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They trickle in by twos and threes, sometimes from across town, as often from across the country. They've caught the bus or they've caught a plane. They've driven eighteen hours straight, six people packed in a four-door sedan. One fellow hitchhiked for three days, sleeping under the stars on the flat tops of fast-food restaurants. He got here on little more than hope and a prayer.
They come from college campuses and from house churches, from a four-month backpacking trip and straight from the office (always with the apology, "Sorry I'm late"). A whole group comes from Norway, meeting an American missionary from Amsterdam en route. They realize they're going to the same place and show up together. A young woman on her way out of town tells her friend about where she's going, and the friend decides she'd like to come along for the ride. Surely their hosts won't mind. They knit hats in the passenger's seat to offer as housewarming gifts.
Their faces are young and bright, eyes ablaze with ideals they would like to live out. They are sometimes middle-aged and sober, holding on to hope by a thread. A few are marked by wrinkles that grow deeper when they smile. Sometimes a face tells the whole story. But not always. One good-looking young man is all smiles, eager to meet new people and able to make everyone feel comfortable. To look at him, you'd never know the loneliness he'll later describe to me—the hole in his heart that's driving his cocaine addiction.
They come sleepy, hungry, road weary, and eager. They come looking for something. Some find fellow travelers—people from their own city, even, whom they didn't know before. Some find a home. They just pick up and move, ready to leave everything for something that's grabbed them, something that won't let go. A handful have found a special connection, traded contact information, and called two years later to say they're getting married. I'm not sure what some people leave with, but you can tell by the way they say "Thank you" that it means something to them. Whatever they've found, they take it home with them. And life is new.
They come for a taste of Christian community. Someone told them at some point in their life that they had to go to school to master reading and writing, to expand their minds in the liberal arts, to learn to practice business or law, ministry or medicine. They've all been to school before. But they come here because they want more. They want to learn how to live. They have a hunch that Jesus should be their guide. Having set out to follow him, they've found their way to community.
Sometimes they get lost and have to stop to ask for directions. They can tell from the way the guy at the corner store looks at them that they're not supposed to be here. The kid on the corner just stares, so they ask again. Even in their own hometowns, this is sometimes their first afternoon on this side of the highway, this side of the tracks. Whether they've traveled two thousand miles or two, they've leapt across a wall. Everyone's adrenaline is up. Something is about to happen.
For the past decade, I have walked alongside these pilgrims, meeting them at the place where their personal journey intersects with the story of a Christian community that embodies the hope they seek. As diverse and unpredictable as their stories may be, it is this moment of recognition that unites them. In the lived witness of people who have given their lives to the way of Jesus, these diverse souls glimpse an authenticity their hearts long for. Far from a utopia, these messy gatherings of broken people inspire hope not because they are perfect, but because they point to the possibility that another way is possible. Indeed, something is happening.
Signs That Grab Our Hearts
Sixteen hundred years ago in northern Egypt, thousands of pilgrims left their homes and work in the city to go out into the desert. Each with their own story, they went seeking a word from hermits who had established small monastic communities and devoted themselves to prayer. The church at that time was embroiled in doctrinal and political struggles, its leadership divided and its faithful often at odds with one another. If the bishops of the fourth century had blogged, the buzz would have been about contested elections, accusations of corruption, and theological disputes about Christology. They were arguing about things that mattered, of course. But they were also overlooking some of the most important things happening nearby.
Something was happening out in the desert that captivated the hearts of everyday people in the fourth century. Early Christian monasticism created a space where those who cared about the truth of the gospel could ask how it shaped their daily life. Across the distance of time, we can look back and see how those lives were united in a movement that changed both the church and the world. Framed by the story of God's movement in human history, they stand out as a picture of hope.
