Speech Therapy and Learning to Live Like Jesus: An Analogy

“Let’s go sit in front of the mirror. Look at my mouth. See how my tongue looks? You try. Good. Let’s try again.

Not quite. Let’s try again.

That’s it. Now, look at how I say ‘n’. Make sure you’re looking. Great. Now you try.”

This was a segment of a speech therapy session one of my students was receiving the other day. I sat in with him to gain some insight into how to help him speak better. Not just how to sound better, but how to actually form the sounds and words with his tongue, lips, and breath.

Speaking is an embodied act. It goes beyond theory, although there is certainly a need for it. However, it wouldn’t do much good to fill my 5 year old student with concepts of how to speak. He doesn’t need information for its own sake; he needs formation. Literally, his mouth, lungs, and a host of other muscle groups and organs must sync in order for correct English speech to come forth.

Within the kingdom of speech therapy, there is a correct manner by which progress is made. And, in this particular instance, it comes by attending to the Queen of the Speech Therapy Kingdom. She knows the why and how of staying within the parameters of the good life found within her kingdom.

The beauty of this particular session was her process of recording this progress. She took my student to a large mirror and demonstrated to him by example the proper way of obtaining an “n”. Every attempt he made, he received either a smiley face or a sad face to indicate whether it both sounded correctly and was properly formed physically. There was not a preconceived set of correct responses he had to attain. He simply had to act upon her instruction and make the attempt. What she was looking for was trust and obedience in listening to her words and watching her mouth. She didn’t leave him on his own; she didn’t set him up for pressured achievement. There wasn’t a “you must get 6 out of 10 correct” for us to continue. It was a “try your best and know I am with you” exercise. It was a “let’s get this down and then we’ll build from here” activity. Every attempt – whether it was done correctly or not – was an opportunity for learning and growth.

I couldn’t help sitting there and seeing a synonymous method by which we learn to live like Jesus. He doesn’t ask us to perform without seeing him do it first. He shows us by example and beckons us to follow. He doesn’t set us up for performance anxiety; he gently invites us to trust him and to try our best knowing he is with us. When we get things wrong, we don’t lose his guidance. No, he challenges us to pick ourselves up, stop doing it that way and try again. And again. And again. There is no giving up found in Jesus. He asks for our obedience to his loving voice as he forms us in his own image.

Akin to speech therapy, learning this Jesus-life comes from doing. Growth takes place as we actually embody what it is he is saying to us. It does us no good knowing the teachings of Jesus devoid of practicing the teachings of Jesus. Discipleship to Jesus is certainly a spiritual thing, but it only comes at the employment of the physical.

This is what Jesus means when he offers us this abundant life. He is the one who knows how to live in the kingdom of God. His relationships between himself and God, himself and his fellow human beings, and himself and his created order are exemplified by justice and rightness. That is, they are how they are supposed to be. And it is to this that he calls. Just like the “Queen of the Speech Therapy Kingdom” can teach the proper sound and formation of an “n”, so Jesus is the King of the Kingdom of God and can teach the proper way of life abundant.

And he does it again. And again. And again.

Repent of Christianity and Follow Jesus: The Unkingdom of God [A Review]

Empire is a strong word. For many it brings up mental images of darkness, tyranny, and oppression. Simultaneously, however, it is a word absent from the imaginations of many. And this absence is the impetus leading to empires’ gains in momentum and perpetuation because empire works best unquestioned, unnoticed, or veiled in uncertainty.

For Mark Van Steenwyk, the time has come for exposing the Empire known as Christianity.

Not just exposing, but, to use his own language, naming and then repenting from this empire. Rather than focusing on the “logistical workings of empire”, Van Steenwyck proposes a light be shone upon “the ethos of empire.” Through the questions, “How does an empire understand and justify itself?” along with “[H]ow does the logic of empire (which is about security, domination and control) become intertwined with Christianity?” he directs our attention towards that which has gone on unquestioned, unnoticed, and veiled in uncertainty. He states,

Our proximity to power and affluence gives us a strange perspective from which to read the gospel. The logic of empire is the expeditious, organized pursuit of security, prosperity and control; and the best way to ensure these things is through domination. Our entire way of life depends upon this pursuit. Yet it is contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus, who foreswore security as he walked among the marginalized and challenged the civil and religious authorities; who offered people freedom and confronted those who sought to control others; who upheld and loved the weak rather than dominating them. We find ourselves trying to justify our way of life while worshiping One who challenges our way of life. (p. 28)

If Jesus’ life and work stands in stark contrast to the ethos of empire, how have we seemingly strayed so far? Many lay the blame at the feet of Constantine, but Van Steenwyk points us further back in history. Prior to the Constantinian nuptials of religion and Empire, there were decades of corruption found in the wealth and influence of bishops. The coalescence of imperial praxis with imperial theology allowed for the domination of the marginalized to flourish.

