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A SPIRITUALITY for Friendship and Mission at the Margins (part 2 of 2)

December 19, 2014
Christine Pohl

Christine Pohl

 Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

In this final post, Dr. Pohl draws upon “Friendship at the Margins,  Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission co-authored with Christopher L. Heuertz (InterVarsity Press, 2010), and her book, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, (Eerdmans, 2012).

Only a robust spiritual life rooted in a deep and abiding friendship with God will allow us to persevere in mission at the margins. This model of mission requires that both individuals and communities cultivate humility and holiness, forgiveness and love.

What kind of relationship with God, and with a believing community will sustain us in mission at the margins? What spiritual practices and moral commitments will keep us faithful and true? Friendship with God involves choosing the margins as well as recognizing the importance of community. In this final post on spirituality, we will consider the importance of purity and integrity, holding together the pursuit of justice and personal righteousness, and finally, the practices of humility and accompaniment, gratitude and celebration.

Purity and Integrity.

Friendships with those on the margins can draw us into morally ambiguous or troublesome circumstances. It is vital that those of us engaged in such friendships be  grounded in a prayerful, truthful and loving community. We will not last in ministry in the hard places if we try to do it alone. It’s especially important to have practices of accountability in place that will challenge our tendencies to self-deception. Deep humility, practices of confession and a willingness to speak truthfully into one another’s lives will protect us from some of the dangers.

I have mentored a number of seminary students who have found themselves working in these ambiguous settings. In our conversations, I’ve become more and more convinced that the ones who will be able to resist evil and offer hope are those who are morally and spiritually tender, deeply committed to holiness and integrity, and aware of their own frailty and dependence on Christ. If purity of heart and openness to the wisdom of others shapes every aspect of their lives, they are more likely to do well in complicated situations.

alleyIn response to God’s friendship and goodness and mercy, we offer ourselves. Paul writes in Romans 12 about offering ourselves as living sacrifices in response to the mercies of God. Living sacrifices—giving it all back in gratitude—transformed by the renewing of our minds, no longer conformed to the patterns of the world. Having minds transformed because we share the mind of Christ and love what he loves, is crucial in loving and living at the margins or in the very hard places. When we are surrounded by exploitative or corrupt practices or authorities, we sometimes conclude that for the sake of the kingdom, we’ll do “whatever it takes” to improve the situation. But the means are closely connected to the ends, and despite the courageous ring to such a commitment, it is a very dangerous one. How we get to the goal is often as important as that we get there. If we do whatever it takes, our tools eventually become indistinguishable from the practices we thought we were resisting.

Particularly when we dwell on the margins, when we are in circumstances where the line between victim and perpetrator is unclear, or where the distinction between ministry under difficult circumstances and complicity with evil is blurred, a robust holiness is crucial. To live within some of these ambiguities requires a purity of heart that is not afraid of the tensions and difficulties and is not naïve about the human capacity for evil. Our protection is not in becoming prim, prudish or  obsessed with rules, it is in cultivating a pure heart and the mind of Christ.

The holiness required is a holiness of heart that can experience genuine horror at evil, but also see human beings for what God intended them to be. It is a holiness that trusts God for redemption and therefore can sustain hope. Such holiness is not there for the difficult places if it has not been cultivated as a way of life. How we think and act in regard to justice for people who are poor and exploited is surely part of holiness. But so is what we do with our leisure time and recreation and entertainment.

The holiness we need for living on the margins comes only as we draw closer to Christ, as we take hold of what he loves and cherishes and as we take on more of his heart and mind. The gracious surprise is that this transformation is not a burden but a gift of freedom and grace and an opportunity to become part of the beauty of God’s goodness. Our holiness then is an eruption of God’s goodness and beauty in the world.

Holding the Pursuit of Justice and Personal Righteousness Together.

Followers of Jesus are called to be far more attentive to the bridges between our personal lifestyle choices and the injustices around us, between our individual righteousness and our work for justice. Today, we mostly associate justice with efforts to promote equality and guarantee human rights. We connect it with advocacy for the most vulnerable and their gaining a voice—becoming full participants in a community. Justice is linked to economic, social and political power. Especially in the United States, it is associated with fairness and an equitable distribution of benefits and burdens in society. Work for justice involves our efforts to right the wrongs of institutionalized inequality and oppression.

justiceWe know that the Bible calls us to stand with those who are oppressed, marginalized and powerless. This involves the work of justice and reflects God’s concern for the most vulnerable of the world. We are assured that the creator and sustainer of the universe will be the protector and advocate for those who have no other helper. To work for justice is to partner with God in bringing healing to the world.

Often when we think of righteousness, we associate it with an individual’s behavior, and his or her avoidance of worldly temptations. We locate it in particular behaviors or attitudes. Today, we are more likely to hear a person described as self-righteous than as righteous. Being a righteous man or woman does not capture current understandings of goodness. We’re unlikely to assume that a person’s righteousness and her or his work for justice are connected.

But there is not that kind of distinction in Scripture. If we think of the images of a righteous person in Scripture—as in the book of Job—we see that they are connected, in part, to personal choices about money, sex and power, the very heart of justice concerns. Job eloquently describes the practices of a righteous person: one who helps orphaned children and people who are poor, makes the “widow’s heart sing for joy,” and champions the “cause of the stranger.” A righteous person is also sexually chaste and faithful, just and generous toward those with little power, and trusts in God rather than wealth (Job 29, 31).

