Feature

The Lord’s Dream

What if we lived like Jesus really meant it?

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A few miles south of True Vine Church Community (C&MA) in Philadelphia is The Simple Way, the faith community of Shane Claiborne, noted author, activist and speaker. The two communities have a strong relationship, so when True Vine’s lead pastor was sick one Sunday, Shane stepped up to the platform to be interviewed by Luis Sanchez, assistant pastor.

LS: Tell us a bit about you and The Simple Way.

SC: I’m a Tennessee boy, so I’m not going to fake a Philly accent or anything. I came to go to Eastern University, where I studied sociology and the Bible. Then, in 1995, a group of homeless families formally organized as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. They were living in a [Catholic church] at Eighth and York and were being evicted. We read that in the newspaper out in the suburbs. Here were almost a hundred folks, mostly moms and children, on the waiting list for housing, being evicted from an abandoned church. That didn’t feel right, so we got involved, and a few years later, we ended up moving into the neighborhood. A lot of those families are still close friends of ours, and we have learned a ton from them. About a year and a half ago, Katie and I got married in the old, abandoned church [now Highway Temple of Deliverance] where it all started. This neighborhood has been a special place for us in many ways; it is where we learned our faith, not just as a way of believing but as a way of trying to live together and to practice what Jesus taught. We have been going for about 20 years, about 15 years at K and A [Kensington and Allegheny], building a little village together a lot like what you are doing up here. It’s been fun.

LS: How does your understanding of Jesus shape what you do?

SC: I grew up in the Bible Belt, so we heard a lot about Jesus. But then I started to look at the church and feel like there is a big difference between being a fan of Jesus and being a follower, being a believer in Jesus and a disciple. In fact, I started to see a lot of contradictions in the church I grew up in.

When studying sociology, I saw a lot of disturbing things. Sociological studies show that the higher a person’s church attendance, often the more prone they are to be racist, sexist, anti-gay, pro-war, pro–death penalty, and known for a lot of things that Jesus wasn’t known for. I really began to wrestle with that stuff. Just a few years ago, friends of mine did a study; they asked non-Christians around the country, “What do you think of when you hear ‘Christian’?” And the number one answer was “anti-homosexual”; the second biggest answer was “judgmental,” and the third was “hypercritical.”

That kind of stuff breaks my heart, because it tells me that a lot of us Christians haven’t become known for the same things that Jesus was known for. At the top of the list, Jesus said, “They will know you are Christians by your love.” On that list [of what non-Christians think about us], you didn’t find love anywhere, so I think, like you here at True Vine, that we just want a Christianity that looks like Jesus again. We want to be known for our love and the community that we are building and how it ripples out into the neighborhoods around us.

LS: Which scriptures are foundational for the work you are doing at The Simple Way?

SC: We sure like the Sermon on the Mount. What if we Christians tried to live as if Jesus meant the words in the Sermon on the Mount? That we are to love our enemy; that we’re not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow has enough worries of its own? It would flip the world upside down if we really read the Sermon on the Mount and tried to live as if Jesus meant it.

I love that in Matthew 25, Jesus says at the Judgment all of us will be gathered before God and asked a few questions as we give an account for our lives. The questions are not doctrinal—“Virgin Birth: agree or disagree?” “Creation or evolution: did it really happen in seven days?” According to Jesus we will be asked, “When I was hungry, did you feed me?” “When I was a stranger, did you welcome me?” “When I was in prison, did you visit me?” The real test of our faith is how it works itself out in love and compassion.

LS: In your book Irresistible Revolution, you talk about “prophetic imagination.” Tell us what you mean.

SC: I think that sometimes people think of prophets as some sort of Christian psychic—guys predicting the end of world—but that is really distorted. The word “prophet” originally meant “mouthpiece of God,” people who would be able to feel the things that God feels and speak the things that God speaks. I think that is something all of us would long for—more and more of the prophetic spirit.

Dr. Martin Luther King said that the church is not meant to be the chaplain of the state but the conscience of the state. So we are not just meant to be kind of the chaplain of our culture and jump on the band wagon but to be a prophetic conscience in the world. We mirror in the church what God wants in the world. Clarence Jordan was part of a community down south where black folks and white folks lived together way before the civil rights movement. He said that we are to be a “demonstration plot of the Kingdom.”