And this domination is not purely aimed and enforced upon humans. No, it is a totalitarian act engulfing people and resources because of the inherent relationship between the two. He who controls the one controls the other. The land does not escape the eye of the Empire.

Beyond this early and historical account of Christian imperialism, Van Steenwyk offers us a look at how the gospel was imperialized as Jesus was plasticized. Rather than being a gospel challenging Empire, it became “gospel of empire.” (p. 39). The taming of Jesus has opened up room for the pursuit of the American dream. This domestication has given us permission to shut Jesus up as we turn our ears to consumerism and individualism, among others. It is something we see everyday.

The solution Van Steenwyk purports is a repentance of this Christianity.

Repentance is not an event or an emotion, it is an ongoing invitation to engage the world differently – to see the world the way God does and act accordingly. Repenting of Christianity means adopting a posture of honest confession as we seek a better way. (p. 76)

We repent of this Christianity in order to follow Jesus further into his way of love that stands in stark contrast to Empire. This Jesus is not a mere historical person, but is a participant within the Triune God. We cannot address “the Compassionate Christ” (chp. 8) without “Encountering the feral God” (chp. 7) or “the Subversive Spirit” (chp. 9).

Moreover, the repentance offered here is not an intellectual account alone. It is a combination of both the mystical and the practical. Van Steenwyk offers us a spirituality tethered to an actual life carried out in concrete practices. Each chapter gifts us with exemplary practices aimed at attuning us to view the world the way God does and to act accordingly.

I highly recommend this book as it is a weaving together of justice and hospitality, theology and praxis, deconstruction and reconstruction. It doesn’t hold back in its naming the powers nor does it let us off the hook for our complicity. Thankfully, I have been graced with running in some of the same circles as the author and have heard many attest to the embodiment of the words found on these pages. If you are looking for a radical – truly radical: getting back to the root – approach which cuts to the quick, get this book. Read it, embrace it, allow it to challenge you, and then practice the nuggets of gold mined from within.

Purchase it here.

Full Disclosure: I received this book for free from InterVarsity Press with the condition I would read it and write a review. I was under no obligation to write an endorsement for the book; nor did I receive any monetary incentives. All words, unless cited with a page number, are my own and are not reflective of the authors or IVP.

A or B?: A Few Thoughts on Discernment and Decision Making

“A good journey begins with knowing where we are and being willing to go somewhere else.” – Richard Rohr

For several months now, my wife and I have been praying, thinking, and discussing with friends and family regarding a potential shift. Not only the possibility of a move in geography and locale, but one of occupation as well. It has been a long, developing set of circumstances filled with doubt and frustration, joy and laughter, bewilderment and irony. This past week brought some conclusion to this time as I have accepted a position with a company here in Syracuse.

While traversing this time in liminal land, we have had to deal with times of disorientation as we wondered what was around each corner. For us as a family, it was a much deeper and concerning time as we now are not only responsible for ourselves as a married couple, but also for our 3 children. In many ways, the decisions we were facing had the potential to alter the trajectory and direction our family has been headed. For us, it is imperative to filter our own longings through the interrelated grids of community, incarnation, and mission.

Through it all, we knew discernment had to permeate all we did. This wasn’t a task we took lightly as it had/has enough inherent force to change how things play out in the future.

We are by no means experts in any of these things, but I’d like to share a few lessons we’ve come across and implemented through this particular season.

Discernment

Community Discussion

We knew through it all we could not and should not pretend we could make it alone. The lie of autonomy is exactly that: a lie. We have been taught in many ways that independence is a higher value and aspiration than interdepedence. Whether it be engrained in us implicitly or explicitly, the modern imagination has been shaped by power, prestige, and self-importance. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with the illusion of autonomy and the good life it purports. The interdependent life sees these and names them as antithetical to its very existence. Postures of humility, mutuality, and vulnerability are the hallmarks of interdependency and run counter-intuitive to our individualistic mindsets.

So, we tried our best to incorporate not only our thoughts on things along with the thoughts and feelings of others. We began with our family and closest friends, along with co-workers and neighbors. Knowing our decisions would have effects on people beyond ourselves, we deemed it necessary to include the voices of those we are tethered to. Through their input, we were able to discern gifts, talents, possibilities, and the ripple effects of potential decisions. For this we are/were extremely grateful.

