Did you know that Bristol, Tennessee, has a few Confederate monuments in East Hill Cemetery? That makes sense, given the fact that Bristol served as a hospital during the Civil
I’ve been thinking for a while now about contrasts: the way things that appear similar but are strikingly different and do very different things. That may be a strange thing to be thinking about, but I have my reasons. For one thing, I roast coffee. The art and science of roasting coffee fascinate me because there is such contrast between coffee beans. While coffee beans appear similar they roast differently. While a bean from Bali does amazing things at 400 degrees, other beans will burn at 400. Another contrast that has been on my mind is rooted in my experience as a pastor. This contrast involves the way we imagine church.
I have been in ministry since 1992, which is not a long time but long enough. However, I have always struggled with the balance between “disturbing the comfortable and then comforting the disturbed,” as John Stott wrote. Frankly, it seems like all the comforting that pastoral work requires has left very little time for leading the discomforted out of their comfort zones and into the mission of the kingdom. In other words, I’ve spent way more time in committee meetings focused on the business of the church than on the mission of the kingdom (inside rather than outside). I was in one of those internal meetings a few years ago when I realized how lop-sided that is and the utter necessity there is to change it.
A young woman in our church met with me to talk about her concerns regarding her neighbors. They were refugees who had been settled in a few different houses within our community, and specifically her neighborhood. As she got to know them she realized that despite our government’s best efforts there were a lot of things that her neighbors did not know how to navigate very well. For instance, most of them had very little understanding of banking and currency. Because of the variety and abundance of food, many of them were overwhelmed when they went to the grocery store. One woman had no idea how to use a washing machine; she continued to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub. So, this young woman had come to see me to ask what her church could do.
I felt like it was a great opportunity to share the love of Christ and to live out the love of neighbor. I set up a meeting with the person who coordinated our women’s ministry and asked her what we ought to do. The coordinator had a heart for the Gospel and for the needs of women. However, she surprised me with her response. She said that the mission of the church is to worship and teach, “then you let people just go and do.” I remember saying, “that can’t be right.” But, when I met with a few elders from our church I quickly realized that was exactly how they thought of things. A pastor’s job goes hand in glove with the role of the church. We are hired to lead in worship and to teach. That’s what we do every week. When I started thinking about it, I realized how true it is for a lot of churches. Very often a church’s identity is rooted in worship and teaching (discipleship programs).
It is hard to deny the place that worship and teaching have played in regards to significance and identity in church history. After all, worship and teaching are key to the Christian community. What I am suggesting, however, is that worship and teaching are the primary identifying aspect of most churches, at least in the US. That may not be so good and in fact, it may be part of the problem. What happens on Sunday morning and perhaps Wednesday evening drives the church engine, so to speak. Worship and teaching are the mission. Getting people engaged in the life of the church means getting them into worship or a small group. But that endeavor has little to no impact beyond the church.
Churches that focus largely on worship and teaching are what I call worship communities. Of course, that is not to say that worship communities only care about worship but they often restrict the definition of worship to what happens on Sunday morning (per se). A simple list of programs offered by worshipping communities provides ample evidence that churches care about things beyond their doors: mission budgets (conferences, trips), schools, VBS, Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, Meals on Wheels, food pantries, tutoring, ESL, etc. Nevertheless, it is difficult to suggest that those programs are the primary focus of any church. In fact, a lot of those programs are done with the hope that it will somehow lead to more people coming to worship or being part of a small group where they will encounter Christ. Thus, the community is usually built around worship and teaching.
Most, if not all, of the churches that I’ve been associated with were worship communities. A real giveaway to that was the way assets were used. The amount of time, money, staff, and effort spent on being outward facing paled in comparison to what was spent on worship and teaching. In one church that projected their worship service on the wall, they spent more on printing the order of worship than on youth ministry. When that fact was brought to the leadership’s attention it was quickly tabled for a future discussion, which to my knowledge has never taken place. Beyond that, worshipping communities can lose their focus and become insular.
