and for the first time began to see the faces around them- faces of loved ones, friend, and neighbours. Astonished, they cried:
“What is this wonder? Who has brought us this wondrous light?”
All eyes turned, still blinking, towards a tall man in a long robe who stood closest to the fire. He was clearly pleased with the joy the light was bringing to the people. He declared:
“I was the one who discovered the light. I believe I will call it… Revelation!” And people cheered!
For days people came to the light, basking in the glow, lost in the details and the colour. For the first time, they discovered the greenness of the grass beneath their feet, the gentle swaying of the leaves in the trees. But soon they reached the limit of Revelation’s bright rays. What lay beyond the small circle of light? Could this gift not illuminate many more wonders throughout the kingdom of Mystery? So they asked the man in the robe to lend them a small part of Revelation, that they might explore the land.
“Alas,” he said sympathetically, “It is far too dangerous to risk such a thing”. But the people continued, pleading with him.
“No!” he cried, now appalled at their selfish and reckless suggestion, “Don’t you see that Revelation will be reduced if it is dismantled piecemeal? For centuries, you lived in darkness, but now this gift has already gone dull for you? Here is Revelation, in all it’s glory, unchanged and unchangeable. Is it not enough for you? For shame!”
And so the people went away, dejected. However, they soon returned to their lives in the darkness of Mystery, once again content with their simple lives. Every few days they would return to the light, tolerate the man in robes to look longingly at the grass and the trees around them. They would look into each other eyes and see each others faces, which now seemed somehow less happy than before. Occasionally a radical would rush forward to steal some of the fire, only to be tackled and beaten by the guards hired by the man in robes. Those who managed to slip past the guards won only the prize of scorched fingers and howls of pain. In time, many lost interest.
Then one day, an old crippled woman hobbled into the circle, her skin dark and weathered, her hands gnarled through time and age, grasping the cane that helped her walk. Upon her back she carried a bundle. The crowd, now dwindled to a faithful few, fell back in a hush of respect, for the old woman was an elder respected for her great wisdom. As she approached the fire, even the man in the robe, his face reflecting curiosity and uncertainty, waved off the guards.
Kneeling before the fire, the old woman placed her bundle on the ground before her, carefully unwrapped the ragged covering and reverently withdraw its contents: several tapered lengths of wood, a ball of fabric wound on the thick ends, covered in a dark, sticky substance. She selected one of the pieces, holding it by the narrow end. Suddenly, she extended the opposite end into the flames.
A collective gasp rippled through the crowd as the fabric-covered end burst into flames instantly. Withdrawing it from the fire, the old woman struggled to her feet, turned towards the people, raising the flaming brand above her head. No one moved, even the stunned man in the robe, everyone holding their breath.
“This,” said the old woman gently but clearly, “is a torch of Faith. With it, you can explore all throughout the kingdom of Mystery, share the light of Revelation with others, discover together the treasures and beauties of this endless and wondrous land. Take them, everyone who is willing.” Most hesitated, looking nervously to the man in the robe, whose face was now twisted with disbelief and anger. A brave few, however, crept forward, chose a torch of Faith, then lighting it. After a moment of stunned silence, they went rushing off towards their homes, their illumination bouncing through the darkness like beacons.
Within days, people throughout Mystery were talking about the revolution of the torches of Faith. The light of Revelation was illuminating the darkest corners of Mystery. After the initial shock, the man in the robe recovered himself and organized his remaining followers, guarding the fire jealously from those influenced by the outcast torch-bearers. They were denounced them as corrupters who perverted the light of Revelation to satisfy their own self-desire. The followers of the man in the robe soon took it upon themselves to destroy the torches of Faith, forcing the bearers to return to the circle if they wanted to see the light of Revelation in Mystery.
Despite their best efforts, however, the torch-bearers continued to explore the kingdom of Mystery, gathering together whenever it was safe to journey. And from the meager flames of their torches, they passed on the light of Revelation to others, until throughout the land, the endless beauty of Mystery was revealed for all to see.
Over the last couple of years, I have been noticing a pattern in church/ministry/missions engagement among Christian that has left me somewhat unsettled. At first, I could not put my finger on it, but I began to see that it was linked to the culture of volunteerism that has developed in our Christian sub-culture. Volunteering has become the primary way in which Christians are invited to participate in the work and mission of God and His Church in the world. While much good has come of this (and I am not suggesting the eradication of Christian volunteerism), I truly believe that we have crippled and compromised our missional capacity by making it so central and foundational to our approach to mission/ministry.
It has been since planting a church that I have seen it most clearly. Initially, the passion and vision for a new missional community in our inner city context were received with great enthusiasm and participation. However, as the initial fervor cooled, as it inevitably must, we realized that discipline and commitment were then necessary to keep the community healthy and growing in maturity. Again, all of this is expected and natural. However, despite how many affirm that we want to be a community of leaders who share the responsibility of the work of mission equally, functionally people still assume hierarchical leadership, leaving it to the few (or the one) to get things done when they are not able.
As I’ve dug deeper, I began to see a common thread: we all too often view our involvement in missional church community through the lens of volunteerism. In other words, we love the vision and reality of ministry and want to be involved, as long as it fits. We have discipled entire generations of Christians to see missional engagement as a voluntary opportunity they can add to their lives when it works or isn’t too demanding. This isn’t to say that many people don’t live sacrificially, but rather that the general trend reflects an attitude of optionality.
What will change this? How can we get from a place where the intellectual conviction about the nature of missional-incarnational communities of faith translates into our instinctual default in everyday choices (and perhaps especially in times of stress)? In many ways, trying to make it work without that shift of worldview feels like taking my dog to the auto mechanic for surgery! How to bring about that change of understanding- a change that gives rise to a shift in action, a true praxis- is something that has become the focus of my energies of late.
While volunteerism has great value, even in the Church, it cannot be allowed to remain as a central model for Christian service. The individualism and consumerism that shapes how we participate in volunteering are incompatible with the selfless, all-demanding devotion that Christ calls for in participating in His mission. I am not suggesting that such devotion is best expressed in programs or ministry events, but rather that the work of the mission of God is immediate and demanding, requiring every believer to participate in the costly commitment of a mutually owned vocation and responsibility.
When Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, He was not suggesting that there were few Christians and many needing to be saved. Rather, He was exposing the reality that, in the face of all who call claim to be people of God, very few of them have proven willing to pay the price and live the lives of service and mission. We need to see a shift in our worldview (and thus in our approach to spiritual and missional formation) if we are going to address this problem.
Recently, I have been reading several books on medieval monasticism and the building of cathedrals. The architecture of many of these cathedrals is both masterful with respect to the engineering of their day and in respect to beauty as massive icons built for the glory of God (at least, most of the time). One aspect of such buildings is the sheer size, both looking on from the outside and gazing upwards from within. The intentionality of such scale powerfully serves to create an atmosphere of the grandiosity of God.
I remember the first time I was in a cathedral while traveling through Spain as a teenager, struck silent by the immensity of the structure. As we exited the church, I noticed that they were doing some repair work on the flying buttresses that surrounded the soaring walls. Even then I knew how critical such stabilizers were to keeping the walls from toppling under the forces of nature, time and gravity. Without this additional support, the height and survivability of the cathedral would be compromised. These buttresses had been carved to look as aesthetically pleasing as the rest of the building, but their purposes were to make the larger whole of the building possible.
Today, as I was considering the role of leadership in the church, the image of the buttress came to mind. I realize that leadership is essential, but ultimately it must serve the community of Christ in the same way a buttress supports a cathedral. The buttress/leadership is not the end in itself but is designed to lend support, stability and even boundaries for the cathedral/community. This kind of leadership is essential to allowing people to truly become most authentically who they were created to be, especially in the context of community. Yes, they have specific and essential roles, but no more important than the whole.
For me, this is an important reminder as I seek to extend leadership to my community- not as hierarchical power based on position. Rather, my leadership must be architectural- that is, it must serve to support from beside or beneath, not rule from above.
What are you waiting for?
This question strikes home for me. Over the years I have come to the realization that I often unconsciously lived my life in expectation, waiting for something to happen. I lived with an inarticulate assumption that, someday in the near future, my life would change. Somehow, when that happened I would be living to my fullest potential, I would more faithful in my relationship with God and I would be doing that which God had created me for (but had thus far not fully figured out). It was all just around the corner and I was waiting for it to happen. I thought I was alone in this assumptive state, but when I started talking about it I discovered that a lot of other people live with this same expectation. Do you?
In Mark 5, right off the heels of Jesus demonstrating His authority over nature itself, He and His disciples reach the far shore. Here is what happened:
“When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!”
It is immediately interesting to me that the text says that Jesus got out of the boat. While we can’t be sure, it seems to be saying that only Jesus got out of the boat. I guess it is understandable. After all, this man in this context represented the most unclean of the unclean to devout Jews. This was not their land, not their people, not their concern. However, I suspect it was the threat to their safety that most kept the men in the boat. I suspect I would have responded much the same way. Yet Jesus gets out of the boat and brings His Kingdom with Him.
I cannot help but think of the prophet Jeremiah, that rather moody and dramatic Old Testament figure who warned the people of Israel about the consequences of their unfaithfulness. His warnings proved true, with the people being taken into captivity in Babylon, a pagan nation far from the Promised Land that was given to them in covenant with God. I can only imagine what they might have felt: fear, confusion, anger, vengeance, despair. After all, in that very covenant, God promised them that they would be a great people, through whom all nations would be blessed. As long as they were slaves of these godless people in this godless land, those promises would remain empty and unfulfilled.
And yet Jeremiah brought them the word of God:
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
The stunning impact of these commands should not be lost on us. God called them to live out the covenant promises faithfully in the midst of Babylon. More than that, God’s blessing of them would be linked to the blessing of their captors. How easily might they have quoted the promises of cursing their enemies in the covenant? Rather, God was reminding them of two things: first, that their captivity was the result of their own unfaithfulness, not to be minimized in the hatred of their enemies; and second, that God’s blessing of all nations through His people was far more central to His ultimate intention. (Notice the parallel Christ’s humble “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem, where He powerful subverted the expectations of the people for a militantly liberating messiah.)
As individuals and faith communities, we all too easily fall into the same assumptions. We live as though God’s will for our life might happen in the future when things are better. Once we get this or that set of circumstances worked out. Once we are out of debt or have a better job or find that significant other. Once all the ducks land in a row, then we will passionately live our lives to the fullest for God. This is not to say we are completely complacent now (at least not all of us), but rather we find ways to accept mediocrity. This acceptance is further encouraged as we look around and see others living with the same level of expectation.
Yet Jesus calls to live the Kingdom of God now, even in the midst of our circumstances. After all, if He calls His people to thrive and prosper while they are slaves of pagan oppressors, I think our excuses fall quite short. As I recently heard the following quote:
“We live as though the world were as it should be to show it what it can be”
So the questions remain:
What are you waiting for? What are we waiting for?
When we confront the struggles & weaknesses in our lives & communities, what are we waiting for?
When we consider the future and all that is possible, what are we waiting for?
When we imagine what God will do through in and through us, what are we waiting for?
“Choose this day whom you will serve” -Joshua 24:15
It started with a tweet:
“When God said that ‘there should be no poor among you’, He wasn’t suggesting segregation”
I must admit that, when I wrote this, I was not trying to be clever. In all honesty, I was upset. Upset with the disparity of wealth and privilege in the church. Upset with how easily we ignore the clear mandates of God on how His people are to live and love. I was upset with myself for being guilty on all counts.
The quote, of course, is referring to Deuteronomy 15:4 and the mandates of Jubilee, a critical image of the Kingdom life we are called live out in the world in anticipation of it coming in its fullness with Christ. It was a vision that informed the early church as they sought to live out the teachings and example of Jesus as a community. It sparked a movement of hospitality, service and peace that has left a powerful impact on human history. Roman Emperor Julian, a sworn enemy of the faith, noted that the Christian community thrived because of their deep character, selfless service and peaceful nature. Above all, he marvelled that they not only cared for their own sick and poor but all the sick and poor who were in need. This was the mark of Christianity, the mark of Christ.
When the disciples expressed concern at the waste of the expensive perfume used to anoint Him, Jesus rebuked them, saying:
“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”.
Too often this verse is used to downplay the mandate for Christians to better respond to the realities of poverty. However, as suggested by Shane Claiborne, I believe that Jesus was, in fact, affirming the act of worship while at the same time clearly declaring that the poor would always be with us. Not in some broad, generalized way, but presently, relationally, actively with us in our communities. It was assumed that we would be living in such a way that the poor would be around.
We cannot argue that there are few poor in our neighborhoods. In an age where most Christians in North America commute some distance for weekly worship, there should then be no barrier to making the journey to the margins. And if that is too much to ask, then perhaps we must learn to give up the comfort and safety of our neighborhoods- and yes, I am thinking of the children- and choose to live in places where our lives can cross paths with those others. We have no excuses other than our choices. So why do we so explicitly choose to disobey such clear commands of Christ?