The next step, however, was to begin to talk with those outside of our closest circles. In many ways, those who are not too familiar with the ins and outs of our existence can give us eyes to things we don’t see. Those closest to us are invaluable, but there are communal blind-spots we share that an outside perspective illuminates. As I began to talk with friends across the country, I was able to gain insights I wouldn’t have gained otherwise. They poked and prodded in ways our friends and family here couldn’t.

If you can, I suggest you look at both of these circles in your own life and ask how they can open your eyes to things you may not even be aware are present.

Stage of life

Discerning our stage in life was vital. We have been married for 7.5 years and have attempted to live as simply as we can. In some seasons this has been easy; in others, a bit more difficult. I was 24 when we were married, 25 when I started my Masters, and by 26 we had our first daughter. Those first two years of marriage we were both working full-time and had plenty of time, money, and energy. However, the past 5 years has given us 3 daughters and time, money, and energy have been found wanting.

Dreams and aspirations change as the seasons of our life change. The things I was chasing after have taken drastic twists and turns. With each new child, those potential endeavors and passions have changed as life has become more about family and less about Scott. Even within the past 5 years of having children, each successive child brought new challenges and opportunities. What I saw as necessary when I was 25, I now have been able to bury in the ground. Paradoxically, life has still emerged and emerged all the more beautifully.

So, for us, determining what stage of life we were in was a must as we came to decisions. There is a whole new set of questions we have to be asking as we form answers to what directions things might move in. They are different for everyone, but I suggest you prayerfully reflect upon them and your current stage of life.

Prayer

I know. For many, this is a given. Still, for many others, it is a given in thought, not in reality. I was certainly in the latter camp for a long, long time. It is interesting – and somewhat embarrassing – that it takes tough times to truly turn to God. Desperation has a funny way of tearing down our arrogance and providing the framework necessary to realize our finiteness. God is a being of participation, rather it be small or large decision. As Ruth Haley Barton says,

As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life. Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for. Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity, for they know that their life depends on it. (Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p. 30)

The longer we prayed about our potential change, the more we became open to whatever God had for us. As the Richard Rohr quote above states, we were becoming ever-increasingly willing to go somewhere else. Rather ironically, our “going somewhere else” will take place in our staying put geographically.

And this leads me to perhaps the weightiest part of this all.

Decision Making

I’ll be with you regardless.

There is a strong idea, perhaps even a doctrine, embedded within many Christian communities regarding God’s will. It has several variations, but essentially goes something like this: “God has a wonderful plan for your life and as long as you’re in the center of God’s will, you will be blessed.” Have you heard this before?

I have had numerous conversations with people who have heard this. They were facing decisions with tectonic shift-like power and were ruminating on some permutation of the aforementioned Christian axiom.

Now, hear me: I’m not saying this statement is inherently evil nor are those who perpetuate it. I have said it, believed it, encouraged it, and acted upon it. However, as of late, I have come to the conclusion that I have no idea what it means.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my inexperience. Maybe it’s my faith.

Regardless, my worry is that it has created more confusion than clarity. For those whom I have spoken with who were wrestling with the ramifications of “being in God’s will” there was a paralysis brought upon them by this belief. It’s as if there is either A or B and you must choose and choose wisely or else. There is no “both” because they are typically seen as mutually exclusive and singular in their pathways. As such, there is a visceral fear of making the wrong choice in regards to God’s will and finding God is blatantly absent from our lives due to it. (Obviously, there are decisions we make that are outside of the life and kingdom Jesus beckons us into. The thought here is central to decisions decidedly not of that nature.)

In place of this fear, we have found freedom in finding God’s presence in both A and B. Recently, we were reminded, “God made humans, not robots.” Again, it is one thing to understand this; it is another to embody it. Yet, the beauty of God’s love is its allowance for choice.

God is infinitely patient. He will not push himself into our lives. He knows the greatest thing he has given us is our freedom. If we want habitually, even exclusively, to operate from the level of our own reason, he will respectfully keep silent. We can fill ourselves with our own thoughts, ideas, images, and feelings. He will not interfere. But if we invite him with attention, opening the inner spaces with silence, he will speak to our souls, not in words or concepts, but in the mysterious way that Love expresses itself – by presence. – M. Basil Pennington

I firmly believe we would do well to crack the illusion of both God’s non-involvement in our lives and God’s commandeering of our wills. We have certainly found the grace of God in the tension of earnestly praying for his will to be done all the while knowing it was our decision to make. As we have decided, we have rested in his promise of “I’ll be with you regardless.”