It generally happens when a church allows worship and teaching to take center stage of everything they are doing – sometimes at the expense of the very neighborhood where they are located. For instance, a large church in a mid-western city had a parking issue. Parking in a city is always at a premium. Congregants often parked in front of the houses in the neighborhood behind the church, which frustrated the church’s neighbors. Their complaint was well grounded; congregants sometimes blocked a driveway or worse took parking place in front of houses on Sunday and Wednesday (weddings and funerals, too). The church tried to work things out by raking leaves and baking cookies; they tried to have conversations with their neighbors. What they didn’t do was no longer park in the neighborhood. Some within the congregation felt that they had a right to park there since it was a city street and they were there for to go to worship.
To help settle things, the city offered a parking lot down the street from the church, but the congregants felt the half block was too far to walk. The neighborhood went the legal route. The church responded by secretly buying up houses in the neighborhood through a dummy corporation set up by a few of the elders; they planned to tear down the houses and build a parking deck on the edge of the neighborhood – despite the protests of the neighborhood. Eventually, the neighborhood appealed to the city council. The city council sided, rightly, with the neighborhood. The Sunday following the decision the senior pastor comforted the congregation, “While the city council has impacted our parking they will not impact our freedom to worship.” He was right, of course. However, while the church had preserved their worship community they had done so at the cost of a relationship with nearly everyone who lived in the neighborhood and with a lot of people in the city. Not that it mattered, most of the people in the neighborhood didn’t attend the church.
While some churches can afford to burn relational bridges, most churches cannot. And yet, a lot of churches are just as insular in their own way; they work hard to maintain the integrity of their worship community because that is what has been communicated. An all too familiar story involves churches in demographically changing neighborhoods. The church, however, eager to maintain its worship community does not change. It isn’t out of stubbornness. Often attempts are made to engage with the neighborhood. However, those attempts are often done with an invitation to be part of what the church is already doing. In other words, the church wants people in the neighborhood to join their thing. While the church may be warm and welcoming they often don’t make an effort to accommodate the cultural differences. Inadvertently the church sends a clear message and simply wants people to step into what is already happening. To borrow slightly from C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, the church is for the church.
Too often in those cases, the church comes to a place where they must close its doors. Through death and attrition, they simply do not have the people to maintain their worship community any longer. The real tragedy may not be that the church closed but rather that no one noticed. What a terrible epitaph. A church closes and no one notices. It was so focused on being a worship community that no one in the neighborhood is even aware that it no longer exists.
For a lot of churches, the idea of being in community with one another is so important that it overlooks the way it interacts with even its closest neighbors. Community, however, is Biblical but maybe it ought to focus on something beyond itself to be healthy. Hebrews 10:24 tells us that we are not to forsake gathering together. The assumption that is often made from that text, however, is that it means gathering together with worship and teaching as the focus. I’m not sure why worshipping communities expect more people to be involved in mission when the clear (if not subliminal) message is that the church focuses on “worship and teaching.” When 20% of the folks do 80% of the church’s work and that 80% is focused on maintaining the community for the sake of the church, well, it might be more of a worshipping community than what I call a mission community.
For the most part, there isn’t anything wrong with being a worship community. However, some people in worshipping communities feel like they need to apologize for not being more engaged in mission. They see a need in the community and they want their church to step in and do something; sometimes that happens. Generally, however, when something happens it is either for the short-term (think responding to natural disasters) or it takes a dozen or so committee meetings before anything is ever done. Worship communities can be frustrating for people who want to see the church on mission. What they are asking is that the church become a mission community.
Mission communities are generally more focused and driven by the needs of the community around them as opposed to international mission work (of course they care about that but they are hyper-focused on their community). While a mission community resembles a worship community in the sense that they worship together and are concerned about discipleship, the major contrast is what drives the congregation. For instance, a mission community takes Jeremiah 29:7 as its core identity and works for the welfare (shalom) of their community. Of course, the greatest need that people have is a relationship with Christ. A mission community goes about the work of sharing the gospel by working for the good of its neighbors out of the love of Christ. Sharing the gospel is by proclamation as well as by acts of service.
A mission community is on the lookout for the broken places within its community and takes it as their responsibility to bring the hope of the gospel to bear. It works for the restoration and renewal of its community. Rather than being insular, a mission community is constantly orientating itself toward the welfare, the shalom, of its neighbors.
