What does it mean to ‘love your neighbour’? These words have become so familiar, so mundane that we don’t even really hear them anymore.
We wake up in the morning, inhale a coffee, leap into the car or train carriage and speed away from our neighbourhoods – to work, to study, to drop kids off. When is the last time we actually had a meaningful interaction with the people that live just meters away?
At Open House we are great at thinking – wrestling with the big questions, analysing life from the lense of the Jesus Way – but the actual nitty gritty of living it out is hard work. It is meant to be messy, and I don’t know about you but messy scares me. I like things to have neat, organised answers and controllable solutions. Though I’m learning that life is rarely like that.
So let’s get brave and messy this month. We are delving into the lives and experiences of Shane Claiborne and Sarah Harmeyer – two ordinary humans who chose to really see the world around them… and engage wholeheartedly with it.
In his book ‘The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical’, Shane Claiborne proposes an enticing vision: “We are trying to raise up an army, not simply of street activists but of lovers — a community of people who have fallen desperately in love with God and with suffering people, and who allow those relationships to disturb and transform them.”
We have been talking a lot about suffering in the last few months and what it means for our theology to have a world in agony. Claiborne references the comic below in response:
“I think that in some ways, when we’ve put all of this on God, it’s as if God has been throwing it back and going, ‘Hey, you’re my body. You are my hands and my feet.’ And, you know, that this is something that we are entrusted with. And I think, probably, one of the most difficult things that Jesus ever did was sort of leave this idea of transforming the world or the kingdom of God coming in the hands of such a ragtag bunch of people that goof it up over and over.”
For most of us, this solution probably doesn’t excite as much as it terrifies us! But Claiborne took this idea seriously and with a group of friends created a shared living experience called ‘The Simple Way’. Over time it has grown from one house to six – they work part-time, pool resources and appliances, reclaim abandoned spaces around the neighbourhood to create gardens and inviting places. They respond to the needs of those around them, tutoring the local kids, and helping the homeless.
“We have so much fun, like, I live with people who — we laugh hard together and we cry hard together, too. I think what community is, is surrounding yourself with people who are like the person you want to become. And for me, I also keep a really good rhythm of life, like I have a very disciplined life of, you know, getting up in the morning for prayer, and we have a Sabbath day where we just rest together, you know, and we don’t answer the door or the phone. And so all those things are sort of a part of our integrated faith and who we are and things that we share together. And we have meals together as a community, and we function a lot like a family. So that keeps us, I think, very energized for the long haul.”
Of course, there have been countless hard times as well – disagreements, assaults, crockpots stolen by junkies that they had invited into the houses. The community tries to practice hard love – love in response to hate or bullying, turning the other cheek to those who hurt them.
“So one kid came home, I remember, years back, and a kid was picking on him. And he’s like, ‘Aw, this kid, you know, keeps beating me up, they’re calling me names.’ And we’re like, ‘Well, you know what, Rolando, that means that you’ve got to show him what a friend looks like, because they may not know what it’s like to be a good friend. They may not have had good friends before, so you get to show them.’ And Rolando goes, ‘Oh, man. Love is so hard.’ And I think that’s the love that Dostoevsky speaks of when he said, it’s not love that, you know, not a sentimental love like storybooks, but it’s a harsh and dreadful love that we’re talking about.”
They try and emulate the love mentality of people like the Amish (when they went to be with the murderer’s family after a school shooting) and Martin Luther King:
“Dr. King says: “You can threaten our children and we will still love you. You can burn down our houses and we will still love you. You can put us in jail and put your dogs on us and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our love.” And I love that because it’s a story of the martyrs. It’s the story of our faith.”
I have two conflicting responses to this way of living. My soul is incredibly moved and I feel deeply the truth that they are living out. But my head reacts in terror and screams against the loss that will inevitably result from such a sacrificial way of being. Which will I allow to win out?
To finish, Tippett queries what Claiborne would say to those who suggest that he represents only anecdotal and isolated evidence of great things happening and that the world can’t really be changed by this.