What about you? What has aided you in discernment and decision making?

There is a lot more to be said. What am I missing?

I’d love to hear your story.

Romanticized: Pulling the Veil Back on Bi-vocational Leadership

bivocational

There is an interesting shift happening within the world of Church leadership here in the West. More and more there seems to be not only an affirmation of pastors being so-called “bi-vocational leaders” but an overzealous ambition to become just that. This is interesting to me for many reasons, but of particular interest is the high level of romanticism encircling the bi-vocational conversation. (I don’t say this as an expert, but as one who was bi-vocational for years and has many bi-vocational pastor friends). Many seem to be rushing headlong into a position deemed less-than-pastoral a mere generation ago by many church leaders. As a friend of mine – who happens to be bi-vocational – recently said, “it is a badge of honor to wear around in the right circles; a cone of shame in others.” What I hope to do with this post is to begin to pull the veil back a bit on some of the realities inherent to being a bi-vocational pastor/leader.

Where are we?

This paradigm shift is often attributed to the crumbling of Christendom as post-Christendom emerges out of its dust and soot. Study after study has shown the dramatic decline in church attendance often accompanied with the closing of churches. Cultural pluralism and religious agnosticism are on their ascendency making Christianity and the Church an antiquated memory at best and an irrelevant hypocrisy at worst.

Yes, it is true that the Church is becoming more and more marginalized – which, I firmly believe is a good thing. However, this bi-vocational shift is also due in part to factors between churches. I have spoken with many, many pastors whose churches are on the smaller end of the spectrum. Usually they range between 75-150 people and have 1-3 paid staff. Many of these churches are “losing” people to the large churches down the road; those with between 500-1000 people and a host of staff members. Ironically, these small churches are becoming smaller despite their attempts to become more like their larger neighboring churches. Their Christian contingency is on a downward slope as the struggle to keep seats filled and bank accounts black becomes a weekly occurrence. Paychecks and other financial constraints piggyback on attendance and subsequently, the giving that comes along with it resulting in paid staff taking the hit . Rather than grow in numbers and (generally) thus finances, they actually shrink in size and are more akin to the house church or urban church of 25-50 and everything that comes with it.

The Non-majority Church

The above statements are becoming a reality within the white, middle class, majority  church in the West. But for many within this sector, being a bi-vocational pastor of a church conveys that you are not a true pastor. You may be on your way to being a real pastor, but not quite yet. In this imagination, real pastors don’t have need of a second job because we – the white, middle class, majority church – have resources, finances, and education at our disposal. The nonchalant overlooking of these things stemmed directly from the values we imbibed. Detachment, inattention, and abstraction are the fruit of the Majority’s Spirit.

Sushi maker at a grocery store. Educator within the prison system. Public school counselor. These are just a few of the jobs I can list off the top of my head that belong to non-majority pastors I’m acquainted with. For them and many others, having a second job isn’t something they sought out because of its current appeal. No, for them it is life. There is not another way of being rooted in their contexts in true incarnational ways outside of working outside of the church.

For many Majority leaders, this imaginative creativity isn’t part of their register.

And this is partly due to the overriding Superman complex we have within many pastorates. Again, I don’t know how many pastors I have spoken with that feel the weighty burden of their church’s life because they are essentially flying solo. Sure, there may be a board of some kind or an associate pastor or two, but with titles such as Senior Pastor or Lead Pastor, there is often a lone person where the buck stops. As such, it is the end goal of pastoral ministry. It is the achievements of achievements. You don’t go to Bible college or seminary to be a youth pastor; no, shoot for the stars and be the senior pastor.

In many ways, we’ve made CEO and Senior pastor synonymous.

Moreover, there is a destructive notion tied to this Superman complex that floats around Christian circles often going unnamed. It goes something like this: the epitome of Christ-likeness is being a pastor, even more so if one is a senior pastor. There is a presumed level of spirituality tethered to this role, thus making it the end-all for many younger people.

Interestingly, the aspirations of many have turned from established church pastorates to church planting. Being a church planter is the en vogue sugar plum dancing in the heads of many. And this is where I wonder if we haven’t especially romanticized bi-vocational realities. For many, Bible college and seminary prepared them for one specific role with their one specific degree. After all, that is the goal of education in America: prepare people to be money-making, money-spending consumers. Falling back on a second job denotes weakness or inefficiency; within the Church it can often be twisted into being less faithful or even downright sinful. Notwithstanding, many church planters have rightfully pushed these assumptions to the side and have forged ahead.

