Starting with Stuff
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
(This is first in a series of blog posts on lectures by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove given at the 2011 Convocation in Chicago on the theme: The Simple Life: God’s Quiet Revolution of Love, Forgiveness, and Unity).
When we think about the difference God makes in our lives, we often think first about ideas, emotions, or a sense of purpose. But the story of Jesus begins with the incarnation: God taking on human flesh and getting tied up with “stuff.” To be Christ’s body in the world is to take seriously the material conditions of our daily lives and of the life we share in common as local congregations. A key aspect of the simple life is a spirituality of “stuff.”
Stumbling to Follow Jesus. As a way of introduction, I want to share a bit of my personal story. I grew up in a little place called King, North Carolina, out in tobacco country. And I was raised there by Southern Baptists, good Southern Baptists who taught me to love Jesus and to memorize the Bible. We studied the King James version, after all, if it was good enough for Jesus it was good enough for us! Read More…
A New Revival. In several segments of America’s fragmented church, we hear the rumblings of revival today. Some of these movements seem only partly right to me, but I’m most interested in what they have in common. Read More…
A New Monasticism. Stumbling to follow Jesus, I found my way into an intentional Christian community and learned to read the Bible anew with them. The story of the people of God came alive in that context, and I began to see how God has moved through the centuries to remind the church of her true identity through monastic movements. Read More…
Conclusion. The prophets and monastics who have called us back to our roots generation after generation remind us that the roots of God’s kingdom spread beneath the surface, effecting change from below. It is a quiet revolution—one that is often ignored by the newspapers and missed by the historians. Read More…
Stumbling to Follow Jesus. As a way of introduction, I want to share a bit of my personal story. I grew up in a little place called King, North Carolina, out in tobacco country. And I was raised there by Southern Baptists, good Southern Baptists who taught me to love Jesus and to memorize the Bible. We studied the King James version, after all, if it was good enough for Jesus it was good enough for us! And in that context, I wanted to do all that I could for Jesus. I knew who Jesus was, I knew what Jesus had done for me and for the whole world. By the time I was in high school, I knew that the best thing I could do for Jesus was to become the President of the United States. While still a student in high school, I made my way to Washington, D.C. to work as a page for Strom Thurmond, then president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate.
But in my rush to follow Jesus to the White House, I almost tripped over him one day on my way to lunch at Union Station. Just outside the doors of that great building, a man was crouched down, holding a Styrofoam cup. He asked if I could spare some change, and I looked at him without saying a word. I remembered what I’d heard back in King, NC about how poor folks in the city were lazy and begged money to buy drugs and booze. A country boy in the city, I was dressed in my Sunday best, doing everything I knew how to fit in. I didn’t want to look naïve. So I looked straight through the man and kept walking.
But about the time I stepped through those glass doors into Union Station, I recalled one of my memory verses from vacation Bible school. These were the words of Jesus, ringing in my head: “Verily, I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matt. 25:45 KJV). I knew that if those words were true, I had not only just ignored a fellow human being: I had completely missed the Lord I was trying to serve. I turned around and ran all the way back to my little dorm room on Capitol Hill, found one of the Billy Graham tracts my church had sent with me to the big city, wrapped a twenty-dollar bill around it, and returned to Union Station to deposit it in the man’s Styrofoam cup. It was the only thing I could think to do at the time. I just didn’t want to miss Jesus.
The experience got me thinking about the tension between the ways I had imagined following Jesus and the things Jesus taught about how to live with God in the world. I thought Jesus wanted me to get up at 4:00 a.m. and work as hard as I could every day to prove that I was good enough to run the United States of America. But in my rush to achieve power and fight for justice and truth, I had rushed right past Jesus as he begged with a Styrofoam cup. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” but I was rooming with a Congressman’s son, trying to hide my hick accent and prove that I could stand with rich boys “in the loop.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but I was carrying session notes to the Senate Armed Service Committee and listening to discussions about appropriations for the world’s largest military. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” but I was lusting after everything I laid my eyes on and starting to feel as if that was what this whole page program was about.
