Community and Place: Wendell Berry

I have been contemplating the significant coupling of community and place as of late. One of the least examined – and probably the most significant – aspects of daily life for both individuals and communities is how their locales form them.

A great myth of modernism have been the universalizing tendencies to push local community life and practice into a monoculture. Under the guise of the universal we’ve lost the nuances of the local. Within this thought, we can and should expect life to be similar in Denver as it is in Syracuse. Or perhaps even within closer proximity, life to be the same in Nedrow (just south of the city of Syracuse) and Liverpool (a northern suburb of Syracuse).

The diminishing of the local gets carried out when we lose the differentiating nuances of particular communities through top-down practices. Instead of finding the shades and tints produced by a place’s cultural artwork which can only be only known from the ground-up, we supplant this patient-inducing work for the ease of assuming. We assume we know what works without knowing the people or the place. In my experience, this is most evident in ventures of “church planting.” Instead of asking how place and community live symbiotically, we rush in never taking notice of the subtleties the answers to that question raise. Not listening only leads to assuming.

Enter Wendell Berry.

I read this today and it stopped me in my tracks. Instead of commenting further, I’ll let you read and soak it in.

For an authentic community is made less in reference to who we are than to where we are. I cannot farm my farm as a European American – or as an American, or as a Kentuckian – but only as a person belonging to the place itself. If I am to use it well and live on it authentically, I cannot do so by knowing where my ancestors came from (which, except for one great-grandfather, I do not know and probably can never know); I can do so only by knowing where I am, what the nature of the place permits me to do here, and who and what are here with me. To know these things, I must ask the place. A knowledge of foreign cultures is useful, perhaps indispensable, to me in my effort to settle here, but it cannot tell me where I am.

Thoughts?

 

Freedom?: An extended quote from Wendell Berry

But there is a paradox in all this, and it is as cruel as it is obvious: as the emphasis on individual liberty has increased, the liberty and power of most individuals has declined. Most people are now finding that they are free to make very few significant choices. It is becoming steadily harder for ordinary people – the unrich, the unprivileged – to choose a kind of work for which they have a preference, a talent, or a vocation, to choose where they will live, to choose to work (or to live) at home, or even to choose to raise their own children. And most individuals (“liberated” or not) choose to conform not to local ways and conditions but to a rootless and placeless monoculture of commercial expectations and products. We try to be “emotionally self-sufficient” at the same time that we are entirely and helplessly dependent for our “happiness” on an economy that abuses us along with everything else. We want the liberty of divorce from spouses and independence from family and friends, yet we remain indissolubly married to a hundred corporations that regard us at best as captives and at worst as prey. The net result of our much-asserted individualism appears to be that we have become “free” for the sake of not much self-fulfillment at all.

Wendell Berry in Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community

Love Your Neighbor: Place over Program

My family and I have lived in our neighborhood for nearly 5 years now. It has been a time of growth in all areas personal, familial, and communal. When we moved in it was a cold, snowy day in mid-December hiding both our neighbors and their homes. Little did we know that within a few short months, people would emerge with the warm spring air and the continuing journey of living in West Phoenix would ensue.

Fast forward to the present and our tiny neighborhood of about 30-40 houses has shed some light on the areas mentioned above. It has been said that place is the least examined facet of our everyday lives and yet it has some of the most, if not the most, profound impacts on us as human beings. The actual locale one finds oneself can determine, shape, and call into question the entirety of our being. It does this by rooting us in the particular of our neighborhoods and opens our eyes to the nature of life itself. In a world of top-down hierarchy, understanding our placed-ness keeps us from importing the foreign and universal and pushes us to see ourselves as not only creators of our local environment, but also being created by our environments from the bottom up. This type of bottom-up engagement necessitates a posture of humbly listening and engaging instead of entering into a neighborhood with answers in tow. It constantly reminds us that we are only lying to ourselves when we think we can be human without relationally effecting others. Even when we aren’t aware of it, we are always relationally tied to each other and our locale however imperfect it may be.

Our tie to place is essential for us to be cognizant of because part of the essence of being human is to be placed. We are not unplaced beings and yet we find placelessness as a dominant theme of our current culture. We live as unrooted beings seeking after better jobs, better houses, and better paychecks. We have become a culture of commuters instead of a community of residents. Always having an eye to the horizon as any potential “better” may serve as an out for us, we become transient people who are able to value and hide behind anonymity. Our neighborhoods aren’t filled with actual neighbors; no, they just happen to be people living nearby. Objectification creeps in and people become “them” instead of named friends.

