I had the opportunity this week to speak at the Creating Options Together 2016 Conference for Cru Inner City in St. Paul, Minnesota. I discussed some of the major obstacles we face in Christian discipleship – in both making and being disciples. Below is the transcript.
In 2004, I wrote and recorded a song called “My Good Intentions.” Here are a few of the lyrics:
A tired man standing at the street side
A tired question comes to mind
I look into my wallet and think
Will it feed him or his addiction?
I don’t know, so I drive on by
Here I am again, having coffee with
My good intentions, my good intentions
And I am dreaming of what tomorrow holds
What does it hold? What does it hold?
I’m wanting to, I’m thinking of
Will I be… moving on?
I was expressing the ambivalence I felt as an upper-middle-class Christian with a lot of good intentions and very little idea of how to live them out. On the one hand, I was inspired by the biblical vision of binding up the brokenhearted, preaching good news to the poor, and setting the captives free. On the other hand, I was afraid. I didn’t know what my role was in that vision.
I think that represents a lot of the church, right? In so many evangelical circles, we seem to have settled on something far more manageable – becoming experts at presenting the plan of salvation, helping people pray to receive Christ, and encouraging them in their personal journey of spiritual growth. The move-the-mountains type of stuff – caring for the poor, the widow & the orphan, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner, securing justice for the oppressed – gets dumped into one of two categories: #1, ministry subspecialties for those “called” to them, and #2, For Jesus, when He returns.
But what if those particular good works are meant for all of us after all, to be fully pursued in the present, as God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do the good works He prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10)? Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus say, “After you place your faith in me, be a nice person, go to Bible study, do some charitable acts from time to time, and I’ll mop up the rest when I come back.” When Special Forces Christians and Jesus’ Second Coming become our sole vision for addressing the sin, suffering, oppression, and injustice in the world, the world pays a great price, and so do we. We drift toward nihilism (“I can’t make a real difference anyway”), hedonism (“so I might as well focus on enjoying life”), and insularism (“and just take care of myself and my family”). Meanwhile, billions of God’s image bearers living under the burden of injustice, disease, and other kinds of suffering are crying out for a very present help in trouble, not just a way to reach a heavenly afterlife.
What else do we have to offer them? A LOT, as it turns out!
James 2:15-16 reminds us, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Likewise, suppose some of your brothers or sisters are being killed, maimed, or exploited because of the color of their skin. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep your head down, and stay safe,” but does nothing to make them safer, what good is it? Or, suppose your friends Ramón and Maria and their kids are about to get displaced from the neighborhood and its schools because their apartment complex, the last of the affordable ones in the neighborhood, is being torn down by a developer who wants to replace it with high-end condos. If one of you says to them and the other 100 families, “Go in peace, land on your feet,” but does nothing to address their vulnerability, what good is it?
What does it mean when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done… on EARTH as it is in heaven”?
I’ve been making disciples for over 20 years now in various contexts, and I’ve finally concluded that the heart of Christian discipleship is learning to extend and in turn be transformed by God’s radical love for his image bearers. Practically, it means a lifetime of learning to love others as well as we do ourselves. It’s an otherworldly kind of love that entails really weird things like loving our enemies and loving people without regard to race, ethnicity, class, citizenship, or creed. But there are a lot of heart obstacles that prevent us from leaning into this kind of love, and we need a lot of discipling (coaching, mentoring, correction) to keep moving toward it.
I’m going to share with you 3 of my own heart obstacles and how God has dealt with them in my life.
The first heart obstacle is an aversion to pain and mess.
Let me start by giving you a little background. I became a Christian in 1991 during my freshman year at Rice University after I attended a Cru meeting and picked up a copy of “The Four Spiritual Laws,” which, as many of you already know, is a tract that presents the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. I literally read it in my dorm room and prayed the prayer at the end, receiving Jesus as my Lord and Savior. After that, I got really involved with Cru. I participated in the small groups, attended all the conferences, went on a summer project, and eventually served as a student leader who trained younger students how to both share their faith on campus and integrate their faith with life. The experience was meaningful and rewarding. Looking back, it was also amazingly uncomplicated.
I went on to grad school, and after grad school I started working. I was active at my church, I joined the worship team and the mission committee, taught Sunday school, and settled into a nice predictable rhythm. But then I met Stacy. She and I met when, as a favor to a friend, my roommate and I agreed to let her stay with us for a few weeks before she joined the Air Force. She was single and 23 and had just given up a baby for adoption, but for some reason, we thought we were signing up for a relatively straightforward act of hospitality. Soon after Stacy arrived at our door, it was apparent that she needed a lot more than a place to sleep. She was crying a lot, she was cutting herself, and generally freaking me out. As she told me her story, it was apparent that between giving up her baby and having endured all kinds of abuse in her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, she had already endured a lifetime of profound losses.