We too live in a time when Christians are fragmented, our leadership embroiled in controversy and our congregations at odds. Much of what amounts to news in the church today is accusations of scandal and debates about homosexuality and atonement theories. To folks outside the church, faith is often perceived as an ugly fight about something that seems to make very little real difference in how people live. What passes for religious news is seldom good news. But people are hungry for good news they can enjoy in the places where they live. Most of them are looking for a picture of hope.
This is what I hear from the pilgrims who keep coming to new monastic communities in the forgotten inner cities and overlooked farmlands of North America. They need more than an explanation of the world that makes sense, more than an experience that assures them God is in his heaven and we're going to be all right. They want to see what hope looks like. They ache for a place on earth where all that they believe can get fleshed out—where faith can put on blue jeans and go to work. Our conversations inevitably turn toward a faith that is not "mine" but "ours," a common vision connecting us to an extended family stretching beyond the borders of our homelands and social networks. Together we see how much we need the way of life that Jesus shows us. We need the hope that comes from glimpsing what real life can look like here and now.
Before anyone invited them, these pilgrims came. They came because they heard a story about black folks and white folks sitting down to dinner together in the American South twenty years before the civil rights movement. They came because they met Central American refugees who fled their homes seeking political asylum in the 1980s and found sanctuary in some Christian communities willing to offer hospitality despite their own government's insistence that such welcome was illegal. They came because they got interested in the Catholic peace movement; when they followed the activists home from prison, they found a community. They came because they heard an interview or read a book about a way of life that seemed to make sense. They came to see if the story that captivated their hearts was for real.
As much as I share the longings of these pilgrims, I confess to being mystified by their presence. Every time I meet a new group I ask myself again, "Where did these people come from?" This persistent question has kept me thinking about those Egyptian monks in the fourth century and their visitors, about the colossal shift the church faced 1600 years ago and the changes swirling about us today. If I can draw any sort of conclusion from my reflections on these matters, it is this: the reality of God's new order seems stubbornly insistent on its own terms. That is, God's new thing—both then and now —breaks into the world as we know it, disrupts the status quo, disturbs the peace that is no peace, and reminds us that another world is possible here and now.
God's movement is, in short, an interruption. For those who walk in darkness, it is a flash of light. It catches the eye, you might say. Like a picture of hope.
God and the Big Questions
God always makes the first move. To know the God of the Bible is to trust the God who created everything out of nothing, not because more was needed to somehow complete the circle, but simply because it pleased God. There's nothing necessary about our existence, just as there's nothing we can do to force God's movement in the world. God always makes the first move. Faithful action, then, is always a response.
So, if you're a bishop of the church in the turmoil of the fourth century, there's nothing you can do to guarantee the future of the church. And if you're a passionate, thoughtful person at the beginning of the twenty-first century, eager to sort out the big questions about God and life, there's nowhere you can go to start figuring everything out for sure. However strong our desire, however fervent our initiative, it's never enough. God always makes the first move. The Spirit blows where it will. When it does, it often blows our minds.
But after you've been knocked off your feet —after the Spirit has hovered over the chaos of your life and hurled you forward into a future beyond the limits of your vision—the questions are still there. God's interruption doesn't answer our questions. It doesn't erase them either. It leaves us, rather, with a photo album full of pictures of hope.
This is where theology begins. An album full of pictures before us, we begin to sort out the reasons for the hope that has been stirred up within us. "Keep asking the big questions," God whispers. But don't start with your own frustrations and disappointment. Don't start where you started before, with your own longings and dreams. Start with the places where hope emerged. Start with Israel in Egypt, with shepherds near Bethlehem, with people breaking bread in Emmaus, with monks in the desert, with little communities off the radar where something new is stirring. Start here, and ask, "What's going on?" Ask where God is moving and receive that first move as an invitation to you, an invitation to respond. All the living and thinking, acting and reflecting that follows is what makes for a faithful life.
