Tonight I am helping out with the Birmingham Soup Run. Faith groups around the city are organised in a rota to provide meals and hot drinks to the homeless in the city centre at 8pm every night of the week.
Our group does the 4th Friday of every month. We meet up to make crates of sandwiches, flasks of soup and tea and catch up with one another before piling into a couple of cars and giving out free food on the pavement, opposite a multi-story car park.
In some way, I feel it gives me a bit more authenticity or integrity to talk and write about community and social justice. Perhaps I am doing “my bit” for the poor and downtrodden, but I don’t feel a sense of triumph at the end of the night, or feel like patting myself on the back…
I just feel sad. Really sad. The brief exchanges I have with our friends who receive the food make me realise how human, how broken, how real these people are. For a short time, I get a glimpse and a whiff of their lives and it makes me feel that a few hours once a month is not what a first Century rabbi had in mind when he spoke about separating the sheep from the goats and giving away my shirt and coat to those who need them.
Far from feeling happy that I might have done a good thing by taking part in the soup run, I feel frustrated that I am constrained by the norms of society and my own fear from getting involved in the lives of these broken people. I don’t want to pay of my conscience with a couple of hours of good deeds, but desire a heart that is big enough to care for them all dearly.
They are all someone’s brother, father, grandfather, daughter. All I can do is silently pray for them, knowing and secretly hoping that I won’t be called to be the answer to my own prayers.
If I am to be judged
When I die
I am justified
Will my lack
I doubt it
A rebel rabbi
That railed against
But is it enough
To avoid judgement
By answering the need
Of those around
Or should I seek out
The stranger outside my door?
The sick prisoner?
Is it enough
To seek blessings
Without seeking those
Who are blessed
The poor in spirit
Those who mourn
The timid and hungry (again)
And the persecuted
The pure in heart
Those that thirst not just for water
Like a never ending stream
Two of my heroes are Shane Claiborne and Anthony Watt. The first is famous in a Christian celebrity kind of way, the second probably only known by a few thousand Christians outside of his native New Zealand. The thing they have in common is the formation of intentional communities. That is, clusters of open households that share a daily and weekly rhythm of prayer and worship, as well as involvement is social projects.
They have both extended their families by allowing both needy strangers and friends to come live with them, share their houses, their space, their meals and their lives. They speak and write of the love that is fostered between people as they struggle to love God, each other, the world and themselves. They move me with accounts of the suffering that they can’t help but hold close to their heart as they give up more of their lives to express their love as God tangibly as love for those around them.
But where does that leave me as a father and husband who has re-discovered God in the last 3 years? Once my family and household had already been established.
Much as I would love to be able to be part of such a community, perhaps start a community like the ones that Shane and Ants are part of, I have a strong suspicion that this will not happen for a variety of reasons. Some of these are under my control, others are not. Simple inertia, comfortable living, possessiveness, children issues and the perhaps less need in a country where there is still social welfare to sustain the most needy at least at a financial level.
So I am slowly and reluctantly accepting that I won’t be a part of an intentional community in the next 20 years at least. I’ve almost gone through the frustration stage; every now and then it flares. And I’m working through the childish strops of “well if I can’t do this, then I just won’t bother at all and live my life like everyone else I know…” But that doesn’t quite sit right with me either.
I want so much more and so much less than how everyone at my workplace, on my street at my church lives with. I want so much more of God, his love and his suffering and I want so much less attachment to my worldly possessions and ambitions. I want to take seriously the commandment to love my neighbour and in that learn to love myself, through the experience of loving God and knowing I’m loved.
So, I’ve reached the point of resigning myself to “normal” family living, but carefully seeking and searching the principles of intentional living to see what aspects of it are helpful applications of the expression of God’s love that can be put in to practice in my family. After all, my family is an intentional community of sorts. I have chosen to share my life with a woman and two small people who daily expose my capacity to love, my inability to have patience, my weaknesses and strengths. And I grow closer to God as I share their joys, wonders and sufferings. It’s just intentional living in a slightly smaller package.
I’m left asking myself if my family community is simply a place where I unwind after a day’s work or a place that I seek to love others, love the world and love God and through that learn to appreciate that I am needed and loved. Although we don’t have the space (at the moment) to invite anyone to share in that, I have the hope that wherever we are a small bit of what we grow here rubs off onto those we meet and those who enter our house.
Perhaps I need to accept that this is not a “watered down” intentional community, just one that looks and feels slightly different to the ones that my heroes so eloquently communicate. Not lesser, simply different. Not lesser, simply different. Repeat as required until my mind understands this and my heart believes.
A man was going down from Manchester to London, when he was afflicted by mental illness. It stripped him of his dignity and destroyed him, leaving him homeless and hanging around churches. A vicar happened to be coming to church, and when he saw the man, he walked down the side of the church to use another door. So too, a church elder, when he came near to the man and saw him, he also passed by the other side of the church.
But a Muslim, walked up to the man; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and listened to his worries, with grace and patience. Then he put the man in his own car, brought him to private hospital and helped to take care of him. The next day he took out his wallet and gave its contents to the Priory. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’