Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Challenge for the New Year: Reaching Out, by Steven Nordstrom - Food & Care Coalition Coordinator at St. Mary's Church

“Before Christianity was a rich and powerful religion, before it was associated with buildings, budgets, crusades, colonialism, or televangelism, it began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society.”
― Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation

The Gospel--the "Good News"--of the Jesus Movement was originally referred to as "the Way" by many first-century Christians (see Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 24:14,22). Jesus invited us into the Way modeled in his teachings and actions, and this path promises to push us out of our comfort zone, both for our own benefit, as well as for the benefit of the people and the world around us. It isn't just a call to confess our individual brokenness in a solitary path to personal salvation (although that's an important element). And it certainly isn't an exclusive club, with perks for "members only". It's a lifelong journey in which we can expect to be made aware of and challenged by our preconceptions, our preoccupations, our sensitivities, our secret shames, as well as the profound power of love and hope in making peace with or overcoming any personal or societal obstacle in our path.

Along the Way we meet many others, either moving alongside us, or else moving in their own paths. We come to recognize that that there is no solitary path on the way; the Way must be made with others. Some of the people me meet on the Way will become easy, natural friends and travel companions; others will be lovers and partners, bound to us with ties even stronger than death. Still others will surely annoy, scare, enrage, and disappoint us. We'll feel that many are certainly heading in the wrong direction--how could there be more than one Way? Aren't we all trying to get to the same destination? How could they be so blind?

Others we'll hardly notice, or only see if we are compelled to pay attention. They are so far out on the edge of the horizon, so far outside our own experience of life on the Way that we have trouble making out the details. They don't fit our paradigm of what we suppose life should be like that it becomes extremely uncomfortable for us to acknowledge them as fully as individuals with the same kinds of hopes, feelings, challenges, and sorrows that we have.

They might have different skin color or speak with an accent. They might wear different clothing, or adorn their bodies with different decorations. They might not have the same standard of hygiene we've learned to adhere to. They might not have all the right body parts, or they might have visible deformities or maladies that alarm or repulse others. They might be older or younger than the folks you are accustomed to spending your time with.

Look deeper than surface details and you'll likely find even more differences. They might have ideas or feelings that are foreign or challenging to you. They may identify and express gender and sexuality differently than you. They might have mental and spiritual ailments that prevent them from interpreting or interacting with people and the world around them in the normal, predictable ways. We react to them with fear, avoidance, distrust, disgust, and sometimes even hatred or violence.

When we enter the Way, we make promises to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself", to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP, 305). Beautiful words, worthy ideals. MUCH easier said than done. Our natural inclinations for self-preservation, and our many cognitive biases all get in the way when opportunities to see, to love, to commune with these "others" arise. We miss opportunities to build God's kingdom when we cannot, do not, or will not reach out to all people, including especially those on the margins. Time after time in the Gospels, we see Jesus going out of his way to eat with, heal, care for, teach, and even resurrect the poor, the sick, the weary, the rejected, the hated, the marginalized. We are invited to walk our Way in this same manner.

So here's a challenge for the New Year: let us resolve to resist the natural inclination to avoid the "other". Pay closer attention whenever you feel nervous about reaching out to get to know others around you. In all areas of our lives--at work, in your neighborhoods, at church, in our service with others--we all can remember times when we felt that discomfort, that shyness, that nervousness, that feeling of fear that prevented us from speaking up and reaching out a hand of introduction and care. After each occasion, we might have noticed also that empty feeling of regret or of opportunity not taken.

When those feelings arise, let's resolve to recognize them quickly, and make a determination to reach out instead of ceding to our fear of the unknown. I need help doing this just as much as anyone else; as an introvert, interactions with others don't come easy and take lots of conscious energy. Begin to look and pray for opportunities to practice seeing all people as fellow humans worthy of dignity and respect, and also as humans in need just like we are of having friends and fellow companions on the Way.

If this seems like it will be hard, start small and celebrate successes. Share your experience with your close family and friends. Meet someone new at fellowship hour after services on Sunday. Come to Food and Care Coalition, sit and eat with the guests, and engage in conversation with them. While it is important that we do things for others, especially when their basic needs are not being met, it is perhaps even more important that we do things with them. We become friends and partners with those around us. We erase the hierarchy of "have" and "have not", or of "me" and "other".

The Way will challenge us to move outside the narrow view of our own troubles and cares and into the broader vision of God's dream for humanity. This is the Jesus Movement, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says. And movements require...movement! Let us make the road by walking in the Way, reaching out to all in welcome, friendship, and love.

Steven Nordstrom
Food & Care Coalition Coordinator at St. Mary's Church

The authors of this blog welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

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