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Friday, September 10, 2010

Following Jesus into the Mess Until the Cross Wears a Groove in Your Shoulder.

"The the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." (Matthew 25:34-6)

"Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body." (Hebrews 13:3)

"And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it? And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; "do this and you will live." But he desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?"Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I get back.' Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers/" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise."

When I first came to Northampton in the summer of 2008 I grew aware of feeling displaced, a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner on the outside looking in. I likened it to what missionaries must feel when starting out in a new culture. It seemed as if I couldn't find the door into becoming a genuine part of the unique life of this small, tribal city. I must admit the experience was really disturbing. I'd only been there before when I first moved from Albuquerque to Newbury Street in Boston in the early 70's. I felt a kid amidst sophisticated grown-ups (actually I was). The Boston and Northampton experiences were disorienting.

Gradually in Northampton, God began to open a way to connect; it turned out to be a willingness to go into the mess of people's lives and on their terms. Mind you, I'd been a lay counselor for 20+ years, being in the mess was my daily experience - and I was intimately connected to my own. Be that as it may, the Northampton disquiet felt and still feels somehow different. Perhaps, I view it as messier in a peculiar way. The problems and dilemmas I encounter in people's lives here seem more labyrinthine with multiple layers of unhealth, tragedy and sorrow interwoven from decades or even generations of trouble. Whether its the story of the alcoholic Vietnam vet who broke his back, never had it fixed and now lives in chronic pain, or the Level 3 sex offender who's lost everything good in his life and lives on the street 24/7. Or it's the big-hearted, abused woman who tries valiantly to keep a semblance of normalcy and order in her life, but fails more often than not, The issues I encounter feel overwhelming, and the mess too great to walk along side in hopes of bringing redemptive change.

At the same time, I realize for all sorts of complex cultural reasons we're living through a period of tremendous strain and turmoil affecting large people groups on every continent. Northampton is merely a microcosm of global upheaval. It's in this personal and global context the Holy Spirit faces me with unsettling questions to reveal the actual state of my heart toward his Kingdom mission I've said I wanted to help shoulder (his light yoke?) He's asking questions such as:

  • Do you really want to follow me into the mess everyday?
  • Are you willing to sacrifice your comforts, resources, dreams, time and energy to walk in the mess with the most broken and beaten of my brethren?
  • Do you merely want to talk and write about it while staying safely aloof and in control of your own Kingdom?
  • Do you want to carry your cross, enter more deeply into my suffering, and die daily to yourself as your preferred way of living?
  • Will you go further in with people and not look back even if it costs you everything?
My answer most often to these and related questions turns out to be varying degrees of "yes": "Yes, as long as you'll help me," "Yes, but," "Yes, oh, you mean right now?", or "Yes, maybe (which usually means not so much)." I know I don't want to live pursuing the American dream of wealth, power and prestige. I've never wanted to do that, although having some financial security, and being able to travel with family occasionally, or take time off, see more plays, concerts and arts events still has their charm to me.

By nature and motivational design, I'm motivated by values, they drive me instinctively, but I also have the same character flaws, selfish desires, blind-spots, and frustrating weaknesses (aka sin), as other Jesus followers. I hate that I have them (pride?), but they live in me, and I need daily transforming, lavish grace to cut through their substantial influence. Oh yeah, and I've a large, much practiced "gift" for wandering - some of it's my ADD, and some my motivational bent for exploring. The problem is when sin and design hold sway, I avoid the mess and pursue more pleasant activities and amusements.

The fact of the matter remains, I know if I'm to fulfill the summons to this imagine/Northampton mission my King has given me with Tricia and my teammates, I must make an avowedly consistent beeline for the mess and then linger there with Jesus. He always goes to the mess in people's lives - although they may not let him in - and he wants us to be with him there every day. We're not to be silent in the face of suffering, distant from the tragedies and sorrows of ruined lives, detached from the cries of the voiceless and oppressed, or too busy with our pleasures and securities to let our hands get dirty in someone else's chaos.

Cutting to the bone, we are to do things like:

  • sit with and dry the tears of the abandoned (radical empathizing).
  • feed the hungry as much or more that we feed ourselves (radical sharing).
  • comfort and ennoble the discarded, warehoused feeble and dying (radical re-humanizing).
  • give away more than we keep (radical giving).
  • befriend the wearisome, smelly, dirty and obnoxious (radical befriending).
  • give our money more to the Kingdom mission than ensuring comfortable lives for ourselves (radical financing).
  • teach what we know to the ghettoized and disenfranchised who have no teacher ((radical equipping).
  •  disarm hate with tenacious love so courageous and unexpected it shames and neutralizes the tyrant (radical peacemaking).
  • pursue  and care for the addicted even when he or she is in the depths of using (radical care).
  • downsize, simplify, embrace redemptive downward mobility (radical sanctification).
You see, the mess is the earthly dwelling place of Jesus. In becoming a mess-dweller by choice, you walk in solidarity with the One who came to seek and save the lost, crushed, abandoned and dying here and now. You actually find your true life there and come to know him in the face of the forlorn. You see his beauty in lives filled with trouble, sickness and death. The broken, bleeding and crucified Christ is mysteriously recognized in the deformed and hardened. By being at home in the mess, you can see and hear him in the lives of these people. You learn to notice and sense without shying away instinctively.

Tricia (lately through the life of St. Francis of Assisi) and both of us through the persistent inviting of the Holy Spirit are being asked to shoulder our crosses in a manner which inevitably invites us to share in the suffering of Christ in the suffering of humanity. We are not in any way special in that regard. This call is the call to all people of Christ. It is the Way of the Cross, the hard way, but the way freedom for the world. Grace makes it possible to respond and grace makes it possible to persist wholeheartedly. Amazing grace; grace of the life in the mess with Jesus.


Holy One, Wondrous One, Son of Man, Son of God, Suffering Servant, Christ, my magnificent King, make us able to prefer living and serving in humanity's crushing mess with you. Enable us to shoulder our crosses until it wears a groove in our shoulders and we bear the marks of unconditional love. Give us uncommon courage, the love of heaven, Spirit-soaked creativity, and humility able to connect with people who frighten and repel us. Give us hearts that long for justice, mercy, and redemptive freedom for even those who mistreat and despise our solidarity with you. Let the mess in people be our healing ground and setting-free place. Deliver us from the world's enticing addictions to pleasure, amusement, wealth, power and selfish gain. Fill us to bursting with the Holy Spirit's love for you, and what you love that our days may see love triumphing over death in all its rotting malevolence. 

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