I remember Lloyd John Ogilvie, chaplain of the Senate at the time, saying that while leaving to return home, one of the pages had told him that he would be back, only next time he would have a seat on the Senate floor. “Just don’t let it cost you your soul,” Ogilvie had replied. When I heard that, I started to realize just how hard it is to be a Christian in America.
A New Revival. In several segments of America’s fragmented church, we hear the rumblings of revival today. Some of these movements seem only partly right to me, but I’m most interested in what they have in common. In many of our low income communities, like the one where I live in Durham, North Carolina, the “heath and wealth” gospel has become popular over the past decade. From Joel Osteen to T.D. Jakes, preachers are connecting the promise of abundant life with people’s real economic needs in the here and now. I’m committed to engaging the health and wealth gospel because Osteen and Jakes are partly right: the church has too often spiritualized the gospel to the point that it offers nothing in the here and now. Now, is what they are preaching the way of Jesus? I don’t believe so, but they are reacting against something that is also not the way of Jesus. The energy of the health and wealth movement comes from the fact that people are hungry for a gospel that speaks to something that is concrete, to their material conditions.
These basic needs are also fundamental to several contemporary movements made up primarily of people from middle class privilege. They are variously labeled as “progressives,” “emergents,” “post-evangelical” or “new monastics.” What they have in common is the conviction that the biblical words of Jesus matter not just for the after-life, but for our lives here and now. Thus they are sometimes called “The Red Letter Christians.” Though they don’t agree on everything, they feel deeply the need for the hope of the gospel to connect with the material needs of our world today.
I believe this will be the hallmark of America’s next revival: an embodied faith that makes the connections between conviction and practices, between Spirit and flesh, between the world that is and the world that ought to be. Something is stirring in a dozen different movements today to teach God’s people to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
A New Monasticism. Stumbling to follow Jesus, I found my way into an intentional Christian community and learned to read the Bible anew with them. The story of the people of God came alive in that context, and I began to see how God has moved through the centuries to remind the church of her true identity through monastic movements. Monasticism, I learned, isn’t about achieving some sort of individual or communal piety, it is about helping the church be the church.
In the midst of the madness that overwhelmed Nazi Germany, the Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his brother: “The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ.” It was the prayer of a desperate man, but it was also a prayer which a community called the Bruderhof was already beginning to answer. Led by Eberhard Arnold, this group had fled Berlin saying, “We want a genuine school of life….We need brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to live Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We need to show that a life of justice and forgiveness and unity is possible today.”
At the margins of church and society, there is a growing movement of committed Christians who are recovering the radical discipleship of monasticism and unearthing a fresh expression of Christianity in America. It is not centered in a traditional monastery, but instead its members live intentionally, settling in abandoned sections of society, submitting to community, sharing incomes, serving the poor, and practicing spiritual disciplines. I’ve come to think of both the old and the new monastic communities as little laboratories where people are given the freedom to experiment with what the practices of the faith can look like in a changing context.
Conclusion. The prophets and monastics who have called us back to our roots generation after generation remind us that the roots of God’s kingdom spread beneath the surface, effecting change from below. It is a quiet revolution—one that is often ignored by the newspapers and missed by the historians. But it is, in the end, how God plans to save the world. Yes, it is hard to be a Christian in America. If realizing that pushes us to go back and listen to Jesus again, then I believe it’s good news. With God, all things are possible. May we slip God’s kingdom into the cracks of the world’s broken systems.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Where in your congregation do you see the tension between the ways we imagine what it means to follow Jesus and what the Bible says about how to follow Jesus?
2. What does it mean to say that it is hard to be a Christian in America?
3. What can we learn from the “health and wealth” gospel? What is problematic about it?
4. Where do you see evidence of a new revival that seeks to connect the hope of the gospel with the material needs of the world?
5. In what way is the new monasticism a “genuine school of life”?
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an Associate Minister at St. John’s Baptist Church and directs the School for Conversion in Durham, NC. Jonathan and his family live at The Rutba House, a new monastic community, and is the author of numerous books including New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church.
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.