It has been so long since I have written a blog post and it feels even longer since our last Soul Talk which was in March with Sally Mann, just before Lockdown began. What a six months it has been. In honesty, my work with Soul Food Edinburgh had to take complete priority as we changed the ways in which we worked and sought to support folk across the city who were in need of hot meals, food parcels, support and tech support to keep them connected. It is just now that I feel as though we are coming up for air and can pay attention to those things that got placed on the 'back burner' for a little while.
Obviously at the moment, Soul Talk can't take place but we are looking to have an online one if any of you would be interested in this? (Please leave a comment and let us know!) After all, by the power of the internet we could invite a speaker from anywhere in the whole world! Until we do that though, I thought I would share with you the authors and speakers who have been inspiring us over these last months. I don't know about you, but when encouragement is hard to find, life feels strange or inspiration is lacking, I head straight for a book. (And therein writes the introvert...!). I have read some brilliant ones lately, authors who offer honest talk to the soul.
Earlier this year, I read Mark Scandrette's book, 'Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love,' within minutes of reading its opening paragraphs, I began texting a couple of friends to say: " Listen to the way in which this new book that I am reading begins,". I then went on to quote:
"A number of years ago I invited a group of friends into an audacious experiment in which each of us would sell or give away half of our possessions and donate the profits to global poverty relief. We were inspired by what Jesus taught about true security and abundance, deciding that an experiment would be a tangible way to explore the implications for our everyday lives."
I think my excitement with this opening to a book came from the fact that these are the sorts of questions and experiments that I long to engage in. The opening was also the opposite to the conversations that so often are considered important within our churches. Conversations that lead to risk-averse decisions and churches that look more like businesses that a group of people following in the footsteps of a homeless, itinerant rabbi who asked us to love God with all our heart and our neighbours as ourselves. The first paragraph of this book, to me, just cut through the rubbish. It was an invitation to love recklessly and intentionally. Something that I am not sure I have heard preached often. But before you think think that I am going to go on a 'rant' or even a 'lament' for the ways in which we live as Christians and the Church, I'm not! One of the things that this book does beautifully is to inspire you to think creatively about cultivating new paths and practices, rather than focusing on all that has been wrong and that isn't great. In his conclusion, Mark writes of how:
"I'm convinced that modest, incremental changes to "normal" Christianity or "Church as usual" will not get us where we need to go. As leaders, dreamers, visionaries, we need to lead not just by what we say, but by how we subversively live out the alternatives. Many in our generation have been free to critique what is, but few of us have had the courage to enact the changes we can imagine. Some of us need to step out and humbly risk more radical steps of obedience. As Wendell Berry memorably said, "If change is to come...it will have to come from the margins...it was the desert not the temple, that gave us the prophets.""
This is a book about the margins.
A book about radical obedience,
and new worlds.
A question that I have lived with for quite a while now is: what would it REALLY look like if we truly lived the words that Jesus said? I guess the fact that I am asking this question highlights my belief that there is a gap between the words that we read and teach and the lives that we live. For instance, what would it look like to live a life practically that believed that the poor are blessed and that theirs is the kingdom of heaven? How would our lives be different if we lived and breathed the words that the kingdom of God is here? 'Moving our faith,' as Nancy Ortberg wrote in endorsement of this book, 'from a thought to a lifestyle.'? You may remember that in Advent last year we ran a series called 'Words to Live a Life by' that asked this same question. I wasn't quite sure that we got to the answer. I should have read Mark's book first!!
Through his book, and also from the years of actively living out the words of Jesus, Mark talks of how our methods of spiritual formation (the ways in which we hope to become closer to God and more like Jesus) have been too individualistic, information driven and disconnected from the details of everyday life. He writes of how for years he (and the friends he went on this journey with) had spent time in places with good teaching and with small groups where you could share and be honest and yet none of these things led to the transformation that a life following Jesus promised to bring. These methods of spiritual formation just didn't work. In fact they left them feeling completely frustrated. He wrote how Dallas Willard once told him: "...that to experience the kingdom of God, a group of people should get together and simply try to do the things that Jesus instructed his disciples to do. We don't enter the kingdom of God by merely thinking about it or listening to one another talk about it. We have to experiment together with how to apply the teachings of Jesus to the details of our lives."
Taking these words to heart and using the idea found in the Japanese word 'dojo', which means 'place of the way', and is used to describe a school or practice space for martial arts or meditation, Mark writes of how he and his friends formed a 'Jesus dojo' , a place where they (or anyone interested in joining them) could work out the vision and teachings of Jesus in real life.
'You can't learn karate just by watching, and we can't learn to follow Jesus without practicing to do what he did and taught...So a Jesus dojo is a space where a group of people wrestle with how to apply the teachings of Jesus to everyday life through shared actions and practices.'
It was whilst I was reading this book, that I had the privilege of being invited to actually take part in a group with Mark Scandrette that considered in thought and practice what it would look like if we lived the words of the Beatitudes. Each week we thought about a particular question and intentionally did something practical that was keeping with the Beatitude we were focusing on that week. We formed a Jesus dojo. We were in groups with people from all over the world, which was great, but I could also see just how much more powerful it would be to form these groups with people you live alongside and together work out how to live the words of Jesus in your town or city. (Which was the intention of the group anyway - to encourage us to practice this way of life within our own settings.) Reading this book and hearing more from Mark literally left me with a sense of excitement as to the transformation possible if groups of us could form these Jesus dojo spaces and work out the words and teachings of Jesus in our every day lives. Maybe experiment with loving as passionately and recklessly as Mark and his friends, who gave away half of all that they owned in order to support those in poverty and declare an intentionality to live more simply and contentedly with what they had?!
With all my heart I recommend this book. It will lead you through the journey Mark and his family went on and it will offer practical ideas and issue a beautifully curated invitation to begin to live and love the Jesus way. It comes with a warning and a promise though:
'Where will practicing the way of Jesus take us? To the place where it has always taken disciples since the beginning, toward the fault of love in our time: to suffering, persecution, misunderstanding and death. This is where his footsteps lead, and to peace and hope beyond the struggles of this age. The greater question is not whether we are willing to suffer, but will we risk being fully alive?'
Will we risk being fully alive? I have a copy of 'Practicing the Way of Jesus' to give away. If you would like it, please leave a comment below with your thoughts about what it would look like to truly live the words that Jesus spoke and taught. (Feel free to direct message me too, if you want to write more privately!) I will randomly choose a name in a few days time to send the book to. If you would simply like to buy your own copy, you can get it here