Friday, June 1, 2018

Befriending Good News: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission with Friends Who Live Life on the Margins

It's the capacity to see what God intends for each person – relationship, healing and immortality – that enables us to befriend and work among people who are in need. God's profound, unfathomable love for every human being ascribes value and worth that transcends every human circumstance. When we recognize that worth in another person, it can yield a level of respect and mutual honoring that nurtures hope and fidelity. + Christopher L. Heuertz & Christine D. Pohl

In continuing to consider the Gospel of Jesus in light of Praying Good NewsSharing Good News, Working Good NewsReconciling Good News, and Forgiving Good News, we are now going to take a deeper look at another crucial aspect of the abundant life Jesus offers: Befriending Good News.

Jesus' Gospel or Good News is that He is not only our King, but also our Friend. Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13). And that's exactly what He did for each and every adopted daughter and son of God.

So how do we lay down our lives for those God has called us to be friends of? How do we lay down our lives for and love our neighbors? How do we lay down our lives for and love our coworkers? How do we lay down our lives for and love refugees and immigrants? How do we lay down our lives for and love the homeless? How do we lay down our lives for and love those who work at strip clubs? How do we lay down our lives for and love those addicted to opioids or heroin? 

These are the questions that come up in Emmaus City as God has given us friends in all the groups of people above. D.L. Mayfield's Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (see City Notes Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) is an honest, vulnerable, and powerful reflection on the transformation of heart and mind that Jesus accomplishes as we not only choose to serve the vulnerable, but also live among and befriend the vulnerable in need of grace, truth, mercy, and justice, as we also discover even more how we are also vulnerable and in need of grace, truth, mercy, and justice. 

And by God's grace, Christopher L. Heurtz and Christine D. Pohl's book Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission provides even more helpful encouragement and spiritual practices that sustain friendships across cultures and at the margins of society. They share:

If we are committed to friendship at the margins, all of us need to ask what kind of spirituality will sustain us over the long haul. When we choose to dwell in places that have been devastated by human sin or exploitation, and when we develop friendships with people who are quite different from ourselves in terms of power, resources or life opportunities, what practices will help us maintain integrity and faithfulness? If we are persuaded that these friendships are what God desires from us, what can we do to make sure that our friendships are more than occasional forays into another world?

And here are some of Christopher and Christine's answers to the questions above:

| 1 | Becoming Friends of God

The scriptural story reminds us over and over again that we are loved by God. This truth tempers the temptation to think of friendship with God as something we have to earn. We do not need to work harder to gain God's favor or to be better so Jesus will like us more. Our belovedness – in spite of our sins and frailties – establishes the basis for a response of gratitude for the mercies we have received. Our lives then are offered back, out of gratitude, and with a heartfelt desire to love what God loves and live as Jesus' friends. Most of us understand friendship with God in a very individualistic way – a close, loving relationship between Jesus and me. Such a relationship is a priceless treasure of the Christian life. Yet there is more; friendship with Jesus is also bigger and more spacious.

Friendship with Jesus involves being in his presence, taking time to know him. And in drawing close to Jesus, we discover that we cannot love him without loving others. Our friendship with Jesus does not become diluted as more people are included in God's heart of love. Love is not a scarce commodity we need to ration in case we run out. Friendship with the source of love guarantees that we will have sufficient supply. 

And when we recognize the significance of Jesus' words in Matthew 25 that inasmuch as we have welcomed "the least of these" we have welcomed him, we begin the understand the extraordinary kind of identification and oneness available to us. As we love and live among those most likely to be overlooked or ignored – those who are poor, hungry, despised, imprisoned or sick – we find ourselves in intimate relationship with Jesus.

| 2 | Not Prim but Pure

We live in response to and in light of God's friendship and goodness. What can we do except offer everything, our very selves, in response to God's mercy? Paul grasps this powerfully when he writes about offering ourselves as living sacrifices in response to the mercies of God (Romans 12:1), giving it all in gratitude. He then tells the early believers to stop conforming to the patterns of this world and instead to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2). What are the patterns of the world? Struggling with pride and arrogance, with making inappropriate distinctions among persons, with envy and revenge, returning evil for evil and losing hope (Romans 12:12-21). Our minds are renewed as we come to share the mind of Christ, as we see with his eyes and as we cherish what he loves.

