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.

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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

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?

 

“A Day’s Journey into Nineveh” – How Theology is Rooted in Geography

Pastoral work is local: Nineveh. The difficulty in carrying it out is that we have a universal gospel but distressingly limited by time and space. We are under command to go into all the world to proclaim the gospel to every creature. We work under the large rubrics of heaven and hell. And now we find ourselves in a town of three thousand people on the far edge of Kansas, in which the library is underbudgeted, the radio station plays only country music, the high school football team provides all the celebrities the town can manage, and a covered-dish supper is the high point in congregational life.

It is hard for a person who has been schooled in the urgencies of apocalyptic and with an imagination furnished with saints and angels to live in this town very long and take part in its conversations without getting a little impatient, growing pretty bored, and wondering if it wasn’t an impulsive mistake to abandon that ship going to Tarshish.

We start dreaming of greener pastures. We preach BIG IDEA sermons. Our voices take on a certain stridency as our anger and disappointment at being stuck in this place begin to leak into our discourse.

Now is the time to rediscover the meaning of the local, and in terms of church, the parish. All churches are local. All pastoral work takes place geographically. ‘If you would do good,’ wrote William Blake, ‘you must do it in Minute Particulars.’ When Jonah began his proper work, he went a day’s journey into Nineveh. He didn’t stand at the edge and preach at them; he entered into the midst of their living – heard what they were saying, smelled the cooking, picked up the colloquialisms, lived ‘on the economy,’ not aloof from it, not superior to it.

The gospel is emphatically geographical. Place names – Sinai, Hebron, Machpelah, Shiloh, Nazareth, Jezreel, Samaria, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Bethsaida – these are embedded in the gospel. All theology is rooted in geography.

Pilgrims to biblical lands find that the towns in which David camped and Jesus lived are no better or more beautiful or more exciting than their hometowns.

The reason we get restless with where we are and want, as we say, ‘more of a challenge’ or ‘a larger field of opportunity’ has nothing to do with prophetic zeal or priestly devotion; it is the product of spiritual sin. The sin is generated by the virus of gnosticism.

Gnosticism is the ancient but persistently contemporary perversion of the gospel that is contemptuous of place and matter. It holds forth that salvation consists in having the right ideas, and the fancier the better. It is impatient with restrictions of place and time and embarrassed by the garbage and disorder of everyday living. It constructs a gospel that majors in fine feelings embellished by sayings of Jesus. Gnosticism is also impatient with slow-witted people and plodding companions and so always ends up being highly selective, appealing to an elite group of people who are ‘spiritually deep,’ attuned to each other, and quoting a cabal of experts.

The gospel, on the other hand, is local intelligence, locally applied, and plunges with a great deal of zest into the flesh, into matter, into place – and accepts whoever happens to be on the premises as the people of God. One of the pastor’s continuous tasks is to make sure that these conditions are honored: this place just as it is, these people in their everyday clothes, ‘a particularizing love for local thing, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.’

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, p. 128-130.

Living Life Together: Commitment & Baby Pictures

A good friend and I were chatting the other day about the difficulty of discipleship and mission here in the Northeast, and in particular, here in Syracuse. In a culture steeped in and characterized as post-Christian, we have found many factors impeding the deepening and broadening of Jesus’ movement. We both strongly believe in the necessity of the Church returning to square one in her efforts. This means many things, but at its core, it means a return to Jesus’ intentions for community, mission, and incarnation.

One factor has consistently reared its head: commitment. Try as we might to disciple people into community and mission via incarnation, without commitment, things will unravel rather quickly. This might seem like an understood factor, but the reality is many people practice pseudo-commitment. When things get messy, when their romanticized illusions blow up, when the new and shiny appears on the horizon, many peoples’ “commitment” fades.

We have become a culture known for its commitment-breaking rather than its commitment-keeping.

Most, if not all, of this rests upon our consumer mindsets, practices and their resulting identities. As John McKnight and Peter Block state in The Abundant Community, “Consumer society begins at the moment when what was once the province or function of the family and community migrates to the marketplace. It begins with the decision to purchase what might have been homemade or neighborhood produced.” Once we yield to this way of life, we begin to filter our practices through the lens of consumerism. In this shift, our commitment moves from the family and neighborhood (community) to the self and its wants.

Furthermore, this mindset – and again, its identity forming practices – is founded upon detachment. One would assume consumerism’s main goal would be attaching buyers to objects. This is its lure. We think we need purchasable objects and once we have them we will stay attached to them. The truth lies in consumerism’s “counterfeit nature” which is built upon an inherent sense of detachment. It has to be, otherwise we could not go out and continue to consume. McKnight and Block quip, “The marketplace in this way promises what it knows will not be fulfilling.”

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise when we find the difficulty of commitment to incarnation. In a world of pseudo-commitment, it is much easier to tether ourselves to excarnational realities. I have heard many people say they have community on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Or people rally around an ideology or social issue. Again, as McKnight and Block state, within a consumer culture, we form communities around and with those who are able to purchase like us. The same is true here: we form communities – and stay committed to them – as long as they aren’t demanding, differ from their original intentions, or are full of people who share a similar affinity.

In other words, we tend to give our commitment to things which are void of actual responsibility and relationship.

Enter the baby pictures:

I love these pictures. The children in them are the two sons of friends and our daughter in the middle. The first picture is of them all soon after their births; they all were born within 3 weeks of each other. The second was taken a few weeks ago, as they all are preparing to be (or already are) 2 years old.