While making our way through the Lenten season, towards our celebration of Easter, Little Flowers Community had been meditating on the Cross and its formational work in shaping us into Christ’s Body, a missional-incarnational people together. During that time, we celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick, a man whose life powerfully displayed this pattern of cruciform devotion. We found in his life a stunning pattern that we have tried to emulate. Before going further, please know that I am not suggesting the following as a formula or rigid process, but rather a dynamic and fluid pattern that we see reflected throughout the history of God’s redeeming work among humanity.
Patrick was a Romanized-Celt who enjoyed a life of relative wealth and privilege in a northern district of what is today England. While his father was a deacon & his grandfather a priest, Patrick showed little interest in the faith, enjoying instead the pleasures of youth. His was a care-free life. However, at the age of 16, everything changed.
Raiders from the northern tribes attacked his community, pillaging and killing many. Patrick was one of many people captured to be taken back as a slave in the uncharted lands of what is now known as Ireland. Faced with torture and death, the young man was forced to watch as others were beaten and killed on the long journey north.
For years, Patrick served as a shepherd for a people he had previously dismissed as savage and inferior. Now he was among the lowest of the low, valued far less than the livestock he was charged to care for. As the years slipped away, so did his hope of escape and freedom.
Then, after six long years of servitude, Patrick received a message from God, promising that his freedom was at hand, miraculously providing everything he needed to return home. Even a ship across the cold, enemy-protected waterways fell neatly into place. And true to his vision, Patrick escaped to freedom and returned home a changed man, humble and contrite and thankful to God.
And yet, truly transformed by the grace of God, Patrick obediently follows the call of Christ to return to the land of his captors as a missionary, engaging the people with a vibrant and creative authority rarely seen among Christian then (or since). Today, Ireland owes a great debt to this former slave, as does the Church as a whole. What can we learn from this profoundly moving story?
Patrick lived the life of his youth behind the pretense of wealth and privilege. Like the plants & skins that Adam & Eve used to cover their own sinful nakedness, so too did Patrick cover up his own emptiness and need. This Hidden Nakedness- something we all share- belied the true price that sin exacted upon him. What masks do you wear to cover your own Hidden Nakedness? What pretense covers up your own fears, doubts & failings?
The false security of Patrick’s life was shattered in the chaos of his violent abduction, reducing his wealth, privilege, education, status- everything!- to nothing in the face of this event. Confronted with the fragility of his own mortality and the illusion of his own freedom, the young man was crushed in the face of suffering and death. Here Patrick confronted the reality of The Cross in all its devastating reality. Have there been moments in your life where the masks & pretense have been shattered through suffering or loss? Have you experienced the real suffering of The Cross we are called to take up daily?
Death might have seemed a better option for Patrick, rather than facing the emptiness and indignity of been reduced to the lowest slave. As the days turned into months and the months to years, everything in Patrick died away- his pride, his rights, his expectations, everything. He was left in the emptiness of The Tomb. When faced with Christ’s call to fully surrender your life to Him, what parts of your life to most resist letting die? What aspects hold you back from truly entering The Tomb? Why?
And yet, out of the emptiness was born a new, humble and contrite heart in Patrick. When everything died away and he was left fully at the mercy of God, hope was reborn and a way to freedom was made clear by His miraculous grace. Patrick was touched by The Resurrection power of Christ at work in his life. How has this work of Christ’s Resurrection manifested itself it visible ways in your life?
For most people, Patrick’s freedom would have been enough to demonstrate God’s character and power. Most of us are satisfied with the saving work of Christ in our lives. And why not? It is the greatest reality of love and grace possible! And yet, the Holy Spirit stirred Patrick yet again, filling him with the power, passion and purpose of Pentecost to become a missional servant among the very people who caused him so much suffering. Has your Christian devotion largely stopped at the point of redemption and restoration? How is Christ actively calling you to live Pentecost out in missional service to His Kingdom?
Again, this pattern is not a formula. It is not a process of steps that can simply be worked out and completed for your own spiritual benefit. It is the mysterious, but very real work of God through the power of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost baptism that is available- that is necessary!- for every believer. It is not about an event where we “achieve” God’s will, but rather a journey we follow in becoming the very Body of Christ to the world.
Lord God, we come out of the darkness into Your presence, exposed in the brokenness of our sin. Free of from the lies, excuses and pretenses that keep us from standing in the purifying light of Your holiness.
Lead us daily to the Cross, even when every instinct and desire is to flee from the suffering it brings. Help us to truly die to the selfish and narrow impulses of our hearts, relinquishing every right and privilege we hold onto.
Comfort us in the loneliness of the death we must embrace, broken and empty and wholly Yours. Speak to us Your wisdom with Your still, small voice, quieting our souls in the silence of this necessary grave.
Bring us new life, Lord Jesus, as we share in Your wondrous resurrection, celebrating the promise of new life for all Creation. Bind us to You as a Groom to His Bride, and renew us and transform us together into Your image, Your Body.
Fill us and unite us and empower us with Your Holy Spirit, moving us with Your perfect will. Lead us into all the world where we will become and live as Your Body, continuing Your mission to every living thing.
All this we ask in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
I got a call from a friend today, telling me about an encounter she had in the city with someone begging for spare change. When I asked her what his story was, she said that he was a Christian whose wife was sick and he just needed a little money to help get some food for the day.
“Was he a middle-aged white guy- tall with a moustache?” I asked. Surprised, she affirmed that it was. How did I know? I knew because had heard that exactly story several times a week for almost the entire time The Dusty Cover was open. Brad was a regular to drop into the bookstore, masterfully retelling his story (with more detail than mentioned above) word for word. Of course, the details of his story made it clear that it could not be true, given that the same unfortunate scenario played itself out so many times a week for more than a year. However, we never made an issue with the truthfulness of his story.
Sometimes we’d give him some money or a bus pass or a hot cup of coffee. We didn’t give him money that often, but the occasional customer would overhear his story and chip in a few bucks. I offered to take him shopping once, but he politely, but flatly refused. I didn’t mind this too much because we would usually see Brad at the end of the day walking home with a few bags of groceries from Safeway. As long as he was eating.
What made Brad such an interesting friend was that he came back so regularly with the same story. When he would introduce himself again the next, I would remind him that we were already friends. He would then apologize as he had a hard time remembering things. It seemed that expect for long term memories, he had very little capacity to remember the details of recent events. And so, every day it was like meeting Brad for the first time.
While we could build relationships over time with many of our neighbors, this was not possible with Brad. Each day was a fresh slate, meaning that we would have to repeat the same conversations again and again. Every day he met us for the first time. Every day, his first impression of us was established anew. It would have been easy for us to dismiss him, make jokes about him or ignore him altogether. Instead, he presented us daily with a challenge: Treat him with the love of Christ as though it was our only opportunity. And in some ways, it was.
Since the bookstore closed, we have not seen Brad very often. However, I carry the lesson he taught me every day. Why should I treat others any different than Brad? Should not every person I encounter be greeted with the fullness of the love and grace of Christ? Familiarity can breed complacency, but Brad has taught us that every day is a new day. Beyond the abstraction of “Love God and love others” is the mandate to embrace that love in every mundane moment, in every encounter. This is what it means to live the Gospel one day at a time.
As a person passionate about learning, change, growth and reform, the conversation and movement toward missionality in the church has been a thrilling and rewarding one.
Also, as a very pragmatic thinker, I am also driven to try and test ideas in real life contexts, which I have been seeing in other communities and doing in our own. Acknowledging the experimental nature of this process, we intentionally engage in analysis and critique, both internally and externally, for the purpose of being more authentically missional Christians in the world.
This is an essential part of the process of spiritual and missional maturity, both for individuals and communities. We must be willing to put our ideas and ideals into action and allow the larger Body of Christ (with whom there should be mutual and trusting relationship on some level) to speak frankly, constructively and even correctively into our lives. After all, how else are we to grow and learn? How else are we going to resist falling in love with our own ideas and models, allowing us the freedom to change as is needed?
As I read the many conversations about the different ideas and models, I have begun to become more aware of the posture of analysis different people take. For the most part, those who are committed to truly become God’s people in the world engage the issues, even the criticisms, appropriately. However, it is very easy, as theology and ministry become professional practices, to treat these evaluations with overly clinical eyes. At times, this approach lacks the patient grace and familial love that should characterize our relationship to others, especially within the Church. How would our engagement of these issues change in tone and nature if we were committed to consider the heart of the other first?
I am not suggesting that rigorous academic, theological and/or organizational analysis is not important. However, I am saying that these approaches must come under the temperance of relational grace and consideration. Whether we are critiquing missional theology and models or mega-church attractional techniques, we must intentionally acknowledge that we are relating to sisters and brothers in Christ. This does not ignore or even diminish the important role of a corrective (even prophetic) challenge, but rather realigns our focus foremost to the heart.
To that end, as you come across ideas, examples, model- even rants and polemics- pause to consider the person or persons behind it. Let us change our posture of clinical analysis to one of patient consideration. Even where correction and rebuke are deserved, let us respond with the undeserved grace that we also received from Christ and hope to receive when we put our own ideas and lives out before a watching world.
“Walmart Worker Killed In ‘Black Friday’ Shopper Stampede”
So read one headline about the senseless killing of a Wal-Mart employee by crazed consumers a few years ago. Several others were injured as well. Perhaps almost as sick as the wild greed that drove people to care so little for the man they killed (and witnesses have shown that they were aware of what was happening), was the anger of some customers when they learned the store had to be closed due to the death. After all, they had stood in line all night to shop. Lord have mercy…
I was baffled at how a person could get so consumed with the desire for “stuff” that they would literally walk over other people. Sure, I can understand it in the face of starvation or imminent death. But for a cheaper plasma screen TV or a $28 vacuum cleaner? Who would devalue the lives of others so much to save a few bucks on more crap, even if it might by some stretch even be a need, not just a want? Surely there is only a minority of people who could be that way.
As I considered this, something struck me. It hit me like a load of brick that nearly sent me literally to my knees: Most of us do, in fact, devalue the lives of others for our own selfish wants. Granted, I think very few of us would trample a helpless person under our feet to buy a discounted digital camera- the immediate result of such selfishness is too much for us to live with. However, what about when the effect of our choices is not so immediate or evident? Is it ultimately any less morally repugnant or tangibly violent when the very real consequence is distanced from us?
Looking at the “best deals” around, we often fail to ask where the savings came from. After all, how many of these massive price cutting retailers offer discounts out of the goodness of their hearts? If profit margins on the products were that high, couldn’t all stores offer such discounts? Of course not. Rather, the savings comes through business practices that often exploit others in order to cut costs. Be it the tiny nations whose land was raped for the raw materials, the factory workers barely making a living wage in a place that pollutes their body and communities, the workers whose rights and interests are ignored and violated- through various means, our current system thrives on the exploitation of others.
And let’s be honest. While a small minority of people buy things from these store out of a real need to save money, most of us are not so much trying to survive as we are trying to sustain a level of comfort and privilege that requires us to cut corners in this way. There are alternatives, but not ones without cost or without sacrifice. The North American Dream has become the North American Illusion, a false reality that would convince us that we not only deserve everything but that we need it. And yet, as we are freed from these illusions, we begin to see that our choices not only cost us our souls but that they cost others their very lives.
So as we consider those men and women who trampled that man to death, let us not be too hasty to judge or dismiss them without first consider our own choices. While this happened on Black Friday, our choices have far more reaching consequence and are made every day of the weeks. As the Body of Christ present in a dying world, it is not enough for us to simply abstain from such choices, but rather we must be radical living alternatives. In the words of St. Basil the Great:
“The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in the wardrobe is the garment of the one who is naked; the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”
She called herself Fish. The one that got away, so to speak.
Of course, it was a nickname, but she preferred we call her Fish. She was one of the first kids we met when we moved into our house. She lived across the street with her mom and an assortment of siblings, cousins, uncles, boyfriends and others. She was the leader of a small group of roving 8 and 9-year-olds who called the neighborhood home. She introduced herself before anyone else.
Fish is a friendly, funny Cree kid with solid street sense, always having the pulse of what was happening. Generally, if there had been a shooting, a bust or domestic, she would know the details. Of course, her gift for embellishing details made her stories more entertaining than informing. Of course, if you crossed her, that silver tongue would transform into a sharp, scorching weapon.
Always looking for a new angle, Fish was also very creative. Once, when our garden hose had been stolen, I asked her if she knew what happened to it. She promised to look into, which I knew I could count on. Of course, I suspected she might have very personal insight into where the hose was, but I gave her a chance to save face. Sure enough, she showed up a few hours later at my front door with the hose.
