i wrote this post a little while ago, mainly to get some of my own thinking down on paper. fair warning...it is a bit longer than a blog post ought to be. feedback very welcome.
While serving with others in Lexington, KY as a ham-fisted midwife to a small community of Jesus-people, I have become increasingly fascinated with the amazing work God is doing outside the church – the reality of the Kingdom on earth. I was raised in the church and have a deep and abiding love for the people who have lived this good news down to me. I know and believe the church is an instrument of grace, ordained and inspired to articulate the message of Jesus. I am glad to have witnessed great (not big, but great) evidence of God’s Kingdom coming in church circles and networks.
But I am also glad to see that God hasn’t put all her eggs in one basket. The scriptures are dotted with instances of Holy love and justice bursting onto the world stage through unlikely agents – see Ruth, Zacchaus, Melchizadek just for a start. Probably the most famous character who was an outsider to the “religious people” is the Good Samaritan.
Who doesn’t know this story? It is one of the most familiar narratives in our culture. It is right up there with the little engine that could and the race between the tortoise and the hare. But, what of it? It is my contention that just as our good works can be held in captivity by the story of the Good Samaritan so too can the Church (including the emerging, missional and new monastic expressions) inhibit our imaginings about what God is up to in the world.
Let me explain. I’m not particularly interested here in a verse by verse analysis of the story of the Good Samaritan. Suffice to say, this amazing character crosses all kinds of barriers (physical, religious, psychological, sociological) to offer salvation to someone. In so doing, he exposes our vacuous spirituality and shows us another way – the way of generous, sacrificial, and graceful living. Unfortunately this nameless person from Samaria has been domesticated and simply become the poster child for random acts of kindness and impulsive compassion. As noble as these occasional gestures of charity are, they can become the sum-total of our practical discipleship. But what about the time and space outside these single virtuous moments? Now, please hear me. I am a big fan of radically good deeds that capture the spontaneity and spark of God’s love. I’m just worried that the idea of the Good Samaritan can become an inoculation to the holistic work of living generously with each moment, every day, for the long term. It’s the curse of the tithe – you know, where we give our 10% and then get on with our economic plans as if it isn’t all God’s anyway.
I am wondering if our so-called radical or new monastic forms of faithfulness can fall into the trap of it being another one of those curiosities we had among other consumer choices “on the journey.” I don’t mean to accuse anyone of malice. It is more a case of defining a certain episode of our life according to circumstances or attitudes that wane over weeks and months. Just as we have all had those “good Samaritan” moments, I am afraid we will too easily remember our “radical years” as “that phase I went through” instead of a lifelong calling. And, it is to long-term faithfulness that we owe our allegiance and for which we will require the greatest energy. Jesus didn’t call us to just follow him in the short-term, while we are single, ambitious, idealistic, or young (Lord knows I am preaching to myself here!)
So how can we imagine what “going far enough” looks like? I want to offer a companion text to the good Samaritan story. If we imagine what kind of person this Samaritan is and what kind of life he is living we are challenged to fill out the picture. What happens when this good Samaritan goes home? What is his home like? Does he shop at Wal-Mart? Does he have energy-saver light bulbs? Is he known at work as “that do-gooder Samaritan”? Does he obsess about attending every church meeting and run out of time to get to know his neighbors? Does he take an interest in local and global political conversations? Can he afford to eat organic?…and if so, does he? Does he have dear, old friends with whom he disagrees about religion, politics, and economics?
So we roll the story back to Jeremiah and get some advice from non other than “The Lord.” When the people are completely confused about where to go next and how to live in this foreign land, God tells Jeremiah to make themselves at home.
Jer. 29:7 “Seek the welfare (peace, shalom, wholeness, righteousness) of the city.
Read verses 4-7 and you will discover some very enduring and time consuming disciplines – tree planting, home building, marrying your children off. Another way of framing this is to seek “the common good” of the place in which you live. Apparently this is how the realpolitik of the Kingdom is revealed. The challenge for us is to slow down, shun self-interest and to soften our eyes to the world around us. It is indeed time for a Holy optimism through good works, a Peaceful indignation through solidarity with the poor and with those who are working to undermine poverty. It is also time for us to think about growing old together in the bond of grounded community, not just enjoying the adventure of limited, voluntary association with the place and people around us. The full acceptance of this advice to the exiles will require a commitment to continuity over many years in the same place.
I am coming to believe that we will need to pursue long range commitments if we are to be fully caught up (raptured) by the present-tense apocalypse. This is what it means to be swept up in God’s mission of love and justice, reconciliation and shalom. This is what it means to follow the radical rabbi from Nazareth. Aren’t we just as likely to see Jesus meandering down the backstreet of some neighborhood pressed down by urban decay? As you read the gospels can’t you imagine Jesus walking alongside activists in a Mountain Top Removal protest or squatting in a decaying building in an abandoned part of your city? Can’t you hear the confusion caused by this virtuous man partying with the unlovely people in the wrong bars. It is important to note that the proper knowledge of these things – the meaning behind certain streets in a neighborhood, the particular details about local and regional issues, where people live and how they make sense of their lives – is only possible through years and years of really being present to the particular place of our dwelling.
This all sounds a bit hard. My first impulse is to desire the advent of some sophisticated theological, sociological, or missional framework that will put everything in order (once and for all!). Surely there is a way to skip the waiting and enable me to remain free to go wherever I want for as long as I please. My life in community with other fumbling Jesus-followers is teaching me something quite different. While theoretical frameworks are important they are much easier to engage than good, earthy spirituality - the kind of spirituality that has thirty years of anonymity as well as skin and breath and hair. Paying attention to culture and history by participating in the life of a place is the slow but necessary work of people of God. This kind of spirituality is the stuff of the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven and it is what makes the story of the good Samaritan such an enduring and heroic tale, especially when it is married to the shalom imagery of Jeremiah 29.
So, as we aspire to be radically committed to the outrageous love typified by Jesus, may we find the courage to be committed for the long haul. May our good Samaritans go home to make households of faithfulness that grow deep roots. Our western, urban context has a fetish for the instant and the spectacular, for moments of ecstasy and the choice to go anywhere at any time (hyper-mobility). To prioritize fidelity to a place and its people (and not just an idea) is to truly nail our individualism to the cross. It may be the most radical thing we ever do.