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|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
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The Year of Small Things
Radical Faith for the Rest of Us
By Sarah Arthur, Erin F. Wasinger
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2017 Sarah Arthur and Erin F. Wasinger
All rights reserved.
Wait, you've heard of Shane Claiborne? — Sarah Arthur (to Erin Wasinger, in one of their first coherent conversations)
When Erin arrives with some ingredients for our weekly dinner, her three girls bundled against the cold, she looks tired and frazzled. At the last minute, Dave had to work the night shift. Because I'm deathly allergic to their dog, she is the one who comes to us. Even though it's six degrees and dropping. Even though she doesn't have winter boots. Even though it takes what feels like forty-seven minutes to get the girls suited up and out the door. Even though, as she will tell you, depression intensifies with the winter darkness and shutters her up inside like a caged animal. She is here, food in hand, ready to share a meal.
All because she and Dave made a vow of "yes" to this year of small things.
Dinner once a week. That's it. That's our one small thing in the quest to build community. We will attempt to do this again next week, although life regularly conspires to keep this from happening. If it's not soccer, it's travel, weather, or the never-ending flu season. When we first started, we managed it only monthly until Thanksgiving, then didn't pull it off again until late January. But it's always on the calendar. We're not going to beat ourselves up if it's not consistent. We figure hit or miss is better than never.
Erin shows up with Alice, Violet, and Louisa around 4:45, we pool what we've got in our pantries (usually coordinating ahead of time who will provide what), and we start to cook. Micah and Sam flail around in delirious excitement: so many blonde girls! Go crazy, Y chromosome! The children wander, fight, interrupt. Someone sets the table, arranges chairs. I attempt to ignore my dirty kitchen floor and hope the bathroom is at least serviceable. When not working the night shift, Dave shows up from work, pitches in. Tom pours some wine and goes on a problem-solving binge about the Wasingers' job situation or their housing quandaries. A child is pushed by another; there are tears.
We light a candle, say the opening verse of Psalm 23. We eat. The grown-ups talk. Reflect on this year of small things. How are finances going? Any breakthroughs on hospitality? Have you had a date night recently? Before I can finish a sentence — any sentence — Sam tips his bowl of risotto onto his tray, then onto himself. Occasionally we remember to invite the children to reflect on what Micah calls "instirring" questions. The children happily excuse themselves to play the fourteenth round of hide-and-seek. We talk until Sam or Louisa or both fall apart, then hurriedly clean up while the three oldest create a swirling vortex of tired craziness. We corral the troops, attempt to pray one last time by candlelight, sharing where we experienced God this week. It takes several adults to bundle everyone up, but before they leave we sing "Go Now in Peace."
Small things, we tell ourselves. Remember?
* * *
Covenantal friendship. That's the first task.
On the surface, it may sound rather simple: find a small group of other Christians (preferably local) who are interested in covenanting with you in shared practices of radical faith. People who will make vows to you, vows to lovingly ask you the hard questions. But we'll be honest: this could be the hardest thing you do all year. It may be the first and only thing you truly flunk at.
That's because the quest for this kind of honest, vulnerable community flies in the face of rugged American individualism. The nuclear unit in the single-family home is the standard of our collective imagination. Most of us are raised by parents who have inherited this vision and attempted to make it happen, for better or worse. And once we get old enough, we are expected to forge our own way, start our own self-sufficient primary unit, complete with happy marriage, two kids, two cars, and, oh, let's throw in the picket fence.
But you and I know this isn't enough. It's not even working. As American demographics shift and our economic situation becomes more and more complex (read: difficult), it's clear that something needs to change. And rather than being the last to abandon the false promises of the American Dream, we as Christ-followers need to be at the front edge of something different. A new vision for sharing life. A vision of covenantal community
So the year of small things begins here. It begins with a small group of fellow travelers on the journey, folks with whom we are vulnerable, folks who will hold us accountable, who are willing to share life, not just "outreach" or "mission." And by "life" we mean the material stuff of daily existence: the food, housing, transportation, chores, child care, prayers, conversations, finances, problem solving that it takes to make our lives run.
As I've already mentioned, when it comes to this aspect of radical faith, Tom and I have done some big things. While in seminary at Duke, we went from a one-bedroom apartment near campus (which we thought was small, after our house in northern Michigan) to one bedroom in Isaiah House. Shortly after we moved in, the residents of Isaiah House numbered twelve, including three nursing infants and a three-year-old. Yup. It was nuts.
Children cried at all hours of the day or night. Dinnertime was a crazy mash-up of vegetarian entrées, guests frying fish in what seemed like two feet of oil, and inedible-smelling baby food. The kitchen floor — mopped loyally once a week by Tom — stayed clean for the thirty seconds it took him to rinse out the mop. When seminary friends would ask us, "How's life in community going?" we'd say, "It's hard." But when they inevitably followed up with, "So are you going to leave?" we'd say, "What? No. This is where God has called us."