“Is there a reward?” she asked, a huge smile on her face. Smiling in return, I said:
“Sorry, no reward. After all, I wouldn’t be too smart paying money for my own stuff, now would I?” It was one of the first times she gave me a look of genuine respect. I wasn’t going to be taken that easily. However, neither did I run her off as a thief. She could respect that. Nothing went missing from my yard after that.
She began showing up for food, now and then. The single guys on our staff would have to feed them in the yard when Kim & I weren’t there, but our home has a big backyard, so they didn’t mind. On occasion, Fish would come over just to hide. Most often she wouldn’t knock but sneak along the side of our house where she could watch her house from the shadows. Generally, someone in the house was drunk, being violent, usually both. Sometimes we’d stand with her, sometimes she wanted to be alone. But she knew she was safe there. I always wished we could do more.
When Fish hit the age of 12 we knew there would be problems. Turning 12 seems to be an unofficial, unmarked rite of passage when the kids either stay in school or follow another path. Fish chose the latter, though chose seems hardly fair, given her life. She would disappear for months at a time, usually “doing time” at the youth detention center, other times…
I remember the day she and friend came up to me while I was out walking. They had done up their faces in gaudy makeup, dressing in a way only a 12-year-old could think was sexy. I prayed that they were just playing dress up, but my heart told me otherwise. We tried to talk her into some other options, but she laughingly brushed it off. We didn’t see her again for some time.
The last time we saw her, Fish was different. She had gained weight and muscle. Gone was the quick smile, replaced with a steely determination, a look that fiercely challenged anyone who dared to cross her. She laughed at her old nickname, a lost reminder of lost childhood. Rumor has it she has taken on gang colors, but it’s hard to say. Her family has moved away long since.
Hardly a week goes by that we don’t think of Fish. The one that got away, so to speak. We feel empty and powerless as we see her life played out again and again with the other kids in our community. We are much better at connecting with and helping kids now than when we first moved her, but the problem is far bigger than us.
Father God, have mercy on Fish, wherever she is.
While writing my book, “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom”, I was immersed in the histories, cultures, traditions, etc. of St. Francis and the Franciscans for some time. As an inevitable extension of this, I had also been looking at other monastic traditions, religious orders and practices of faith from these different fields, which has been incredibly rewarding. One particular shift in perspective that captured me was the idea of mission as pilgrimage. Of course, this idea is by no means new, though it is new to me. While not a comprehensive approach to mission, it does provide a powerful corrective that is needed in our context.
To be a pilgrim is to enter into a journey, where our hearts are changed along with our surroundings. It is not- cannot be- a static reality, but a dynamic story that moves us further and deeper into the heart of God, engaging the missional vocation He has called the Church to embrace. If we enter into this task with the prideful assumption that we have arrived, we alienate ourselves from the world and thus them from Christ.
To be a pilgrim is to longingly pursue- an acknowledgment of that we are found wanting. Why else do we undertake this journey if not to learn, to grow and to discover? We are not coming to the world as its saviors, but as fellow travellers, we meet on the road of life, with whom we share the love we have received, not by our own merit, but by God’s grace. It is summed up in the quote by Australia Aboriginal activist, Lilla Watson, who said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
To be a pilgrim is to share the road with fellow pilgrims. Our journey of discovery and growth finds its fullest expression in the life of missional community. Our pilgrimage towards Christ is a journey in becoming more like Him. With every step, we die to self and resurrect together into His Body, incarnationally embodying His mission as a community where we could not as individuals.
To be a pilgrim is to be willing embrace marginality, leaving behind the security of the freedom and affluence of our lives. As we leave the center for the margins, we inevitably (and necessarily) identify with those on the margins. We cannot make a missional journey towards Christ without moving in the direction of the poor. After all, what better destination is there for pilgrimage than Jesus, who Himself taught that we would discover Him in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner (Matthew 25).
In an age where triumphalism, colonialism, and individualism undermine and corrupt our missional life, embracing mission as pilgrimage can help us rediscover God’s intention for us in exciting new (or old) ways. Beyond the abstraction of these ideas, I am eager to explore the implications of this on my life and ministry.
What does it mean to you?
“…God has placed the members, each one of them,
in the body, just as He desired.”
I Corinthians 12:18
The five of us sat in the darkness of the night on the damp grass, the tense silence weighing heavily on each of our shoulders. In the distance, the occasional flash and rumble of lightning, simmering over the edge of Mount Baker, seem to reflect the storm of emotions on the verge of erupting within this small circle of people. We hardly noticed the sound of the Discipleship Training School (DTS) students behind us, as they celebrated their last night of the school. There was little sense of joy or celebration in this small assembly.
Our impromptu gathering was made up of two of my fellow DTS staff members, the school director, and one student. The situation, which had brought us together, was a serious one. While on outreach in northern British Columbia, Canada, this student had fallen in love with a woman he had just met. Unknown to the outreach leaders, he had proposed marriage within days of meeting her, to which she had accepted. Unfortunately, the news came to our attention inadvertently during the final school debrief. We were here to find out what had happened.
Unavoidably, each one of us felt somewhat deceived, even betrayed. We felt that we had built relationships of trust and respect with this student. His passion for service and devotion to Jesus was evident and unquestionable, yet his failure to share such a significant event in his life, especially one that occurred on his missions outreach, undermined the confidence we had placed in him. Had he deliberately deceived us? Did he not trust us? Was he even sorry for what he had done? Emotions were high and my heart ached with the conflict that seemed so inevitable.
I did not have to wait long. Immediately, emotionally heated demands for an explanation began, with the young man’s defensive retorts to justify himself from their answer. The angrier each person became, the less progress was made, with arguments going in circles over the same points, again and again. It was a recipe for disaster. No matter who was right in this situation, what we were heading for was broken relationship. I silently cried out to God for wisdom.
Up until this point, I had sat quietly listening to the exchange, occasionally asking specific questions, hoping to calm the situation, but to no avail. But as I prayed, I felt God speak clearly to my heart, “Apply what you’ve recently learned about culture.” Shocked, I asked the Lord for further understanding. I had not anticipated such an answer.
Over the previous few months, I had been studying the cultural worldview of the Native people of North America, the First Nations people. Specifically, I had been examining their traditional views and understanding of justice. I could not have been prepared for what I found. More than any formation of justice I had ever seen, short of the Biblical record, these values I studied were powerfully consistent with the concepts of justice, mercy, and grace taught by Jesus Christ. In both understanding and practice, they embraced a justice that served the betterment of the whole people, with the ultimate desire to restore the wrongdoer to the community. And yet, historically, these people had been forced into abandoning their whole way of thinking and living, in the name of “Christian conversion”.
As I prayed that night in the dark, asking God for more guidance, He challenged me to apply the practical concepts of restorative justice that I had learned. He showed me that to resolve this situation, I needed to lay down my right to use my gifts of debate and logic, as well as my contention that we, as his leaders, were in the right. He showed me, through the values and practical models He had placed in the First Nations people, that what He cherished most was the heart of each individual there and their relationship to one another and to Him.
When I was able to jump in, I quietly requested if I could ask a few questions. Up to this point, as school staff, we had been sitting on a low, stone wall, facing the student who sat on the ground. While there was no specific intention in the seating, I walked closer to the student and sat down in front of him, slightly to the side. I wanted to be on the same level as him, not to appear as though I was sitting above him in judgment in any way, intentional or not. I waited a few seconds before speaking, letting the silence calm us all.
I do not remember all that I said that night, but I remember calmly asking questions of this student, my friend. In an attempt to both understand where he was coming from and guide him to the understanding of our position on his own, I avoided making any finalized statements or judgment of the situation. Before long, he had quietly assented that not only had he been wrong in not telling us, but had honestly not intended to deliberately deceive us. In truth, he said, he was afraid. Suddenly, as these words left his mouth, his face twisted with grief.
Throughout the school, this young man had shown very little external emotion. Even when he learned of the death of a beloved family member during the school, we saw little more than the straight-faced sadness of his mourning. However, in that moment, when we calmly talked our way into the heart of the issue, he began to weep. He poured out his heart and tears before both us and God. He shared for the first time of relational mistakes he had made in the past. Not wanting to have repeated those painful mistakes again, he had become defensive to our challenges.
He interpreted our questioning as a statement of disapproval of the marriage when in fact we were simply challenging his lack of communication and openness. We interpreted his defensiveness as a stubborn refusal to accept responsibility when in fact he was rightfully defending the integrity of intentions. We were both wrong. It was then that we understood that his reaction to our harsh inquiries was not rooted in being “caught” deceiving us, but rather out of the terrifying prospect of repeating those things he had so adamantly vowed to never do again. When we understood this, our attitude changed from anger and hurt to compassion and love. Within minutes, everyone was asking for forgiveness for wrong emotions or judgments that had surfaced, as well as the failures that brought about this situation in the first place.
There in the darkness, I wept. I did not weep so much for the obvious work God was doing in this young man’s life though it gave me great joy. I was weeping at the revelation that the beauty of this truth, that had transformed this situation- a revelation that seemed so new to me, so far outside my worldview- had been hidden, neglected and openly rejected by Christians through their treatment of the indigenous peoples. For God had hidden that aspect of His character in a unique and powerful way within the culture of the First Nations people. It was there for the entire world to discover if ONLY they were to embrace and learn from these children of God.
(originally published as part of “Looking Forward: Facing the Future of Christian Leadership”.)
Once upon a time in the land of Mystery…
Many generations after the light of Revelation had spread through the land through the torches of Faith, the people began to realize how vast their great land really was. While they had learned much in their many explorations, these random explorations could not provide them with a coherent idea of all that they had discovered. The Elders convened a council to consider the matter.
After much deliberation, they selected several women and men from the people known for their ability to explore the land, commissioning them to purposefully explore the land of Mystery in order to collect information and draft maps. They would face the unknown risks, make contact with any they encountered and chart a path for those who would come after them. They were called the Voyageurs.
For several years, these brave Voyageurs explored the land of Mystery. The exploration was dangerous, fraught with dangers that led to the explorers becoming lost, injured and, sadly for a few, death. However, they persevered against all odds. Every few months, they would emerge from the wilderness to bring what knowledge they had gleaned. The Elders examined all that they shared with them, drafting maps and writing volumes of information.
One day, as the Voyageurs begin to prepare for yet another journey of exploration, the Elders called a community meeting to which they were all required to participate. Curious, they joined the growing crowd to hear what their Elders had to share with them. The crowd buzzed with anticipation as the Elders approached, smiles of excitement lighting all their faces. They raised their arms and everyone went silent.
“Brothers and sisters,” one of the Elders began, “We called you here today to share with a wonderful gift. After years of exploration, examination and compilation, we want to unveil to you the fruit of this labor- The Comprehensive Encyclopedia Of Mystery: A Systematic Study! In this collection, you will find maps, guides, and facts about this wondrous land.” The crowds cheer tore through the air, silencing only after the Elder raised his hand in order to continue.
“We would like to honor and thank our Voyageurs for all their years of blood, sweat and tears. This day not only celebrates the completion of this great work but the promise that our Voyageurs no longer need to risk their lives in exploration”. The crowd stood in stunned silence, the Voyageurs not the least of those who were shocked. Suddenly, a grumble of confusion swept through the people.
“But surely,” someone cried out, “They have not explored the whole of Mystery, have they? Surely there is so much more to learn!” Other shouted their agreement and concern. The Elders gently silenced the crowd once again with raised hands.
“Of course, the land of Mystery is infinitely wide. And, of course, we cannot every fully exhaust all that we can learn from this land. However, after examination and conference, we have come to believe that the core knowledge- the foundational understanding of Mystery has been firmly established.”
“But even what has been recorded, is there no chance of error? Are the maps flawless in detail?” All eyes turned to the Voyageurs for answer. One explorer, the oldest among them stepped forward nervously. He cleared his throat, kicked at the dirt, considering his words.
“The- uh, the Elders speak truly that we have established many foundational understandings of this great land. I have every confidence that what we have gathered and they have, umm, organized is trustworthy.” The Elders nodded in agreement, but the Voyageur cautiously continued, “That being said… every detail cannot be known for an absolute certainty.” Many shouted in agreement. Red in the face, the Elders attempted to do damage control after such a reckless statement.
“Be that as it m- BE THAT AS IT MAY!” shouted the learned leader, “There is enough written and recorded in these volumes that the citizens of Mystery will take more than two lifetimes to study and understand, and generations more to find application for it all. We have no need to risk more lives exploring Mystery!” Now, it was the Voyageurs who were confused. The older explorer spoke up once again.
“With due respect, honored Elder, but surely we spent so much of our lives, spilled our blood, lost our sisters and brother, so that others might go into the land and see it, explore it, engage it for themselves, did we not?”
