Sunday, December 05, 2010

Living the Upside Down Life

Four years ago, along with good friends and the support of my church community, I began acting on a conviction to live out the values of our Christian faith more fully. Not on a two-week overseas mission trip, not once a month at a soup kitchen for the homeless, but daily in our immediate community.

Up until that point, I was king of my life, where safety and comfort were the edict of my kingdom. But as I pursued the Christian faith, it humbled me from this throne that was not mine to claim. My faith invited me to submit my life to be a part of something greater then myself, which consequently meant abandoning my own aspirations for safety and comfort.

This is what led us, and many Christians, to identify intentionally with the poor. It is not required for acceptance in the faith, but I don't think one should be surprised when Christians do choose to reach out to the downtrodden of their community, even at great personal risk to themselves.

I want to be clear that acceptance in the Christian faith is upon one basis: that God the Father and His Son Jesus are in perfect union, that Jesus took on our humanity to identify with us in our brokenness, and bearing our burden, that we may be accepted by grace into divine union with our Creator. We are not accepted on the basis of our particular actions, no matter how zealous, righteous, or loving.

Being touched by the grace of God that meets us in our broken state, draws us to know and worship God, and compels us in an overflow of worship to turn to our neighbor and demonstrate this same grace. From Isaiah 58 to Luke 14 we see value in sacrificing our ambitions for the sake of others and instead identifying with the broken, marginalized, and outcast of society.

However, what A.W. Tozer calls the “self-sins”, prevent us from taking risks and making ourselves vulnerable in order to serve our own community. The self-sins are self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love, self-rights, and self-gratification. These dwell too deep within us, too much a part of our natures, to come to our attention without allowing God’s light to shine into the innermost motives that shape our lifestyle.

Putting to death the self-sins led myself and eight others to restructure our lifestyle which included choosing to make a very impoverished and dangerous apartment complex our home. We felt we would be able to most easily put the grace and compassion of our faith in action to those who are the most visibly downtrodden in our community.

As we prayerfully sought how to best serve our community we did not want to make assumptions about their problems and think we had the solution. We decided to first have a posture of listening, to learn about our neighbors. We began to host weekly community meals with the support of local churches. As this is our lifestyle, not a job, collaboration and unity between churches is necessary.

Going door to door inviting people to a community dinner and talking to people you don’t know can be uncomfortable. But comfort becomes less important as we continue to comprehend God’s glory. God calls us to take steps of faith in our life, and that means stepping out of our comfort and into the fear of the unknown. Will I be appreciated? Will I accomplish anything? Will I be respected? Again, the Christian faith liberates us from the slavery of these self-sins that prevent us from acting.

The community meals were an explosive catalyst for relationships that blossomed into friendships, opportunities to serve and meet felt needs, to learn about new cultures while embracing immigrants and refugees, to create safe space within the community for children to thrive. But we also learned to see the Divine in the mundane. Being available to a depressed widow, not only in moments of emergency when her apartment floods, but a regular presence of love over the course of months. Not only being with a single mom when she is suicidal at midnight, but being an anchor in her chaotic life for years.

And let’s face it. A fair amount of our motive to do good is tainted by pride. How much skill does it take to spend time with a depressed widow or help a single mom clean her chaotic home? Mostly it takes forbearance - and a willingness to give oneself night and day to something that, according to our usual reckoning, is not all that significant.

We learned first-hand through these relationships that while alleviating pain and suffering may sometimes be the fruit of our being with those who suffer, that is not primarily why we are there. Ministry takes courage to be with the sick, the dying, and the poor in their weakness and in our powerlessness. We can’t fix their problems or even answer their questions. As Henri Nouwen says, we dare to be with others in mutual vulnerability and ministry precisely because God is a God who suffers with us and calls us to gratitude and compassion in the midst of pain. You cannot solve all the world’s problems, but you can be with people in their problems and questions, trusting that joy also will be found there.

And indeed, there is joy. Joy in deep meaningful relationships that flourish when there is love and grace demonstrated within authentic community. While many in the surrounding community would rather bulldoze the apartment complex, this upside down life of abandoning comfort and security in submission to God can transform an impoverished crime ridden apartment complex into a home that you love and treasure - so much so that when it came time for my wife and I to leave, we left with a knot in our throat and tears in our eyes.

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This article was originally published in Danish on November 25 at www.kristendom.dk

www.kristendom.dk is driven by the Danish newspaper Christian Daily and is Denmarks largest website dealing with news, background and debates on Christianity, Church and Faith with more than 60,000 unique readers each month.

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