11 September 2013

The Subterranean Life: Re-imagining Radical

I few years ago I helped a friend put up a small garage in his back yard.  We dug a foundation, laid the blocks and framed in the structure.  It took us a full weekend but we basked in our accomplishment when we were done.  A couple years later he happened to tell me that a beautiful tree in his back yard was dying.  The tree was a good ten feet from the garage but we inadvertently ripped up a chunk of roots when we dug the garage's foundation and it was now unable to flourish.

Being Radical
The lesson learned from that dying tree resembles what I've learned observing others pursue "being radical".  In the last few years Evangelical Christianity has scored bestselling books under the titles “Radical", "Crazy Love", and "Weird”.  All three of these books make a valiant effort to lay down a course for maximizing faith in Christ. The overall sentiment for combining radical and faith has been around for a while in modern evangelicalism as reflected in sayings such as being “on fire” or living “sold out”.  The most memorable phrase I’ve heard was at a young adult’s conference called “planet shakers” which I couldn't help think would make a perfect title for the next Transformers movie. 

Radical Needs A Renovation
Initially when I see someone get “radical” it exhibits with incredibly individualistic fanfare “I need to make an impact for God”In my opinion the surging interest in “radical” is related closely to our inner anxiety to reach our greatest potential.  Radical Christianity often leverages that fragile spot in us to be personally significant in the world, finding fuel from those questions repeating in the prison of our minds: How do I prove I have something essential to offer? How am I going to make something of myself? How can I matter? Radical gets all intertwined with that eager searching, waiting, to be finally and triumphantly acknowledged for our unique impact in the world.  Sure, the verbiage on the tip of our tongue is to "glorify God" but that often is masking our real urgency. We want to outrun the unsettling horror that "I just might be ordinary.” This anxiety usually stirs up random "radical" activity but eventually fizzles out into obligation. Our current notions of Radical need a serious renovation.
Radical Displacement
My most concerning observation is that the phenomena of radical often creates displacement. There is something aggressive about what it does to the character necessary for living an incarnational life. Radical often focuses on being sent but is destructive to being present, really present. Radical can act like a backhoe that digs up the maturation of roots, avoiding the terror of staying put.  Our imaginations for fixing injustice fast forward us past inhabiting with people. We don't have time for inconvenient availability and the complexity of vulnerability. Our heads are captive in spiritual cyberspace. Our furious trek to make an impact, champion a cause and do something for God become the perfect tornado that tears up our essential roots. Radical forms passionate people but at an unsustainable cost.

Vitally Ordinary
We need a new imagination for radical.  Radical's hopes need a refreshed perspective; one that plummets us deeper in how to be human in the world as the means to being missional. We need to upend the flight of radical that is bored with the mechanics of being vitally ordinary.   We need a disciplined imagination for following Jesus that moves us into mission but lodges us thoroughly with roots we nurture and grow.  Our transience, our vocational anxiety, our placelessness, our idealism finds its groundedness in The Subterranean Life. My vision for a subterranean life is inspired by 1 Thes 4:11 "We urge you, brothers and sisters to live a quiet life together, stay out of public affairs, work faithfully with your hands  and earn the credibility of those who don't yet believe.” (The Message)  I’ve always been plagued by the portrait of this verse.  It invites me downward into a very conscientious presence in the world.  At its soul this verse is missional but radical in a rooted way. The word Radical originates from the Latin word radix "of roots".  A recovery of that relevant meaning is long overdue. There is an earthbound status to embrace, to submit to, to enjoy, to participate actively in.  It is calling for a rebellion against the escalator of upward mobility and microwave effectiveness.

The Subterranean Life   
1 Thessalonians 4:11
I dream of a revival in rootedness for the flow of God's generous love into the world. I long for a groundswell of simple missional faithfulness to a particular place, people and purpose where joy surprises us in the most subterranean spaces.  

1. Rooted in Community “brothers and sisters...live life together”
Can we resist what is pulling us apart?  Faith divorced from a communal life has become a predictable product of consumer culture.  In community we're given space to grow up in a spiritual household.  In the roots of community we inevitably collide with our own adolescent tendencies and learn self-control and healthy affection within an emotionally safe spiritual family.  Our souls are stabalized as we remain faithful beyond conflict and personal offenses.  We don't settle for surface admiration and quaint affection but instead lean into self-awareness with others. We work the soil and pull the weeds of individualism and unhindered self-actualization. This root subverts the me-centered trajectory that tells us to worship at the altar of self. We are called into the agronomy of community as a majestic expression of the reign of Jesus. 
2. Rooted in Renewal “live quietly…staying out of public affairs”
We don't need sexy slogans, attractive programming, social legislation and dynamic events to get on board with God's renewal project.  Jesus was foolish enough to think new life would spring up from the seedlings of real-time relationships. Seriously, Jesus didn't need Facebook to move the Kingdom of God into the cracks and crevices of the world.  Jean Vanier once said “The push of the world is to pretend we are big.” Fight it, resist it, rebel against it.  Jesus did not say "build yourself a platform so your voice can be heard", he said "come lose your life and follow me". Do we have a vision for the work of God's spirit that doesn’t establish a soapbox in the arena of public opinion? Subvert the ego that says you can fix the world.  Rather reboot the rhythm of renewal that is wrapped in basin-and-towel serving, leaves a quiet footprint and is not clamoring to enhance one's own importance and reputation.  The immersion into these relational roots centers us in God's great cosmos and invites us to walk in the wake of Jesus the Servant-King.