Worship communities could say the same, except for the fact that a mission community doesn’t try to start its own thing. For instance, a lot of churches will start their own food pantry rather than work with one that exists in other churches or one that the city has put together. Sectarianism does a great deal of harm to the mission of the kingdom and shows a real lack of spiritual imagination. A mission community, however, often looks for ways they can engage in what is already happening in the community and figures out ways to get involved with the work that is already being done. That allows those who are engaged in the mission community to build relationships and work for good. Mission communities start their own work when there is a gap that needs to be filled.
In one community, the school system has been working diligently to increase literacy among its elementary students. One mission community approached the school system with an offer to provide volunteers needed to launch the program. In the process, they began asking others, outside of the mission community (and not involved in worship communities), to participate in helping kids. In other words, they invited people to participate in the mission. They didn’t expect those folks to participate in worship and discipleship before they could work for the good of their community. The hope was that they would be able to build relationships with people beyond their church walls. A mission community invites people to see the gospel at work in the lives of its people and on display in the community.
There are not many churches that are mission communities. The reason for this is quite simple. It is tough to change the DNA of an established worshipping community. It requires change and most churches, like people, would rather face “ruin than change” (WH Auden). Not only that, but change often leads to conflict and most pastors and church people are conflict avoidant. Additionally, pastors may not have the leadership skill needed to navigate change or conflict. Nevertheless, it is my belief that if worship communities do not start becoming mission communities they will become obsolete and insignificant in their communities. There may be more churches closing soon if they do not move toward the needs of their communities.
That goes for church plants as well. Very often church plants start off with the idea of being missional, focused on the welfare of their community. Over time, however, they begin to take on the shape of a worshipping community – complete with all the specialized ministries that go with the territory. Every so slowly, their focus shifts from being outward facing to being attentive to “comforting the disturbed” to the point they have little time to shepherd folks to think of others as more important than themselves. Eventually, the pastor finds himself enmeshed within inner-church issues, and the budget reflects they have settled neatly into the rhythms of a worshipping community where 20% do 80% of the work. Ten years into a church plant and many of them are no different than any other worshipping community.
It is difficult to maintain a mission community because it is so different, but it is exactly what the church needs and exactly what communities need. Though they may look the same, though they may both be called a church, there is a striking contrast between a worshipping community and a mission community. The former can easily become insular and concerned with its own interests. The later, while not perfect, as least has the needs of the others as its highest end, which after all is closely connected to the way Jesus fleshed things out.
The essay was first published by Tactical Faith where I serve as a Pastoral Fellow (https://www.tacticalfaith.com/pastor-fellows-2/).
I came across another article the other day that promised steps to the perfect party for kids. That was on the heels of flipping through a magazine, which highlighted the perfect bedroom for a kid, and an article on the perfect kid friendly vacation spots. There was even an ad for school, which offered the perfect environment for a child’s education. I immediately felt a rise in my anxiety levels because, given the nature of our lives, I can’t possibly provide perfection.
Parents, if you don’t already know it, are some of the most fearful, anxious people on the planet. We spend tons of resources (time, money, etc.,) on trying to assure that our children have all they can ever need so that they have the perfect childhood – which will in turn lead to a perfect life. Books and articles that promise pathways to perfection get bounced around social media like celebrity gossip.
At one point I had over fifteen parenting books on my bookshelf most from a Christian perspective. Many of them promised to deliver a parenting strategy that would lead to great, well-adjusted kids. The trouble was that they were all different in their approaches – some even contradictory to the other.
It was confusing and overwhelming and at times alarming. I am smart enough to realize that there is little chance that I can perfectly put any of these “tips” into practice. However, these articles and books come with an implicit warning. Failure, on my part, according to the purveyors and peddlers of parenting advice, is certain to cause my kids to plummet into nothingness. What pressure!
On the one hand, I know parents who are so resigned that they are “messing their kids up” that they jokingly say they aren’t saving for their kid’s education but rather for their therapy bill. On the other hand, a dad actually said to me, “Mark if you do these five Biblical things you will have great kids – I can guarantee it. If you don’t, well I’ll pray for you and your kids.” While on opposite ends of the spectrum both parents have something in common – they are both anxious about parental perfection.