It was tough; it was also full of joy. We went on retreats to the mountains and the sea. We decorated for Advent, watched babies take their first steps, borrowed from and loaned things to our neighbors. We worshiped together at our local church. When Rebecca had their second son, we took turns hanging out with Big Brother till grandparents arrived.
It was perhaps the closest I've ever come to the vision of community that we see in Acts 2:41–47. The passage depicts the strange result of Jesus's mandate to go into all the world (Matt. 28:19–20): a vision of people who stay put, doing life together. They hold all things in common, share resources, help others in the community who have needs, worship together, study, pray, break bread in one another's homes, and celebrate the God who makes it all possible. And not just occasionally, for special events like Easter, but "day after day." For weeks, months, years.
It's easy for Tom and me to judge our other attempts at building community against that radical experience. But this is not the year of big things; it's the year of small things. So the struggle for us is not to try and replicate Isaiah House in a new context but to discern what a creative reframing of that vision could look like.
* * *
The new monastics value both "nurturing common life" and "geographical proximity to community members," and it was in this spirit that we attempted to build some kind of community in our new suburban neighborhood. Our first few years in Lansing were like a gag reel of outtakes: one failed attempt after another. We started a community garden in our subdivision, which, after two summers of attrition in the volunteer pool as well as the addition of small children to our family, now lies abandoned by everyone except the birds and our neighbor who is forced to look at it from his kitchen window. We also attempted to share lawncare equipment with another family down the street: they used our mower in the summer, and we used their snowblower in the winter — when it worked, which was almost never. The list goes on.
Eventually we figured out that the Wasingers happened to live roughly ten minutes down the road. Not just neighborly acquaintances, but genuine, on-the-ground, in-the-flesh potential partners in this radical Christian thing. Friends who were willing to ask us the tough questions — and who were willing to let us do the same for them. And so our challenge, as this year began, was not just to envision but actually to build community together.
What does "shared life" look like between separate households, separate schedules, separate finances? Both dads work outside the home in demanding jobs that often include evening responsibilities. Both women are write-at-home moms of small children, which at times feels like living under house arrest. Until recently Erin homeschooled their three girls; I arrange part-time child care for Sam so I can freelance while Micah is in preschool. Both families are deeply invested in ministry at our church, which involves meetings, billions of emails, planning, programs, Sunday-morning responsibilities, and billions of emails — did I say that already? Billions. Add errands, doctor's appointments, the occasional extracurricular activity, plus eleven other intentional spiritual practices over the course of a year, and dinner together once a week feels downright heroic.
So we start there, and along the way we consider how to shoulder the burdens and blessings of hospitality. We trade, borrow, or give material things that the other family might need. We brainstorm child-care needs between the two households. We look at each other head-on and say, "So, how is it with your soul?"
Community on this scale is a not-so-subtle subversion of our culture's top value: take care of your own. Deal with what you need to deal with, but do so within your family unit. Rely on those people first, and if you haven't got family to speak of, either become some kind of burned-out attempt at a superhero or fill out an application for social services. Whatever you do, don't drag your "church family" into the mess, aside from the occasional prayer request (because, let's be honest, most of us don't really mean that phrase "church family" — not really). Rugged individualism, right?
Or, as Erin and Dave learned, wrong.
"Whoa. I almost filed your email in the 'family' folder," Sarah told me over the phone the other day. We were discussing church programming details during Sam's naptime, which is one of the few times of day either of us can complete a sentence.
"Well, we kinda are now."
Around the Arthurs' dinner table, we had made vows to each other as friends. We had scribbled a covenant and ratified it with David and Rebecca of Isaiah House. We had tossed around the vague buzzwords "community" and "shared life," eventually zeroing in on "covenantal friendship." We promised to be transparent; we promised to be one another's cheerleaders. We didn't know then, of course, that we would come to love one another, but that happened too, somewhere along the way. We had become family.
Dave and I had needed this kind of friendship on a deep level. We'd tried the rugged individualism thing the first seven or eight years of our marriage, living eight hours from family.
We had three kids in rapid succession. We had two cars, a century-old story-and-a-half home in Wisconsin, and a dog named after a character from Sex in the City. We had the makings of the American Dream: the education, the full-time newspaper jobs, the marigolds in the landscaping. And the debt. Oh, the debt: our student loans, the car payments, the hospital bills. The picket-fence thing is all I thought I wanted.
Once I had it, though, my imagination froze. I remember those weeknights vividly. I'd set a glass of red wine beside me while I folded laundry in front of public television shows. Dave would come home long after I went to bed. A baby might stir upstairs, and I'd mourn that I got to see her only one hour that day I might hear a car door slam, the neighbors coming home. I didn't know their names.