This transformation is particularly important when we find ourselves working in situations of exploitation, injustice and dishonesty. The corruption around us can get into us. When we are surrounded by exploitative business practices or corrupt authorities, we sometimes conclude that for the sake of the kingdom, we'll do "whatever it takes" to improve the situation. But we cannot do "whatever it takes." How we get to the goal is often as important as that we get there. The way we take on evil and exploitation matters. With transformed minds and hearts, we do it with love and self-awareness, armed with the Spirit of Christ. 

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, we desperately need a robust holiness. To live within some of these ambiguities requires a purity of heart that is not afraid of the tensions and difficulties and is not naive about the human capacity for evil. Holiness is not delicate; it is the powerfully cultivated pure heart and mind of Christ. The holiness we need is simultaneously strong and tender. It 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. With what do we fill our minds when we have a chance to relax? The things we find humorous and entertaining matter to God and matter to the sorts of persons we are becoming. Sometimes there is a sizable gap between what we claim as our commitments and how we use our free time. Paul's final words to his beloved friends in Philippi include an assurance that the peace of God would guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. He writes, "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8). Paul was not saying to close our eyes to the mercy, need or evil around us, or to create holy huddles that exclude, but rather, in the midst of the world, to fix our minds and to take our joy from what is good. The gracious surprise is that this transformation is not burdensome 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.

| 3 | Rooting Ourselves in Community

Sustaining significant friendships on the margins is simply too difficult to do alone. A community of friends who share our deepest commitments to God and to those on the margins keeps us accountable and gives us strength and support. We are who we are because of the communities in which we dwell. For example, despite the emotional high we get from bonding with others in working hard on a cause, we do not often form lasting communities from an event. A fundraiser that we do together to benefit victims of sex trafficking is not that same as creating a life together, living within the discipline of supporting, correcting and loving one another. Without such community it is difficult to stay with the concerns over a long period or to be transformed by those for whom we are advocates. It requires intentional effort to be in true community and to offer true community to others.

Friendships with those who have been exploited can be challenging because they involve significant, even sacrificial, self-giving. In the midst of rich mutuality of friendship that is available across differences, we also need folks whose friendships are easier because of our shared interests and backgrounds. Unless our daily experience includes friendship with people who are poor or exploited, it is easy to romanticize those relationships. The reality requires honesty about the challenges and humility to recognize our limitations. The needs of our friends can overwhelm us, and ignoring our needs in those situations can result in very deformed identities and relationships. Multiple interlocking friendships within community can help all of us move toward wholeness. Also, people who have been exploited need more than a single friendship. They need to be welcomed into a network of friendships and relationships where their presence and gifts matter to the community and where various members of the community can walk with them toward healing. Their transformation then becomes an invitation to the rest of us to recognize our areas of brokenness, further pressing us back to God's redemptive work in our lives and in the life of our community.

| 4 | Choosing Grace-Filled Simplicity

Friendship with people who are poor often exposes our excess. This is especially the case if we move in and out of one another's worlds. We do not want to be guilt-ridden and anxious about our lifestyles, but we do want to move in the direction of justice and generosity. It is not easy to move back and forth between different worlds. But we learn that grace and generosity we share with our friends on the margins is equally important for friends and relationships with those who have more wealth. Our lifestyle needs to be an invitation, not a bludgeon, that helps others to choose simplicity and generosity because it is appealing. Friendships with people whose resources are very limited nudge us toward thinking differently about our own resources. When we love someone it is hard to hold on to what we have when we know it would meet a real need they face. Love, not guilt, frees us when friends become the prophetic presence of Christ in our lives.

Our possessions should not get in the way of our friendships, but often they do. They make us hesitant to open our lives to people who are not like us – either because friends have much less or sometimes because they have much more than we do. If we hold onto our possessions tightly or define ourselves by them, it costs us deeply in freedom and friendship. An understanding of possessions as given to us to use or give away allows us some individual flexibility with resources. All of us need to be careful of excess, and some of us, in order to live alongside those who have little, will choose a very simplified lifestyle. Others of us can use some of our resources to create spaces of healing and renewal – safe and good places to help those in our lives to flourish. If we have more, we must make particular decisions to spend time on the margins. We need to think about friends who are poor in order to resist the lure of affluence and comfort or the dangerous notion that somehow my status warrants a certain lifestyle. A wise friend once observed that we are most likely to worry about the people we see first thing in the morning. If we live in comfortable circumstances, we need to make decisions to plant one foot in another world. Only then will we keep friends in mind as we make our choices each day. Real friendship involves movement in and out of one another's worlds, but our privilege, location and busyness often makes us inaccessible to friendships with people outside our world. Putting ourselves in places where people on the margins can find us involves slowing down, taking time to be where people can befriend us, and taking risks to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. 