Regardless, being bi-vocational is not necessarily the panacea to the church’s ills. Many go on without actually seeing it modeled for them. Many go on in manners either unneeded or in unhealthy ways. Others don’t put any intention to the communal, missional, and incarnational considerations at play in a bi-vocational move. In doing so, they often bring death where there could have been life.

Bi-vocation or bi-occupation?

I often wonder if we haven’t mistakenly described these positions as bi-vocational when they should be deemed bi-occupational. Vocation used to denote a spiritual calling from God into “true” Christian leadership, namely pastoral or missions work. Vocation was rarely something tagged onto being a plumber, carpenter, school teacher, or prison guard. These were mere occupations, not vocations.

Yet I wonder what would happen if we began to use language like bi-occupational in the realization that we have all been called. Vocation, after all, is from the same word we get vocal, indicating a vocation as something you are called unto. I wonder what would happen if we began to posture ourselves in a way where our vocations permeated our occupations. This way you’re calling into the family of God and the giftings found therein don’t require you to become a paid church leader (necessarily). Rather, your gifting (vocation) stems from your identity as a son or daughter of God and runs through your job (occupation). Missional practices could flourish under this posture.

Perhaps it would be better if we saw ourselves as bi-occupational leaders with a singular vocation. Of necessity, this would require a team approach.

The Perfect Storm

Our church plant stopped meeting over a year ago, which has given me time to reflect upon things. This I now know: It was much easier for me to say I’m not taking a paycheck than it was to relinquish the control needed to make being bi-occupational work.

During our own church planting, I worked full-time in a local school district (still do) and part-time as Northeastern Seminary’s Syracuse recruiter (still do). These two positions – for better or worse – ate up huge chunks of my time, leaving me exhausted for my family and church. In the words of my wife

Being bi-vocational will necessitate the pastor as superman be put to death.  The Lead pastor mentality will need to be relinquished so that the church can function.  It can work but needs the support of a team given authority to use their gifts.  This paradigm shift will have to be recognized at all levels and will require a reorienting of how the roles of the body and leadership will function.  Bi-vocationalism will require compromise, an allowance for failure in yourself and others, and potentially lowered expectations.  Not addressing these issues from the start may lead to burnout or failure.

My family and I have been a part of variety of church planting models.  Scott opted not to take a paycheck. Things were purposefully kept simple.  Despite our best intentions, the church never grew.  Maybe because we didn’t offer anything overly attractive, maybe because there wasn’t enough time or space for the teaching, training and mobilizing that needed to happen. Or maybe because we had great people but not the right people for this type of venture.  Needless to say our church plant ended because we lost families who moved out of state.  Scott’s abilities as a bi-vocational pastor were limited and it took a toll on our family life and what we were able to accomplish within the church.

Obviously, there is a place for bi-vocationalism.  But not without, creativity, realistic expectations, and an understanding of the people within your congregation – along with their gifts and their ability to employ them. For most to succeed it will require the perfect storm of job opportunities.  If you have a family will you have to work a full time job in order to carry health benefits? Is your spouse able to supplement some of the income? How will it affect your family life? In considering your church family, do you have the right people serving with you?  And for those who boldly declare they won’t take a paycheck – is that a sustainable option for your family? For the long term? Are you able to accomplish what you need to do without any sort of income source coming from the church?

Many of the hardships realized as a bi-occupational pastor came from the lack of discipleship needed within our folks. There is a gulf between the thinking needed to carry out the ins and outs of both being a bi-occupational pastor and a missional member of a church with bi-occupational leadership. For many, their hearts and minds have been conditioned and formed in ways contra all things missional and incarnational. This isn’t finger pointing; blood is not on their hands, it is on mine. What I’m trying to say is that it takes patience and grace in bringing people along as one(s) ahead of them yet leading from in their midst. The questions here are: Are your people prepared for bi-occupational leadership in the same way you are? How are you discipling them to that end?

Nobody Showed Me

One of the biggest things I believe needs to be taken ahold of when dreaming about being bi-occupational is who has shown you or is currently showing you how to do this. Far too often we believe a book being read or a conference being attended equates to actual know-how. Please, please don’t fall for this. As in any area of discipleship, you need to actually learn from someone on the ground.

For me, this was a huge reality check as the pool of church leaders for whom this road was familiar was incredibly small. Again, for many within the white, middle class, majority church these factors don’t play into things. This is why I believe it is time to break down the dividing wall between churches.