The contemporary movement in North American Christianity sometimes called "the new monasticism" is one response. Like the tradition that started in fourth-century Egypt, ours is a minority movement, often found on the fringes of official denominations and local congregations. If we have been known for any one thing, it is an emphasis on putting faith into practice. With small groups of people who've had the time and freedom to do so, we've tried to devote our whole lives to living out the way of Jesus as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. We do this with full awareness that Jesus' way of living is an interruption not only to the ways of the world around us, but also to our own ways of thinking and living.
Our emphasis on the "right-living" of faith—orthopraxis—is, no doubt, something of a reaction against a perceived overemphasis on orthodoxy, the "right-teaching" of faith. "Don't tell me what you believe," some say, "show me how you live." (I must admit, I've said it myself.) While at a gut level this response may be the right instinct in a situation where the affirmation of doctrine has not led to consistent and faithful reflection on it, pitting doctrine against practice is a dead end because it denies the essential connection between God's movement and our response.
Central Christian doctrines describe God's action. Incarnation, for example, is the teaching that God became human in Jesus so that humanity might have a way to become like God. This is infinitely practical. God does not take on flesh and move into the neighborhood without changing the place. Believing that this is true changes the pattern of our everyday lives. Our efforts to live faithfully always include action and reflection.
In short, pictures of hope point us toward God and the Big Questions.
Good living entails good reflection. Having been interrupted by Jesus, we carry our questions with us. They become part of our relationship with the living God, evoked by the pictures of hope that capture our imagination. As a people who are well trained in adapting to the latest technology, it is not surprising that we would first ask how? How do we resist the power of consumerism? How do we honor and care for creation? How do we live together in a world where families and communities are falling apart? If Jesus really meant all that stuff he said, How should we live our lives?
How is an important question that trains our eyes to pay attention to the practicalities of a life lived with God and other people in communion. But if how is the question of our age, the concern at the forefront of our minds, then God's interruption of our status quo also presents a new question —a question that's equally practical and maybe even more radical. That question is, why?
Why would people choose to eat together in a time when individual freedom and consumer choice are a premium for most Americans?
Why would people who are financially independent decide to share money and financial decisions with others? Why would someone risk their life by going into a war zone unarmed to be with their nation's enemies?
This is a book about why.
Why do people who follow Jesus do the things we do?
Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, used to say that we ought to live in such a way that our lives wouldn't make sense if the gospel were not true. Communities that live according to Day's advice exist as interruptions in society, experiments conducted to remind us that the way things are is not the way things have to be. If folks have any sense that all is not right in the world, these interruptions can present a picture of hope. People will come to see—they'll come, if nothing else, to see if it's all just a sham. But if seeing is believing—if the reality on the ground really does point to something beyond the values and norms of the American way—then the same people will ask why?
Behind the practice that catches the eye there is a conviction, a gospel that makes sense of a peculiar way of living. Surrounding every picture of hope, there is a frame. Wherever it is real, hope has its reasons.
The traditional name for this frame is "doctrine." This logic of hope is the teaching of God's people, growing out of Scripture and always aimed at helping people live the Bible's story in the present—that is, in conversation with all that's happening in the world around us. At its best, this teaching flourishes in those spaces where God's Spirit is at work and among people who are being transformed by the remaking power of participation in God's beloved community. While it may be informed by academic study and critical reflection, true doctrine—orthodoxy—is the fruit of faithful living with God and other people.
For most of Christian history, a great deal of this teaching has arisen from the monastic communities that trace their roots to fourth century Egypt. Monastic historian Columba Stewart has called these communities "laboratories of Christian spirituality," noting that a disproportionate number of the church's most influential teachers in the East and West have done their living and reflecting in monasteries. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that monastics are the people who've been given the freedom to devote most of their energy toward living the way of Jesus. What intrigues me is how many of their works are written as responses to questions. Might some of these have come from the pilgrims who came looking for a picture of hope? Did monasteries teach doctrine partly because so many people came to them asking why?
Excerpted from The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 29, 2013