For the last twenty years I have worked with parents and students in one capacity or another. I have yet to meet the perfect parent with the perfect parenting strategy and the resulting perfect kids. And yet somehow I fell into the quagmire of attempting parental perfection when my sons came along. I found myself rummaging through books and articles, trying to find some morsel that would help me as a dad. I actually tried to make things perfect and I failed, miserably. It is nearly impossible to rise above the pressure from our culture’s pursuit of parenting perfectionism.
I learned something, in the midst of my anxious rush to find the pathway to perfection; I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others. The world isn’t a perfect place. Parental anxiety comes from trying to create perfection in a world that is full of flaws and broken-ness.
I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others.
Because we are prone to messing up we need to be patient with others and ourselves. Sure, we want to become better people but a better person doesn’t mean perfect. Better may mean being self-aware enough to know and admit my faults, failures and quirks so that I can overlook/forgive others their faults, failures and quirks. Perhaps that is the thing we can give our kids to shape their character.
There is a passage in the Bible that, while talking to people in Christian community, says a lot about seeing others and ourselves as we are and doing something about it. Parenting is about shaping the character of our children and that comes from interacting with our mess and the mess of other people. This text from the Bible speaks to that. It is in a letter from a man named Paul to people he loved. He wanted them to know the blessing of living in community, so he wrote that they ought to put on,
compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15, ESV)
Our kids live in a world where they are going to have to bear with other people – because people are going to have to bear with them. Parents need to break away from the lie of perfectionism and embrace reality. We do not live in a perfect world with perfect people. Our kids are not perfect. They like all of us have stuff in their hearts that they need to be aware of. We live in a real world where people and circumstances are not always fun, nice and easy. Character comes when as we navigate through the tough things both in our hearts and in our world. It starts with parents being real about their stuff – and allowing their children to witness the way they go through things – faults and all. It brings relief from the lie of perfectionism as parents allow their kids to see them growing in character, too.
Telling my kids I love them is something I try to do all the time. The truth is sometimes my “I love you” is overshadowed by the fact that I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. Or worse, as I drive them to school, blasting them for something they did or did not do. Then saying, “Love you” as they get out of the car – as if saying I love you will cover a multitude of sins.
It is clear in those moments to my kids and to me that I am not perfect. I need to own that and preëmpt the conversation and say, “I’m sorry. I blew it with you. Will you forgive me for that? I’ll try to do a better job next time” and then really work on doing better. After all, parenting is all about shaping the character of our kids but how can I give shape to their character if I’m not working on mine – in front of them.
Trying to achieve perfection in parenting is bound to create anxiety – especially since we are not perfect people and do not live in a perfect world. It is far better to help our children learn the ways of character by helping them to deal with the good parts and the not so good parts of life. We are all a work in progress and the progress is life-long and not merely through childhood and adolescents. Perhaps we can let our children know that they are not the only ones growing up and getting better – their parents are, too.
One thing that I am very proud of is my family – and not only my immediate family. My extended family, like my immediate family, is filled with brilliant, creative and wonderful people. One person in-particular consistently points me toward great articles and challenges me to think outside the box. I’m certain I’ve never told her that – or thanked her. Nevertheless – she has done it again by pointing me toward an insightful article from The Atlantic.
The article, by Anu Partanen, is entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. It is insightful as well as challenging. Partanen points out that Finland’s success is counter to most everything we do in the US.
For instance, Finland has no standardized tests. Instead teachers are trained and given the responsibility to “assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” In fact, in Finland “all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.” If a teacher is not a good teacher the principal deals with that situation. Oh – and a person must have a master’s degree to teach.
One thing further, there are no private schools. The reason for this goes back to Finland’s understanding, years ago, that their system needed reformation. So, according to the article, “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”
I am certain that a lot of counter arguments can be made about Finland’s system (of course their results seems to shout down most arguments). What stands out to me isn’t so much their results but the “main driver” within their systems. From my perspective, what is driving their system (equality) sounds a lot like Jesus’ call to love neighbor – or shalom.