We must begin to realize the vast wisdom and experience of the non-majority church. Relationships must be cultivated, not only for the sake of relationship, but for the sake of the gospel. The Majority Church’s deaf ears must be unplugged and blind eyes brought to sight as we push further and further into things known to our brothers and sisters. Our time of the ones being taught is long overdue. The question is: who I can humbly begin to follow, ask questions of, and get the fuller picture on these matters?

So what say you? What am I missing? What else is hid behind the veil?

This is a synchropost with the The Antioch Session blog. See Zach Hoag’s parallel entry, “Rooted: (How Not to) Rage Against the Machine

Books of 2013

P1020476It’s hard to believe 2013 is almost at its end. It has been a good year for my personal reading and I hope the following list will be of as much help to you as it was to me.

As always, the books aren’t in any particular order. I’ve read all of them in their entirety, which makes this list different than previous ones that contained partially read books. Regardless, these books have shaped my imagination, posture, and practices in one way or another. I pray you might pick some of them up and, if you do, make sure they don’t remain contained solely within your head. Allow them to travel to your heart and hands; share them with others; discuss their material with your friends.

May your story be continually formed by Jesus as we continue to learn together.

Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith by Fred Bahnson

The Missional Quest: Becoming a Church of the Long Run by Brad Brisco and Lance Ford [My Featured Review at Englewood Review of Books: here]

The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things by Leighton Ford [Review]

The Wounded Healer: Ministry In Contemporary Society by Henri Nouwen

Engagement with God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship by Hans Urs von Balthasar

What Are People For?: Essays by Wendell Berry

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry

Free: Spending Your Time and Money On What Matters Most by Mark Scandrette [Review]

Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba

The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good by Tyler Wiggs-Stevenson [Review]

Becoming Human by Jean Vanier

Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running On Empty? by Alister McGrath

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons by Henri Nouwen

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith

Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth [Review]

Farming As a Spiritual Discipline by Ragan Sutterfield

Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food by Frederick Kaufman

Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation by John Koenig

The Gospel After Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions edited by Ryan Bolger

The Irony of the Domesticated Christmas

 

Have we domesticated Christmas?

In some ways we have and in others we have not. Yet the manners in which we have done this taming are intertwined and interrelated. Let me try to explain.

Yes, we have.

We have domesticated the Incarnation by turning Christmas into baby Jesus’ birthday.

Yes, Christmas is about Jesus’ day of birth. It is about a baby. (If you’re hearing Ricky Bobby, know you are not alone.) Yet when we leave things there, we stop ourselves short of the reality of Christmas. Namely, we divorce the fuller, deeper, truer reality of the Incarnation.

I love what Joan Chittister says:

But if our expectation of Christmas remains at this level, the birthday of the ‘baby Jesus’ becomes at best a pastoral attempt to make Jesus real. This Jesus is a child’s Jesus that, too often – if our definition of Christmas is simply a child’s story about the birth of a child – will remain just that. It is a simple, soothing story that makes few, if any, demands on the soul. (Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year, p. 65-66)

“Demands on the soul.” These are the things we – willfully or not – abandon when we rally around the birth of a mere baby. We can coo over a baby; we can set up a Nativity display centered on a baby; we can sing of his lack of crying. “But,” as Chittister again points out, “the birth date of this child is not one of the great mysteries of the faith.” The Incarnation is.

The demands of the soul are the very things Christmas is about. Within the domesticated Christmas story, we tend to skim right over them or past them as background points of lesser value. In this domesticated Christmas, we revel in joy and peace, but do so at the expense of justice and mercy – the demands of the soul. We love to sing of joy and peace, but often atomize them away from their partners: justice and mercy.

And not just general justice and mercy, but justice and mercy for the oppressed and marginalized. The poor, the widowed, the weak; these are the recipients of justice and mercy in the Christmas account. Joy and peace are theirs; however, those who have worked towards justice through mercy know full well: the good news of great joy is for all. Justice and mercy are only real when they are real for everyone. As chains are broken and oppression ceased, great joy comes to all. Yet, the domesticated Christmas knows little of these things. Peace and joy are never able to cross the chasm to justice and mercy.

Much of this has occurred because we have ripped Christmas from its context. When we divorce Christmas from Advent (and then Epiphany, etc.) we don’t hear the voices of the prophets telling us of the justice, peace, and mercy the Savior would bring.