He responds: “Well, I’d say if we looked a little closer at history, we see that that’s the only way it’s ever been done, you know, and that these groups of people begin to come together and ripple new imagination and ideas that are very contagious. And I especially look at the story of my faith, you know. And Jesus’ chooses this little group of people where, what a bunch of, you know, goofballs. I mean, one of them denies him, another betrays him, and another doubts him. And yet, it’s that little group of people that, even in the midst of that brokenness, I think, is a testimony of God’s goodness, and that the movement builds. And the Christian mystics know that so well because they say that ‘God’s spirit comes through the cracks and not through the togetherness.’”
There is something incredibly attractive about this mentality of living, and it is drawing me in…. Gradually but undeniably…
[To listen to the challenging and inspiring podcast at On Being, click here.]
Sarah lives in a fairly standard suburban neighbourhood. She has a small apartment, a tiny backyard, orange formica benchtops in a kitchen that feels chaotic when six people are in it. She has a meaningful job working as a fundraising manager for a large children’s hospital in America and she works long hours.
One day, when looking around at the houses surrounding hers, she realised how little she really knew any of her neighbours. Around the same time she came to a realisation that her ‘gift’ in life was being a people gatherer. So she started something called Neighbor’s Table, which really is a simple concept—a handcrafted table big enough to seat lots of people, brought to your home for the purpose of sharing meals with others. Sarah took what felt like a risk and invited them all over for dinner. Ninety-one people showed up, carrying plates of food and bottles of wine, and it was incredible.
Now, Sarah challenges herself to host 500 people per year around her table (which she does almost weekly but only in the Spring and Autumn). She admits to being an introvert and that she feels like a truck has hit her after every gathering ‘in the best possible way’, but the joy that she experiences in connecting people together and creating a meaningful space for community is priceless.
The vision has grown beyond Sarah’s own table and she now personally delivers hand-crafted tables all over America so that others can host their own gatherings. When she arrives, she hosts the party for them so that they can see how she does it – place-cards for everyone so that people know that they were expected, before the meal she goes around and introduces every person at the table and says something brief about them to provide points of conversation and connection, everyone is invited to pitch in and help out, there’s live music and poetry readings, they eat outside under the stars.
[If you want to know more – listen to this podcast at ‘The Simple Show with Tsh Oxenrider’.]
Dave and I love this concept and have been really inspired by it! We are planning to get a 20 seater table and put it on our deck, pushing ourselves to open up our home and lives to those who live proximally and to you guys as well. We want to set a challenge for ourselves (though maybe not in the 500 realm) and bit by bit go about connecting with the people that are mere doors and steps away.
Living out our values is hard. It costs us financially, emotionally and brings us closer to the edge of ourselves. The thought of stepping out, inviting people, taking a risk in relationships with people I may not normally hang out with – that is meant to be a bit scary, I think. It sure is for me. But I can’t deny the pull that these ideas and this way of living has on me.
It seems impossible to even think about solving the world’s problems – terrorism, poverty, trafficking and environmental destruction (to name a few) – but if we reach out to those around us, the ones that may be a little annoying or challenge us, bit by bit we will be changing our own worlds.
I found this short set of intentions on the On Being website created by Christine Valters Painter, a Benedictine Abbess of the online Abbey of the Arts community and thought that it would be great at the very least for ongoing reflection:
- I commit to finding moments each day for silence and solitude, to make space for another voice to be heard, and to resist a culture of noise and constant stimulation.
- I commit to radical acts of hospitality by welcoming the stranger both without and within. I recognize that when I make space inside my heart for the unclaimed parts of myself, I cultivate compassion and the ability to accept those places in others.
- I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.
- I commit to cultivating awareness of my kinship with creation and a healthy asceticism by discerning my use of energy and things, letting go of what does not help nature to flourish.
- I commit to bringing myself fully present to the work I do, whether paid or unpaid, holding a heart of gratitude for the ability to express my gifts in the world in meaningful ways.
- I commit to rhythms of rest and renewal through the regular practice of Sabbath and resist a culture of busyness that measures my worth by what I do.
- I commit to a lifetime of ongoing conversion and transformation, recognizing that I am always on a journey with both gifts and limitations.