Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The People or the Land?

Alyssa and I have evolved a lot over the last year of our life together. We've begun asking questions—specific questions—about our future as a couple that has committed to serving others for the rest of our lives.

Life is smoooooth sailin'.
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But lately, as we have settled into our cushy suburban community, I have begun to feel...well...comfortable

We have a front porch that is perfect for sitting, and enough space in the house for two families to live comfortably. I have a nice job working for a nonprofit in the city, and Alyssa is a manager at a coffee shop in downtown historic Liberty. As I sit in Starbucks writing this, sipping on my iced coffee and occasionally checking facebook on my fancy iPod Touch that my sister gave me, I am less than 30 miles from almost any restaurant or chain store anyone could possibly dream of wanting to spend time in.

And not too long ago, at a house concert that Alyssa and I hosted for our friends Derek and Nathan, one of the folks in attendance looked around at the house, the porch, and the well-groomed, safe, white neighborhood, and remarked, "I could never live in  place like this."

Now, 1,900 years of Church Tradition has reasoned that Jesus didn't really mean the things that he said—when he said, "Sell what you own and give to the poor," he didn't mean actually sell what you own and give to the poor, but instead, "Be a generous person" (obviously some rich folks in the ancient church had an issue with that one). When he said, "Blessed are the poor and blessed are the peacemakers," and "Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head," he didn't mean for his followers to be poor, to become peacemakers, or to live their lives as homeless wanderers. 

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I don't agree with this line of thinking. To me, the suburban life and the Christian life are incompatible. To live a Christian life is to "take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and follow Jesus." To live a suburban life is to be comfortable. Whew! You want to talk cognitive dissonance? I am a really comfortable person.

However, admittedly, it has become popular to move to the inner-city and be poor. It's really rad for white middle-class kids to relocate into at-risk neighborhoods (whatever that means) and "do art," or swoop in with the "great white savior" mentality. I call this hipster gentrification, and it is just as dangerous as being comfortable. Creating a subculture in the world of the poor but not of the world of the poor is not what Jesus had in mind. This is not anavah. This is not the mindset that says, "You have something to teach me, perhaps even more than I could possibly teach you."

Lately, I've been thinking more about simplicity and sustainability. I've been greatly inspired by the so-called "Tiny House Movement." I have thoroughly enjoyed working together in community with my dearest friends on our small garden plot. I've been researching simplicity in the way I eat and the way I eat with others. I've been overjoyed in learning how to make my own bread completely from scratch. This is the life that is appealing to me—you put in a little hard work, and you are satisfied with the fruits of your labor. The simple life is increasingly capturing my spiritual imagination more than the inner-city New Monastic life. 

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I grew up in the country. I mean, some people say they were raised in the country, but I really was. One of my grandpas raised and sold cattle; the other grandpa raised donkeys and mules. At Christmas, my entire hometown gets together and reenacts the story of Stone Soup and then gathers around a large lit cedar and sings "Welcome Christmas," just like they do in Whoville. My dad was a conservation agent for the Missouri Department of Conservation, then later a resource forester for the U.S. Forest Service. Growing up, I was taught to appreciate the land. And lately, in my readings of Wendell Berry and in my own feeble attempts at a simple life, I have begun to miss the land. Sometimes I yearn for the land so much that my heart aches. "Put your hands into the earth," Berry says. "Live close to the ground. Gather round you all the things that you love, name their names."

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So I've begun to consider some options. What if, rather than a communal home somewhere in the forgotten corner of an inner city neighborhood, Anavah instead took the form of a small 20-acre farm within a half-hour of a larger city? My thoughts have shifted to allow me to believe it would be spiritually and physically gratifying for a small group of families (say, three or four, perhaps) to all pitch in funds to buy a small plot of land, build a series of tiny houses on that land, and then proceed to work the land for sustenance. The Backyard Homestead, a book that I have been reading lately, suggests that it is possible for a medium-sized family to comfortably live off of about a quarter acre; imagine what great things a small, organic farm could produce, if a few people were willing to live in community with the land and with each other! We could go off the grid, running off of solar or wind energy, and live comfortably and simply in our tiny houses, and perhaps even have an extra "barn" that could serve as a guest house and a common area for worship and study, and maybe even the occasional music jam. We could essentially be a Missouri version of Koinonia Farm! It's the perfect plan!


There's that whole Jesus thing again. I believe that to be a Christian is to be outwardly focused (some people as of late have taken to calling this "being missional," a fluff phrase for which I've had little use). In order to live out the gospel and the teachings of Christ fully, we must be zeroed in on the needs of others—particularly the plight of the poorest, the "least of these." And for the life of me, I can't quite bring myself to rationalize my desire to be a hermit farmer with my perceived obligation to live and work among the poor. 

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I don't want to live in the city. People get shot in the city. There's no fresh air there. It's crowded and there are so many rude people that cluster in America's cities. But this is exactly why I feel Jesus would want me there. People without homes live in the city. There are junkies whose families have turned them out. There are children who live on the fringe of society because they have been cast away from civilization. How can I speak for the voiceless if I am not  near the people who need to be heard? This is quite the existential funk.

So where do I go from here? Do I commit my love to the land, or to the people? Are those two mutually exclusive? I have no idea. And I don't necessarily feel that God is very interested in helping me figure that one out. 

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