Monday, April 27, 2009

Holy Weaknesses

In the most recent issue of Conspire Magazine, Will Braun writes an article about "success" and living faithfully. I found the article to be insightful and inspiring and I hope you will too. I would love for you to read it and share your opinion on it. I'd especially like to hear from those of my friends who are oppressed or live in the margins as they might have a fresh perspective. Please read and comment if you get a chance. Thanks

Holy Weakness
Resurrection and the limits of success
By Will Braun

If Jesus has toppled the oppressive government of his time, I would be much clearer about my calling. If he had launched a campaign of nonviolent direct action with the poor or brought about land reform or ushered in universal health care, o protected a pristine wilderness, or made poverty history, I wouldn’t be so conflicted about how to live out my faith.
But he didn’t. Jesus’ resurrection was a victory of cosmic proportions, but it didn’t seem to achieve any outcomes of the sort listed above. Most notably, although many people of Jesus’ time wanted him to overthrow the overbearing Roman occupation, the risen lord did not use his authoritative victory as a chance to appear to the rulers to depose, lobby, or convert them.
This troubles me because I’m realizing that I’ve devoted much of my life to attaining precisely that which Jesus’ life didn’t. For fifteen years, I’ve tried to be the most savvy, effective, and competent social-justice advocate I can be—in the fields of indigenous struggles, environmentalism, and justice-oriented magazine editing.
For a long time, I’ve found ways to sidestep the discrepancy between my approach and Jesus’ approach, but now I’m at the point where it has me in a vocational tail spin, wondering whether to change direction significantly. I still believe the Jesus’ resurrection means something for poor and suffering people—other than just that they get pie in the sky—but it doesn’t seem to mean that their earthly battles will end in success.
The crossroad I am at hinges partially on the notion of success. While “Success” seems ill-suited to Jesus’ mission, I fear it has been all too well-suited to mine, I worry that I have unwittingly followed the standard success narrative of our times—a script in which a person has a dream or vision, follows the dream with singular commitment, believes in his or her self (perhaps in God as well), doesn’t give up, achieves victory of some sort (or “makes a difference”). The moral of the story tends to be: Destiny is yours. Try hard enough and you’ll succeed.
Though Christians regularly squeeze Jesus into this script, I’m nagged by a strong sense that the resurrection is not a success story. I feel I need to untangle the resurrection story from the prevailing success narrative in order to understand it, and my calling, more deeply.
When I consider what has brought me to this point, three stories come to mind. They seem to have chosen me rather than me choosing them. They draw me to a profoundly counterintuitive and unsuccessful understanding of the resurrection and what it means for injustice and suffering.
While living in France, Jean Vanier met two men who lived in an institution for developmentally disabled people. He was moved. He sensed their primal cry for love and belonging, and in their cry, he sensed the call of God. So, in the prime of his life, he invited the men to move into his home. Leaving a promising academic career behind, this son of the former Governor General of Canada began tenting to the daily needs of these men. It was a backward thing to do in many ways, but what Vanier slowly discovered was the ability of these men to bring him, through shared daily life, to a deep experience of tenderness, love, unity, and God.
“The whole Christian mystery is revealed to us through the weak and powerless, the little ones,” he wrote in a set of unpublished retreat notes in 1986, “The resurrection touches the depths of the desolation of Jesus.”
Vanier called the humble household of three L’Arche (French for “the ark”). For decades later, there are many L’Arche homes around the world. In these homes, people with developmental disabilities (“core members”) and those who assist them share life together. But the point is not to make L’Arche sound grandiose. It centers around wounded and weak people. “L’Arche is something very small,” Vanier says, “Little people in little communities…We don’t do great things at L’Arche.”
Vanier writes about “descending” from a world of accomplishment to be with core members who have no hope of achieving success in life no mater how much they believe in their dreams. And in those communities, outside the realm of success, the wonder of God emerges.
Similarly, Henri Nouwen descended to L’Arche and there discovered the core of faith. An academic and widely read Christian author, he worked his way up to a teaching post at Harvard. But while there, he wrote: “Something inside was telling me that my success was putting my soul in danger.” So he left, and spent the next ten years of his life at L’Arche community north of Toronto, Canada, where he died in 1996 at age 64.
Nouwen left Harvard to feed and wash people who had no idea what Harvard was and who had no use for the skills he had worked decades to obtain. He quit something he was very good at to do something he was admittedly poor at. And though his time at L’Arche was not easy, it became a rich gift to him. In a book called Adam: God’s Beloved, Nouwen tells of his relationship with Adam, a core member who could not speak or move without assistance. With great tenderness Nouwen explains how Adam taught him “the language of the heart” and revealed to him the meaning of spiritual poverty and what it means to be the beloved of God.
