The Common Good
January 2008

Making It Real

by Tom Sine | January 2008

How to live as if another world were already here.

A growing number of Christians, out of a concern for global warming, are finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Others are searching less successfully for ways to create a more authentic embodied faith. The problem is that most resources on embodied faith offer very few practical examples.

Many of my generation were drawn in the early 1980s to the call from Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger to “live more simply that others might simply live.” But as the global economy booms, that call seems to have lost its influence with many Christians.

Besides, while simplifying our lives is important, we won’t likely find a more serious embodied faith just by doing a simpler version of the American dream. We need to reinvent the America dream, not just simplify it. This requires more than a rant against consumerism. We must do a more robust critique of the values underlying the consumer culture.

How many of us unwittingly have allowed aspirations and values of the imperial global shopping mall define for us what is important and what is of value—what is the “good life”? Many of us, in spite of our best intentions, allow the economic aspirations of the workplace or the up-scaling impulses of our middle-class lifestyles to take over our lives. As a consequence, we too often trivialize our faith to little more than a devotional add-on to our “real lives.”

However, something new is happening in the younger generation. God is stirring up new conspirators who are creating new expressions of emerging and missional churches and monastic communities that are much more outwardly focused in mission to those in need. These young innovators are also raising the bar on what personal faith looks like. They are concerned that far too many of us have allowed the values of the global mall—instead of the teachings of Jesus—to shape our aspirations and values. They are calling themselves and all the rest of us to embrace a more authentic, whole-life faith. Efrem Smith, who has planted a multicultural missional church in Minneapolis, writes that “the need to find authentic people … is a cry we all share, no matter what or where you have been in your life.”

If we are serious about finding a way to embody more authentically the aspirations and values of our faith instead of those of the culture, we need to start where many of these new conspirators do. We need to rediscover the kingdom of God as not only a theology we affirm on Sunday but a reason to get out of bed on Monday.

This calls for new language and images to express God’s new order. Too many of us have settled for eschatological imagery that is divorced from both the urgent issues that fill our world and the important decisions of our daily lives. Of course many social justice Christians tease out some kingdom imagery to support their political advocacy. But often they aren’t any better than the rest of us at embodying these images and values in their daily lives.

Shane Claiborne, one of the “new monastics,” offers some fresh images of God’s new order that might help us find a place to begin the journey towards a more authentic, whole-life faith. In his book The Irresistible Revolution, Shane describes an impromptu demonstration on Wall Street, during which he announced to the surprised crowd:

Some of us have worked on Wall Street, and some of us have slept on Wall Street. We are a community of struggle. Some of us are rich people trying to escape our loneliness. Some of us are poor folks trying to escape the cold. Some of us are addicted to drugs and others are addicted to money. We are a broken people who need each other and God, for we have come to recognize the mess that we have created of our world and how deeply we suffer from the mess. Now we are working to give birth to a new society within the shell of the old. Another world is possible. Another world is necessary. Another world is already here.

That’s it! That’s the imagery that is at the very center of the future to which the creator God is giving birth—“Another world is already here!”

How can we dream into, live into, serve into, and celebrate into that world which is already here? To answer this we need to revisit the rich biblical imagery of God’s loving purposes for a people and a planet. We also need to journey with Jesus and those first disciples, paying particular attention to how they sought to embody images and values of God’s new order by fashioning communities that were clearly counter to the societies in which they lived.

As we begin to identify the aspirations and values of this “world that is already here,” we will realize how counter they are to the values of empires of every age. Jesus strongly reminds his followers that we will never find the good life of God by seeking life but only by losing our lives in service to God and others.

How might our lives change if we seek to live into that world that is already here? For example, how might we house ourselves differently? Instead of allowing class, income, and culture to define how we house ourselves, we could develop biblically informed criteria for this important life decision. Michael Enright, in the Sacred Architecture Journal, writes, “After the decision about who you will spend the rest of your life with, the next most important question has to be where you will live. … Until now, we have not found a way to inform that decision with the values of the gospel.”