She started coming to church with me, and pretty soon after that, she placed her faith in Christ. She was over the moon. It felt like the new start she had been desperate for, so she decided that she would rebuild her life not in the Air Force but within our community of faith. We helped her get a job and an apartment. Stacy and I started meeting together once a week to read and discuss the Bible. It was an amazing period filled with joy, hope, and excitement.
But it wasn’t long before things got really messy. And people at our very orderly, predominantly white and upper-middle-class church didn’t understand a lot of Stacy’s behavior. I didn’t understand it. Many of us felt hurt by her and grew exasperated. We looked disapprovingly at her and wondered, “What’s wrong with her?” Things came to a head when she got pregnant again and this time, instead of choosing adoption, she chose abortion. When the elders found out, they put her under church discipline. It wasn’t long before she moved on.
My experience with Stacy helped me realize that my understanding of discipleship as a linear progression from lost and carnal to obedient and thriving was an old wineskin. It burst because it couldn’t hold her pain or her mess. “Binding up the brokenhearted” is a nice idea, but it will only remain a nice idea if we never take the time to understand how broken-heartedness actually operates and heals. It requires that we shift the question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”, and our orientation from behavior management to incarnation: coming alongside people and entering their pain. A church or ministry that wants to bind up the brokenhearted has to train, disciple, and encourage its people not only to understand the path to healing and wholeness, but also to walk it themselves. If we haven’t adequately faced our own pain and mess, we’ll tend to judge, recoil from, and even abuse messy people in pain. Because they function as a mirror that reflects the darkest, most fractured parts of ourselves that we would rather forget. I developed a much greater capacity to just sit with people in their pain and mess after seasons of intense wrestling with God over my own.
The second obstacle is a fixer-upper mentality.
My husband Peter and I have had various individuals and families live with us over the last 10 years. Lydia and Tina, a single mom and her 7-year-old daughter, probably impacted me the most. They were part of our church small group. They came to live with us because they suddenly lost their housing and Lydia didn’t have the financial capacity at the time to acquire another place to live. She was unemployed and on food stamps. She had a ton of debt.
Well, they ended up living with us for almost 5 months. During that time, Lydia placed her faith in Christ, and so did Tina. Peter and I helped her redo her resume, gave her interviewing tips, fixed up her dilapidated car, offered her financial counseling, helped her find a salaried job with benefits, paid off some debts that were making it impossible for her and Tina to find a place to live, and then secured an apartment for them at a complex near us that was owned and managed by people we knew.
Now, before you think this is about how great we were and what a wonderful job we did, let me tell you what else transpired during those 5 months. Despite my best efforts to avoid it, as time went on and the situation started feeling intractable, I ended up approaching her like a project with a checklist and a deadline. At the beginning, I offered her unconditional presence and emotional safety, listening to her share her deepest heartaches and worst traumas. A couple of months in, when I got impatient with her slow progress, I started to treat her like a disapproving mother. I chastised her for buying a new dress with part of her first paycheck. That was not about helping her become more like Jesus. That was about trying to make her more upper middle class in her approach to money. I was trying to make her into my own image. I became an unsafe person – even worse, an unsafe person that she was dependent on. If you know anything about trauma, that’s probably one of the worst dynamics you can create for a trauma survivor. I became resentful, and at the end of that 5 months, I was burned out. PSA: Discipleship as project management is a completely unsustainable model. Don’t do it.
There’s a saying that was born out of an Aboriginal movement in Queensland, NZ in the 1970s, often attributed to Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
See, it was easy to see all the ways that Lydia needed to be liberated – from poverty, dependency, homelessness, and debt. What was less obvious were all the ways I needed to be liberated – from self-righteousness, classism, prejudice, and the need to control people, outcomes, and timelines. Those things encased my heart and limited my ability not only to love but to trust that God was at work. Unless we’re willing to grapple deeply with our self-righteousness and elitism, we may have romantic notions of caring for orphans and widows, but we’ll never actually care for them, because more often than not, they come in forms that offend our sensibilities. How do we respond when the widow is a single mom with a heroin addiction? Or when the orphan is a 16-year-old dope-dealing gang member? Or a child from Central America who was smuggled across our southern border?
These are real questions for us to wrestle with.