These ideas have become reality for me over the past several years as my place has come to dictate not only myself, but how I actually practice my faith as I follow after Jesus. A subtle paranoia has reared its ugly face as crime has fluctuated between petty theft to home invasion. Beyond that, we have had sex offenders move in, homeless people break into an abandoned house and subsequently live in tents outside of the house, multiple fires in the same building, and known drug dealers come and go.

And yet, Jesus tells me to love my neighbor and to make disciples.

Another interesting thing has transpired recently: I have been made our neighborhood’s co-leader of the Neighborhood Watch. We will be having our first neighborhood wide meeting in a few weeks due to the recent upswing of criminal mischief. In light of preparing for this meeting I have found myself wondering if I lack the competence needed in leading such a thing. It has hit me that I can teach and preach within the church walls, but that loving my neighbor in my actual neighborhood is another thing altogether.

Part of my realization of this is the nature of the Neighborhood Watch itself. I wonder if in some ways we are putting the cart before the horse. Everyone clamors for safety – or at least the sense of it – and yet safety and civility will not come from meetings here and there. Having a Neighborhood Watch is not profitable if you are not a neighbor yourself. Meetings to point out problems and complain about whatever is on your agenda will not accomplish much if you don’t have the space in your life to engage with your neighbor. We have replaced the being and doing of a neighbor with a program that (perhaps) expects the leader to take care of things, allowing the rest of us to passively sit back. The two – meetings and everyday neighborly life – need to kept intimately together.

I find myself being made aware of this in an analogous way within the Church. I have been told to love God and love my neighbor for as long as I can recall. However, it seems to me that the main – and maybe sole – way of loving my neighbor was through evangelism. “Winning souls for Jesus” was a thing taught and practiced through mission trips, cleaning up of yards, evangelistic tracts and surveys, and a whole host of other ways. Not once can I remember anything beyond somewhat pat answers and information concerning biblical reasons for loving our neighbors, let alone a visible and viable way of life worthy of imitation out in the real world.

And within a culture of placelessness this makes sense. This culture says, “There is a universal manner by which evangelism takes place and we can import it into any particular locale without regard to the specific people, customs, or way of life.” Part of this is due to the lack of meaning inherent to being seemingly unplaced. Walter Brueggemann states,

That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full of promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed…It is now clear that a sense of place is a human hunger that urban promise has not met…It is rootlessness and not meaninglessness that characterizes the current crisis. There are no meanings apart from roots.

Without meaning our evangelism tactics fall flat because we allow ourselves to shortcut the relationships vital to the good news. Rootlessness sees our neighbors as primarily souls to convert, not friends to love, typically resulting not in a shared life, but instead random points of awkward contact. (Not to mention most [conservative] evangelism focuses on an individual’s eternal destination in a nonspatial “heaven” – a location without concrete place. Is it any wonder why we don’t know how to love within community?)

The odd thing is that it seems that we have bypassed the actual communal living of Jesus and his way, which is precisely the problem. We are not explicitly told to evangelize (in the way most people conservative Christians understand it) our neighbors; we are told to love them and to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples. It is as if we have skipped over #1 and #2 on Jesus’ “list” in an effort to get to #3. (This may have never been communicated verbally by our church leaders, but certainly it has been taught in practice.) If we could only see that by loving our neighbors, we then (hopefully and prayerfully) might share Jesus’ good news, which should naturally be responded to by entering into discipleship. It is an exercise in patience which only comes about through rootedness in place. I am not saying we shouldn’t evangelize; I am saying that evangelism without (Jesus’) love is used car saleman-type browbeating and love without (Jesus’) evangelism is selfishly shortsighted. Perhaps if we began to reunite love and evangelism as a way of life, we might be able to make more sense of these things.

Just like Neighborhood Watch meetings are an effort to ensure safety through the bypassing of neighborliness, our evangelistic tendencies keep actual relationship at bay resulting in pseudo-love. They allow us to live in proximity with others, but concurrently get us off the hook of incarnating Jesus’ message. We have bought into a systematized way of relating behind formulated special events, sayings, and prayers that demonstrate our overvaluing of being pragmatically programmatic instead of placed.