Deaf ears to the prophets’ cries halts the alternative way of life they are beckoning us towards. These things don’t make sense in the domesticated Christmas. Instead, platitudes and warm greetings replace them as pseudo-justices and quasi-mercies. Intentionality founded upon relationship is needed for justice and mercy. The Incarnation asks for our intentionality; a baby doesn’t.

Moreover, Christmas this way takes place in a vacuum. It is a general occurrence in a general locale among general people. Without the story of Israel as the overarching narrative in which we can place Christmas, justice and mercy are things that take place in our hearts, not between real people. Christmas gives us eyes that concrete places and people are at the forefront of God’s activity in the world.

Severing Jesus from the political, social, and economic context of Roman oppression is like removing Moses from the context of Jewish slavery under Pharaoh’s rule. – Adam Russell Taylor

And so we turn the wild story of God-with-us into a tame cuddly baby-with-us void of justice, peace, and mercy. We silence the voice of the boom of the Incarnation – God’s way of saying, “I know. Me too” – into a silent night. We miss the moving picture of the continuing story of God’s descent unto us in love and humiliation for a stand-alone picturesque episode.

No, we haven’t.

Ironically, our domestication of the Incarnation has prevented us from domesticating the Incarnation in our lives.

What I mean by this is that in our domestication of the Incarnation we have inadvertently failed to domesticate our own lives. We miss the very point of Christmas: small, overlooked, weak, impoverished, mundane and lowly are the revolutionary means by which God works. And it starts at home.

Domesticate shares its roots with domestic. Domestic is all about the home, household, family. It is about being within a particular household and understanding the affairs there within. Things that are domesticated are found within a domus, the Latin for home. And our homes are found in our neighborhoods.

In our blindness to the banal, we have developed a penchant towards the antithesis of these things. We think the big, obvious, powerful, grandiose, and extraordinary are the sole means of getting things done when Christmas – the entrance of God into our world as one of us – indicates otherwise.

More often that not, this inclination pushes us away from our domus and into the unknown. God’s activity is happening across the country, across the Atlantic, but hardly across the dining table or across the street. Mistakenly, we believe ease is found when we can enter into a place or people of whom we know little and have little to no actual presence. Rather than doing the difficult work of joining with God where we are rooted, we determine ourselves to lives of non-domesticity.

Justice, mercy and peace thus become realities absent from our everyday relationships.
Participation with those we work with, share a yard with, or eat our meals with gets neglected in the hopes of gaining an ounce of renown or celebrity or, in the opposite direction, anonymity. Even if it is only fleeting, many of us would rather be well known by those we don’t know over being known by those closest to us. Again, ironically, this usually leads to further anonymity.

Think about this: Jesus spent 30 years soaking in, ruminating among, and becoming a local. From there he was able to speak into the lives of others as one immersed in the stories, practices, and common rhythms of life. It was a slow, intentional, incremental process of life that he gave himself over to. Justice, mercy, and peace – all kingdom of God realities – were found the Incarnated One as he was/is the embodiment of them all.

And it started at Christmas.

What do you think? Am I way off?

Have you noticed an intertwining of the domestication of Christmas? Is there such a thing as the domesticated Christmas?

 

Love Your Neighbor: It Isn’t Hate; It’s Fear.

http://www.folkart-crafts.org/images/neighbors.gif

There has been a push happening for awhile now. For many, the perpetuation of isolated people, anonymously living their lives next door to one another needs to end. This push back into the neighborhood has come due to the cultural insistence on privacy, individualism, and overall autonomy (among others). Where estrangement has flourished, many are seeking to replace it with intimacy and interconnectedness.

Over the past several years, I have wondered if our tendencies toward isolation and individualism stem from fear not hatred. I say fear because for the most part, I don’t find too many who actually hate their neighbor. If they do, it seems this hatred is an outcome of fear. In other words, they hate because they fear, not the other way around.

Fear of our norm being interrupted. Fear of having to be vulnerable. Fear of the unknown. Fear of finding an unknown ally. The list goes on.

Fear is an interesting thing. Many of our fears are steeped in cultural stories; things we have deemed the normative “big” things to be fearful of. Thieves, rapists, car accidents, muggings, and the like plague and dominate our imaginations. Perhaps we have become a culture marked by fear because we are primarily marketed at in fear. Oddly enough, studies have shown that crime rates have actually declined, yet the reporting of crime has steeply ascended. This paradox has given credence to our efforts in self-protection while allowing us to remain hostile towards others.