To me this is much more than a picture. It is much more than a group of beautiful children. It is a picture of commitment. These babies represent the families they are a part of; families who stuck it out over the past several years of community building, church planting, and church collapsing. They are the embodiment of what it means to tether together when it doesn’t make sense or when things get difficult. They are the symbols of birthday parties, dedications, hundreds of dinners, tears, laughter, and everything else in between. In a very real way, they are indicative of commitment, or as Christine Pohl describes, the “internal framework for every relationship and every community.” Their smiling faces are afforded by the trust between us all as we venture together into the future as friends turned family.

I love Peter Block’s words regarding commitment:

Commitment is a promise made with no expectation of return. It is the willingness to make a promise independent of either approval or reciprocity from other people. This takes barter out of the conversation. Our promise is not contingent on the actions of others. The economist is replaced by the artist. As long as our promise is dependent upon the actions of others, it is not a commitment; it is a deal, a contract…Commitment comes dressed as a promise.

I’m not saying everything has been perfect or without trouble. (You did see me mention “church collapse,” right?) Yet, there has been an intentional decision to incrementally push through our addictions to consumerism and to stick with mutual commitment. It has been this intentional mutuality that has allowed us to take pictures like the ones above and certainly many more to come.

If you are wondering about commitment and what it means, I’ll leave you with these questions from Peter Block’s wonderful book Community: The Structure of Belonging. Bring them to your community and have a conversation. See what happens. Talk, and if you want to truly ground the conversation, write things down and come back to them in 6 months.

What promises am I willing to make?

What measures have meaning to me?

What price am I willing to pay?

What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments, or to fail in my commitments?

What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?

What is the promise I am postponing?

What is the promise or commitment I am unwilling to make?

 

 

“…all creatures live by participating in the life of God” – An Excerpt from Wendell Berry’s The Burden of the Gospels

I think Jesus recommended the Samaritan’s loving-kindness, what certain older writers called ‘holy living,’ simply as a matter of propriety, for the Samaritan was living in what Jesus understood to be a holy world. The foreground of the Gospels is occupied by human beings and the issues of their connection to one another and to God. But there is a background, and the background more often than not is the world in the best sense of the word, the world as made, approved, sustained, and finally to be redeemed by God. Much of the action and the talk of the Gospels takes place outdoors: on mountainsides, lake shores, river banks, in field and pastures, places populated not only by humans but by animals and plants, both domestic and wild. And these non-human creatures, sheep and lilies and birds, are always represented as worthy of, or as flourishing within, the love and care of God.

To know what to make of this, we need to look back to the Old Testament, to Genesis, to the Psalms, to the preoccupation with the relation of the Israelites to their land that runs through the whole lineage of the prophets. Through all this, much us implied or taken for granted. In only two places that I remember is the always implicit relation – the practical or working relation – of God to the creation plainly stated. Psalm 104:30, addressing God and speaking of the creatures, says, ‘Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created…’ And, as if in response, Elihu says to Job (34:14-15) that if God ‘ gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together…’ I have cut Elihu’s sentence a little short so as to leave the emphasis on ‘all flesh.’

Those also are verses that don’t require interpretation, but I want to stretch them out in paraphrase just to make as plan as possible my reason for quoting them. They are saying that not just humans but allcreatures live by participating in the life of God, by partaking of His spirit and breathing His breath. And so the Samaritan reaches out in love to help his enemy, breaking all the customary boundaries, because he has clearly seen in his enemy not only a neighbor, not only a fellow human or a fellow creature, but a fellow sharer in the life of God.

When Jesus speaks of having life more abundantly, this, I think, is the life He means: a life that is not reducible by division, category, or degree, but is one thing: heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. He is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified ‘Christians,’ but rather to become conscious, consenting, and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all.

To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty with desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty. It seems as though industrial humanity has brought about phase two of original sin. We all are now complicit in the murder of creation. We certainly do know how to apply better measures to our conduct and our work. We know how to do far better than we are doing. But we don’t know how to extricate ourselves from our complicity very surely or very soon. How could we live without degrading our soils, slaughtering our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning the air and the rain? How could live without the ozone hole and the hypoxic zones? How could we live without endangering species, including our own? How could we live without the war economy and the holocaust of the fossil fuels? To the offer of more abundant life, we have chosen to respond with the economics of extinction.

If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given in Jesus’s teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?

That question calls for many answers, and we don’t know most of them. It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time – if they are allowed a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.

– Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels,” in The Way of Ignorance p. 135-137

“And I found the Poet’s store On the threshold of my door.”: “Poet” by Liberty Hyde Bailey

The everyday. The local. The particular.

These are the areas where, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we find the Spirit of God at work. It takes patience, time, and persistence – all things we’re conditioned to bypass – but the gentle voice of God echoes in and throughout the everyday, local, and the particular. Being present to and within them are the essence of living like the Incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth.

I have been wrestling with these realities for awhile now and so when I read this poem over at Slow Church, I had to share its beauty. It is a lyrical recognition of the posture of Jesus that ends with a surprise to our contemporary, Western obsession with the grandiose.

POET

Tell me, O Poet, where thou dost live

Show me the place whereon thou dost stand

Lead me to the crests that give

Those wondrous scenes thou dost command

And let my waiting soul enwreathe

The rarer airs that thou dost breathe

Upon thy diamond shore.

He took me by the hand

And led me to my own hearthstone

We paused upon the wonted floor

And silent stood alone—

Till all the space was over-pent

With a magic wonderment;

And I found the Poet’s store

On the threshold of my door.