I was raised in Christian churches by people who loved me well, charged to go out there and make a difference in the world, and given some of the best resources and training available for the task. I showed the Jesus film in the African bush, helped build schools for AIDS orphans, dug latrines in the Dominican Republic, played with kids from the barrios of Venezuela, built houses in Honduras, and tutored kids in Philadelphia’s inner city. A citizen of God’s kingdom, I tried to put my American passport to work for good in the world. But racking up all those frequent flyer miles for Jesus, I felt lonely. I wanted to share God’s love with others, but wasn’t sure where to experience it myself.
Hung over from all the travel, I stumbled into a little intentional community of Christians who were trying to love one another and their neighbors. It wasn’t easy… and it showed. But I saw something compelling in that little group’s experiment with faith: they had given themselves to God and one another in a particular place. They saw one another’s junk, and they could talk about it. In all the ordinariness of everyday life, they knew what it meant to need forgiveness and to receive it. In short, they were learning to love one another. God’s love became real for me in that place. I caught a glimpse of what I had been looking for.
-From The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the concept of stability. We live in an age of near limitless mobility. We can keep in contact with people around the globe in an instant, and can travel anywhere in the world in a matter of days, if not hours. I personally have benefited from this far more than most- I have lived in Eastern Europe some time, and traveled to that part of the world half a dozen times in my young adult years for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, I am not about to attack these abilities or technologies out-rightly; this increased mobility and these rapid modes of transportation are in many ways blessings. They can keep us connected to family and friends we would otherwise not be able to reach, they can send aid to places in the world that desperately need it, and they have opened us up to a wider world beyond our shores.
However, the downside of this hyper-mobility, which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores in his new book (quoted above), is a feeling of placelessness, or of unrootedness. He has a concern, and I feel he has a point, that our mobility pressures us to move so frequently that we never connect with any single place; I feel this pressure preys especially on young adults. In attempting to be missionaries everywhere, we truly learn to love people nowhere. I am by no means saying that we can only love those people who we have been with for a long time; I have done mission trips, and a year of service, and I know that some of the most powerful experiences of love I have felt have been with people I have met only once, and never seen again. Yet, at the same time, there is truly something fundamentally different about the love you experience with people you live with over the long haul: the feeling of really building something. The feeling of acceptance that can only come from pushing up against one another for days and weeks and months and years on end: of having conflicts, and ending them with the giving and receiving of reconciliation.
These ideas of stability remind me of the most loving man I have ever had the privilege of knowing, Bro Richard Armstrong, C.S.C. I spent one year working and serving in a homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix. It barely took that long to work out the rhythm of life, to meet the people who lived there, and to trust and to become trusted. Bro. Richard has worked there for twenty-three years, and counting. He knows the name and face of every guest and every volunteer. He is absolutely loving, and his time, his life, there has made him deeply, deeply invested. Compare my service to his: it can’t be done. There is no comparison. People often applaud me for “giving up” one year of my life in service to Andre House, as if it was some break or pause in the more serious, “real” life plan I have in front of me. And perhaps, since I was there for but a year, that’s exactly what it looks like. However, Bro. Richard has made that place his life and his ministry, and thus his life and ministry have become one inseparable whole. It is so easy to see Christ in Bro. Richard, because he has spent his life seeing Christ in the homeless he has journeyed with for more than two decades. His is a real love, a deep love, and it is real and deep in large part because it is committed to one ministry, one place, one people.
I have not yet worked out all the implications of this for my life. But I feel it is worth pondering. Our new mobility, as mentioned at the beginning, is in many ways very valuable. At the same time, I feel I have, up until now, accepted it a bit too uncritically. If I call myself some sort of revolutionary, bent on spreading the gospel in this world and internalizing it in my own heart, I think is a worthwhile endeavor to ask myself in what ways my mobility and movement are truly being used to serve the Kingdom, and in what ways it is serving only my own boredom with the routine and my own ambition for the exotic.
This reflection comes largely by wrestling with ideas and thoughts found in the book quoted above by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.” Both the author and the book come highly recommended.
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