As Nouwen says, “In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it.” It seems we have allowed our fears of the “big” things to permeate our views of the neighbor, coworker, and stranger featured in our everyday occurrences. This isn’t necessarily a cognizant reaction, yet when our imaginations are shaped by stories of threat and danger carried out by strangers, it is easy to carry these attitudes and practices over into our neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places.

In response, then, we build walls – be they literal or figurative – keeping hostile others out and ourselves in.

Yet, many of us might not believe we live in fear of others. There is no visceral emotion or attitude showing itself as fear. At first glance this may seem true, but taking a look at the actual practices we employ, it doesn’t take long to realize how embedded fear actually is.

There are three aspects of fear I want to point out in particular. Three points that often go unnoticed, but are vital. Vital because if Jesus tells us and shows us how to love our neighbors – and even our enemies – we need to be reflective and aware of how we might be replacing love with fear. Real life is a life of love, not fear; after all, perfect love casts out fear.

1. Fear does not only separate us from others, it allows us to dissect others.

Fear gives us a myopic vision of others where we cut up people into atomized versions of themselves. Rather than seeing others holistically, we pinpoint the qualities we deem necessary to fear them. We don’t see others with both their gifts and problems; we tend to selectively view them for their delinquencies and ills.

Our coworker isn’t a gifted teacher; in fear, she is primarily a gossip. The neighbor across the street isn’t a gracious gardener; in fear, he is the loudmouth who lets everyone know he was out late every Friday night. A spouse isn’t a partner and lover; in fear, he is a prideful manipulator waiting for you to mess up.

In short, fear gets us off the hook of lovingly seeing and participating with whole people. Permission is given to divide them up into the good, bad and ugly while living as if the bad and ugly exist alone. We do this because if others are essentially their most deviant selves – their problems/deficiencies – we don’t have to love them. They are a danger and must be kept at an arm’s length, at best.

In fact, I wonder if we don’t dissect others out of fear of finding ourselves in them. If we can keep the dividing lines alive and well through atomization, there will always be the “us” and “them”, not the “we”. Fear enables us to reject any possibility of finding a like-minded brother or sister. After all, who wants to find a brother and sister in a supposed stranger?

I have seen this over and over again – especially within myself – with those I’m most familiar with. It does happen with the actual stranger, but more often than not, it happens within the relationships that effect my everyday. Focus must be brought to the daily, mundane, humdrum of life for that is where we actually exist.

2. Fear does not only allow us to dissect others, it allows us to blindly deny our own complicity in ugliness and evil.

Fear permits us to lay the blame at the feet of others as we walk away innocent. It allows us to play the victim card in a world full of agitators and thugs. The problems of the neighborhood, workplace, and family are not our own, they are the product of and responsibility of others.

As long as the ailments of our world can be found in others, we will not be accountable for fixing them. Those who need correction are those who are not us. Expectations can be projected across the street or over the cubicle wall as long as they don’t reverberate back on us. Peter Block talks of projection and accountability in his brilliant book Community: The Structure of Belonging

Projection denies the fact that my view of the ‘other’ is my creation, and this is especially true with how we view our communities and the people in them. Most simply, how I view the other is an extension of being accountable. To be accountable is to act as an owner and creator of what exists in the world, including the light and dark corners of my own existence. It is the willingness to focus on what we can do in the face of whatever the world presents to us. Accountability does not project or deny; accountability is the willingness to see the whole picture that resides within, even what is not so pretty. (p 57)

3. Fear does not only keep us from being accountable, it allows for the continuation of the status quo.

If you are like me, you have plenty of grandiose ideas. The problem becomes when they interrupt the established rhythms I’ve created over the years. Behind these walls I’ve built between myself and others lies my comfortable, personal world which has taken years to establish.

This world is full of preoccupations keeping me distant from my neighbors. Nouwen states,

Preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same, and it often seems that we prefer a bad certainty to a good uncertainty. (Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 74)

For many of us, myself included, it is this fear of the unknown, the uncertain, which keeps us holed up in isolation. Our neighbors might interrupt our entertainment plans in front of our big screens; our hurting coworker might stop my efficiency and money producing; my child might steal my sleep.

Rather than reaching out in love, we hide away in fear of our precious timelines, agendas, and show times. The way to change is pushing through these self-imposed comforts and to allow revolutionary breakthroughs to emerge.

So, I ask, how has fear taken root in your life? Are you dissecting others? Have you turned a blind eye to your own ugliness? Do you protect your status quo at all costs?

Or am I way off base? Is it hatred – or something else – not fear?

I’d love to hear your story.

Image: Johnnie Swearingen (Brenham, TX). Neighbors, 1989. (Source)