3. Rooted in Neighborhood “work faithfully with your hands”
We need to move beyond an idealized personal vocation that causes us to chase our dream job wherever the opportunity appears, which so often leads to resentment and dashed expectations to sour inside us. Our faithfulness to location matters. God's dwelling is tied to the neighborhood, the streets connecting us to each other, the homes we eat in and the parks that we play in. Inhabit the relational ecosystem of your neighborhood and listen. There is a labyrinth of life and culture.  Jesus moved unassumingly into Nazareth and took on the flesh-and-bone of inhabiting a place. Our neighborhood invites us to gain eyes of faith for holy interruptions and sustainable habits. Loving your neighbor is more than a lofty platitude. Do you know your literal neighbors?  Do you have merely sentimental concern for them or genuine love? Staying is the new going.

4. Rooted in Mission "earn the credibility of those who don't yet believe"
Jesus has dwelt among us taking on the very nature of a servant, he could have postured over us but instead he took on the clothes of human likeness and loved us even to the point of his own death (paraphrase Phil 2). That is credibility. We don't need an evangelism event or the 4 Spiritual Laws, just your available, vulnerable, self-emptying love. Are you stuck in a suspended state of simmering self-preoccupation that blinds you to abandonment, blight?  Learn to live into lostness.  Find the image of God in your co-workers, in your awkward friends, in your enemies. The most ground-breaking missional work is done in the unattractive details of our ongoing lives.  Most people overestimate the importance of events and underestimate the power of process.  Your two steps forward and one step back, ragamuffin pursuit of Jesus, becomes the witness of God's intruding grace in our world. 

Go Subterranean.


  1. What a great post. Love the flow of the text and your clarity around the ideas. Resonate much with it. I wrote a research paper on theo. of place this summer, your points bring out some great application.

  2. Truly a beautiful and tough challenge to our conception of what it means to be Christ in this world and to live meaningful lives. I love these lines: "The most ground-breaking missional work is done in the unattractive details of our ongoing lives...Your two steps forward and one step back, ragamuffin pursuit of Jesus, becomes the witness of God's intruding grace in our world." Thank you, Dan.

  3. Thanks Stephen,
    It is a complete renovation of what it means to follow Christ in the world -- beautiful and challenging but worth it.

  4. Dan

    I've been following you on twitter for some time now, but this is the first blog post I've read. Your words have been like a hammer blow to me. There is so much here to digest, but the overall blog message resonates so loudly in my soul. I was hit particularly hard by the lines: "We need to move beyond an idealized personal vocation that causes us to chase our dream job wherever the opportunity appears, which so often leads to resentment and dashed expectations to sour inside us. Our faithfulness to location matters. God's dwelling is tied to the neighborhood, the streets connecting us to each other, the homes we eat in and the parks that we play in. Inhabit the relational ecosystem of your neighborhood and listen." My wife and I have begun to delve into our neighborhood in the last few months and have realized that this is where God's presence is leading us, the place where the pillar of fire is standing. To say I'm deeply challenged by your words would be an understatement. Thank you so much for this blog post.

    1. Tim,
      I love, love hearing snapshots of stories like yours. This post reflects my own long journey into the neighborhood, resisting the pull to greener grass. It has not been easy and still is not easy. But you are right that the burning bush, the pillar of fire is in these places. Be encouraged as you and your wife practice faithfulness.

  5. Dan

    I’ve just finished reading your words. Thank you for the insight. I have a question (@ the end of the context section).

    A group of about thirty of us are in the 2nd year of a pilot ministry with a local Methodist church to establish a 2nd campus within the city to reach a neighborhood psychologically unlike the majority of the congregation who worship at the sending campus. Despite our carefully visioned launch, adequate funding, the usual enthusiasm, and plenty of talent on the team, we stumbled in the execution and never really focused on our supposed common vision to be a mission-oriented campus. Most of the original core has moved on, God has supplied remarkably different talents in the form of the new core members, and we have finally begun to relationally connect with the neighborhood people groups. We have also begun partnering with non-Methodist faith-based groups to reach even more people groups than we initially targeted. Yes, we’ve turned the corner and constantly remind ourselves that God’s in charge and we should not let the smallness of our vision interfere with the grandness of His plans.

    That has led us to a question, based on the make-up of our diverse church family. One campus, the sending group, is blessed with a significant component of faithful folks who love their church, the music, the tremendous educational programs, their Sunday school classes, the building, etc. In a word, their view of “church” is attractional. God calls people to go on mission, and they mostly feel called to support the people who feel called. Not a bad thing in itself, but a complicating factor to consider in answering my question. The 2nd campus, working out of a recycled church building and attracting 5-6 times as many people in connection/relationship groups as actually attend Sunday worship service, is committed to reaching whoever God sends our way in our daily lives. We seldom talk about “doing church differently” or being “radical”, as we did in the beginning. That has been replaced by a perceived “us versus them” under-current in the conversations.

    Now that the pilot ministry has begun to grow and flourish, we are at the point of asking what’s next. As I watched the sunrise this morning and asked God for guidance, I heard “Ask”. During the day I read and prayed, and then read your 2013 posting. My “what’s next” question stopped me in my reading of your post, and the need for renewal. So, enough with the context, here’s my question: Since we are rooted in renewal, which will certainly involve a bit of pruning and dying to self at both campuses, how do we renew these diverse hearts within the same church family?

    I really do look forward to your prayerful input.