I think a lot about the mission of shalom and or love of neighbor. Primarily because I believe it is the clearest way Christians are actually Christ-like. Years ago a pastor in New York helped me to understand the concept of Biblical Shalom (loving neighbor). He said, “It comes down to this. If I want my kids to be safe, well feed, well-educated, healthy, free from harm, I should also want it for my neighbor’s kids as well.” In fact, not only should I want it but I should also work toward that mission. That is part of what Jesus calls His people to do when he calls them to love their neighbor.
Finland’s education reform is a powerful example of loving neighbor (whether intended or not). Their reform is something that the US needs as well. Inequality is clearly seen in education (just visit a large city like Saint Louis). However, there are a lot of people trying to do something about it it is in the US – although not in an overt way.
As I read this article in The Atlantic I could not help but think of a number of efforts that are being made by Christian men and women in relationship to public schools. There are churches that provide tutoring and after-school help. There are churches that give meals for kids and their families on the weekends. Churches are trying to partner with public schools by doing painting, landscaping and providing school supplies. Churches offer ESL to help immigrants and refugees. There are also private Christian schools (including where my kids attend) that are making efforts to bridge the gaps as well. Some churches are even trying to establish charter schools in partnership with public school systems in depressed areas in an effort to break the grip of poverty and inequality.
Believe it or not these efforts aren’t so much about proselytizing as it is a concern for children getting a good education. In effect, it is the mission of shalom. Christian people have been about this sort of thing for a very long time – a very long time.
It is a mark of Jesus’ people to step into places of brokenness and attempt to bring wholeness and hope. The clearest example of that is in Jesus himself. Just look at the way that Jesus treated people (but take note that he overturned tables and drove out people out to ensure justice at the Temple). But it has also been that way throughout the history of the church. Look at Mother Teresa, The people of LeChambon during WWII. And of course, the fact MLK was not only an African-American working for Civil Rights but also a Christian and a pastor.
There are a lot of examples of churches across the US that have realized the need to do something about inequality in education. There is much more that can be done. Partanen’s article presents a challenge – and not just to the public education system in the US. The challenge comes to the local church as well – in whatever setting. Churches and Christians should ask what role the Christian community can play in furthering equality in education. They should also be asking about ways Christ’s people can help bring reform and then do it.
I am certain that is something worth considering.
Amid all the seasonal hoopla there is a small, but growing, theme that is emerging. It, like all the other seasonal appeals, happens every year. Turn on a radio and listen for a few minutes and you’ll hear an ad for a gym, new diet, or supplement that will “dramatically change your life in 2014.” Change is in the air – perhaps.
The truth of the matter is that change isn’t easy and most people really do not want it. Evidence for that is the fact that every year we hear the same message and we make similar resolutions. In fact one study showed that 90% of people that went through coronary by-pass did not change their behavior but went back to the same habits that were killing them. W.H. Auden had a point; he said people would rather face ruin than change.
Change of any kind takes sacrifice, commitment, and desire. It also requires people to deal with pain (related to loss of something), fear, conflict, and a willingness to disappoint people (when you no longer go out for a smoke or order a salad instead of a burger). But change is necessary in all of our lives – nothing stays the same. It is a sad thing to say to someone, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
A few days ago a friend of mine related an experience. During a leadership conference he was asked a question that has stayed with him. The question was simply, “What will happen if you do not change?”
Think of that question for a moment. What will happen if you do not change your bad habits? What will happen if you do not start taking better care of yourself? What will happen if you do not start doing a better job at work? What will happen if you do not start moving toward your spouse – loving him/her better? What will happen if you do not forgive?
Just asking the question is a step in the right direction. Honest reflection is important but it isn’t enough to just be self-aware. We need to be “self-active” as well. Put those two things together and real, significant, life long changes can occur – way more than a new diet or gym membership.
One tip that I think may prove helpful in not only answering the question but also making change is found in the word tweak. In a recent NPR: TED Radio Hour,Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, said, “Small tweaks can lead to big change.” If you are so inclined to try and answer the question, “what will happen if I do not change?” then you may want to think about making small tweaks as you wrestle thru the beneficial, but also tough parts, of making significant changes to your life.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Sherry and I have a friend and, as it turns out, the church she attends is looking for a pastor. They were talking some time ago and our friend said to Sherry, “I just hope we get a pastor who believes in a big Jesus. I believe in a big Jesus and people need that. I’m tired of people making Jesus small.”