“Of course not! Why should anyone want to reinvent the wheel, risking so much for what is readily available here. Besides, we have spent years studying your findings. These people would not know what to do with all they encountered.”
“Of course, revered Elder. However… would you not join us in the journey? Then you could experience Mystery for yourself, sharing your wisdom with us all along the way.” Despite his wise words, the crowd exploded into arguments. Soon, factions began to develop. Many of the people refused to tell what to do, immediately running into the darkness to explore Mystery for themselves. Some of the Voyageurs led others on expeditions. Many stood with the Elders, trusting their leaders and the knowledge they had recorded. Not since the Great Torch Revolution had the people been so divided.
And yet, in a glimmer of hope, few of the Voyageurs and a few of the Elders drew yet others around them and decided to go together, carefully, to explore the great land together. As they went, they sought to reconcile the others they encountered along the way. They shared the explorers passion to engage Mystery firsthand. They honored the wisdom and understanding of their Elders and those who remained with the Encyclopedia. They could only hope that, with time, patience and grace, others would learn this generous embrace. Until then, they would continue their journey of exploration and reconciliation.
We do not follow Jesus alone. Ever.
We may come to faith individually. After all, what is sin if not a force that disintegrates the relational connection that was part of God’s design- communion between humanity and God; humanity among itself; individual identity within community; harmony with creation. Sin cuts us off, isolates us, drives us to hide the nakedness of our broken nature, marring the image of God that we best reflect together in unity.
We also come to the cross as individuals. Death is the ultimate expression of sins power to separate us from God and others and creation- ultimately the end of self. Yet, this death to self is the only way to new life. And when we embrace that new life, it is only through Christ, who conquered sin and death forever.
Don’t miss this! We are resurrected in Christ. Our salvation lies in the grace of Jesus making us part of Himself, His very Body. And it is in the Person of Jesus that we become the fullness of who we are created to be, as one. Our identities, our vocations, our giftings, and visions- all that makes of who we are is reborn into the singular place of the incarnational Church of Jesus Christ.
Such a salvation means that we are no longer our own. While God is our loving Father who gives only good things to His children, He is also our Lord and Master. His will, not ours, becomes the guiding direction of our lives. Everything begins with the purposes of His kingdom, according to His will. He gives us freedom to choose how we live, but only insofar as we do so within that framework. And while the freedom is expansive, the life that remains available to us is incomparably costly.
The world would have us think that freedom is a multiplicity of options. Surrounded by a marketplace culture that plasters itself on every inch of our world, it is all too easy for us to buy into the lie that we are free when we participate in this mass consumption. Yet every selfish choice- most of which we justify as “our right” to make- binds us in allegiance to a power that does not easily let go. We find ourselves living beyond our means, struggling with obesity, languishing in lust. And since everyone else is doing, even in the church, we shrug it off as the new normal. After all, nobody is perfect. That’s what grace is for, right?
And yet, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that we can serve only one master. He leaves no room for compromise. He wants us, all of us, no holds barred. He even defies the most obvious salesmanship techniques and is deadly honest with us- following Him is going to cost us everything and it is not going to be pleasant a lot of the time. But He promises us true life in its fullest.
That life is found on the far side of the cross, where we are reborn together as One Body, the Church. Yet, when we limit our faith to largely personal and private piety, we are camping out on the wrong side of the cross. We are worshiping Jesus, even acknowledging the sin in our lives that put Him on that cross. Yet we are not yet following Him. To follow Christ is to die to self- to the devastating individualism that is corrupting our culture, our churches, and our lives- and to be reborn together, in community.
There’s nothing romantic about community, as popular as the idea might be these days. Community sucks. It is hard. True community is a place “where the person you like least always is”. It is hard because it exposes all your selfishness, stubbornness, and spite, grinding them down. And yet, that is what makes community so beautiful- at least through the redemptive power of Christ: We become more of who we were created to be, reflecting Jesus to a watching world, both individually and collectively.
The allegiance demanded- yes, demanded- by Christ is such that we must ask ourselves which other loyalties we must betray. Such betrayal will make us unappreciated, even hated, in circles political, economic, social and more. And yet, we will find hope in following Jesus together, encountering Him in ways unimaginable to us. And in the end, we will be transformed together into His image.Chapter
In the early years of being a Christian, it was not uncommon to hear the idea that all we need is the Bible. If anyone of us wants to know God and understand His will, all we had to do was open up Scripture and study. We were cautioned about commentaries- they might be helpful, but we should never substitute the blatant truth in Scripture for the opinions of others. In its worst expressions, this led to anti-academic sentiment (and even anti-intellectualism). The heart of this bias was genuine and well-intentioned, but it was/is deeply misguided. The truth is that we never come to the Bible alone.
Let’s say you open to the New Testament and read Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. The fact is, you are reading it in a translation. Immediately you are not alone. The work and minds behind that translation required endless hours of study, scholarship, debate and more. It is, after all, only one of hundreds of translations available. Even if you decided to learn the language of the original text(s), you’d still have to rely on that same scholarship. Already the room is filled with countless others who are helping you read the text.
This says nothing about the fact that you are reading the text through the lens of your place in history, culture, language, gender, age, education, experience, etc. Layer upon layer of bias, influence and context shape how you read, what you understand as you read and how you respond to the implications of that understanding. As if that weren’t enough, even the people who were listening to Jesus’ words in the moments He spoke them often understood and responded to them differently. Even His closest friends and disciples got it wrong time and again.
This kind of thinking is met with great resistance by those who believe that the Bible is enough. After all, they say, if you question our ability to trust Scripture, what can we trust? I sympathize with their perspective. There are those who have allowed these facts to rob them of faith in some/any authority in Scripture. However, I believe that the logic of those who claim “Bible alone” actually achieves the opposite end they desire- that is, it results in us losing the essential and precious truth found in Scripture.
We do not come to Scripture alone but do so with the Holy Spirit who helps us discern God’s truth and will within. We do so through our brokenness and thus get it wrong time and again, but with humility, chastened certainty and the grace of a forgiving God, we continue to pursue Him. This isn’t a formula or “5-easy-steps”, but it is a path upon which we will discover more of God and His truth.
This same Holy Spirit is the Spirit who unites us as One Body in Christ. Therefore, the Spirit quickens our understanding of Scripture as we seek to discern together as community. And that communal discernment engages the diversity and multiplicity of gifts within that community without condescending against some strength or privileging others. We are mutually interdependent on one another through the Spirit. In many ways, this unity and interdependence should provide an impetus for a humble, yet passionate engagement of mission. After all, each person who comes into the Body of Christ brings with them absolutely unique expressions of gifting, perspective, etc. In fact, it is often in those who are most other that bring us an essential understanding to become more like Christ together.
We never come to the Bible alone. And I thank God for it every day.
“Why are you proud, O man? God became low for you. You would perhaps be ashamed to imitate a lowly man; then, at least, imitate the lowly God.” -St. Augustine, Confessions (Book 7)
Imitating Christ is a spiritual discipline that goes back to the early Church. Much has been written and practiced, from the withdrawal & interior life of Thomas à Kempis to the humility and compassion of Bernard of Clairvaux. My own adopted tradition- Anabaptism- is deeply formed by the commitment to follow the example and teachings of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. However, I’ve been most inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi’s living embrace of Jesus’s example.
As the examples above reflect, both the motivation and expression of imitation of Christ varies a great deal. Many Protestants dismissed the Franciscan commitment because they feared a works-based emphasis on faith, as though by sheer force of will these friars sought to be as good as Jesus. While there might have been some who would be guilty of such a suspicion, the heart of Franciscan imitation of Christ was far from what these critics dismissed it as.
Francis and his brother took a very literal approach to obeying Christ’s teachings, sometimes to a fault. Yet, his motivation was something rather extraordinary. Despite what some critics assumed, Francis did not imitate Christ out of any expectation that he could earn salvation or even righteousness in the effort. In fact, such a suggestion would have mortified him, so unworthy did he consider himself.
St. Francis did not imitate Christ in order to be like Him, as such a result is beyond human effort. Instead, Francis imitated Jesus so that he might encounter Him. Do not miss the critical difference: The uniqueness of St. Francis’ devotion to imitate Christ lies in the fact that he did not embrace imitation so that he could be like Christ, he embraced it so that he might encounter Christ. And it was through those encounters that he became like Christ.
What does such a shift in motivation mean for us? How might this change how and why we seek to imitate Christ?
A few years ago, while reading through Church history, I was struck by how often Christian communities found themselves the object of persecution and trials. More pointedly, it seemed that those times where the church suffered most were the times their witness was most vibrant and authentic. While I had seen this dynamic before, I had always assumed that their suffering produced in them the notable faithfulness- and to be sure, that is a part of it. However, I began to wonder if that was the only way the two dynamics were connected. What if it was their very faithfulness to Christ that brought on their suffering? The more I studied, the more I realized this was equally the case.
Jesus not only made it clear that His followers- us included- would face suffering, but that such suffering was a blessing which we should rejoice in. This is such a contrast to the culture of comfort and social acceptability that Christians in the West largely enjoy. Some will cite examples of Christian suffering here, like no prayer in school and the like, but these inconveniences are nothing compared the genuine suffering God’s people have faced through history.
Sadly, such suffering was not always at the hands of those who were outside of the faith. All too often, both in Jesus day and throughout Church history, many Christians who sought to live faithfully according to the way of Jesus found themselves facing the persecution of the larger Christian community. Jesus knew that follow Him would often put us at odds with the world and the religious authorities alike. It was a hard truth, but one that was held firmly by His disciples and later followers.
While we do not need to out looking for suffering- nor justify legitimate rejection by the wider world due to our self-righteousness and pride- we must ask ourselves why the church in the West faces so little of the suffering Jesus promised we would see. Some would argue that our peace is a blessing from God, linking it nationalism or exceptionalism, but an examination of history and Scripture suggests a very different conclusion to me. While God does bless us, we must also consider the reality that millions of others worldwide, Christians sisters and brothers included, suffering because of some of our so-called “blessings”.
Why should such suffering be a blessing? When we follow Christ in faith, even in the face of suffering, we are stripped of our pretenses and false securities. We realize in tangible ways that we are utterly dependent on Him, and by extension of His Spirit in us, on each other, His Body. We are blessed because Christ works in and through us to bring us to maturity, not from a distance, but from right along side us. For before we suffered for Him, He suffered for us, inviting us to join Him in that painful, yet hopeful and redemptive work.
Again, the challenge is not to go looking for suffering, but to instead be unwaveringly bold as together we dare to live out the teachings of Jesus, to follow Him, not just worship Him. This might sound obvious, but the realities that such a commitment will not only put us at odds with the world but perhaps even with the status quo of the Christian subculture. For example, our radical obedience will, like it did with Jesus, bring us into the company of people the church has rejected as sinners, as “unclean”. Those we love and respect in the faith might rebuke us, even reject us. And while we are never arrogant, it may require that we defy the norms to be faithful to Christ.
I believe that we are in a crisis of faith in the western church. We need to rediscover what it means to follow Jesus to any end He calls us to. We need to be willing to ask the hard questions about what kinds of communities are being produced in our culture- communities of Christ or communities of consumers? Or communities at all? I am, however, also hopeful. I see many people gathering together to live just such obedience.
Shall we join them?
Last week, I wrote about the realities of suffering and the church. Jesus seemed fairly clear that those who follow Him would suffer for it, suggesting that a church that does not suffer may not be following Christ as He has called them to. Again, we are not to go looking for suffering for its own sake, but to be unwaveringly bold as we dare to live out the teachings of Jesus, to follow Him, not just worship Him.
It is all too easy for us to define our position as a “persecuted” community through the lens of things which we stand against. In other words, as we publicly oppose abortion, it is not uncommon to be vocally rejected and despised by many people in the world. However, while such stances are necessary (even if we have gone about it poorly more often than not), I do not believe that our true suffering will primarily about what we oppose. Instead, following Christ will produce a community whose behavior, even internally, will offend and threaten the powers that be.
Perhaps one of the most critical of such behaviors in early church history was the practice of hospitality, especially with respect to welcoming people of very diverse, even divergent, economic positions. Early Christian communities were often characterized by their inclusion of the rich and the poor together. It was not simply that both were included, but rather than the nature of that inclusion was intentionally subversive to the expectations and patterns of the world. The poor were not condescended to or merely tolerated, but often given the place of honor, while the rich were encouraged to humble themselves in the community.
It is critical, at this stage, to understand that Jesus (and His wider Jewish tradition) held very integrated view the material and the spiritual with respect to poverty/wealth. In other words, it is not merely a matter of if you have great wealth or no wealth nor is simply a matter of being “spiritually” rich or poor. It was both. Jesus affirmed that follow Him would lead to a life in which the bondage of material wealth would be loosened and our commitment to generosity, simplicity and hospitality would lend itself to an economic place that was more likely to be humble than in abundance.