LS: What might prophetic imagination look like in Philly in 2012 and beyond?

SC: Part of what it means is that we have a different frame for the story. When some people see neighborhoods as beyond redemption, we know better. When people call Kensington [a Philadelphia neighborhood] the “bad lands,” I think, you better be careful; that’s exactly what they said of Nazareth: nothing good can come out of there. We have a God who is a God of resurrection, so nothing is ever beyond redemption—not an abandoned house and not a person. We get to see God at work every day, sometimes most powerfully in the margins.

Our city passed an anti-food ordinance that made it illegal to distribute food, and Christians from all different stripes came together. You [True Vine] were part of this, and so were we. It was beautiful when folks said, “No, we will continue to feed people.” I think that is exactly what the church should be doing: challenging the bad laws and affirming the good ones.

Just around the corner from us is another little congregation that started welcoming homeless folks, and the city gave them a notice that it would be shutting down the shelter. These guys are Pentecostal, so they said, “We are not going to run a shelter, but we are going to have a revival. It starts every night about 8 o’clock, and it goes to the next morning.” We went one night, and after three hours of worship, they said, “Well, that concludes our formal service; the next eight hours will be silent meditation. Everyone have a good night.” That is prophetic imagination. I think we need to be “as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” and declare that God has a special place for the marginalized, the poor and the hurting.

LS: It’s something we always pray for: “Lord, send a revival!” What does revival look like locally and nationally?

SC: Jesus says a tree is known by its fruits. The real test for revival is how it ripples out into the community in compassion and love. Revival has to have the fruits of the Spirit, which are beautiful things—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. If the Spirit is moving among us, that is what we should see coming out of our revival. Amos and the other prophets said we can worship all we want, but if it doesn’t flow out like justice to the poor, then we should just shut up with our songs and turn off our incense ’cause it’s just noise in God’s ears and a stench in God’s nose. True religion that God honors, as James says, is to care for the widow and the orphan and to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. We’re being formed into people that become Christ’s Body in the world. One of the biggest mysteries is that the Spirit wants to live in us and through us; that’s what happens in good revivals.

LS: So how does the church keep from becoming just another humanitarian organization? The gospel says it’s both vertical and horizontal.

SC: The early Christians said that the cross has these different beautiful dimensions; the vertical dimension is restoring humanity to God; the horizontal is restoring people to one another; and it’s firmly anchored in the earth as a sign that God is restoring creation. All of those things are captured in God’s story of the cross. What makes our love unique is that it’s integral, caring for body, soul and spirit.

A lot of times we put things at odds with each other that should have never been at odds. People talk about the “social gospel” or the “evangelical gospel,” the Great Commission or the Great Commandment. It’s just insane! We have to hold those things together. Jesus said the one great commandment is to love God and love your neighbor; they are inseparable.

What I would love to keep thinking on, since we are so close to each other, is ways our communities can work together. Jesus’ longest prayer was that we would be one as God is one. The sad thing is that we have over 35,000 denominations; there are just churches everywhere. God is longing for us to be one Body and one family.

You guys came down on Labor Day, and even though it rained all day, we gave 600 kids back-to-school supplies. All the things that [True Vine] is doing inspire us; we fan each other’s flames. Our hope within The Simple Way is that we and True Vine would be one as God is one and that we would learn to function together as a family and a Body, so let’s keep praying for that and working toward that.

Our neighborhood desperately needs prophetic imagination. Every time we restore an abandoned house we see it as an enactment of the gospel, a practice of the Resurrection. It happens every day. That prayer that Jesus taught us—“Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”? In a lot of ways it can be said, “Let God’s dream come on our block; let God’s dream come in our neighborhood.”

The beautiful thing is that everybody has a role to play: business folks, folks that have been to prison and women who have come out of domestic violence. We are wounded healers; the wounds that we have endured are what give us the credentials to help others in those same situations.

I love the old saying that we just have to connect our passions to the world’s pain. When we connect our passions, our wounds and our gifts to the pain in our neighborhoods, that’s when things happen for God. Whether we’re a school teacher, a gardener or an electrician, there is a place for us to be part of enacting God’s dream in our neighborhood.

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