As you can tell, her remark has stayed with me. For one thing it has made me think through the ways in which people attempt to make Jesus small, and ways I have done that as well.
Of course, there are those outside of the church – outside of the Christian community who exert great effort in an attempt to make God and Jesus small. But the trouble for me is when it happens with those who, like me, profess to believe in Jesus.
Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, in recent years has done significant research focused on religion within teenage and young adults in the United States. While his research looked at religion from a broad perspective he and his colleagues provided insight on the American Church. He has discovered that something he calls Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism –is actually “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches.” The research, while focused on teenagers and young adults, points out that these teenagers and young adults were influenced by the faith practices of their parents and their churches.
Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism, according to Smith, suggests the Christian life is “focused on living a good and happy life…being a good, moral person…being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful.” That is in contrast to what to it being “a life of repentance, built upon prayer, worship, seeking the Lord’s will,” and being more concerned with God’s interests in the world than our own.” In essence being a Christian has come to mean “feeling good, happy, secure, at peace…about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”
In fact, Smith’s research suggest that within American churches teenagers and young adults (20’s and 30’s) suggest a believe “that God created the world…” but do not think or live as if He is “particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”
If Smith is correct, and I am inclined to agree with him based on my experience, then it is little wonder that people outside of the church see little reason to believe that Jesus is little more than a guru. The trouble is what is being passed off as Christianity isn’t Christian – because it doesn’t have the greatness of Jesus at its core – if it did then it would impact more than just the individual but their families, work-places, communities, relationships, well – everything.
A fundamental claim of the Bible – a foundational aspect of the Gospel – is the Greatness of Jesus. One such place that makes that clear is a book in the New Testament, The Gospel of John. This text makes a striking claim: Jesus is God.
It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Later on in that same chapter, John 1:14 & 17 it becomes clear that John is writing about Jesus. He writes, “And the Word became flesh (physically, literally) and dwelt among us… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
In a few simple, somewhat poetic lines in John 1 we are confronted with a claim to greatness that it is difficult for us to wrap our heads around. John is stating boldly that Jesus is God and that Jesus was not only eternal, but present at creation, and not only that, but also all things were made through him.
In another part of the Bible, a letter written by a man named Paul to his friends in Colossae, we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).
Leon Morris, a theologian, said, “We often behave as though we can do as we like with God (with Jesus)…We say wonderful things about him. We say that he is great and wonderful and mighty. But then we act as though he were subject to our control. We even determine how he is to be approached and, of course, arrange things so that he is not going to be hard to get along with.”
And yet – that is exactly what a lot of church folk do – including me. I’d wager that a lot of Christian folks live as if Jesus is quite small. After all, if I can control and manage God how great could he actually be, surely not great enough to really have any impact on my life or neighborhood. I think some professing Christians – church folk – attempt to make Jesus small when we:
- get sucked into Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. That’s not the Christian life because it has nothing to do with the Biblical Jesus.
- try to keep Jesus as a small part of our lives. If we profess that we believe in Jesus – that He is indeed God – then it would stand to reason that what He has said about the way we are to live should consume us.
- fear the darkness. When we cower from broken places and broken people – or when we believe that our besetting sins can’t be overcome. John tells us that Jesus – the Light of Christ – still SHINES – and the darkness can’t overcome (John 1:5).
The truth is, Jesus is great and awesome. He is intended to consume the life of the Christian. In fact, it is his love (for us, for humanity, for God, for God’s interests) that is to compel (2 Corinthians 5:14) every facet of the Christian life. No we can’t live this out perfectly – but that is part of Jesus’ greatness as well. He is able to work through broken busted people – like me – to bring about good in the world.
There are some folks who really get this (and I wish I did a little bit more). For one thing history is filled with the people who have been impacted by the greatness of Jesus and the compulsion to live and love as He commands. More than just churches have been constructed by those men and women. Hospitals, orphanages, clinics, schools / universities, shelters, have been constructed and ran because men and women have been consumed by the greatness of Christ. Marriages and families have been restored. The hungry have been feed, the homeless sheltered and clothed – and not just for the tax break.
