A Way Forward...
As I rounded the corner of my house this weekend, I ran headlong into them, cinder blocks and stepping stones. My daughter, young, full of life and energy had picked up the items over the internet for free. She sees broken blocks and concrete stepping stones neatly placed in our backyard, as the final pieces to a transformation of our living space. Did I mention that they were free? I should add that both Catie and Haley have been taking clippings and bringing them to root and adding plants to our backyard for nearly two months. I help now and then but for the most part they do all of the work and the maintenance.
But we are in a different place in life. I am looking to downsize and simplify things. They are looking to make the world more beautiful. I see a pile of refuse that will have to be removed if not used. They see a Home and Garden expose photo. I have a choice. I can support them and add suggestions or I could berate them for not remembering that Catie is leaving for her final two years of college in less than two months. Both points have merit, but only one breathes life into the world, my daughters’ shared perspective.
In many ways these differences are merely those of generational perspective, but since the mid-60’s disconnects and historical breaks have made traditional teaching of the biblical story less effective. Henri Nouwen in his book The Wounded Healer published in 1972 writes of generations coming that will not see a way forward. They will not relate to the centuries old traditions and will seek a new path without regard for those who came before them. They would face complete failure on their own rather than attempt the ways of their parents who they feel have already failed at the creation of a better world.
Nouwen and his contemporaries describe these generations as the inward generations. This perspective inward rather than outward can lead to anti-authoritarianism, anti-institutionalism, self-centeredness, consumerism and immediate gratification.
Sound familiar? We have all discussed these issues until we are blue in the face. But what about solutions? What about a way forward? Nouwen spoke about it 45 years ago!
He said, “But inwardness need not lead to privatism.” It is possible that the new reality discovered in the deepest self can be ‘molded into a commitment to transform society.’ Our form of ministry will lead to either a higher level of hypocrisy or the discovery of the reality of the unseen.
Both today’s passage and Nouwen’s solution are one and the same path. Matthew 9:36 says,
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd.”
Said another way for us…
When Jesus sees us, he has compassion for us,
because we are harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd.
Do you notice the subtle difference.
It is not us and them.
It is not the saved and the lost.
It is just us.
Jesus is the Christ because he is the only one who truly lives out his humanity as designed. It requires complete submission to the Father. Being fully human he understands the depth of our longings and the intensity of our pains and fears. All of our desires, agenda and purpose must conform to the Father’s will. Something no one in history has ever been able to do until his coming.
In the verses that follow, he notes that the harvest is plentiful and prays to the Father for workers. Then, gathering the 12 around him he gives them authority and sends them with explicit instructions on what to carry, what to do and who to engage.
Interestingly they are to witness not to argue or convict. Their witness comes in the form of preaching that the Kingdom is at hand and then actions to show the same thing. At that time they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. Remember this is before the resurrection and before the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gives them authority to perform these actions in order for the nation of Israel to recognize that the Kingdom is near. The blind can see, the deaf can hear and those who have been sick are healed… Later passages will build on this theme and expand into the trials and challenges that will come to pass as the apostles begin to gather the harvest and disciple them.
In Luke, we have the passage where Jesus again sends out a group of 70 or 72 depending on the manuscript you choose. Here Jesus confirms the eternal significance of what is happening…
“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”
But he goes on to warn them that they are to be grateful that they are chosen but should not feel empowered because the demons listened to them. Humility and submission are essential components of our witness, whether verbal or communicated through our actions. Genuine compassion and care must be communicated to our neighbors and we must remember that all are our neighbors.
Here comes the hard part. We in the church are used to supporting some who have a special call to the mission field, those who will leave home, friends and family to engage other cultures in our world. Sure we give money and exchange letters with them as a form of encouragement, but perhaps for many of us, leaving home and country never seemed to be our call. Instead we have faithfully served at home trying to disciple others and “grow the church”. Times have changed. Now the mission field is right outside the door. It is in our families. It is in the streets, on the television and on the internet.
We can continue to isolate ourselves, trying to determine who is truly “with me”. Or we can ask different questions and look with compassionate eyes at our neighbors and realize that we are all in this together. If we are truly followers of Jesus Christ we are obligated to go out and do likewise, meaning that we are to go out and witness to the world finding the unique ways that will speak to them.
We understand this concept when we go overseas. We do not continually try to speak to a particular people group through a language that they do not know. We live with them, learn their customs and language, and create relationships. Then through our lives we share what motivates and empowers us, getting an opportunity to share our relationship with Jesus.
At home the challenges seem different somehow. It feels more like us against them. People are challenging our traditions, our institutions, our authority...sound familiar? Is there a way to step back enough and see that our “opponents” are our neighbors, that our struggles are their struggles, that our blessings are just that, blessings, and not payment for a job well done?
It will take sacrifice and suffering. It will take putting ourselves in harm’s way. It will take choosing love and not violence, knowing that we may be harmed for our decision to avoid retaliating or using violence as a deterrent, giving up our security and comfort for something greater. You see Jesus knew that the Israelites, His chosen people, would deny him. So he picked up his cross, and the book of Matthew tells us we must do likewise.
But how? Here is where Nouwen comes back into the conversation. He calls for a change in form not in substance. In other words, the eternal truths remain the same but the way we communicate them must change. For example if you have ever spoken to a deaf person, raising your voice in the hopes that he will hear you better is futile. You can stand next to him shouting “God” and “Love” as loud as you want without the person showing the least amount of response, other than probably agitation over what you are trying to accomplish. Communicate in sign language and you are suddenly off to a deep conversation about the meaning of life. We cannot allow ourselves to judge a person on his response until we know more, until we understand the why behind the response.
Nouwen lays out a much more cogent analysis building up to his conclusions, but in essence he says, “Go to the midst of the people, share your inward struggles and spiritual journey, then reach out in compassion.” Seeing others as neighbor provides an even playing field that allows for exploration and genuine dialogue. God’s economy brings salvation and sanctification, where needed, to both parties through the sharing of mutual respect and community. It means we meet people where they are, loving and caring for them, trusting that God has the power to transform. It means remembering that He has called us to help in the harvest,
while we were but sinners,
And while we were but sinners
He died for us…
If we have any power, it comes from him. Acknowledging the source of all power reinforces humility and empowers us to sacrifice for the sake of our neighbor and the kingdom. Rather than hypocrisy the world will see the reality of the unseen world.
I pray that we will inspire and lead the generations that follow to rise up and walk in the ways of our Heavenly Father, trusting in the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.