small, thanks


    Once a month a few of us gather at church for a potluck dinner and discussion. Sometimes we have specific topics; sometimes we don’t. Tonight we were looking at Joy Jordan-Lake’s book, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous; Ten Alarming Words of Faith. I was fed by the meal, the book, and the discussion.

    Joy is a good writer who also happens to be a dear friend. Three of my godchildren live at her house. The book is full of great stories that help to move the discussion of what it means to be a follower of Christ beyond the academic and doctrinal into the messy relational reality of our lives. Though she didn’t tell any stories about me (Ginger makes a bold appearance in the chapter on Holiness), I think Joy has written a hopeful and challenging book.

    I had to smile this week when my package of books came from, because one of them – titled, if you can believe it, Oh Shit! It’s Jesus!: The Relevance of Jesus Without All the Religious Crap – only wishes it could be Joy’s book. (The review book is nowhere as edgy as it was trying to be with its title, which does little more, I think, than shock. I have no idea what marketing genius thought that cover would get people to buy it.) Though I think the review book is destined for the remainder bin from Day One, I can only hope Joy’s book gets the reading it deserves, even though the publisher has done little or nothing to promote it.

    She works down her top ten list – resurrection, community, abundance, wisdom, holiness, peace, blessedness, worship, forgiveness, hope – with candor and compassion and left all of us sitting around the table talking about how her stories had helped us better articulate our own. Here. she writes about her disappointment in trying to open a food and clothing pantry, which appeared at the time to be futile:

    Aware that we had no funding to speak of, and that our opening day had been reason enough to close the world’s finest food pantry for homeless people altogether, I walked home in despair.

    I was not meditating on the word worship. Or how it derives from worthship, the th being dropped in the fourteenth century. Or how it’s because God is worthy of our adoration that we worship, and because those made in the image of God are worthy of our respect that we serve. And the –ship of the worth/worship: the understanding that this is something we’re on board with together. This same ideal caused the architects of medieval cathedrals to build sanctuaries in the long shape of a ship – even naming these main sections “naves” from the Latin, navis, for ship: all of us journeying together, with God, to God.

    All this I’d managed to forget in one single morning – just me, journeying alone. Sulking. (96)

    Somewhere in our discussion, our associate pastor asked, “What word about Jesus makes you nervous?”

    Though I didn’t answer first, I knew right away what it was: small.

    My world started big when I was little. I grew up in Africa, the son of missionaries. I’ve traveled on three continents and seen amazing things. This summer, my brother and sister-in-law have been in Guatemala and Greece, one of my nephews has been in India, and my dad runs a foundation sending students all over the world on mission. I walk a block to work every morning here in Durham and come home to Ginger. We’re going to Texas next month to lead a retreat, but other than that, I’ll be here in my neighborhood.

    It’s hard to take and I’m happy. Both things are true.

    One of my recurring thoughts as I was reading The Tangible Kingdom was, “I’m not an evangelist.” One of the things both Ginger and learned in four years of trying to plant a church in Boston was evangelism is not our gift. Sharing the love and grace of God matters to me, but I wear away at you the way the hands of children wear smooth the tail of the library lion: it takes time. This week, I saw a message on the neighborhood listserv from someone new to the neighborhood asking to borrow a lawnmower. I lent them ours and invited them to dinner Sunday night.

    Hospitality is my thing.

    And, in terms of scale not importance, hospitality works best as a smal thing. As much as I’m tempted to be drawn into the quest for The Grand Gesture of my life, that is not the life to which I’ve been called. I find myself in this line: “I was hungry and you fed me.”

    That’s me.

    My blogging friend Simon
    , who lives in Australia, has a book whose title I love: God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood. I haven’t read the book because it’s not available in America. Too bad. It’s just been nominated for Christian Book of the Year down under. I would love to go see Simon in Australia. I want to get to Morocco and Prague. I want to go back to Istanbul and Paris. I wish I could do something about what is happening in Darfur or the Congo or Zimbabwe. I look forward to hearing my family’s stories of the things they saw and did on their mission trips and, these days, I’m finding God here in the ‘hood.

    My world is small. My God is not. It’s hard to fit those two sentences together sometimes, in similar fashion to Joy’s walking home alone from the food pantry in her then neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., particularly when I look at my life in comparison to friends who are getting to do things – big things – I wish I could do. And they are doing great things. They are not, however, making muffins, sharing lawnmowers, or having my neighbors over for dinner.

    This is the life to which I have been called.

    Joy, again:

    To worship is to prepare for the uncomfortable. For God’s showing up, often not when and how we expect.

    To dig out, make room for change and birth and re-birth.

    Worship with cymbals and the clatter of clothes-closet racks. In stained-glass cathedrals and dark basements.

    Everything we have and we are on the altar, laid down with awe for a God whose ways are not our ways but whose face is all around us.

    With gratitude for a God whose love flows like the deep end of the ocean, and whose power is bound to catch us up short, knock us clear down to our knees.

    Gratitude, indeed.


    P. S. — There’s a new recipe.


    1. Milton, Somehow your post reminded me of Mother Teresa’s wisdom: “We can do no great things,only small things with great love.” You show us over and over how to do small things faithfully, with love. Thanks.

    2. Ooooh – think I found a new book for our Theology for Lunch group!

      I, too, am not an evangelist in the “outreach” sense of the word. But remember – the literal sense is “one who spreads the good news,” and this can certainly be done over dinner and a loaned lawnmower (especially if it’s a dinner prepared by someone who loves cooking good food). LOVED the thought of the library lion, though. It reminds me of the stone steps in the union here at Iowa State, dipping and bowing where 150 years of student traffic has worn them away. Thanks.

    3. “This is the life to which I have been called.”

      This fact, duly recognized, is the greatest gift from God. You are so lucky to have this, live it out, and know that God is with you in it all.

    4. “To worship is to prepare for the uncomfortable. For God’s showing up, often not when and how we expect.”

      Bingo! Thank you, Milton!

    5. you’ve shared so much in this post that I appreciate and agree with. I have been also contemplating the smallness of my life and the fact that we never seem to reach our final calling – it’s a slow process. Thanks.

    6. what Maria said…I came to comment on that same quote. It is so true. Food, hospitality, compassion, not loudly, but consistently. it is what works for this Lutheran girl.

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