Nouwen veered off the path of success into a different realm altogether, “I still get invitations to speak all over the world," Nouwen wrote while at L’Arche, “But I have to say no. My Community says it’s more important to…spend an evening with someone who can’t speak or do anything than to speak to thousands of people.”
The third story that keeps popping up in my mind is of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus, two Catholic monastic orders. These monks and nuns imitate the life of Jesus as a common laborer in Nazareth before his public ministry began. They call it the hidden life. They live humble lives, usually in small households in unknown, marginalized places. They might work in a factory or sweep floors at a school, but they don’t start schools or hospitals like some other orders. Their role is a role of obscurity.
Carlo Carretto left Italy in the 1950’s to join the Little Brothers in North Africa. In his book, Letters from the Desert, he tells of traveling through the desert by camel and coming across a group of laborers “wielding the shovel and pick all day in the heat and dust” to repair a road. “I passed up the line of workmen scattered on the track, replying to their greetings and offering the liters of water in my gherba for their thirst. At a certain point, among the mouths approaching the gherba to drink, I saw a smile break out which I shall never forget. Poor, ragged, sweating, dirty: it was Brother Paul, a Little Brother who had chosen that detail in which to live out is Calvary; to be a kind of leaven there….I knew Brother Paul well, because we had been novices together. A Parisian engineer, he had been working on the Reganna atomic bomb when he heard the Lord’s call. He left everything and became a Little Brother…Nobody knew he was an engineer. He was a poor man like the others.”
While these stories are not about social justice per se, they suggest that the victory of Christ is discovered when we exit the realm of success and move toward powerlessness.
In his landmark book, The Politics of Jesus, Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder says our calling is not to reach for the levers of control by which we can “Get a hold on the course of history and move it in the right direction.” Jesus did not “make sure that things would turn out right,” he says. Instead, Christ chose servant hood over dominion, meekness over effectiveness. The relationship of cause and effect has thus been replaced with cross and resurrection. Yoder suggests that we Christians must be liberated from “the compulsiveness of the vision of ourselves as the guardians of history” in order that we might “receive again the gift of being able to see ourselves as participants in the loving nature of God as revealed in Christ.”
I know what it is to compulsively reach for levers that influence decision makers. And when I bring to mind the relentless sense or urgency, strain, and “savior complex” that come with this reaching and striving, I feel drawn to the liberating possibility of a different approach.
God’s approach leads to victory. Yoder says, but the victory is different than what we would logically expect. Commentators suggest that many of the people waving palm branches as Jesus made his “triumphal” entry into the great city of Jerusalem would have desperately wanted him to lead a political revolution. Their expectations quickly provide entirely misguided. I wince at that story because I fear that I , along with many Christian world-changer types, are those people cheering Jesus on, expecting him to do things that are entirely outside his nature.
Jesus’ next act was the cleansing of the Temple, an act that social justice-minded Christians like to cite as an inspiring story of someone boldly confronting the powers. Yoder says this comparison is “partially valid,” but suggests this use of the story breaks down when “one asks whether Jesus’ ‘demonstration’ was a ‘success’.”
And so we end up somewhere very different than the success narrative. Instead of straining to take destiny by the horns and attain success, we have a descent to a point of powerlessness and then the emergence into the realm where God’s gentle, liberating, ultimate victory is realized. In the wake of holy weakness a new song is sung. One narrative is about strength, effectiveness, competence, ascent, influence, control, and striving. The other is about weakness, meekness, holy failure, liberation, descent, obscurity, and letting go.
What then might this all mean in the life of someone who feels called to address suffering and injustice?
I’m thinking hard these days about what a noneffective approach might look like. I expect it might mean less busyness (less striving) and more time to be present to suffering people. It might mean more time with small people and less with influential people. It might mean taking on fewer projects and turning down speaking gigs (which I have already found myself doing). It might mean not pushing my ideas a forcefully—whether with colleagues or the public. It might mean fretting less when events of history do not unfold as I wish, and focusing more on those things that live on in a plane not reported by the media. It might mean less resisting. I might mean doing nonsensical things. It might mean veering off the path of success.
As I begin experimenting with the descent, I find courage in believing that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is an authoritative validation of the path he took. It signifies for me that the path of descent to powerlessness and meekness is not---as Vanier, Nouwen, Adam, and Brother Paul discovered---a dead end.