In Hebrew the words that are translated as righteousness and justice (sedeqah, mispat) and their derivatives are often used together or interchangeably. Both have to do with living justly and according to God’s purposes, a rightness in relationships, a wholeness to life for the individual and the community.1

It’s not often the case that we are personally confronted with the connection between our personal choices and someone else’s need, but when it happens, it can be life-changing.  Friendship at margins virtually assures it. Many of us live at a sufficient distance from people in need that our choices about how we spend our money don’t hit home very often. But if the ancient Christian tradition is correct, that everything we have beyond necessity (or possibly convenience) is not ours, but given to us by God so that we can pass it on to those in need, each of these interactions is a gift rather than a burden. They reveal to us the truth about what God intends for our resources and our lives. The ancient tradition, and some of the later church leaders did not mince words; they argued that self-indulgent use of resources stole life from poor people.2 

Holding together the personal and structural is the most powerful combination in addressing social evils. People who offer hospitality to homeless folks or refugees provide very personal care and response. But most of them also work on the issues at a systemic level, otherwise the work is too small and too discouraging. On the other hand, doing advocacy without knowing any of the people for whom you advocate leads to a sterile and distanced kind of helping.

Accompaniment and Humility.

caringFriendships with people who are on the margins or are poor or vulnerable can challenge our arrogance in thinking we know how to fix their circumstances. Our sweeping critiques of economic and social systems become more nuanced when friends are grateful for their poorly paying jobs and proud of their products. Friendships undermine our tendency to locate the problem “out there” and to try to fix it at a distance. And friendship gives an urgency to our work for justice, to our search for ways to affect the decisions of corporations and governments. Additionally, friends who are poor challenge our lifestyles of consumption when they build generous and gracious lives out of very few material resources.

When we get to know people who are vulnerable, we are challenged to take more seriously the power and opportunities we have. We might need to rethink our vocations in light of God’s purposes for the world. Can we more consistently use our training and skills for human good? Can we use our leisure time in ways that more fully reflect our love for Jesus and his friends? Friendships with people who are poor make our lives bigger and invite us to enlarge our circle of responsibility. They remind us that our small lifestyle decisions matter—they matter to God, and to our spiritual identities, and to our friends.

But there are certain situations that are not easily fixed, as when we become friends with persons with severe disabilities or those who are terminally ill (or some refugee situations). In these situations what we have to offer is ourselves, our friendship, the gift of accompaniment. Even when we cannot “fix” situations or people, we need to be willing to learn to be there, to offer our presence, a loving presence.

Embracing Grace, Gratitude and Celebration.

Our patterns of living come as a response of gratitude to the grace we have received. Our choices can be life-giving, for us and for our friends as they partake of God’s grace. A struggle we often face as we dwell on the margins is when we grow angry with the folks who don’t get it, who haven’t embraced the importance of this commitment. We can become ugly in our self-righteousness and condemnation, rather than seeing them also as friends in whom God might be working with a divine patience. Our transformed commitments and lifestyles need to be an invitation, not a weapon, that helps others choose to move toward the margins because it is good and it is appealing.

crossWithout gratitude and celebration our lives shrivel up. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that people who are poor or have been exploited have a special handle on gratitude, it is a grace and practice often evident among people who are poor. Sharing life with those who are grateful for the most basic things in the midst of their ongoing difficulties challenges us and our more comfortable communities to reflect deeply on what we often take for granted—God’s goodness and provision.

Gratitude often spills into celebration: for what God has done in our lives, for the gifts we have received and for the grace of friendships. Surprisingly, it is sometimes our friends who are poor who teach us the most about celebration. Those with very little can sometimes throw the best parties. They become very resourceful in finding ways to practice generosity. The importance of celebration among people who are poor, or who have been misused, is constant reminder that celebration belongs at heart of discipleship and community.

Jean Vanier, who has spent close to 50 years living and ministering with people with severe disabilities, explains that celebrations—meals and parties—nourish us in surprising ways. To gather in celebration, he says, makes “present the goals of the community in symbolic form, and so brings hope and a new strength to take up again everyday life with more love. Celebration is a sign of the resurrection which gives us strength to carry the cross of each day.”3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that when we share in something as simple as a meal, we have a mini Sabbath, a holiday in the midst of our work, a reminder of God’s goodness.4

Our celebrations—whether simple meals or grand occasions—are communal experiences of joy and thanksgiving that renew us and give strength for the day. A festive meal, shared in love, as Vanier has noted “is a sign of heaven. It symbolizes our deepest aspiration—an experience of total communion” and community.5

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1.  How can friendship on the margins challenge personal purity and integrity?
  2. What are the necessary supports for cultivating a holiness of heart within ambiguous situations?
  3. Describe the relationship between justice and righteousness?
  4. How does the “gift of accompaniment” enrich friendships on the margins?
  5. What does it mean to say that “celebration belongs at the heart of discipleship and community”?
  6. What does a robust spiritual life contribute to the practice of friendship on the margins?

1 See Stephen C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (NY: Oxford, 1982), especially pp. 59-81.

2 Gerhard Ulhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, trans. Sophia Taylor (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1883), p. 303. See also the excellent essays in Wealth and Poverty in the Early Church and Society, ed. Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

3 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p. 315.

4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), p. 68.

5 Vanier, p. 313.


Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.

As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).

Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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