So I ask: Does our attachment to universal, programmatic methods of evangelism coupled with our practices of placelessness drastically hinder us from truly loving our neighbors and living in community?

Solitude not Isolation

The past 7 months have been rather full and engaging. I have been working at my school as a Special Education Teaching Assistant, recruiting for Northeastern Seminary as we expand to Syracuse, and leading Church of the Common Table all while being a husband and father to my wife and children. It has been a great time, but it has begun to take its toll.

Recently, our community of Common Table took time to reflect on our individual and communal practices. We firmly believe that Jesus held in tension the three “loves” God calls us to: love of Godself, love of our own family centered on Jesus, and love of our neighbor. (On a side note, it’s interesting how these three things are the core of what we’re called to as Jesus’ disciples, and yet we’ve made it increasingly complex and muddled as to what “Christian life” looks like; perhaps so much so that now there is a common attitude that only the “professional” Christian [read: pastor, missionary] can live like Jesus.) And since this is the life rhythm of Jesus, it should be ours as well, both individually and communally.

By stepping back to actually reflect upon our calendars, it became increasingly clear as to how we actually use our time, not how we think we use our time. As best we could, we reflected upon both the quality and quantity of time we spend loving God (Up), loving our own family (In), and loving others (Out). These don’t necessarily have to be balanced – as in if I spend 3 hours doing Out, I have to do 3 hours doing In – but rather need to be held in harmonious tension. A big difference.

One of the glaringly obvious realities for me was my need to spend more time in solitude. I spend a lot of time with others over coffee, in meetings, eating dinner, and just hanging out. My extroverted nature usually dominates my time. As a result, I have often been overtired and overscheduled to the detriment of my family, friends, and neighbors.

Yet, notice I didn’t say isolation, because like balance and harmony, solitude and isolation are not synonymous. Isolation is being relationally cut off or separated from others for reasons generally only pertaining to oneself. Solitude is intentionally getting away for the sake of returning to and reinvigorating our church and neighbors.

Ruth Haley Barton takes what we call Up, In, Out and describes it as Solitude, Community, Ministry in her book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. She beautifully articulates the need for solitude with God as we follow and learn to live life with and like Jesus. In our overly busy, overly fragmented, overly distracted, and overly frenetic culture and lives, we need to look again at the human-in-tune-with-and-filled-with-the-Spirit found in Jesus. He is not just our Savior, but also our Teacher and as such we quickly realize that his way of life is the way of life. 

Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray and anchor himself in his Father. It was what he taught and is still teaching his disciples. Barton says,

When I reengage my life in community with others and live from that place of union with God, there is indeed a peace that passes understanding and transcends the longing.

We can’t expect to always be running despite what our culture tells us. Perpetual busyness does not equal fruitfulness. Rather what we need to develop are restful habits of listening to God and seeing what it is he would have for us in regards to our other loves: our faith community and our neighbors. Jesus says his sheep know his voice, but how we will hear him if we don’t slow ourselves down to actually listen for him? Ironically, Barton continues

Constant noise, interruption, and drivenness to be more productive cut us off from or at least interrupt the direct experience of God and other human beings, and this is more isolating than we realize. Because we are experiencing less meaningful human and divine connection, we are emptier relationally, and we try harder and harder to fill that loneliness with even more noise and stimulation. In so doing we lose touch with the quieter and more subtle experiences of God within.

Most of us are more tired than we know at the soul level.

Many times our communal lives and our ministerial lives suffer because we think more time and energy  focused on those areas equates to more fruitfulness. Yet the reality is that our fruitfulness only comes by resting in and listening to our Father. This was the rhythmic life pattern of Jesus and as his disciples/apprentices/learners we should be doing the same. In many cases, this is the huge difference between us building for the kingdom and Jesus': he took time to enter into prayerful solitude and we do not.

So the question isn’t if I am resting, listening, and finding solitude, but when and where am I resting, listening, and finding solitude. It is essential to this abundant life in and through Jesus.

What about you? Does this resonate?