This is part of Jesus’s upside down kingdom, living in a way so contrary to the way of the world that it seems ludicrous. And yet, Jesus calls us into communities where poverty (as nuanced above) is something we are to take joy in, while wealth (again, nuanced) something that should teach us humility. While we do not have the space to get into this in detail here, the point is that our communities should relate to the dynamics of economics differently than the world does.
However, what is most critical for us to recognize is that the rich and the poor did not just happen to be part of the same community, but were there by necessity. Unlike today, where choosing a Christian community is akin to shopping the market, the early Christians were a minority, an often persecuted minority at that. Thus, they found themselves together as a community of diversity.
That diversity, while perhaps a necessity in their context, was hugely formational to the nature of their community and the focus of their ministry. The Roman Emperor Julian commented (disdainfully) on such an identity when he said that their numbers were “specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” In other words, they were selflessly caring for the very people who persecuted and killed them. And this was a threat to the empire and its interests.
All this is to say that, when we consider becoming a community that suffers for Christ, we should give special attention to how we relate to those of lower or higher economic status. Do our church communities truly and functionally honor the poor? Do we encourage the wealthy to humble themselves? How often is the reverse true? These are critical questions for us to unflinchingly ask ourselves.
However, it goes much deeper than this. After all, unlike the early church, necessity does not require most of us to share life with people of different economic or social status. As a result, our communities lack the powerful formation that shapes who we are and the ministry we engage in. Such an admission requires that we ask much harder questions, such as might obedience to Christ call demand a re-orientation, even relocation, to intentionally pursue such relationships? If such a response is necessary, are we willing to uproot ourselves, our families, perhaps even our churches in order to follow Him? As I am fond of saying, when God said there should be no poor among you, He wasn’t recommending segregation.
What does this have to do with suffering? Without question, the radical reorientation I believe that God is calling His church to will threaten the powers that be, both in the world and among the religious status quo. It is only when we begin to invite people into our homes, attempt to feed the hungry in our communities, create alternatives for economic justice- it is only in the midst of such a reorientation that begin to discover our counter-cultural Christ’s community is called to be and how many of the world’s (and the church’s) systems resist such a change.
Not every Christian is called to move into a poor neighborhood (though far more are called to that than are obediently responding). However, every Christian is called to live a life of generous simplicity and radical hospitality in whatever context they are called (again, not one they simply happen to be in- there is nothing incidental about place). Every Christian is called to participate in a community that is seeking to be formed into the image of Christ- a formation that necessitates sacrificial and costly choices.
I have an odd intolerance for certain foods. I’m not allergic to them, but I’ve also discovered that it more than mere pickiness. Unfortunately, the foods I am intolerant of are the ones that I most need to be eating for health and nutrition. While I am working on overcoming this problem, it never fails that someone learns of my eating habits and begins to lovingly lecture me on the necessity of eating better than I do. I nod patiently as I hear for the umpteenth time the basics of nutrition we all learned in grade school. Recently, when someone began this lecture, I quickly interrupted them and said: “Oh, I agree! I’m convinced, just not converted“.
This off-hand turn of phrase has stuck with me ever since. Let’s briefly look at the terms in question here:
Convinced: To be moved to believe, through logic, argument or evidence, that something is true.
Many Christians, especially in West, have come to faith through being convinced- that is, we have been moved to believe differently about something through a compelling argument, presentation or even relationship. This ushers us into active relationship with God as we make a choice to identify as His follower. Growing up, this is what I was taught about what it meant to be converted. While there is overlap, I think that we have confused being convinced with being converted.
Converted: To be changed from one form, substance or state, to another.
Without question being convince is a significant part of the conversion experience (at least for many). That being said, we can see by the definition that conversion is far more than simply being convinced- it encompasses and surpassed it. To be converted is to be transformed- to be changed from one thing to another. It is holistic and all-encompassing. The emphasis of rationalism in Western Christianity, while bringing us many gifts, has all too often led us to understand belief as primarily (and at times exclusively) as cognitive. Yes, it demanded change in us, but it was as though we believe that the transformation would occur because of the changed understanding. In other words, the primary means of conversion was the change of ideas.
True conversion does not occur because of us. Yes, we participate through our will. Yes, our minds- that is our understanding and ideas- should be changed as well. But the source of that change is not the result of anything in us, but instead, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Further, if Jesus is to be believed, then how we live out this transformation is more important than what we think about it. The changed mind is a product of the transformed heart, made possible through Christ. The fruit of that transformation must be made manifest in how we live.
Don’t settle for a changed mind. Jesus is not someone who had some ideas He wanted us to be convinced by. Rather, He invited (and invites) us into Himself to experience true and whole transformation to become, together, His Body for His kingdom and His glory.
I recently came across a story from Spain about a man and his son, Paco, who had become estranged. In the heat of the conflict, the son ran away. The father set out to find him, but after months of fruitless search, he was not sure where to turn next. So he took out an ad in the Madrid newspaper which said:
“Dear Pace, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven”
That Saturday the father turned up with hope that his son would be waiting there. Instead, so the story goes, he discovered that nearly a thousand men named Paco were waiting, longing for forgiveness and reconciliation with their fathers.
Whether this story is factual or not, it contains a very real truth: the relationship between a parent and a child holds the capacity for great love and great pain. The theme of fatherhood (and parenthood in general) is a constant in the brokenness of people we’ve journeyed with in ministry here for the last decade. To refer to God as Father, then, is a loaded and tricky commitment.
Of course, there are few stories in Scripture that more powerful deal with this topic than that of the prodigal son. We spent some amazing time this past Sunday at Little Flowers delving into this story. I am deeply indebted to Kenneth Bailey for his peerless writing on this topic, especially “The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants”. On Sunday, we spent some time looking more closely at the three main characters in the story. However, before we move on, I encourage you to open up Luke 15 and have it handy while you read here.
The Younger Son
When we read about the younger son asking for his inheritance early, he comes off as an impertinent, selfish youth. However, the those listening to Jesus, who understood the culture and context of this tale, such a decision would have been especially scandalous. It was tantamount to suggesting that he would rather his father dead than to wait for his birthright. Of course, he probably didn’t want his father dead, but such is the insult of such a request. He wanted what was his, but was not willing to wait for the right time to receive it.
Consider the implications of how we might treatment similarly. How do we demand what God has promised us without waiting for His timing and His means? All too often, in our longing for what is good, we settle for cheap substitutes for God’s best. We long for intimacy, but we settle for sex. We long for purpose, but we settle for ambition. We long the kingdom, but we settle for success. All too often we want the blessings and grace of Jesus without the cost and commitment of being His disciples.
Growing up, I was told that the prodigal went on to spent his money on drunkenness and prostitutes. Yet, if we look at the text, no such details are given. Instead, the term used would better be translated as “living extravagantly”, buying friends through lavish “generosity” (Note: Again, a cheap substitute for friendship and community. How often do we “buy” the interest of people in our churches through extravagance?). In the end, of course, we know that those friends disappeared the moment his wealth vanished. And the emptiness of his selfishness eventually caught up with him, leaving him utterly alone.
The Elder Son
Here we see a man who has never broken the rules, so to speak. He stayed where he was meant to stay, doing what he was meant to do. While he had already received his portion of the inheritance (as we see earlier that the father split it between the two sons already), he rightfully left it in the guardianship of his father. He was not going to rush his father’s death to receive the fullness of what was his right. In this way, he was the model son. And in this sense, I admit that I can feel a degree of understanding with respect to his response when he discovered the celebration going on.
When he arrives, however, he does not enter the house. Instead, he sends someone in to find out what is going on. As the story continues, we see clearly that he refrains from entering out of protest, holding to his well-earned position of moral superiority over his younger brother. After all, he has just learned that his father had received his brother “safe and sound”. This phrase, I discovered through Bailey, is deeply linked to the concept of shalom. In other words, his father welcomed his son home in absolute and holistic peace. Everything was fully and wholly forgiven.
The implications for the elder brother were significant. Did such a forgiveness mean that he would receive another portion of the inheritance? If not, at the very least the wealth of the family would be diminished by his return. Everything thing been used to celebrate this sinful wretch- from the robbers to the fatted calf- were meant to be his! Further, where were the consequences? And why hadn’t he been consulted about how this younger son was received? After all, he was the heir apparent!
The loving forgiveness and grace of the father cost the elder son.
It was not just material wealth that the elder son lost, but his pride was also threatened. As the heir, it was his duty to stand next to his father and serve his honored guests. While such a role was typical one of great honor, in this case, it, he saw it as an insult. How could his father expect him to serve that vile sinner? Let’s stop for a moment to consider the implications. The loving forgiveness and embracing grace that Jesus extends to the lost as He welcomes them into the Body will necessarily cost the rest of that Body. What might that cost look like for us? What price are we willing to pay and what sacrifices are we willing to make, for the sake of the returning prodigals?
As Christians, we are used to examining ourselves through the lens of the two brothers, while looking to the father as the figure representing Jesus. While this is true, it is important that we recognize that Jesus was calling us to his fatherly (and motherly) role. After all, we are the Body of Christ. (I cannot overstate the importance of Henri Nouwen’s book “The Return of the Prodigal Son” with respect to this truth). So as we examine the father in this story, make sure you consider the implications for yourself and your community. However, we need to back up to the beginning of the story first.
When the younger son demands his inheritance and leaves, we read nothing of the father’s attempt to rebuke him. The absence of such a detail would not be an oversight on Jesus’ part, but an intentional choice. The silence of the father would have been deafening to those hearing the tale. Where the father has the right (and from some perspectives, the duty) to rebuke his wayward son, instead he waits in patient suffering.
The story tells us that when the father sees his son returning, he runs to meet him. In this simple statement, we find some powerful truths that many of us would miss when we do not understand the context. First, to see his son returning suggests that the father was waiting and watching for him. Neither his lack of presence nor sinful choices resulted in being set aside, even after so long an absence. The father was hoping, longing, waiting and watching.
Second, we read that he runs to meet his son. For a patriarch to run would be an act of great indignity. His position in the community was, in part, reflected by his stately gait. Now we see him running- an act that would have required him to hitch up his robes and expose his legs, a further indignity. Why would he do this? While excited love would surely have played a part, there was another reason. For a Jewish person to squander their wealth, especially among Gentiles (and we know they are Gentiles because he cared for their pigs), would have made him subject to kezazah, a shaming and cutting off from family and community. So the long-suffering father races ahead, exposing himself to indignity and shame, in order to beat the community to his son. And thus, by embracing and forgiving him, rendered the potential (and rightful) kezazah impossible. Further, such an act was done by the father prior to any indication of repentance. Again, consider the implications for us, as God’s people, in the world.
Bailey notes that this story is often cited by Muslims to demonstrate that forgiveness does not require sacrifice (the cross). Yet, as we consider the pain, suffering and shame that the father accepts for the sake of the son, it is hard to deny that the cross is clearly foreshadowed. The suffering of the father was not due to the loss of material wealth, just as the suffering of the cross was not primarily physical. Instead, the truest suffering suffered was the agony of rejected love and the costly path to reconciliation. The only alternative to the humbling and suffering love is to seek recompense and restoration by the law, which we know to be an empty pursuit.
It is only now, in the face of the father’s love, that the younger son finally expresses repentance. When we look back to when he came to his sense and decided to return home, his decision one of calculated self-interest. After all, he was going to ask for a paying position in the family- yes, a step down, but still an undeserved position for such a sinner as him. However, when he encounters the loving father’s forgiveness, his heart is transformed and surrenders wholly to the father’s will. How often do we use exclusion and rebuke as a means to acquire confession and contrition, and only then extending forgiveness and acceptance? How does the father’s example turn the tables on us?
When confronted with the elder son’s anger, the father again demonstrates his nature and character. The insult and insolence of the elder son, refusing to take him place at the father’s side, was deep violation of custom and relationship, especially since it was being done publicly. The father would have been well within his rights to rebuke and punish the son. The father pleads with his elder son. The Greek word for “plead” in this case clearly denotes coming alongside. In other words, he does not use his position or rights, but honors the son as his heir by pleading with him, humbling himself in the process (and again reflecting the cross. Sadly, the elder son shows his true colors when he says:
“‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”
Consider what the elder son is saying and doing with this statement:
-He refuses to pursue the reconciliation of his lost brother (i.e. refers to him as “this son of yours”, thereby almost disowning him)
-He places his adherence to the rule over the love of the father (i.e. claiming his lack of disobedience as enough to merit reward)
-He wrongly questions the integrity of the father (i.e. claiming he denied the good son and celebrated the sinner)
-He makes assumptions about his brothers sins (i.e. claiming his brother used prostitutes, a claim he could not possibly have substantiated, as he has yet to even see his brother)
All this (and more) he does publicly, in an attempt to not only demonstrate his moral superiority over even his father but to manipulate “justice” from him through shame. And again, the father would have every right to rebuke him and punish him. Instead, he responds:
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
It is important to note that the word “son” used here is one that denotes love and affection. In the face of insult, he replies with intimacy. He is reminding his son what is truly at stake- not moral superiority or even the inheritance. Instead, it was about the loving relationship of the father with his children- both of them wholly and equally.
