17 February 2014

The Irritation of Incarnation

Incarnational Theology emphasizes that the Father has sent Jesus as one of us. God does not scorn the human condition rather God dwelt in the fragility of the human body (Phil 2). This human form brought the Glory of God down from Mt. Sinai to the streets of Nazareth. The fullness of God somehow, someway was displayed in the limitations of the God-man Jesus. He embraced those limits to model for us how to be present, really present. Jesus was a “manger wetter” as the poet Stephen Mahan states. This is not sacrilegious, this is sacred. God experienced human flesh and in it opened up space to observe his kindness. (Rom 2:4). The incarnation continues as we are sent (John 20:21) and now the Divine is being downloaded into the ordinary. An Incarnational God leads us to inhabit the world not as one fearing but as one searching; searching how the Kingdom of God breaks into the crevices of our world through tangible touch. This imagination is a burst of light into my life offering me a framework for being available in my local context.

Cost and Consternation

I’ve had the joy of meeting many young Incarnational Theologiz-ers springing forth with fresh vision about this vital spirituality. I too drank a firehose of books years ago that helped me visualize incarnation as a refreshing path forward in the world. Yet I’ve sadly observed that many with all this incarnational ideation often lose steam with little on the ground sustainable actualization. It’s not mentioned often that many who leap into “doing justice” burn out from discouragement or fizzle out because of boredom. It's one thing to learn about the content and another to live into the content. My suspicion is that our imagination for Incarnational Theology is still elementary and quixotic. For all my fervor, my imagination needed to be filled out with the cost and consternation. I’ll be honest, incarnation is a thorn in my side, and it’s exceptionally inconvenient and even irritating at times. Many days that I press into the mystery of the incarnation and attempt to move it into practice I get a bit ornery, straight up grumbly in my spirit. The incarnation confronts me with a private emotion; I don’t love people. I don’t hate them but I don’t love them either. I know that’s not cool to say as a church planter and community cultivator. I have sentimental love, maybe even theological love but practical love comes and goes for me.

I live in a cold, economically depressed part of the country that is fighting for progress. I’ve lived here for a few years now, buying a former abandoned drug house, gutting it and renewing it. We’ve had multiple families do the same, taking the plunge into this pocket of the city extending renewal. All of us champion a missional-incarnational life but we know it’s not a pretty scene at times. The sidewalks are littered with trash, the roads are peppered with boarded up houses, the gang violence can make you nervous to go for a walk and mental illness on the streets is no longer interesting, it actually frightens your children. My wife and I scratch our heads at times wondering “how the Gehenna did we end up here?”

Relentless Disappointment

The deeper we dive into this particular place the more inconvenient our lives get. I’ll give you some examples: people knocking on my door looking for a ride at weird hours when I’m exhausted laying on the couch, sitting and listening to a neighbor’s drama when I’m privately stressed on my way to an appointment, pouring the energy of love into someone and having them steal from you, cultivating trust with another and having them go "Gollum" on you. You can read about incarnation in a book and idealize it but translated to real life it is invasive. There is relentless disappointment in the up close and personal space of incarnation. The sheer dashed hopes can do an angry-dance on your perseverance. Sure I can gain applause outside of my hometown when I speak about incarnation but on my streets few are impressed. I preach and teach incarnation but I want to be truthful, I have a hard time in good conscience making it sound sexy.

The Curriculum is People

Yet something continues to happen on a subterranean level in our community: we are being discipled by the phenomena of being with people. The curriculum is people; they expose our attitudes and our actions. There is resistance within me. I do not want to bear with others. My un-love regularly rises to the top and I can feel it floating on the surface of my heart. At that point I either tackle it or pamper it. God is not interested in a professional compassion he wants to take us through the labor process of birthing the real thing. This practice of tangible love has brought me face to face with my own limits, impatience, stubbornness and resentment. Trying to be present, really present in a particular place has ironically made me aware of what is present in me. Everyday I’m challenged to bail on beholding the beauty and brokenness in others. Will I stay? Will I lean in? This is the battle ground in my heart. I share all this to summarize that I love Incarnational Theology but we must speak about its proletarian irritation to be truer to its actuality. We must be careful not to perpetuate the abstraction of "being incarnational" or we do a disservice to the Incarnation. To know the incarnate God you must experience the pain of incarnation.    


  1. Dan, this is great and so true. I was reminded of something I read in Lilian Calles Barger's book, Eve's Revenge: "Often it is easier to care for those across the world than to care for those across the street. The person within touching distance will spill on you not only their soup but their troubles, insecurities, fears, and failures. Even when they say nothing, their presence screams, 'I need.'" Keep up your good, hard work!

  2. Dawne,
    Thanks for the encouragement. I've gonna pick up that book.
    Peace to you.

  3. DanH (@HerfordDan)March 14, 2014 at 2:47 PM

    The Curriculum is People. Wowzer. This post is an awesome reality check for a not-so-young Incarnational Theologiz-er.

    My high ideal is that all Christ-followers would be enrolled in the course for which the curriculum is people, and becoming practitioners and disciplers in turn.

    To what degree have you found that being a growing community of doers evens out the incessant demands? The model of a few 'pastors' who take care of a bunch of sheep, versus the model of a community equipped and encouraged by a number of mature believers, taking care of each other?

  4. Hi Dan,
    I do think there are seasons to the volume.

    We mutually share ministering to the needs we encounter which does lessen the weight. Yet there is an every flowing stream of fresh people and fresh problems. I did write this post from my own personal vantage point but if you asked any of our stronger disciples/leaders in our communities they'd attest to the ever present challenge of incarnation. I'm not sure it ever goes away even in a discipling culture.

    That is why we encourage appropriate boundaries and Sabbath rest.

  5. About a year and a half ago, I moved into an urban context, in Kansas City, Kansas, similar to what you describe in Syracuse. I guess this is about how long it's taken me to realize I only care about the idea of incarnation. Incarnation, itself, does not present the glory I've been seeking for myself. And like you, I could go on rambling abstractly about the sins of my abstraction.

    So I'll stop and just say: Pray for us, and please continue writing along these lines. I think I'll be looking to your words for guidance along the way.

  6. Great thoughts Dan. As someone about to move their family of seven into a very similar context, your words give me a glimpse into our soon-to-be reality. I look forward to following your blog and learning more from your experience!

  7. Blessings to you and your family Lindsy.

  8. The incarnation calls us into radical hospitality and no amount of books can prepare. Only way you can convince someone is through radical experience. So yea, it's hard to pick up the cross daily....but is there any other way? Keep on with the labour of love and don't forget to put up healthy fences along the way.

  9. Thanks Ro.
    I'm all about negotiating healthy and appropriate boundaries.