| 5 | Gratitude and Celebration

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. I (Christine) have a friend who works with homeless people in rural Ohio. Gratitude is a central aspect of their life together. During their "Friday Night Live" gatherings each week with homeless and formerly homeless folks, elderly neighbors and volunteers, there is always an opportunity to express thanksgiving publicly, and many participate. Thanks might be offered for a family member or for a good doctor's report or for victory in addiction. Sometimes it is for ketchup. 

Gratitude is complexly related to service. It sustains our communities and ministries, but if we minister with the hope of being thanked or with the expectation that those who receive our help will be grateful, we will not be in a good position to respond when they are not. Life-giving ministry flows from lives that are full of gratitude to God, not with an expectation of gratitude from others. In community we can support one another, affirm contributions and yet also trust that our work is sustained by grace. 

It is our friends who are poor who teach us the most about celebration. Those with very little often throw the best parties – sparing no expense. They find resourceful and often costly ways to practice generosity. The importance of celebration among people who are poor, or who have been misused, is a constant reminder that celebration belongs at the heart of discipleship and community. Jean Vanier, who has spent close to fifty 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." 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. Our celebrations, whether simple meals or grand occasions, are communal experiences of joy and thanksgiving that renew us and give strength for the day. As Vanier has noted, a festive meal, shared in love, "is a sign of heaven. It symbolizes our deepest aspiration – an experience of total communion" and community.  

| 6 | Holding on to Hope

Sustaining friendships on the margins over time requires deep hope. Because transformation often happens slowly and unevenly, we can find it hard to be faithful and patient. In initial encounters with people who are in very degraded circumstances, it can be difficult to see past the misery and brokenness. It's the capacity to see what God intends for each person – relationship, healing and immortality – that enables us to befriend and work among people who are in need. God's profound, unfathomable love for every human being ascribes value and worth that transcends every human circumstance. When we recognize that worth in another person, it can yield a level of respect and mutual honoring that nurtures hope and fidelity.

We are also able to hold on to hope because we know that God's work for justice and reconciliation is ongoing and ultimately will prevail. Our presence circumstances are not the final word, and a day will come when tears and sorrows are no more. This assurance is both a comfort in difficulty and an invitation to participate in God's present work of restoring and reconciling all things. Those of us who live in fairly comfortable situations sometimes fail to grasp how important God's promises of final healing are to people caught in desperate circumstances.

Below are two stories to close this post about the power of Jesus and His resurrection transforms lives:

| 1 | Marius and David with Word Made Flesh (WMF) in Romania: David is friends with Marius, a young gang leader with clear leadership capacities who nevertheless struggled with the legacy of abuse and addiction. As he was drawn into the community, Marius grew in faith but continued to struggle. One summer Marius and his wife and children participated in a WMF camping trip in the mountains. It was his first vacation. David describes their conversations: One evening Marius and I sat outside talking and he started asking questions about things he was reading in the Bible. He didn't understand where God was leading him and his family. "We are poor and in need, but he is still with us. Still, we suffer and struggle with ourselves." I told him, "All that is true, but suffering and death are not the end of the story. God promises that there will be resurrection. ... God promises to make all things new and that one day we will live in the heavenly city. The streets will be gold and before the throne of God, gold will lose its worldly value. There will be light but no sun or moon because God will illuminate all. Sin, evil and the enemy of our souls will be no more, and we will bask in the glory of God" (see Revelation 21-22). We talked some more, but then Marius asked, "Tell me again how it will be in heaven." So I told him basically the same thing again. The next day Marius came to me again. I could see the fire of hope and joy in his eyes. He asked, "Tell me again how it will be in heaven. When you describe it, I can almost see it." Our times of conversation continued. One afternoon after the cooking and cleaning were done, Marius and I talked about some of the problems he faced. He asked me to remind him of God's dreams for his life – something that he loved to hear and felt proud to aspire to. If we can be confident in God's good future, we can find ways to live faithfully in the present. The promise of a final healing does not displace our immediate efforts at justice, responsibility and reconciliation; it provides a way to move forward in hope in spite of terrible obstacles and disappointments.