The third obstacle is an aversion to inconvenience and discomfort
I can’t overstate this. There’s power in unlikely friendships that cross traditional social boundaries. My friend Marshall is a 59-year-old African American man who’s been in recovery from drug addiction for 19 years. He’s done jail time, but he also loves Jesus and has made a commitment to advocate for people on the margins of our society. We met on Facebook through a mutual friend. Over a year ago, he and I collaborated on an article pitch to the local paper about ways that the city of Atlanta is using architecture like divided benches and strategically placed fences to disappear the homeless population from public view. Our relationship resembled an informal business partnership. But last fall, Marshall got meningitis and spent 3 days in the hospital. When he got out of the hospital, he was in no shape to work. That’s when I really learned about the harshness of his circumstances, that he lived in an extended stay motel, that he lived hand-to-mouth doing physical labor and odd jobs, which meant that if he couldn’t work, he would have no money for food or his weekly rent, which meant that he could be homeless and on the street in a heartbeat. He relied on public transportation to get anywhere, so without money, he was stranded. Seeing his dire need for the basics – food, shelter, transportation, and acute medical care – Peter and I decided to help him. We started out by paying for a few weeks of rent, and I helped him run a bunch of errands.
Here’s where the inconvenience comes in. Because our city is so segregated by race and class, Peter and I live in a wealthy suburb on the north side of town, and Marshall lives in one of the most distressed neighborhoods on the west side near Six Flags. There are 21 miles and the world between us. Now, at first, it was like, “Hey, here we are, doing a good thing!” And that provided a lot of energy and motivation. For like, 2 weeks. But with each new crisis or setback, the 42-mile round trips became harder. His calls came at inconvenient times; his needs competed with my own plans. It started to feel burdensome and intractable, like when Lydia and Tina lived with us. Then the Lord reminded me of Galatians 6:2 – “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” My heart and mind had to shift. MARSHALL WASN’T THE BURDEN; the burden was his having to unjustly live under the crushing weight of poverty and its associated vulnerability, where having a health crisis easily translated to homelessness, where having no health insurance meant having extremely limited access to health care, where having to rely on public transportation meant having to allot 3 hours of travel time to make it to a clinic appointment on time, where having even a 20-year-old felony conviction meant that most employers won’t even consider his job application or look at his resume. THAT was the burden. So whenever Peter and I provide support, we’re taking on a bit of the weight of his heavy load and choosing to reject the privileged option of insulating ourselves from the pain and inconvenience of systemic poverty.
Marshall and I have had the chance to help out a couple of other people in his community this year, and I remember this one week, I got a series of texts from one of the ladies asking for various things like bus fare and food. And I started to panic. I thought, oh my God, they have my phone number and they know I’m a nice person. What if the requests don’t stop? I can’t feed and support all these people!
Anyone relate to what I’m saying? It was as if 2 people were threatening to mug me, “I don’t want any trouble.”
Now, this is where Marshall has discipled me. Despite the fact that he’s always on the brink of calamity, he approaches the homeless, impoverished, drug-addicted, and prostituted people around him with his arms wide open. While I in my wealth am fretting over not being able to feed and support ALL these (3 or 4) people, Marshall in his poverty is visiting homeless encampments, offering free HIV testing for drug addicts and sex workers, helping addicts who want to recover get into rehab, and making friendly deals with caterers so he can collect leftover food for them. Two Sundays ago, totally under Marshall’s direction, Peter and he picked up 8 leftover containers of hot gourmet food from a caterer and delivered some of it to The Bluff, a neighborhood on the south side notorious for its heroin market, and brought the rest back to Marshall’s extended stay motel for his fellow residents. Marshall fed them again last Thursday. Honestly, I don’t think he’s the impoverished one in this relationship. He’s shown me that our ability to care for people isn’t limited so much by the size of our wallet as it is by the capacity of our hearts. And really, if we’re honest, by our level of willingness to obey Jesus’ commandments. Those of us who enjoy wealth are more likely to have a materialistic orientation that’s driven by a fear of scarcity than a supernatural orientation that believes in the endless abundance of God’s kingdom. And that keeps us from obeying God and loving our neighbor.
Hebrews 12:1-2 refers to all these heart obstacles as the sin that so easily entangles. We’re instructed to throw them off and then press on to be the hands and feet of Jesus that help God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is for ALL of us no matter what our walk of life. Peter and I have done all this ministry as lay people. I’m a suburban mom who homeschools. Peter works for corporate America. We didn’t start a non-profit, we’re not ordained, and we didn’t join a missionary agency. The needs of the world around us are such that you can care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner just by being willing to love – and not walk around – the people you encounter every day in a radical way – the Jesus way.