Will Braun is a father, part-time social-justice advocate, and part time editor of Geez magazine. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada and can be reached at

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sticks and stones may break your bones

But words can surely kill you. Or even laughs, for that matter.

Recently, we've received some "criticism" of who we are both from neighbors (some rumor going around scaring kids into thinking we're bad people) and from clergy (some folks questioning why we're not "working" full time and why we're "always" asking for money).

What's so frustrating is that these comments, when said, consume me. They take over any amount of affirmation we may have had, any amount of encouragement, any amount of excitement and replace those feelings with feelings of self doubt, fear, and anxiety leaving me/us with dead spirits.

All we want to do is to be found faithful by God and others. We want people to recognize Christ at work within us. We're here doing what we're doing, living how we're living because we feel called, because we feel obligated by God, because we want to serve. We're working part time jobs so that we can serve our neighbors fully and also so that we can live more simply, not dependent on the fine material things in life. We don't raise money to support ourselves, we raise money to support our neighbors.

I wish when people had criticism, they'd come straight to us rather than speak their criticism to other people. (neighborhood gossip, clergy grapevine) It would help us to hear the critique, it would challenge us to think with a fresh mind about who we are and how we function.

So, if you think we're wrong. If you think we're a scam. If you think we're hypocritical. If you think we're unfaithful. If you think we're exclusive. Just talk to us. please.

Friday, April 17, 2009

If you want to give me a huge Christmas present....

Here's what I'd like:

Several artists are hosting a retreat on the Oregon coast in October. My goodness! Wouldn't it be wonderful?!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Hyaets request

Dear Friends, Family, and Partners,
As the ministries and relationships of Hyaets have grown over the past year, we have discovered many needs within the Enderly Park Community. You may be aware that, in the current challenging economic times, needs arise within all areas of society. However, these needs tend to be greatest among the poor who have little to nothing to fall back on when jobs are lost or cut, few family resources, and greater competition for the limited government and charitable resources available. We have already begun to see these needs affect a variety of areas of life, including the education of youth. God is already at work in many of these areas in a variety of ways and we need your help to join with God in God’s mission and ministry among the neighbors of Enderly Park.

Neighborhood Home Repair
We currently have several neighbors who are in need of significant home repair assistance. The needs include floor repair, drywall work, painting, wheelchair ramps, demolition work, roof repair, foundation repair, and siding repair. Several neighbors who own homes in the neighborhood cannot live in their homes because this work needs to be done to make the house livable. In addition, the Hyaets Parkway house is in immediate need of painting the entire exterior.
Transitional Housing Initiative
For several months now we at Hyaets have been working on a Transitional Housing Initiative. This initiative developed out of a strong desire to help neighbors who have difficulty maintaining stable housing. We have found that eviction is a chronic issue in the neighborhood for a variety of reasons, including job loss, lack of needed financial management skills, certain life decisions, and housing choices. While Hyaets currently offers transitional housing within the current homes of Hyaets members, the needs are far greater than we have been able to handle thus far. For example, there is need for a life skills development component to our current offering of hospitality and there is need for longer periods of housing than we are able to offer in our own homes.
We are committed to offering temporary housing within our homes for neighbors who are in-between places or who find themselves as sojourners or travelers through Charlotte, but we see the need for a more substantial offering for folks who need assistance with more chronic housing issues. Thus, we have formed a partnership with NewLeaf Christian Transitional Housing Ministry and the Christian Men’s Alliance of Charlotte to secure a house adjacent to our current properties and implement a relational transitional housing project. The house needs much cosmetic work to make it livable or workable for such a project, primarily in the area of painting.

Temple Enderly Community School Initiative
A new relationship between Hyaets, Temple Baptist Church International, and the Q Foundation has brought about the formation of the Temple Enderly Community School Initiative which seeks to begin a school for neighborhood youth. The impetus behind the school is to create a positive educational environment focusing of the arts for elementary and middle school aged youth who have fallen behind and are educationally ‘at risk’. The facilities for the school need a large amount of painting and flooring work as soon as possible. Bathroom renovation is a necessity as well. The construction of a playground is a future need for the school.
Hyaets is committed to these two significant areas of need. We invite you, your church, your men’s, women’s, or youth group, your service/civic organization, or your family to help us! This spring or summer, plan a day, weekend, or week-long mission experience with Hyaets. We will tailor a mission experience to your group’s time, skills, gifts, and needs. We are not a one-size-fits-all organization. Rather, we desire to work with your church or organization to create an experience that will be mutually beneficial, holistic, authentic, and relational. Can you give of yourself, your time, your energy, and your gifts to those who need you – your friendship, your listening ears, and your helping hands?
We are eagerly waiting to speak with you and begin planning your life-changing mission experience in one of the most at-risk, threatened, and poor, yet equally beautiful and story-filled communities of Charlotte. Please contact Jason at 704-391-8529, 704-280-9116, or to speak personally about how you can join in God’s great work in the Enderly Park Community of Charlotte, NC.

Thanks, Grace and Peace,
The Hyaets Community

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Be uncommonly good
"And deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day, by God's grace, by helping the seed of the kingdom grow in ourselves and in each other until finally in all of us it becomes a tree where the birds of the air can come and make their nests in our branches. That is all that matters really."
~Fredrick Buechner
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