I spend many days alone on our property in rural Virginia. This cabin in the woods is my sanctuary. I shared earlier this week that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by all the need that surrounds me on a daily basis. I know when that begins to happen, it is time to get away. We know from scripture that Jesus often withdrew to a lonely place, and I think I understand why. In the midst of the noise of ministry, it is very hard to hear God’s voice clearly and even harder to discern the path in front of you.
I always begin these personal retreats with a walk around the property with my 150 pound Bernese Mountain Dog named Max. Today, I decided to take a path I have not traveled in a while through the woods and was sad to see that the trail was covered over with leaves and sticks and that in several places it was blocked by fallen trees and large limbs. Before I could continue my journey, I had to stop and clear away the debris from the road. As I sat to write this post, I realized that “clearing away the debris” is what a good theologian helps us do. They help us rediscover ancient pathways that may have been neglected or covered over with other things.
Christine Pohl’s book Making Room: Rediscovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, had that effect on me. Through her work, I began to see the hidden path of hospitality toward the stranger: a path blocked by fear, neglect, judgment, materialism, and personal blindness. It was this book that launched me on my initial journey into the inner city. So when I received an invitation to hear Christine Pohl and Chris Heuertz speak at Reconcilers Weekend at Duke Divinity School a few weeks ago, I did not hesitate. Through the next few posts I want to unpack the nuggets of truth in the book they have co-authored titled “Friendship at the Margins.” I encourage those of you who love to read good books about ministry to consider purchasing the book and sharing your insights as we explore it together.
However, before we get into the book, we need to clear away some of the debris that has accumulated along our path. I shared in my post “Jesus Brought Sweet Potatoes”, that I was frustrated last week that more people did not respond to the needs of an urban friend of mine. Of the 52 people who read the post, only 1 person responded. The rest of the responses, which I shared in my last post came through personal relationships that I have with different groups of people. At first, I found this very frustrating and I admit I was a bit self-righteous in condemning those who read and did not respond. For this I have repented and ask your forgiveness.
As I was reflecting this week on all this, I have been asking “Why don’t more Christians respond to the needs of those on the margins?” I was offered a couple of different answers by those who read the post.
One friend seemed to imply that caring for those in the margins is not a biblical call directed at all Christians. To those interested in the biblical foundations, please consider the post “Beyond the Pew.”
Another friend suggested that we all have needy people in our lives. I have been wrestling with that response. Is that true? Does everyone personally know someone who goes to bed hungry many nights like my friend Al? Do most people know by name those who live in the margins of society cut off from social support systems? I know for me, prior to answering God’s call to minister in the urban context, I did not know anyone who was truly materially poor. So is the reason we don’t respond to needs like hunger because we know lots of hungry people? I don’t think this is a valid answer. I think it is something deeper.
When I was at Duke a few weeks ago, Chris Heuertz, who is the Director of Word Made Flesh ministries, shared numerous stories about children who have been enslaved and used in the sex trade. Over the years I have heard these horrific stories but have never responded. The whole idea of this happening turns my stomach. It is such a painful thought, that when I hear those stories, I often tune them out. As I asked myself, “Why do I not respond?”, I think the answer would be a combination of guilt and powerlessness. If I read those stories, it all seems so overwhelming that I don’t know how to really help. When I don’t help, I feel guilty. It is easier to pretend the need does not exist or assume someone else out there like Chris is meeting those needs. So perhaps we don’t respond to human suffering because we don’t want to feel guilty for not doing more. Could that be it?
While guilt seemed to explain why I avoid certain issues, I don’t think it is at the root of the issue. If it were, then it would seem to imply that people who do respond do so out of guilt, and I know that is not the case, at least should not be the reason we respond.
As I continued to read Chris’s book and after having met him in person, something began to happen to me. Rather than be repulsed by the stories of abuse, I began to view the victims through Chris’s eyes. They were no longer characters in a book, but friends of my friend Chris who deeply loved them. As I continued to read, I started to feel a part of what God was doing through Chris and I wanted to support him in his ministry. Not out of guilt but a desire to join Chris in what God had called him to do.
So what changed? Basically, I started to see Chris as my friend. Why did I feel so burdened by Al’s needs? The answer is simple, Al is my friend. Why did those who responded to Al’s need respond? Again, the answer is they are all either my friends or friends of Al. I don’t want to build a ministry driven by guilt, I want to build a ministry built on friendship.
Pohl and Heuertz write this, “Jesus calls his disciples friends rather than servants because of shared commitments and purposes (John 15:7-17).” While it would be much more efficient for me to write a post and have strangers all over the world send in money to meet the needs of my friends, somehow my friends and I would miss out on the blessing of being a part of a beloved community of friends.
So what what does this mean? It means that through our friendships, we become friends with those in the margins. I will never live in India or help to rescue girls from the slave trade, but through my friend Chris, I can extend the love of Christ into those places. Many of you will never minister in the inner city of Richmond, but I hope through your friendships with me, you too will come to see my friends as your friends. Many of you are reaching out to people in the margins and developing friendships. My prayer is that this blog can be a place where we can encourage one another and share the needs of our friends. If we are truly friends of Jesus, we have to join Jesus in the margins. Some of us will do that in the flesh and others through extended friendships. This past week, I made several new friends from across the world through this blog. I pray all of you will join me on this path of friendship and let’s discover together where it might lead.
So, what do you think is obscuring the path of friendship with those who are poor or oppressed? Is it guilt, fear, too much need, too little resources, too little time, too many other demands, lack of clear paths, all the above? What needs to change in order for us to more fully befriend those in the margins that Jesus befriended? How can we develop a network of extended friendships in order to make Christ love known in the margins?
I will compile your responses to this question and see if Chris and Christine’s book can help us overcome some of these challenges in upcoming posts. So, I need your thoughts. Don’t be shy! I ask that you all consider leaving your comments here so everyone is seeing the same thing. If you want to comment on facebook or via email, just cut and past in both places. I would really appreciate this being a dialog. I honestly don’t know the answer to this question but I am hoping we can discover the answer together.