One of my favorite moments at the Renovaré conference occurred when we were working on the Call to Spiritual Formation.
In one of the sections the role of community in spiritual formation was explored. The word ‘laboratory’ was used in a sentence. This elicited some intense debate. In the midst of our discussion someone suggested that we change the metaphor from laboratory to household.
We didn’t change the word to household and I want to offer a few reflections on this:
Because we live in a constantly abstracting culture, one that diminishes personal names and stories into numbers and statistics we have to recover relational rhythms and root out words that depersonalize. Laboratory, I think, is one of these words. It is sterile and clinical and impersonal.
Household with its imagery of family reclaims this relational emphasis – it is intensely personal. This, I think, is why we would rather avoid this word. We like abstractions. Laboratories sounds so cool and households are so boring. There are no perfect households and this upsets; for we want perfect churches. This causes us to run from the realities of the actual household(s) we are part of.
I’m finding the household metaphor exciting to live into – and it has to do with the way in which Jesus teaches us to pray.
Jesus' answer to the question “how should we pray?” starts with the phrase “our Father".
As a white Afrikaans South African my “our” is being re-populated, corresponding roughly to the apartheid and post apartheid era.
During apartheid my “our” was defined by my biological family. Later it embraced those in my faith family and some friends – all of the same race and socio-economic class. My “our” was a product of our country’s politics. My relationships were perfectly mirrored by the oppressive system of apartheid.
In post-apartheid South Africa my “our” is changing. It now consists of people that are radically different than me. Some of them are poor; some of them are black, others Indian. Some are Christians, others not. My “our” has expanded. Not in the abstract. Christ followers don’t love in the abstract – they are on a constant quest to discover the stories of the people reduced to statistics.
My “our” consists of people. Flesh and blood people, they have names: Lollie, Tayla, Liam, Sulette, Colin, Deon, Babette, Francois, Dirk, Melodi, Adriaan, Amelie, Martha, Eddie, Archie, Gomolimo, Lazarus, Eugene, Jan, Drennan, Linda, Gawie, David, Sibongile, Eddie, Bruno, Miguel, Nelson, Short, Waro-waro, Schalk, Sakkie, Lindie, Don, Ruth, Jeremy, Matt, Tim, Neels, Marietjie, Adrie-Marie, Gerrit, Christina, Emtia, Suzette, Stanis, Trevor, Stephan, Dries, Lyle, Diana, Mindie, Trevor, Chrissie, Keira, Arnie, Chantal, Moia, and the list goes on [please don’t feel offended if your name is not in the list, or at the order of the list] … eventually flowing into abstraction (for its not a totally useless category). Claypotters, South Africans and Africans, North Americans and Europeans, Australians and even people from New Zealand, people living on Islands, Russians and South Americans, Asians and people from the Middle-East.
Whenever my “our” extends with another person, they become part of my rhythm – our lives become connected, intertwined in the realest sense of the word. We become brothers and sisters. If one of them celebrates, then I celebrate. Conversely I feel pain with them. But this is not just an emotional bond, a 'fellowship' defined by only emotions. It also has a physical/material/economic implication. This is where it becomes really challenging.
In the same prayer Jesus asks us to pray for “our daily bread”. That same “our” listed above are those we are praying for. But what do we do if some on the list – like me; have bread and steak, and others like Miguel has a small peae of bread for a family of ten? I’ll tell you what it means for me. It simply (but not simplistically) means that I sacrifice some of my trips to the restaurant so that they can have.
Relationships become the vehicle for this miracle of redistribution of loving in the real. It’s not communism, also not socialism – it is voluntary flowing out of kinship. For who can let a brother or sister suffer and still say that there is love?
I still live in a country trying to rid itself from apartheid.
The church is still divided.
Our “our” is very homogeneous.
Black and white on this issue is now grey.
The white church has become like medical schemes.
We regulate the “our” so that we minimize the risk.
Fellowship stays only emotional.
We are sick.
I am sick.
There is a way out. It’s the way of Jesus. A mustard seed way. What if every white Christian in South Africa started to pray for a broader “our”? What if every one of us developed friendships with someone other than the “usual suspects” that populate our “our”? At the pace of one relationship at a time. Matthew the tax collector in the same band as the disciples whose taxes he stole. It has happened once, it can happen again!
I think it could revolutionize us.
Black and White, Africans and Americans, Colonizers and the colonized (and whatever enmities we can imagine).
The church is perfectly situated to become an instrument for this.
Will we? Is spiritual formation any good for real life people in real contexts?
Today I sat in on a conversation of a new friend. She shared a Scripture that she felt was for someone. I heard it at 1.45 pm it is now 3.51 am and it has taken me only 14 hours to realize that her words was for me (this is actually not that long for this recovering unteachable soul). She read some words out of the letter to the Romans … which gives me hope …
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (15:13)