Remember, that this tale is being told in response to the Pharisees who criticized Jesus for his association with sinners. That he stops the tale here, unfinished without the response of the elder brother, has beautiful implications. For it is no longer a parable at all! Instead, Jesus stands in the place of the father and his declaration is stated (with loving affection) to the elder sons, the Pharisees, inviting them to join Him in celebrating the return of their lost loved ones. And He awaited their response.
And He awaits our response as well. How will we respond?
For those who grew up in the church culture, the expression “wear your Sunday best” is quite familiar. It means, of course, dressing your very best, specifically as you would for church. Nice clothes, clean face, and smiles all around. As the culture changes, I am sure this expression will lose traction, but for many of us, it reminds us of the value that, when we gather together to worship God, we show Him (and each other) honor by putting our best foot forward.
There is, however, a darker side to the idea of “wearing our Sunday best”. All too often, as we gather together with other believers, we work very hard to put forward this image of having it all together. “Look at us! Clearly we have no money problems. Our jobs are stable. Our marriage is strong. Our kids are respectful.” Often, however, the external image we present is far from an accurate reflection of the truth it covers up. The clothing is not really the problem, but they often serve as a means to make something that is not true appear as though it is. This is pretense.
Sadly, the community of faith is to be a place where such pretense is not only unnecessary but also where it is confessed and abandoned. The church is to be a community where the nature of our brokenness is fundamentally assumed and acknowledged and where our mutual need of daily forgiveness and grace (from God and each other) is central. Yet all too often, the church is the last place where such vulnerability is invited, welcomed or even safe.
What makes matters worse is that often such pretense is not even recognized. There are, of course, times when all of us are guilty of blatant and/or intentional pretense. However, there are many more who have adopted pretense as a genuine pattern for living out their faith. That is, they work very hard to maintain the external expressions of faithfulness despite the reality of their lives and hearts. While there is merit in this insofar as developing discipline, when it is accompanied by an intention denial of and/or unawareness to ones own brokenness, it is deadly.
The most damaging dynamic of pretense, however, comes from its implications to our participation in the mission of God. If our faithfulness within the church is primarily expressed through external adherence to certain behaviors and appearances, then it is only natural that such pretense will shape the way we live our witness before the world. When you ask non-Christians in our culture to describe Christians, all too often the terms “self-righteous” or “hypocrites” come up. People see Christians as articulating beliefs about love, peace, grace, humility, etc., yet do not see them living it. In fact, all too often our behavior represents the opposite of what we espouse.
It would be too easy, though, to dismiss only examples of more extreme Christian arrogance and hypocrisy. The more deadly expressions of this missional pretense come in a more subtle form because it is often borne out of a genuine and admirable desire to proclaim Jesus effectively. Remembering that many believe that the external appearances are expressions of genuine faithfulness, then it is understandable that such people believe that, in order to convince people that God is good and that Christianity is right/true, we must appear to others as having it all together. After all, if our lives are a mess, yet claim to have found the one and only truth, who would take us seriously.
What we fail to see in the midst of this is that the world already knows that our lives are a mess. Our pretense is only really serving to convince ourselves. What we do to gain credibility in our witness is the very thing that makes us appear hypocritical and self-righteous. Yet when the world calls us out on these failings, we too often respond with counter-attack, even pushing us to greater withdrawal from the world.
The paradoxical beauty of Christ is that, in fact, our credibility will grow exponentially from our authenticity- brokenness and all. The gospel we live and proclaim is not that having Jesus in your life makes your problems go away, but rather that life together in and through Christ offers daily hope, grace, forgiveness, and love in the face of our brokenness. The acknowledgment of our sin does not undermine the gospel, but rather the provides the opportunity for the glory of God’s grace to be made manifest:
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” 1 Timothy 1:15-16
Is it any surprise that in our culture, when the church is represented in popular culture is most often done in a less than flattering way, yet when Alcoholics Anonymous is represented it is almost always presented a community of integrity? It is no coincidence that the latter example is largely defined by their explicit acknowledgment of their brokenness. We must regain this integrity in the church and that will happen only when we put pretense to death. In its place, we must embrace the path of humility and contrition, of confession and repentance, of mutuality and celebration.
The hard truth is this: Overcoming pretense is hard work, painful work and an act of irrational vulnerability. It is the irrationality of Christ crucified. And it is also the (only) hope of resurrection.
For several years now, Little Flowers Community has been gathering every Sunday evening for our time of worship together. The start of our time together is our shared meal- a potluck dinner where everyone (who is able) brings something to add to the table where we all partake. For me, this shared table is the centerpiece of our worship together. We can’t all fit around the tables, so we sit throughout the living room/dining area in the round. It is wonderful time of food, fun, and great conversation.
One aspect of that meal that is particularly unique is that it is completely unplanned. That is, we do not organize in any way who is bringing what. Therefore, what ends up on the table each week is a mystery until everyone arrives. And then the result is often a bizarre mix of (always delicious) dishes that might not otherwise go together. Once we had a table that consisted of almost only potato dishes. Another time, when many of us were away and only a few people were present, there was only one casserole. So someone quickly threw in a bag of popcorn into the microwave. Or there was the time one of the single guys brought blueberry muffins. When someone thanked him for bringing dessert, he insisted that they were for dinner, thus inaugurating the on-going community love for “dinner muffins”. (Interestingly, the same fellow later ordered a pizza in for dessert).
This rather odd and eclectic shared table is, perhaps, the most compelling reflection of who we are as a community. Recently, as we have begun to seek greater clarity about our identity as a church, one theme kept coming to the top of the pile every time: that we are a community of radical belonging. While we have a long way to go to step more fully into this aspect of our identity, it is clearly a centrally defining value that shapes us. The desire to welcome people and our gift to do so meaningfully is part of our DNA as a community.
Like our potluck dinners, that welcome tends to draw an odd assortment of eclectic people. Sharing life, faith, and mission with people who are so very different than each other- people you might not expect to cross paths at all, has resulted in a beautiful sense of community, while being inevitably messy and challenging as well. Just like common wisdom tells us that you don’t serve casserole with microwave popcorn, so too does common wisdom tell us that we shouldn’t “mix” church with certain kinds of people. Sure, we must love them and reach out to them as objects of mission, but certainly we cannot worship side by side with them. And yet, that is exactly what we do and it is stunningly beautiful to me.
When I say that this meal is central to our worship- a meal that reflects a central expression of our nature as a community- I do so because it is Eucharist. It is there that the impossibly other come together around the table of belonging made possible by Jesus. And the otherness that divides and the sin and disintegrates us is consumed by the brokenness of Christ’s body and shed blood. And as we consume that broken bread together, sharing in that substance, so too are we consumed by Christ and transformed into His Body together.
It is in the radical embrace of love- in the place of genuine belonging- that the not yet sprouted seeds of belief are surrounded, nurtured and given life. It is in that rich soil of a community that is the Body of Christ that such seeds can take root and bear fruit, helping people become more like Jesus in word and deed, united and empowered by His Holy Spirit. It is not for us make that new life happen- that is beyond us! Rather we are to be the fertile soil in which those seeds can take root and bring new life. This is who we are becoming as Little Flowers Community. And we are humbled and grateful beyond words.
Let me introduce you to The Community Longing To Be The Church. There are many of us, but too often we feel very much alone.
We are community because we are all too aware of our need for others and for God. We are a community that prefers walking together, even in our brokenness than being alone in a pretense of togetherness. We are united by relationship and longing, not achievement or strength.
For us, generosity is a matter of survival, for, without each other, many of us would go hungry. We try to give what we have to each other though our selfish nature regularly rears its head in very “reasonable” rationalization. We offer hospitality, opening our homes and lives to welcome the other though we don’t always like the smells and we too often keep a hand guardedly on our stuff. But we try and we are blessed and humbled in the process.
We are The Community Longing To Be The Church. Our success is measured by our faithfulness to God, each other our neighbors and (when we find the time) Creation- which is a stretch in the midst of busy lives and broken relationships. We celebrate even the smallest triumphs of life and faith because the small victories are all we can hope for at the moment. We’ll leave the revolution to the better equipped.
We are ruthlessly committed to people over programs, and since the latter generally requires money (of which we have little), that is probably a good thing. We cooperate and co-create, trying to resist the impulse to let “the leaders” do it all. Sometimes we are even successful in said resistance. We know what is ideal, but need to want it enough to pay the price.
We are The Community Longing To Be The Church. Each of us wants to lead, but most of us like the authority more than the responsibility. We believe that everyone has something valuable to bring, so we work hard to embrace and celebrate each person.
We are tested in this by the idiocy, immaturity and inexplicable behavior that everyone displays at one time or another. We believe we will find Christ in them, but it is very hard to do at times- as hard as it is for others to see Him in us.
We learn to live with the contradictions and inconsistencies among us, not out of defeat or lack of caring, but out a realism born of experience. We find in those differences, instead of division, the seeds of learning, humility and love, even when born out of conflict among us. His grace is ever needed as we seek to come together in His image.
We are The Community Longing To Be The Church. We live in the paradox of longing to become while already being. We are the Church. We are the Body. And yet we are so far from it. In this tension- in our sin and selfishness- we discover our desperate need for God and even, often grudgingly, for each other. We love God with all our hearts, but those hearts are divided. So we come together, through His Spirit to seek the love of the Father as we seek to become more like the Son. And we see that this is achieved in the chaos and brokenness of the Cross. Our hope is that, as we are poured out by and for Him, we can become the community He has created us to be. It is here that we discover the deeper truth:
We are The Community Longing To Become Christ.
Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick
_The virtues necessary to be a martyr are no different from _
the virtues necessary to be a faithful Christian. —Craig Hovey
The disheveled and exhausted priest awoke from what little sleep he’d been able to cling to. Even at this early hour, sweat had begun to soak into his filthy striped prison clothes, promising another day of nearly unbearable heat in the confines of the prisoner bunker. Moving slowly, with the care and pains of a man twice his age, he got to his feet and stretched. As usual, he was the first one awake. He appreciated the few moments of silence each morning before he began his daily ritual of caring for the other men and serving their needs, from cleaning them of their own filth to administering the Eucharist. He took a deep breath and steadied himself for what was to come.
On this morning, however, the silence was different. Even with most of the other nine men condemned to starve to death in the bunker already dead, the silence was so complete, it was as if he was alone. Bending down on one knee beside the still forms remaining human forms, he placed the back of his hand on each of their faces, their skin uncharacteristically cool in the growing heat of the summer day. He sighed heavily, slipped onto both knees and quietly prayed for the last of his deceased companions.
His prayers were interrupted by the screeching protest of rusted hinges as the bunker door was opened, several armed guards stepping quickly inside, their rifles at the ready. As though the emaciated priest could have put up a fight, even if he had wanted do. They are afraid, thought the priest, of me. His heart filled with pity and compassion for his captors. He smiled kindly at them, hoping to ease their obvious anxiety.
“Wipe that smile off your face, prisoner!” Captain Fritzsch, the deputy commander of the concentration camp, barked as he stepped around the guards. This was the man who had condemned the men to die of starvation in order to deter other prisoners from attempting to escape. His cold pragmatism chilled the priest to the bone.
“It has been two weeks and you seem to be the last man alive. Characteristically stubborn and defiant, as usual,” the captain sneered at the kneeling priest, who bowed his head and said nothing. “Do you think you have accomplished anything here? Do you think taking the place of one condemned man — who will die anyway — will give meaning to your life?” The deputy commander waited for a response, but again the priest said nothing.
“Very well,” he added, “this bunker is needed for more important matters. Prisoner number 16770, I hereby sentence you to immediate execution. Bring the needle!” A camp doctor entered nervously, a readied syringe in his hand. Approaching the prisoner, he glanced back and forth between the priest and the captain, not sure how to proceed. Without a word, the priest raised his arm, offering it to the doctor, nodding to him with a look of such compassion that it was as though he was forgiving the man for what he was about to do.
This is how Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe, OFM, was martyred, giving his life to spare that of a Polish army sergeant, Franciszek Gajowniczek. Gajowniczek went on to live to the age of 94, seeing his family grow and expand over generations. He never failed to tell others of the heroic act of love that saved his life and the man who gave him his future, his life. On the 10th of October, 1982, Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian Maria Kolbe at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City to be remembered and venerated forever, a martyr for Christ.