I think of women like Mother Teresa and her work among the poor and dying. I think of things like the International Justice Mission and their work to help free those who have been oppressed. In fact their website puts things into perspective. It says:
“In the tradition of heroic Christian leaders like abolitionist William Wilberforce and transformational leaders like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., IJM’s staff stand against violent oppression in response to the Bible’s call to justice (Isaiah 1:17): Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
IJM seeks to restore to victims of oppression the things that God intends for them: their lives, their liberty, their dignity, the fruits of their labor. By defending and protecting individual human rights, IJM seeks to engender hope and transformation for those it serves and restore a witness of courage in places of oppressive violence. IJM helps victims of oppression regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or gender.”
Up until a few years ago I was blissfully ignorant, fat and happy. Now, I’m just fat and not all that happy about it. Back then – back when I used to pull into a drive-thru with my wife and kids, order a super-sized sack of “Lord knows what” – I didn’t think so much about family farms or industrialization, community, rain, bugs or the chemicals used to annihilate them. My yard was something to mulch, mow, or rake not something I could use to put food on my table. Then some well-meaning soul introduced me to Wendell Berry: the Kentucky farmer, poet, and author. That person should have warned me.
I had just started reading some of Berry’s fiction when I heard he was coming to Charlottesville to give a lecture. I should qualify this statement – I’m not sure Berry’s books are fiction. Fiction shouldn’t have the sort of effect that Berry’s stuff has. Besides poetry and essays, he writes about the people, farms, in a fictional community in rural Kentucky called Port William.
While reading his books, Jaber Crow and Andy Catlett, I found myself longing for the sort of community that only my grandparents fully knew. It wasn’t like I wanted to go back to the “good ole days”. No. The sense of community that Berry gives is bigger than that. It is the reality that our lives are connected to each other and the things that we do or do not do have an impact – on not just us. In fact, he is quoted as saying we should not have a “split between what we think and what we do.” If we say we care about folks then there ought to be something to show for it. Therein is a sense of community (shalom perhaps).
I had just started to realize that Mr. Berry was writing more than “just” stories when he came to Charlottesville to give a lecture. I’ve sat through a lot of lectures in my day and, quite frankly, I’m not very good at it. But for some reason, I wanted to attend this one.
That night he talked about farms (large and the family farm), politics, money and the way they connect to how food is brought to the table. Many of the ways food comes to our tables actually brings harm to communities. At one point he said, “Simple solutions will always lead to complex problems, surprising simple minds.”
He was humble, gentle and kind. It was not unlike having a wise friend over for coffee; except at the end of the conversation you suddenly find that he had completely rearranged your house. I went into that lecture one guy and came out another – fat but not happy and ignorant. I’m not sure how it happened; however, I’m pretty sure that Berry used some sort of Jedi mind trick.
All I remember is that Berry said that people ought to know and care where their food comes. He also said they ought to participate in getting it to the table. At some point that evening I found myself mumbling, “I should know where my food comes from.” I left that evening with a copy Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food and an overwhelming urge to plunge a shovel into dirt and plant stuff. When I got home I announced to my family that we were going to change our lives and grow our own food.
Everything was going to change. It would require us to change the way we buy food. No longer would we eat fast food – except for Chick-Fil-A (because their food is goodish for you and they do good in the world – the others are the evil empire). We would also need to change the way we shop for food – trying to go local but being aware of how our food gets here. It also meant we would use some of our yard for a garden. My family looked at me like I had lost my mind. Sherry just smiled – she’s been living with crazy for almost twenty years.
But I was serious. I worked on a farm to help pay my way through college. I wasn’t naïve about the hard work. But I had forgotten was that I am twenty-plus years older and I live in the suburbs. We couldn’t have chickens or a cow and we really didn’t have too much room for a garden. Nevertheless, I was committed. After all, Mr. Berry said we should know where our food comes from and we ought to help get it.
Two days later I found myself behind a tiller. I had prepared a place that would get just the right amount of sun. I had a heap of organic soil that would soon be home to our food: tomatoes, peas, green beans, cucumbers, okra, peppers, watermelon, basil and thyme, bell peppers and broccoli. Sherry looked at me with the sort of “Clearly you do not know what you are doing but I love this crazy side of you.”