Invitation, Challenge, and Peter Block

At the heart of Jesus’ way of making disciples is the two-fold invitation and challenge. Our faith community, Church of the Common Table, has been thinking through these things as of late. When you look through the gospel accounts, it becomes evident that Jesus was constantly extending invitation into his life – this kingdom-of-God type life where loving one’s enemies is possible, where forgiving your brother is possible, where redemption and new life begin as small bits of yeast and yet leaven the entire bread. He does this by calling out to others and extending himself and his life unto them. My friend Ben Sternke describes it this way: “Invitation refers to an attitude that says, ‘I’m glad you are here, I’m committed to you and will welcome you no matter what.'”

But Jesus doesn’t end there. His mode of discipleship – of teaching others to both be and do like himself – is found in the tension of invitation and challenge. Again, Ben describes “challenge” as: “I want you to grow, I’m committed to holding you accountable to change for the better.” Or to put it another way, my friend Andrew Dowsett says, “By invitation, I mean that he opens himself up to others, makes himself vulnerable, and invites people to know him and be known by him. By challenge, I mean that his life inspires others to change the direction in which they are heading.” Challenge is what pushes people to go beyond themselves and realize that their way of living doesn’t line up with the realities of life in the kingdom of God. It urges us to “repent and believe” over and over again.

Although this is a very short and elementary understanding of invitation and challenge, it is the foundation of Jesus’ way of transferring his life into and unto his apprentices. It is with this (and much more of course) in mind that I read the following piece from Peter Block’s amazing work, Community: The Structure of Belonging. This isn’t a Christian book; rather it is a wise look at the nature of community in general. I find it interesting that at the heart of what Block is getting at is this tension between invitation and challenge.

Give it a read and let me know what you think. How does this give us a starting point for building community?

Hospitality, the welcoming of strangers, is the essence of a restorative community…The conversation for invitation is the decision to engage other citizens to be part of the possibility that we are committed to. The invitation is in itself an act of generosity, and the mere act of inviting may have more meaning than anything that happens in the gathering.

An invitation is more than just a request to attend; it is a call to create the alternative future, to join in the possibility we have declared. The question is, ‘What is the invitation we can make for people to participate in creating a future distinct from the past?’

The distinction here is between invitation and the more typical ways of achieving change: mandate and persuasion…An authentic invitation operates without promising incentives or rewards. Offering inducements such as door prizes, gifts, or a celebrity attraction diminishes the clarity of choice of those invited. The lack of inducement keeps a level playing field. When we try to induce people to show up through strong selling or the language of enrolling, we are adding subtle pressure that, in a small but important way, blurs the freely taken decision to say yes…To sell or induce is not operating by invitation. It is using the language of invitation as a subtle form of control.

Invitation is a language act. ‘I invite you.’ Period. This is a powerful conversation because at the moment of inviting, hospitality is created in the world.

So, the invitation is a request not only to show up but to engage. It declares, ‘We want you to come, but if you do, something will be requested from you.’ Too many leadership initiatives or programs are begun with a sales and marketing mindset: How do we seduce people to sign up and feel good about doing things they may not want to do?Real change, however, is a self-inflicted wound.People need to self-enroll in order to experience their freedom and commitment.Let this begin in the decision to attend, knowing there is a price to be paid far beyond the cost of time and perhaps money.

The best invitation I have run across, which got a lot of attention for awhile, was from Ernest Shackleton, who in the early 1900s was recruiting for an antarctic expedition. Supposedly he ran an ad in the London Times that read: ‘Wanted: Men for Antarctic Expedition. Low Pay. Lousy Food. Safe Return Doubtful.’ Perfect. He reportedly got 5,000 applicants.

taken from Chapter 11: “Invitation” of  Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block (pages 114-122; emphasis mine)

Open Doors and Hearts: An Opportunity to Love an Orphan

Alina

Dear Friends and Family,

Our family is walking an exciting path of obedience. We have been deeply challenged in our faith and would love to live this out practically by sharing our home with a child who hasn’t had a consistent one. The door has opened for us to welcome a 12-year-old girl from the Ukraine for the summer months. Her name is Alina and she currently lives in an orphanage in Ukraine. New Horizons for Children, a non-profit international hosting program for orphaned children, has accepted us as hosting parents for Alina. She will be staying with us for five weeks, from the end of June through early August.  This will be both an exciting and faith building experience for us as we learn to communicate with and welcome a stranger into our home.