What a Martyr Really Is
Few stories are more inspiring to Christians than those of martyrs — women and men who willingly, even joyfully, suffer and die for the sake of faithfulness in following Jesus. From the stoning of St. Stephen to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, church history is filled with example after example of this peaceful, yet unwavering witness of Christian love in face of suffering and death. We marvel at their courage and selflessness, revere their memories, and hold them up as examples of what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ.
Yet, despite our veneration of their faithful sacrifice and contrary to what we might say about their example to all Christians, all too often we view these men and women as so exceptionally holy that, while we can revere them, we are unable to practically follow their example. Whether we articulate it consciously or not, we view them through a lens of religious exceptionalism — the conviction that they are spiritually superior in ways that transcend the normal rules and expectations that come with living a human life today, therefore exempting us from the responsibility of even trying to follow their example.
For some, our failure to move past this is rooted in a genuine belief in our own mediocrity, even brokenness. Knowing ourselves like no one else could, we believe that we are far too flawed, afraid, lazy, timid, angry, jealous, or selfish to ever amount to anything more than the status quo of Christian faithfulness. For others, a feeling of resignation stems from an awareness of what true faithfulness would demand of us — the cost of true discipleship, which we, honest at least with ourselves, know we aren’t willing to pay. In truth, both excuses are not so different or unrelated. Regardless, they produce the same result: a failure to embrace the calling of every believer to follow the way of the martyrs, the way of the Cross.
It is understandable why we balk from this responsibility, especially as the details of the martyrs’ fates focus largely on the graphic realities of the suffering and deaths they experienced. I can say for myself that, apart from some significant transformation happening within me, it would seem unnatural (or at least unlikely) for me to respond to the prospect of such an end with eagerness, let alone joyful enthusiasm. Therefore, it is also easy to understand why we could misread the willingness of these saints as somehow demonstrating an absence of such fear as though it is a unique characteristic of their exceptional individuality.
However, when we explore the lives of the martyrs we see a pattern emerge. We begin to recognize in their stories, not an absence of fear, but a liberty from that very fear, just as present for them as for anyone. They somehow possess a freedom from the bondage of the fear of death that, by the Holy Spirit, empowers them to face martyrdom so heroically. As we discover the human persons within their hagiographies, with all the usual idiosyncrasies and imperfections of human experience, we are forced to admit that we cannot fairly hold them to a different standard than we hold ourselves. We are confronted with the invitation to participate in that same liberating transformation as fellow disciples of Christ.
This fundamental truth was echoed by Pope Francis:
“Both in the past and today, in many parts of the world there are martyrs, both men and women, who are imprisoned or killed for the sole reason of being Christian. But there is also the daily martyrdom, which does not result in death but is also a loss of life for Christ.”
In other words, the church — the body of Christ, every believer from Pope to postman to parent — shares in this “martyrological” vocation. Craig Hovey expands on this:
“Even though not every individual Christian will be killed, there is no way to distinguish those who will from those who will not. Even though not every Christian will be remembered as a martyr, every church that locates its identity in the cross is obligated to cultivate the virtues necessary to embrace all of its members to die for the cause of Christ. Every Christian is a member of a martyr-church.”
Yet, how do we “get there”? How do we become the kind of people who embrace this transformation and step into the fearless love of selfless service to God and neighbor? Again, we can look to the lives of the saints, not only those who suffered a martyr’s death, but all who embraced this “daily martyrdom” in life. People like St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her Little Way; Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, whose Catholic Worker movement continues to share life with those on the margins even today; Kent Annan and John Engle who serve tirelessly with Haiti Partners, facilitating educational transformation amid a devastated nation; Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity who selflessly pour out their lives among the world’s forgotten and rejected; Mark Van Steenwyk and the Mennonite Worker community sharing life in Minneapolis’s impoverished neighborhoods. In the lives of women and men such as these, we discover a work of transformation in hearts and lives — and this sort of transformation just might be accessible to us as well. Rooted in the fabric of Scripture and enlivened by the Spirit, it is a matter of following a journey with Christ that leads us from an isolated pretense of sin into Spirit-empowered communities of Christ. And with Christ, united as His Body together, we go about the work of seeing God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
It may sound easy when articulated in this way, but nothing could be further from the truth. Embracing the challenges surrounding such a faithfulness requires a lifetime, one that needs far more grace than discipline. Few things have been more intimidating in my life than having to sit down and write a book about this kind of vulnerable faith. After all, to have any credibility, one should really “practice what they preach.” And no one is more familiar with my own inadequacies and failings than me. Yet, it is in the face of my own imperfection that the stories of the martyrs and heroes of the faith become all that much more hopeful for me.
The Case of St. Patrick
Again, as we look at the lives of faithful servants of God, we see patterns. Their journey of transformation seems to follow a course that is reflected in the heart of Scripture. While this road of transformation can be seen in the lives of many individuals and communities throughout history, few have inspired me more than the life of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.
From his selfish, carefree youth to his capture as a slave, we see Patrick’s sinful pretense torn away, confronting him with the true emptiness of worldly pleasures and privileges. From the feelings of abandonment in enslavement, which led him finally to absolute surrender to God, to his miraculous liberation and return to home, we see the power of hope and the promise of resurrection. Yet, most poignantly, it is in Patrick’s return to the land of his captors as servant and missionary that the transformation of the Holy Spirit is best seen. Each of these points in his life illustrates a movement of grace that we will explore. At the beginning of the forthcoming chapters, we will glimpse these events in Patrick’s life, as we did with Father Kolbe. While based on the historical information we have, I will take some creative license (in areas such as dialogue) as I attempt to bring these stories to life in a more dynamic way.
Finally, while I promise that I will not give you “Five Easy Steps” to anything, there are steps that I will look to throughout the book. Namely, I draw deeply from the wisdom of the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (often referred to as AA). The twelve steps explicitly parallel the process we explore in this book, fleshing them out in ways that are helpful. I will mention these parallels in the hope of demonstrating their wisdom. They are particularly helpful because they integrate guiding principles with concrete actions, refusing to let them be abstracted into mere ideals. Core to their process (and adapted for this context), the twelve steps involve admitting that we cannot control our brokenness; recognizing the need for God’s intervention to give us strength; reflecting on all our failures, past and present, with the help of others; seeking reconciliation and making restitution whenever possible and beneficial; embracing a new life devoted to the principles learned; and compassionate reaching out to help others on the same journey. One could argue that these spiritual principles are necessary for everyone. Few movements reflect the kind of vulnerable faith we need like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Finally, I wanted to write this book because I believe with the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church,” in other words, a grace without price or cost, a grace taken for granted as though it is owed to us. Does anyone today doubt that the Church in the global north faces a crisis of this sort? Cheap faithfulness is taking the name of Christ as our identity without requiring the renunciation of self and selfish ends. It is seeking full intimacy with God yet giving little, if any, commitment. It is about negotiating terms with Jesus, as though we have anything at all to bring to the table. It is an abuse of love no better than trying to achieve the pleasures of intimacy by using another person for cheap sex.
So if you agree with Bonhoeffer, if you are intrigued by St. Patrick’s journey, and if you see a need for transformation in your own life, this is your invitation to take some time to explore what greater faithfulness by the people of God — a more costly faithfulness, a risky and vulnerable faithfulness — might look like. It is a call to a life of devotion and a relationship of intimacy with the truest of Lovers (and through that Lover, with one another). It might be costly because that Lover asks for every part of our lives — mind, will, and emotions — body and soul. But in this faithfulness, from what I can tell, we may be able to find a true fullness of life and be an integral part of God’s kingdom.
Praise for “Vulnerable Faith”:
"The urgency of the invitation to each of us in 'Vulnerable Faith' cannot be ignored. In a world of terror and hatred, of protection and retaliation, it is a bold and important reminder to Christians of the radical nature of our witness as followers of Jesus. He is the Word made flesh, the vulnerable incarnation of God's love for each and every one of us. And it is in a relationship of mutual vulnerability with the One who loves us that we will be able to grow to freedom, that God's desire and our hope of shalom will be realized.” -Jean Vanier, from the foreword
"In this age of self-reliance and faux invincibility, the spiritual discipline of vulnerability is a rare thing indeed. Gently and yet provocatively, Jamie Arpin-Ricci, uses the life and teaching of St Patrick to show us that it is only through accepting our common weakness, our brokenness and our unequivocal need for grace that we can find the opportunity for fullness of life and true freedom.” -Michael Frost, author ‘Incarnate'
“Arpin-Ricci… combines the story of St. Patrick with Alcoholics Anonymous’s 12-step program to illustrate what a life beyond pretense looks like. Humans, Arpin-Ricci says, normally live in fear not only of death but also of rejection and loss of control. It’s only as people have the courage to embrace vulnerability, as Patrick did on a path that inadvertently followed the trajectory of the 12 steps, that they can live as whole people. The idea of a 12-step/St. Patrick mash-up is intriguing, but the book soars highest when Arpin-Ricci writes about his true subject: the radical Jesus that animates both Patrick and AA. This Jesus transforms the world and emerges in community as people face fears and reach out to others. Social justice permeates Arpin-Ricci’s message: focus not on perfecting the self, but on seeking the other as Christ. For anyone yearning to find a more full-bodied Jesus than the version that only saves individuals from hell, this is a worthwhile read.” -Publisher’s Weekly
“In ‘Vulnerable Faith’ the life of St. Patrick meets the spirituality of the Twelve Steps. It is a surprising, potent and challenging combination, one that Jamie Arpin-Ricci uses to profound effect in setting before us a vision of Christian community characterized by loving vulnerability, sacrificial generosity and a radical welcome of the stranger into the Shalom of God’s Kingdom. An inspiring and life-changing book.” –Richard Beck, author ‘The Slavery of Death’ and ‘Unclean’
The Cost of Community:
Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom
Despite the fact that I grew up in a good Christian home and as part of a solid church community, it was a bedraggled Italian beggar who first truly introduced me to the Sermon on the Mount and disrupted my life forever. To make matters more interesting, this odd son of a cloth merchant had been dead for nearly eight centuries! St. Francis of Assisi, beyond the stereotype of bird baths and hippy associations, is one of the most radical and impacting figures in the history of the church, in large part due to being faithful to one of his most deeply held convictions: that Jesus actually meant us to do what he taught us, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
Few Christians would deny that Jesus wants us to live out his teachings in our lives, but through creative interpretation, consideration of context and many other means—some legitimate, others not—we have too often reduced what that kind of obedience actually requires of us. Not so with Francis. When Francis heard Jesus proclaim “Blessed are the poor,” it could only mean one thing: that his wealth was holding him back from the blessings of God! And so, inspired by this absolutist conviction, Francis gave away everything he owned (to the point of literal nakedness) and followed Christ as a poor man, sharing life among those on the margins of society and the church. While we can fairly say that Francis missed the more nuanced meaning of Jesus’ words at times, it is hard to deny that, even in light of this somewhat un- critical literalism, he encountered and embodied Christ in such powerful ways that he was, indeed, quite blessed.
For all his idiosyncrasies and extremes, St. Francis of Assisi faithfully lived the words of Jesus. His commitment to God over Mammon meant that he refused to even touch money, forbidding his fellow friars from also doing so (Matthew 6:24). When he heard that God clothed the flowers with loving elegance and cared for the birds, he dedicated himself to treating creation with the love and respect of a brother (Matthew 6:26-29). And convinced that God would provide for all who asked, he and his brothers chose the life of mendicants, going door to door begging for the basic food and shelter they needed to live (Matthew 7:7). Again and again the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount inspired an un- likely and uncommon obedience in Francis, an obedience that defied logic and expectation when it went on to spark an ongoing reformation in the church even to this day.
Of course, I was familiar with the Sermon on the Mount text of Matthew 5–7, but I had always heard individual verses or smaller sections read out of context. Whether it was the golden rule (“Do to others what you would have them do to you”) or the Sunday school song “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock,” I had heard these sound bites as moral maxims, failing to see that by pulling them out of the broader context of Jesus’ teaching their meaning changes significantly. The parable of the builders is particularly telling, for while it is commonly used to teach children the important lesson of “building your life on the Lord Jesus Christ” (as op- posed to those who do not accept Jesus—the foolish ones), in con- text we see that it is the people of God who are at risk of being either foolish or wise. In fact, anyone who hears the words of the Sermon on the Mount and does not live them Jesus calls a fool. I had never heard such a connection made, obvious though it is in the text.
So I had never considered all three chapters as a unified teach- ing to be understood and applied together.2 And yet as I studied the life of this thirteenth-century saint, I began to see how Jesus’ words spoken on the hillside that day figured centrally into the commitments and lifestyle that shaped Francis and the broader Franciscan tradition. I began to wonder if others through Christian history had so intentionally embraced such a passion for this text. I knew that the Anabaptists (the tradition I have come to largely identify with) strongly embraced it, but I was surprised to learn that Francis was not alone in his commitment to live the words of Jesus found in the Sermon.
