Saturday, September 10, 2011

The First Mark

Posted by Jack

The 12 marks of New Monasticism are simply 12 principles that have resurfaced in Christian communities throughout church history.

In the coming weeks, I plan to highlight each of these 12 marks, briefly explain them, and explore their significance in relation to the Mulberry House.

1) Relocation to the abandoned places of the Empire.

(I am indebted to Sister Margaret McKenna, who wrote a thought-provoking essay about the first mark in the book edited by Rutba House. Be sure to read her work for more on this topic.)

John Perkins, prolific leader and urban minister developed a model that became the foundation of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). He suggested that our urban centers are in need of three R's: Reconciliation (both between God and man and between man and man), Redistribution of resources, and Relocation to disenfranchised communities.

Throughout church history, relocation to deserted places has been a key component of the narrative. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, John the Baptist, Anthony, Syncletica, Pachomius, Barsanuph, Isaac the Syrian, Benedict and Basil, and many other saints and sinners... all of these people retreated to deserted places at some point during their walk (I had to look up some of those unfamiliar names myself!).

A desert is characterized as being an empty, barren, and abandoned place. In many ways, the community surrounding Mulberry House is a desert. As Sister McKenna wrote, "An abandoned place is one that has no attraction for the 'world of what's happening now,' and therefore is left alone by the political, economic, and social powers that be. Deserts and wastelands are abandoned places. So are inner cities, some of the loneliest places on earth."

Sometimes we have visitors here at the house. Sometimes those visitors ask us about our neighborhood. The term "ghost town" often comes to mind when I discuss the economic climate of our community. Springfield was once a thriving giant of industry, with various automobile factories, publishing companies, and manufacturers of farm equipment. Now, we only see the skeletal remains, fossils and empty shells of the industries that once were.

The same can be said about the church community. Make no mistake, we have many healthy, active, and missional churches in our neighborhood. I am consistently surprised and humbled by great men and women of faith who continue to maintain outposts of God's Kingdom here in the thick of things. But for every active church in our neighborhood, there are several empty ones. Like exhibits in the local historical society, abandoned church buildings dot the landscape, reminding us of congregations that came to the city to serve only to retreat in later years. Likewise, many of our neighbors, natives of Springfield born and raised, bear scars and mournful memories of ministers who used to serve here, but left.

What is so alluring about abandoned and deserted places? In our quest to follow King Jesus, what draws us to the outskirts of civilization?

Well, a few things really...

a) There is a sense in which relocation to the deserts eliminates a lot of the interference that hinders our relationship with God. We do not withdraw from the world in an ascetic sense, as if we are pulling away from objects or people to attain righteousness and keep from being unclean. No, it is nothing like that. But we do seek to strip away the unnecessary frills of our lives, pull off the bells and whistles and revel in glorious simplicity.

Someone has said, "You never know God is all you need until God is all you have." I think there is some truth to that. Relocating to the abandoned places of society often opens our eyes to the presence of God in our lives amidst the desolation. "To be mindful of God is to be mindful of self," St. Augustine once remarked.

b) Relocating to the abandoned places is an exercise of saying both no and yes. Our choice of lifestyle says no to the majority culture. There is a degree of decadence and wastefulness in our society. Their is an overwhelming compulsion to consume and consume and consume. This relocation helps us in our quest to subvert these tendencies. We actively reject the notion of "upward mobility," and have come to this neighborhood by our own choosing, not because we are stuck here until something better comes along.

Relocation also says yes to an alternative lifestyle. In our quest to follow Jesus, we find that intentionally seeking places that are weak or ignored or forgotten manifests our commitment and our personal desire for tangible expression of our faith.

c) Also, broken places are full of broken people, so we believe Jesus would go there. If the rest of the world has abandoned these places, we want to fill the gaps. God's Kingdom will sprout up anywhere and everywhere. And let's not forget that God has a knack for launching amazing things out of unlikely places. God can never be forced into the margins, but He does often choose to work from there.

Relocation to our neighborhood is not our own personal rescue mission in which we go to "that poor, poor neighborhood" with the intention of bringing hope and salvation through our presence.

It is not an adventure, or stunt, as missionaries to "boldly go where no man has gone before." It is not about convicting "lazy" churches or impressing well-to-do suburbanites with our bravery and stamina.

It is not about gathering exciting stories about drugs and sex and guns and gangs, so we may tell them to people who shake their heads and say, "Oh, I could never do that!"

Relocation to our neighborhood is, however, purposeful. We are mindful of the brokenness and emptiness and forgottenness of this place... but we are also mindful of God's presence here, and His plans for goodness and prosperity in this barren place.

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