Saturday, August 29, 2009

messy community, the rich and the poor

Do you ever have those books that you start reading and they draw you in, but at the same time are filled with things that challenge you at every turn?

I just finished one of those kind of books. It's called The Twenty-Piece Shuffle by Greg Paul. The stories used in the book to make the points drew me in and kept me reading. They made things talked about in the book seem real. But, without those stories, I don't know that I would have finished the book because pretty much every chapter had something that challenged my own thinking or way of living - and sometimes those kinds of books can be hard to read because they make you uncomfortable.

Before I go on, for those who don't know, Greg Paul is the director of Sanctuary Ministries in Toronto - a ministry that reaches out to the street community in that city.

One of the big things that comes up continually in the book is the whole idea of community and our need for it. And not just the look of community . . . but authentic community. The kind that comes when you have no way to hide anything - as in the street community. No hiding behind a career; no hiding behind your position in society; no hiding behind nice clothes . . . just being who you are with no facades.

In one chapter he talks about a time when he was talking with some of the people in the street community and ended up sharing with some of them about the struggles in his own life. Struggles which were nothing in comparison to what the people he was sharing them with had gone through and were going through. He closes the chapter with these words:
I can't honestly say how much of an impact this had on their journeys, but I do
know that catching a glimpse of my weakness makes me more approachable to my
friends - any friends from any kind of society - than endless evidence of my
"invincibility." It opens me up to receive the care my bristling heart truly
needs but often keeps at a distance. Dismantling that myth is, for me, like
breaking down the walls of a prison I had built for myself, setting me free to
step out on the Way again - that Way which is itself the One who made himself so
gloriously, dangerously vulnerable on the cross. Each step is a step deeper into
the land where love dwells. (Greg Paul, The Twenty-Piece Shuffle, pg.

When I read this, I started thinking about how we operate in many of our churches or other Christian circles today. We don't often share our struggles. We have become too concerned about maintaining a certain image with others and so we don't admit our weaknesses or our struggles to anyone. We go on suffering in silence and feeling all alone. So people never get behind the image that we strive to portray to actually see the real us - the broken, messed up, hurting part of us that desperately needs to be known if it is ever going to be healed.

Of course, sharing these things with others requires a vulnerability on our part. We have to be willing to drop the masks, drop the facade, drop the image, and be real with people. It isn't easy, but it is valuable and necessary to our journeys as followers of Christ.

Greg Paul goes on to talk about community in action. What does that look like? How does it function? I like how he put it in his book, so I will share it with you:
We thought we wanted or needed to accomplish great things. Some of us have
discovered the peculiar, deadly emptiness of accomplishing much, only to
realize it means little. others have tried and failed so often that each failure
only confirms the awful suspicion that we are ourselves worthless, unlovely,
without hope. We are finding, though, as we prop each other up and stagger a few
yards closer to home, that as we move away from accomplishment (what we can do)
as the benchmark of our human value, we being to understand that embracing who
God created us to be (our essence) is the signpost we must look for on the
It means much when we keep out hearts fixed on our ultimate destination.
Our addictions, whether to success or crack cocaine, have a way of becoming ends
in themselves, leading us off the Way into endless mazes or dead-end alleys. We
forget, or never knew, where we are going. We wander aimlessly from one
unsatisfying experience to another.
My friends and I call each other back to the true path when we have gotten
distracted or lost. We remind each other to keep our heads up and eyes forward.
We pay attention both to the path we tread - this Jesus, who is the Way - and to
the glow on the horizon. For when we remember that we are going Home, that our
true destination is God himself, we are no longer wandering, but journeying.
(Greg Paul, The Twenty-Piece Shuffle, pg. 121)

The community described here is messy, but it's real. It's doing life together - the good and the bad - and that's going to be messy, but it's also essential for us to really live.

As I read this book, I was struck by the incredible lessons that the street community in our cities today can teach us. Sometimes, I wonder if our houses and toys and busy-ness keep us from something, that those who have none of those things survive by. Maybe the gap between the rich and the poor in our society, and around the world, is more detrimental than we know. In fact, that would be the conclusion that Greg Paul draws in his book - that the rich and the poor need each other. And we need to stop segregating ourselves and look to become one community together. The way that the final chapter of the book is finished draws this conclusion quite clearly and calls us to action.
God does command, over and over, those who are rich and powerful - the 1 or
2 percent of the world's population that includes the majority of us living in
first world nations - to engage with and care for our poorest "neighbors"
spiritually, materially, emotionally, and politically. So clear and consistent
is this message, so redolent with it is the life and teaching of Jesus, that it
must be said: A wealthy person who claims to follow Jesus and does not find
same way to share his or her life and material goods with people who are poor
has stumbled off the way.

We who are wealthy must take the initiative in this. The barriers
created by our material advantages preclude people who are poor from almost any
opportunity of doing so. What we will discover, as those barriers are destroyed,
is that the eternal life Jesus proclaimed flourishes best when people who are
rich and people who are poor commit themselves to each other. The immediate,
earthly benefit of the personal salvation in which we rejoice is progressively
unveiled when we engage in intimate, mutually supportive relationship with each
other and so discover that we "are being built together to become a dwelling in
which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:22) (Greg Paul, The Twenty-Piece
, pg. 217-218)

What does this look like in your life? I don't know. I can't tell you. I just want to challenge you to figure out what it looks like in your own life.

And, if you want to be challenged, pick up a copy of this book and read it for yourself.

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