Leo Tolstoy, considered perhaps the greatest novelist of all time, centered his entire faith on the Sermon on the Mount, seeing Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-42) as the cornerstone for his convictions about pacifism and nonviolence.
Tolstoy’s writing on the topic significantly influenced Mohandas Gandhi (who also came to deeply respect Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount) in the nature and direction of his own movement. In fact, Gandhi is said to have read the Sermon on the Mount twice a day for the last forty years of his life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, practiced the Sermon on the Mount to the point where he became an enemy of the Nazi state. He powerfully expressed his belief about the Sermon in his now classic book The Cost of Discipleship.
Martin Luther King Jr., martyred pastor, activist and civil rights champion, also saw the Sermon on the Mount as the bedrock of his theology and philosophy for bringing nonviolent revolution and kingdom change to the world around him. These are just a few of those who changed our world as a result of Christ’s word and example transforming their own lives. And it was not lost on me how many of these people paid for such devotion with their lives.
As I moved deeper into this study, I began to see the potential implications (and costs) for such a commitment in my own life and ministry. A few years earlier my wife, Kim, and I had moved into one of the inner-city communities of Winnipeg, Canada, to plant a new ministry with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). As we considered Jesus’ radical commitment to enter meaningfully into our world as a human, we likewise felt called to enter fully into this new neighborhood. That meant changing our paradigm about what it means to “do ministry.” No longer could we view the mission as “our job,” commuting each day and putting in our hours. Instead, we realized that such a calling required complete immersion—incarnation as West End Winnipegers.
Much to my mother’s initial chagrin, we purchased an abandoned gang house—renovated by the aptly named ministry Lazarus Housing—and moved into the neighborhood, making it our home. Surrounded by poverty, substance abuse, violence and racism, we were daily confronted with the hard reality of being Christians in a context that was often less than welcoming. We were also confronted by our own shallow assumptions, “easy believisms” and half-measures. Several of our suspicions were immediately confirmed: many of the strategies and programs that worked well in more affluent communities did not work here. In many ways we were starting from scratch.
It was St. Francis’s commitment to live in solidarity with the poor, as an expression of his allegiance to Christ, that first led me to him. And it was Francis’s radically embodied (if sometimes extreme) commitment to live the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that opened my eyes to the possibility of a way of life and faith that we had never considered before, one that promised the richest blessings, but exacted the highest price. Were we will- ing to follow Francis in the footsteps of Jesus? Were we willing to defy convention and experiment with what it means to be obedient to Christ? Were we ready to pay the price to enter this costly kingdom of God?
It would be arrogant of me to compare our lives to Francis’s, or even to compare to him those who have chosen to live among the poor in much more sacrificial ways than I have. However, this journey with Francis has only just begun, and the impact has al- ready been humbling, wonderful and difficult. Francis’s abandonment of his wealth has caused us to consider our own wealth, teaching us to intentionally embrace simplicity. Not only is this freeing us from the distractions of “stuff,” but it’s also liberating us from the fear and protectionism that all too often keep us from fully entering into relationship with the poor. When we opened our home to a schizophrenic homeless guy, we were made aware of the things that we value most. (I am ashamed to admit how long such fear held me back, and sometimes still does.)
The point is that Francis was too much like myself to ignore.3 We both come from modest but relatively secure financial and stable social backgrounds. We both had promising careers in the family business. We both could have followed the pattern set out for us and it would have still been a good, even Christian, life. So Francis’s choice of radical obedience to Christ led me to ask: Why couldn’t I be so unwaveringly devoted? What is holding me back from embracing the teachings and example of Christ so meaningfully? When I realized that the differences were largely based on my own choices, I knew that God was calling me to something more. And slowly, step by step, I have begun to take that journey. I am just grateful that I do not have to make that trip alone.
In all honesty, it has been a trying journey thus far—one we are still on—but we are slowly and at times clumsily beginning to let our lives and ministries be more intentionally shaped and guided by the Sermon on the Mount. Desiring to build genuine relationships with our neighbors and create a space for the development of a safe community, where it was often all too rare, we opened a small used bookstore, The Dusty Cover. While people initially came for the free fair-trade coffee and comfortable couches, relationships began to take root as people saw that, while unashamedly Christian, we were not using the store for any form of “bait and switch” evangelism. Soon a small core of people began to connect with each other through these times, leading to us visiting each other’s homes and sharing a meal or two throughout the week.
Before long a regular weekly meal was happening with our new friends at the mission house where we lived with our fellow YWAM missionaries. We’d talk and laugh, play games and tell stories. As trust grew, we shared about life challenges, encouraged one an- other and even spent time praying together. Then, on just such an evening, a few of the regulars approached me with a sheepish grin. One of them spoke up and said, “Uh, Jamie, can we ask you some- thing? I think we’ve become a church. Will you be our pastor?”
While we were thrilled at this development, we wanted to be sure this was God’s plan for us, so we prayed about it. In the end we decided to accept the challenge and be more intentional about coming together as a community of faith and mission. After approaching a local Anabaptist denomination to partner with us, Little Flowers Community was born.4 Gathering each week to share a potluck meal, we would spend time in prayer, worship and meditation on God’s Word, with the explicit intention of trying to better understand what it means for us to obediently live the words of Jesus together.
Inevitably this led to committed relationship with one another and to a community that surpassed formal church gatherings or programs. It meant welcoming people from our neighborhood into our community, faced with the challenges of poverty, mental illness, addiction and so much more. Soon we had a rather unique community of thirty or forty people, something of a church of misfit toys. It was difficult, and we made many mistakes along the way, but for many of us it was the truest experience of church and faith and mission we had ever experienced.
Why did such a commitment to the Sermon on the Mount result in such a change? What made Jesus’ teaching in this text stand out to us and draw us into this shared life of love and service? While we will explore this in more detail throughout the book, the most significant aspect of this teaching that stirred our imaginations and the burning conviction in our hearts was Jesus’ emphasis to actually do what he taught us. Many of us who grew up in the church had primarily approached Jesus in a spirit of worship and humility. Now we were being inspired to also obey him. Do not misunderstand me. We were always taught to obey Jesus, but more often than not this commitment was reduced to important but ultimately inadequate emphases on being morally pure and religiously devoted. In other words, don’t swear, drink or have sex before marriage, but rather go to church, read your Bible and witness to people about Jesus. Though these things are far from unimportant, many of us felt like there was something more, something we were missing.
I discovered the missing piece in the example of St. Francis. Born in the High Middle Ages, Francis was only passingly familiar with the details of the life and teachings of Christ, as were most Christians of his day. For centuries the church was an institution of power, shaping the lives of everyday people and nations alike. Being a Christian was assumed, which contributed to deep nominalism. A person did not choose to be a Christian; he or she was born one. In fact, individuals had to choose to not be a Christian, which was rare enough. As a result, many parts of the church had been corrupted by power-mongering, greed and nepotism. While many people were quite devoted, especially some of the commoners, a large segment just went through the motions, paying their tithes and rents to the church, participating in religious events only insofar as was beneficial or required. In other words, Francis was born into a time when Jesus was widely worshiped as God and placated as Savior, but rarely obeyed as Lord and Master. That kind of devotion was reserved for those with the special vocation to live cloistered lives of prayer and self-sacrifice—monks and nuns. Even priests were not expected to be especially devout.
Yet when Francis began to pursue the actual words of Jesus, he was naive enough to believe that Jesus meant what he said. While we cannot deny that he took his understanding to extremes from time to time, neither can we ignore the impact that such obedience had on Francis and on the world around him. He quickly became a living example of what it means to follow Jesus. Through this radical devotion millions have been inspired to ask the same questions about their own faith. As the influence of the same Christendom that shaped Francis’s time begins to come to an end in our own, the example of this il poverello (little poor man) has never been more important.
Few people in history have attempted to live out the teachings and example of Jesus more explicitly than St. Francis. As he did so, he found that the greatest hindrance to this devotion was himself. So mulish was his body to the cost of this obedience that he began to call his body “Brother Ass,” bringing to mind the image of a stubborn donkey refusing to budge. He did not like to fast, to go without a blanket or to walk miles through the hills to proclaim the gospel. He balked at the unwavering demands of following Christ’s teaching so very explicitly. Francis was well aware that beyond the appeal of Christian idealism was the hard reality of the cost of following Christ.
I think it is high time for the image of Brother (or Sister) Ass to experience something of a renaissance. After all, which of us can- not identify with that impossibly stubborn nature that rears its head whenever we are called to do something we do not want to do? Perhaps it is already making a comeback, such as with the logo for Likewise, a line of books that highlight the active faith of those who are doing what Francis did—obeying Christ in every-day life. While the name is an obvious reference to Jesus’ challenge following the parable of the good Samaritan for his followers to “go and do likewise,” the logo—the image of a man attempting to lead a clearly stubborn donkey with a rope—captures the reality that St. Francis saw so clearly. It is one thing to read and be inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, but what would it truly mean to go and do likewise and live the words of Jesus? While some would argue otherwise, I am convinced this is exactly what Jesus wants his followers to do on hearing his words. After all, in the closing parable of the Sermon, Jesus likens to fools those who hear his teaching but do not do what he says! He was also well aware that when the rubber (or hoof) hit the road, many of us wouldn’t really want to pay such a price. So I was excited and honored to have our story counted among the Likewise titles; the idea (and logo) capture the heart of St. Francis.
If we are honest, all of us are guilty of looking for ways to minimize or avoid the true cost of discipleship. As G. K. Chesterton so poignantly stated, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Indeed, we should not be surprised that we do not want to follow this path, or even feel guilty for not wanting to. Even Jesus asked for the suffering he faced to be taken from him. For as Jesus made very clear, following him leads in one clear direction. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It is no sin for us to wish to avoid the cost of the cross, but it is sin when that desire makes us unwilling to follow him in obedience. It is a cross we must take up daily in sacrificial obedience to live as Christ commands—not as though such devotion saves us, but rather because it is the only authentic response to the unmerited gift of grace that we receive through Christ.
What emerges from such radical obedience is the very kingdom of God breaking into the broken reality of our lives, our neighbor- hoods and our world to shine as a living alternative of hope and salvation. It is a kingdom of peace, grace, forgiveness, hope, recon- ciliation and, above all, love. However, it is also a kingdom that was purchased at the ultimate price, a kingdom that demands we follow Christ to the cross, even daily, so that by his grace and the power of his Spirit, we can be reborn as his body, united to his purpose. Scot McKnight writes, “When Jesus was talking about the kingdom of God, he was thinking of concrete realities on earth, he was thinking of the Church being the embodiment of the Jesus dream, and he was thinking of you and I living together in community as we should.”
Praise for “The Cost of Community”:
The Cost of Community is more than just a re-examination of a medieval saint who modelled what it means to take Christ's words literally and live them out. It is also a moving record of how some Christians have endeavored to re-embody the Franciscan movement in the twenty-first century. This book deserves two thumbs up from any who read it." -Tony Campolo, Eastern University
"In the middle of holy wars and prosperity preaching, Francis of Assisi said no to a Christianity that had grown sick, and he said yes to Jesus. He heard a little whisper from God say, ‘Repair my church, which is in ruins.’ His life is as prophetic today as it was eight hundred years ago. Jamie Arpin-Ricci's book invites you to follow Francis as he follows Jesus—away from the war drums and shopping malls, and into the streets and slums. It is an invitation to live daringly—to love the earth and all God's creatures, to care for the poor and suffering, and to consider the innocence of the lilies and the sparrows. It is an invitation to strip off all the clutter and truly be free.” -Shane Claiborne, author & activist
“The Cost of Community reminds me that following Jesus is both a dangerous and demanding undertaking if we honestly embrace his invitation ‘to hear my words and do likewise.’” -Richard Twiss, Sicangu Lakota, president, Wiconi International
“In each generation there are those who carry on the spirit of Francis of Assisi. God knows that the church needs them! Jamie Arpin-Ricci is one of these, right here and right now, in his life and in this important book.” -Jon M. Sweeney, author of The St. Francis Prayer Book
The Last Verdict
The Sinner Saint
Isinglass (on Wattled)
The Introvert Writer
The Cost of Community
Ups and Downs in Canada
What does it mean to live a missional life? This unique ebook provides readers with a collection of short chapters that will help them discern just that, both individually and as communities. Using stories, questions and challenging articles, Jamie Arpin-Ricci (pastor and author of "The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom" & "Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick") invites readers to explore the multifaceted missional life in very accessible, yet profound ways. Drawn from over a decade of writing and blogging, re-edited with new content, Arpin-Ricci offers an enjoyable and challenging addition to the missional conversation.