And then Dave started going to this little church that met in an old photography studio. Water City Church was so unlike the Catholicism we had grown up with. The pastor took the congregation on a five-year walk through the book of Matthew. They sang old hymns and David Crowder songs, and some would raise their arms in exultation, eyes closed. Unnerved, Dave and I sipped our beverages and observed for the first few months. Still, they welcomed us like old friends whenever we walked in. We began to share dinners, swap babysitting nights, and have long conversations over tea about careers and parenthood. I loved them before I knew I also loved Jesus.
Jesus bowled us over there in illustrations and metaphor. The Holy Spirit had ample time to hook us on that phrase Saint Matthew uses over and over: "the kingdom of heaven." "The kingdom of heaven is like," Pastor Jason would repeat and unpack, week after week: it's like a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure; it's like a wedding feast and bridesmaids waiting for the groom. Easy to enter for those who are humble as children, but difficult for the rich. Jesus's parables and Jason's teaching wove cross-grained with the growing sensation in my gut that Dave and I had to choose: Would we follow Jesus (whatever that meant), or would we let this feeling pass (maybe it was just indigestion)?
Spoiler alert: it was not indigestion. Matthew's Gospel unnerved us to the point of response. We began praying with the girls ("I think I'm doing it right," I told my friend Amy). We learned to tithe. We bought a children's Bible and read it at bedtime.
We started to wonder — aloud — if we ought to get serious about the debt thing, the career thing, the Jesus thing. A series of small yeses thawed our imaginations on what the kingdom of heaven might look like now — yes to helping lead the moms group at church, yes to taking communion there, yes to volunteering in Sunday school, yes to the refugee resettlement project. Questions bloomed in that fertile ground, and we got a bit ambitious: What couldn't we say yes to? Quitting the job that paid for day care? Moving to be closer to family in Ohio? Using our gifts and passions for the elusive yet all-encompassing kingdom of heaven?
The kingdom leaves no map, and all we had were a bucketful of parables and the energy that said we could do this (whatever "this" was). We had no plans, but when a job posted at a sister newspaper in Lansing, Michigan, Dave sent his resume. Late in August 2012, Lansing called.
The five Wasingers — plus Mr. Big, the carsick mutt — piled into the van for a tour that lasted fewer than forty-eight hours of the city that could be home. As we left Oshkosh early on a Saturday morning, I saw a friend running on the bridge on Wisconsin Street. What a bizarre memory of her, one of the people I loved best, in the rearview mirror ... like I was already saying good-bye.
"Welcome to Pure Michigan," a blue sign beckoned four or five hours later.
My heart skipped. I weighed pros and cons on that drive. I could quit my job, but I'd have to leave our church. The Eastern time zone has longer summer nights, but I'd have to say good-bye to my house. And on it went. Some of these I said aloud, but the blue sky! — oh, that Michigan sky spoke louder. All those Great Lakes must make the sunshine dazzle more in the Mitten State: the azure romanticized the weedy parking lots that welcomed us; the sky faded to periwinkle as we dined alone downtown, the streets all but deserted in the state capital on a weekend night in late summer.
"Could we really move here?" Dave asked.
I sipped my wine, staring out at the empty sidewalk. We'd walked by a bail bonds shop, vacant storefronts, and the domed capitol building. We snapped a selfie and smiled. Maybe, our expressions said. Maybe this could be home.
"Maybe." I sipped more wine.
This trip, the official second interview, was more a double date than interrogation. Dave's future boss took us on a tour of the city, the newspaper building, and even a local farmers' market. More questions came up about Lansing itself than about the actual job. What were the schools like? What about affordable housing? Each answer came as inevitability: Home? This? As we drove away from the city toward Wisconsin, I took in the boarded-up showrooms on overgrown car lots. The homes that had taken the recession hard. The liquor stores and pot shops with grates over windows. The congested suburban thoroughfares and the stoplights that turned red despite the lack of pedestrians or cars in the heart of downtown.
And the blue sky shone overhead, turned that stunning periwinkle at dusk.
The job offer came shortly thereafter, once we'd returned home. Dave laughed into the phone as he called me with the news. "So," he said, "want to move to Michigan?" I stood in the parking lot of Alice's pre-K, waiting to pick her up. "Um, wow. Wow. Dave," was all I could say. My church, I thought. My heart.
"God goes with you," my friend Amy said one night on my couch. "You're not going alone. You're being sent, Erin. I don't want you to go, but you're being sent."
So we went.
Excerpted from The Year of Small Things by Sarah Arthur, Erin F. Wasinger. Copyright © 2017 Sarah Arthur and Erin F. Wasinger. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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