| 2 | Gautam and Silas with Word Made Flesh (WMF) in Nepal: Gautam Rai is a refugee from Bhutan who had opened a small momo stall in a closet-sized kitchen where he made and sold traditional Tibetan dumplings. Gautam and Silas slowly built a friendship; they ate together and talked about their lives, families and faith. Gautam was married to Rekha, a woman from a village in the southern plains of Nepal. At that point they had two young children. The family was struggling just to get by, so at night they slept in the momo stand. Gautam was interested in matters of faith. He was a Hindu, but when he was a child, his mother had been exposed to the Christian faith before she died. One day Gautam asked Silas if he was a Christian. Responding affirmatively, Silas asked how he knew. Gautam responded, "I saw you praying before you ate your momos. My mother used to pray like that." He continued, "If you ever have any spare time, I would like to know more about Jesus." Dipa, the baby daughter of Gautam and Rekha, experienced occasional but violent seizures. During those frightening times, Rekha would grab Dipa and carry her up the mountain to Swayambhu, the monkey temple. There she would have a Hindu/animistic shaman perform a prayer to send away the spirit that caused Dipa's seizures. Each episode was traumatic for the family. Silas asked Gautam if he could pray for them and for baby Dipa. Over the course of several months, Silas and the family became very close, eating most of their meals together. They continued sharing stories, and a deep and lasting trust was being established. Dipa had another violent seizure. Once again, Rekha rushed Dipa to the temple, but this time the door to the shaman's room was locked tight. Deeply distressed, Rikha was certain the baby would die. Gautam wanted to give the Christian God he had been hearing about from Silas and the other WMF staff members a chance to heal Dipa. Against Rekha's tearful protests, he went home with their precious daughter. Gautam laid the baby down and with Rekha's lipstick made a red symbol of the cross on Dipa's forehead as a substitute for the Hindu tika chalk mark. He placed a Bible he had received from WMF friends on Dipa's chest and stomach. He prayed a simple, humble prayer, and Dipa's seizure stopped. It was her last one, and Gautam became convinced that the Christian God was powerful. When he told Silas the story, it opened up a very intimate exploration of faith, and Gautam soon asked how he could serve Christ. His life changed drastically, though Rekha still wasn't convinced. Her heart softened but she was deeply committed to Hinduism. The conversion of her husband created some division in their home. It took another two years before she made a decision to serve Christ and remove the Hindu idols from their household. Since then, Rekha and Gautam have become pillars of hope and faith in the WMF community. They retired from the momo business and discovered a vocation in childcare. It started when they opened their home to children orphaned on the streets of Kathmandu. Moved by a profound sense of compassion, they took a few little girls into their home and cared for them as if they were family. It wasn't long before more and more children started coming. Today Gautam and Rekha run a wonderful children's home that feels like a big family. Gautam's wisdom and discernment continue to help the WMF community find its way through many difficult transitions and decisions. He and Rekha have remained faithful. Over the past thirteen years, they've welcomed nearly twenty WMF staff and fifty WMF interns into their lives in Kathmandu, while creating a stable home for the children under their care.

We have experienced the gift of mutuality in mission and our lives have been transformed. Friendships formed on the margins have formed us. God's work of healing and reconciliation is mysterious, costly and wonderful. Being able to participate in it through the mutuality of friendship is a surprising and life-giving gift. Journeying into the places of suffering, abuse and abandonment takes its toll, but together with friends, we find a way forward, stumbling into the open arms of a loving God.

Previous posts: 

Praying Good News: Believing the Simply Good News of Praying the "Our Father" or Lord's Prayer 
Sharing Good News: Getting Beyond the Awkward and Talking about Jesus Outside Our Comfort Zones 
Working Good News: Discipling for Monday through Friday in Our Work and Workplaces 
Reconciling Good News: Moving with God in Welcoming Justice and Building Beloved Community 
Forgiving Good News: Making Peace Through the Divine Dance of Forgiveness 

Next post: World-Altering Good News: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities

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