Many of the orphans that are hosted through New Horizons are adopted because of this opportunity.  Alina, however, is not adoptable at this time because her parent’s rights have not been terminated.  She has been in the orphanage for some time though and her director thinks she is one the best kids there.  This is a great opportunity for us to expose her to a loving family environment, to the love of Christ, and to help her see that her life is valued and important. If at any point Alina became adoptable, this would be something that we would earnestly and prayerfully consider.

While our current family consists of just the four of us, we are also well aware that our family extends well beyond ourselves. The influences, encouragements, events, and celebrations – in short, the love that has formed us has come from all of you. And because of that, we consider you family and want to share the experience of this summer, as not just ours, but in a very real way as yours and ours. With all this in mind, we are asking for you to join with us in a few different ways that we deem important and vital.

Prayer Partners

We desperately need prayer partners.  We already have some committed folks on board but if this is something that you could commit to please let us know and we will share specific requests as they present themselves.  This is our most imperative need.

Financial Partners

Secondly, we need financial partners. The cost of bringing Alina here to the United States is $3000. We feel very strongly about loving the fatherless and are willing to go to great lengths to bring her here.  We are committing our finances to do all we can to help Alina.  However, we’ll need the greater community to come alongside us in order for it all to happen. Some of the expenses include: international and domestic travel, dental and eye appointments, clothing and luggage for her return to Ukraine.

If you would like to join us in sharing Christ’s love with this precious girl please consider the following:

As a prayer partner, we will send you updates on how to pray for Alina and our family.  Please leave me a comment below with some contact info and I’ll make sure we stay in touch.

For monetary donation you can go through the New Horizon’s website at www.newhorizonsforchildren.org.  On the home page there is a yellow “donate” button where you can donate through Paypal.  When confirming the donation, be sure to click on the special instructions box and designate the donation to Emery Family. If you prefer to give by check, then please indicate our family name in the memo line and send to:  New Horizons for Children, Inc. 3950 Cobb Pkwy. Suite 708 Acworth, GA 30101. Donations made through New Horizons are tax deductible.

If you are interested in giving to us directly, again, leave me a comment below and I’ll give you the proper info.  Donations of cash or checks made out to us are NOT tax deductible. These monies will be used to provide for her appointments and other necessities.

We hope this experience has a lasting impact on Alina and that she comes away from this knowing that she is loved by our family and by her Savior.

Blessings on the journey,

Scott, Mel, Lily and Ava

“And if we want hell then hell’s what we’ll have”: Jack Johnson on Culture and Entertainment

Now that it is extremely warm outside, I have to listen to Jack Johnson. If you’ve never listened to him, his sound is very laid back and relaxing. Some might say all his songs sound alike, but that hasn’t stopped me from listening to him.

His song “Cookie Jar” really stood out to me this afternoon as I driving home. Watch the video below and/or read the lyrics printed below that. It seems to me that he is not only a great musician, but has an eye and an ear to the culture at large.

What do you think?

 

 

 

“Cookie Jar”

I would turn on the TV but it’s so embarrassing
To see all the other people I don’t know what they mean
And it was magic at first when they spoke without sound
But now this world is gonna hurt you better turn that thing down
Turn it around

“It wasn’t me”, says the boy with the gun
“Sure I pulled the trigger but it needed to be done
Cause life’s been killing me ever since it begun
You cant blame me cause I’m too young”

“You can’t blame me sure the killer was my son
But I didn’t teach him to pull the trigger of the gun
It’s the killing on this TV screen
You cant blame me its those images he seen”

Well “You can’t blame me”, says the media man
Well “I wasn’t the one who came up with the plan
I just point my camera at what the people want to see
Man it’s a two way mirror and you cant blame me”

“You can’t blame me”, says the singer of the song
Or the maker of the movie which he based his life on
“It’s only entertainment and as anyone can see
The smoke machines and makeup and you cant fool me”

It was you it was me it was every man
We’ve all got the blood on our hands
We only receive what we demand
And if we want hell then hells what well have

And I would turn on the TV
But it’s so embarrassing
To see all the other people
I don’t even know what they mean
And it was magic at first
But let everyone down
And now this world is gonna hurt
You better turn it around
Turn it around