The single-family, detached model of housing has become a cultural icon in Western countries. Doesn’t this iconic model place individualism above community and privacy above mutual care? Don’t many of the newer houses also celebrate the values of status, prestige, luxury, and exclusion?

We could bring together some Christian architects, theologians, some of the young conspirators, and a few Christians who are living in community to do what green architects do—design on purpose. Why not design dwellings that embody the values we claim to embrace?

How might we design dwellings that not only focus on creation care but also more authentically reflect the values of God’s new order? Such designs would undoubtedly reflect a greater concern for facilitating community while still ensuring private space.

These dwellings would likely devote more space to hospitality than to mega-bathrooms and oversized garages. With the huge housing costs facing all of us, but particularly the young, floor space needs to be used more creatively. If we spend less of our total income on expanded floor space and expensive extras, we can free up time or money to help provide housing for the poor. Also imagine how the images of God’s new order might be expressed by bringing “sacred space” into living space and even in the interior design of these new dwellings to give others an artful taste of our celebration.

The Bartimaeus Community in Silverdale, Washington, has taken a significant step in designing dwellings in which they give more intentional expression to their faith. Working from the co-housing model, they constructed 25 units on seven acres. Out of concern for creation care, they clustered the units together and keep cars at the periphery, creating a large wooded area for retreat and a large area where they garden together. Out of commitment to fostering community, they constructed a beautiful common recreation room where they share meals and life together several times a week. Out of a concern for those on the margins, they jointly paid for one of the units to permanently serve as a place to accommodate families in transition.

As impressed as I am by the innovation of emerging church leaders, almost all of their creativity seems to happen within the box called “worship.” I propose to my emerging friends and to all of us that we blow the walls and doors out of the worship box and bring the celebration of God’s kingdom into our entire lives 24/7.

As followers of Jesus, we are not limited to celebrations of remembrance—we can also create celebrations of anticipation. “By playfully entering into celebration, we rehearse for the future,” reflects Sara Wenger Shenk. “It is as though we play an ‘eschatological game,’ believing that the grand fulfillment that will come can be envisioned and rehearsed now.”

Every year, my wife, Christine, and I and a group of friends “rehearse” with a party called Advent II-Homecoming. Last year we called our Advent celebration “Feasting into the World that is Already Here.” Eighteen of us, including two couples involved in emerging church plants, gathered in a historic Tudor mansion in Seattle.

We viewed the classic film Babette’s Feast, about a French refugee who becomes a cook for two sisters in Den­mark who are part of a very austere Protestant sect. Unexpectedly, Babette wins 10,000 francs in the lottery. She decides to use the entire amount to prepare a sumptuous French feast to show her appreciation to these sisters and their friends. We discover that Babette was once a premier chef in Paris. As this group of Christians dine on a lavish spread, clearly some suspect it might be demonic (or at least wasteful). But as the film ends, not only do these rigid believers begin to enjoy this gracious feast, even damaged relationships are slowly restored.

We asked our friends to identify imagery in the film that connects to the advent of Christ and God’s new order. Some were deeply moved by “the extravagant abundance of God’s love and grace.” Someone else observed that as people let down their guard to eat unusual new food, they also opened themselves to the reconciling love of God. It was clear to all of us that this film captured imagery of that day when we will all feast together at God’s homecoming banquet, experiencing the full realization of God’s loving purposes for a people and a world. One thing I love about worshiping in emerging churches is the emphasis on participating not only intellectually but also experientially. So we invited our friends to continue the conversation over a lavish feast. Before we dined, Christine led us in a brief liturgy of the banquet feast using Isaiah 25:6-9. Through our friendship, conversation, feasting, and reflection, we all experienced a little bit of that new world that is already in our midst.

What would happen if more of us dared to imagine fresh ways to authentically embody our faith in how we design our dwellings, entertain our friends, welcome strangers, steward our time and money, and celebrate another world that is already here? Join the conspiracy and find out.

Tom Sine, who co-founded Mustard Seed Associates (www.msainfo.org) with his wife, Christine, had recently written The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time (InterVarsity Press, 2008) when this article appeared.

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