That tiller nearly beat me to death. It pulverized me more than the soil. At some point I was reminded of the agreement I made with the bulging discs in my neck and lower back about manual labor. I was not to do it. Nevertheless, I kept on mixing, tilling and preparing the soil.
Once I got the soil ready I started laying out the neat rows. My youngest son and I dug little holes, dropped in a few seeds here and there, carefully placing them. We did this for a while and then I tried to stand up. I had to have my four-year-old son help me and I groaned the loudest old man grunt ever. He looked at me and said, “You okay Daddy?” Of course I am. I’m participating in getting food on our table.
The worst part was the day was pretty hot; there was a huge sun in the sky. It wasn’t that the heat bothered me in fact I didn’t really notice. That was unfortunate because I forgot to wear a hat. Now for most folks that’s no big deal. For bald-guys that’s a huge deal. I scorched the top of my head. Let me add, it hurt when I blinked.
That evening with everything tucked into their nice tight little rows I stood with my family looking with hope on our little garden. One of my neighbors joined us. My youngest son began to tell him all that he had planted. At one point my neighbor said, “What are you going to do about all the squirrels and deer?” I, uh, hadn’t thought of that.
The next day I was out there again with wildlife netting, doing all I could to protect the food I was determined to bring on our table. At one point I was stooped, laboring over a stubborn old root when I thought, “Why in the hell am I doing this? Who is Wendell Berry and why can’t I stand up straight?”
Then, from my stooped position, I saw my family working alongside one another carefully putting netting around the fencing. They were talking and laughing and enjoying themselves. My youngest son was going over each area that he had planted the day before, patting the soil as a way to encourage things to grow (and he doesn’t like veggies). As we worked, side-by-side, helping each other, to get food to our table, we started planning a menu and who we could share the bounty.
Something happened to my family that never happened in a grocery store or even farmers market. We were participating in bringing food to our table but we were also focused on the fact that we wanted to share what we were growing. That subject came up naturally and organically. There was a sense of community that had come up even before the first green bean shoot.
Something else happened. That evening, with the wildlife netting in place, we stood and looked at our frail but hopeful garden. We realized how vulnerable and dependent each one of these plants was. They were susceptible to everything and it was going to be up to my family and I to protect and raise them. After all, one day these seeds and tomato plants would bear fruit and grace our table and bless the lives of people that we love. That’s when concern grew larger.
I had only thought as far as the planting and the harvest. I had not realized how much care would need to go into bringing this food to the table. Nor was I ready for how much I would care. Standing at the produce section of my local store I had not given much thought to how they were grown. I made a lot of assumptions.
But standing above my own plants I realized that the fruit of our labors was going to actually be food for my wife, my sons, our neighbors and friends. Bugs and vermin are real possibilities but would I put just anything on the plants to protect them? What damage could it do to my family? The soil? There was no way I was going to put anything on these plants that could cause them harm.
The things that Berry had said began to sink in even further. The sense of community extended beyond just giving folks good things to eat. It extended into the how we are getting things to the table. How are food gets to the table matters. It matters a lot.
Day that our first tomato was ready to be picked was a memorable occasion. We were grateful in ways we had never been grateful before – and amazed. The labor of our family, the care that we had put into the garden was rewarded and our care was rewarded with the “the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that” did not in any way “depend on ignorance,” as Berry wrote in Bringing it to the Table.
Perhaps you’ve never been introduced to Berry; if that is the case, do not delay – go and get acquainted with him as quickly as possible. It is safe to say that Wendell Berry has had a tremendous impact on me. This year, for reasons beyond my control, I haven’t been able to put in a garden. I miss it. I miss the hard work as well as knowing where my food comes from. I miss participating in getting food to our table. I miss the way our family worked together to care and cultivate. I’ll also miss the fruit of our labors as much as sharing it. And yet – thanks to Berry – I am no longer “fat and happy” and blissfully ignorant and I do not miss that.
Check these places out:
Check out a great article by Berry at Wendell E. Berry Lecture | National Endowment for the Humanities.
Here is a poem from Berry I came across the other day – can’t remember where:
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.