It was certainly a kind invitation, just one with little context. So I was nervous.
I’ve been around Christianity long enough, and seen enough varied expressions of it, to be wary of the ambiguity of terminology. I know that an invitation to, say, ‘a Bible Study’ might be an experience of a discussion group, or a chatty group of friends, or a long lecture from someone who sees himself as eminently knowledgeable. ‘Fellowship’ might be social climbing, or bragging, or scrubbing some filthy floors (but it usually involves food of some kind). Heck, ‘church’ might be lots of different things, too: a social club, or an encounter group, or a insular episode of groupthink.
So this invitation to a ‘prayer meeting’ is one I’d been avoiding for a few weeks. The simplest and most obvious reason for missing it was that it was held at 6am on Friday mornings, a time when I’m normally fast asleep. Yet the warm, persistent invitation from our friend was just too compelling. So I got up extra-early to fortify myself with several cups of coffee and to get a bit dressed up for the occasion. I made my final decisions about accessories (wearing shoes instead of sneakers, and deciding after much deliberation that I wouldn’t bring a Bible) and headed out the door.
The trip is not long, as my family lives in the same building: a large home in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where we occupy a 437.5-square-foot studio apartment above the garage of the house, the beneficiaries of a generous arrangement whereby I provide labor for yard work, some skilled handyman chores, and occasional assistance with pets and getting the Christmas tree into and out of the house each year. The relationship between the two families is eminently comfortable and familiar and friendly, and we actually share most of the work. I’ve never been asked to do anything demeaning or even uncomfortable, and they seem as happy to have us as we are to be here.
Which is why the blur of introductions with the five or so businessmen gathered there on that pre-dawn morning contained such a sharp barb: I was introduced by the host as his ‘serf’. The word came and went quickly, with some slight chuckling, and I kept my head in the meeting without allowing myself to give it a second thought.
Once we dispersed, I walked by the side of the house, around the garage, and up the back stairs to our apartment. With my wife still sleeping, I checked email and absentmindedly googled ‘serf’.
serf (sûrf) n.
1. A member of the lowest feudal class, attached to the land owned by a lord and required to perform labor in return for certain legal or customary rights.
2. An agricultural laborer under various similar systems, especially in 18th- and 19th-century Russia and eastern Europe.
3. A person in bondage or servitude.
I felt my face flush with belated shame and offense, even as I realized that the comment was made with a tangible embarrassment at our relationship. My friend was simply expressing his discomfort with the appearance of our work/living arrangement, and so in self-consciousness described the situation in its most stark terms as an attempt at humor. The men in attendance laughed at this confession, not at my expense. They treated me respectfully that morning— with kindness, not condescension– and have ever since.
Still, I was struck by the truth of it, if not in the living and working situation, then in the way that it resonated with my life. For it is true, I have a small life:
And a (very) small fortune.
At the same time, in less tangible ways, my life feels large:
I’m free to pursue big ideas
I have many friends
I can explore all manner of theologies and philosophies
I can pursue important projects that will only, ever net small results
I possess huge hope
And I enjoy lots of long days, filled with possibilities.
Sure, I’d love to have a bigger home, a bigger church, a more lucrative job, and more stuff to give my daughter. Or, at least I’d like her to be able to order what she wants when we go out to eat, and to feel free to go to whatever schools she’d like. But the cost for that stuff is high—on the right day, it looks a lot like it’d mean selling our whole life, and giving up our hope in the intangibles that motivate us. So I stay in this liminal space, conflicted and yet determined. Betting that the sacrifices I make today will give me peace on my deathbed, and the eventual respect of my progeny.
Another freedom we enjoy is travel, and a lack of critique about our theological intake. So it was a relatively easy thing for us to decide to fly to the Bahamas to join Spencer Burke’s Soularize learning party that happened a few months back. Sure, we took some friendly ribbing about the posh surroundings, but we simply interpreted this as jealousy and continued on with our plans. It was admittedly a conference in a vacation paradise, but it also featured a first-rate lineup of challenging speakers, starting with NT Wright.
‘Tom’, as everyone there seemed to call him, is an amiable Brit, though a scholar of world renown. He spent the days taking us through the book of Acts, exploring the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke, and the pursuit of which possessed Jesus’ followers during those first days of the church. Tom talked about the ways in which we collaborate with God to further this Kingdom, this “place where heaven and earth overlap, and interlock,” these “two spheres of God’s good creation.” (This holistic concept is often missed because we have “too much Plato” in our heads, he noted with a wry smile.) Wright said that these two realms—heaven and earth—are joined together in Jesus, who is thoroughly at home in both places.
For the first century Jews, who saw heaven and earth overlap in the Temple, this idea was a challenge indeed, and the source of much of the drama in Acts, as the upstart followers of Jesus struggled against the conventional religious powers that were resisting their movement. They upstaged the Jewish religion as they met on the porch of the Temple, and saw the good news of Jesus eventually spread virally all the way to Rome.
One illustration Tom used was from the cathedrals with which he is so familiar in his duties as Bishop of Durham. Hundreds of years ago, he said, stonecutters built these tremendous places which stand today as solid as when the first pieces were set. As a occasional tradesperson myself, my interest was piqued, and so for a few seconds I indulged my own romantic notions about contributing to something majestic and worshipful and purposeful.
When I snapped back out of my quick fantasy, Tom took the shine off my idealism, reminding me that any given stonecutter would have required weeks to hew a particular block out of a larger piece of stone. With hammer and chisel, he would have done this monotonous and demanding work for a foreman or an architect, probably never understanding where the piece would go, or what function it would perform.
Such a stonemason, Tom asserted, is not ‘building the cathedral’, but rather ‘building for’ the cathedral. He may not even be able to show his children where ‘his stones’ are set, but he can know that his children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be able to visit the cathedral. Wright cited 1 Corinthians 15:58,
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (tNIV)
He then went on to suggest that our temporal wor
ks of justice, mercy, beauty, and life will resonate in the new world that God is redeeming. That the ‘fiery destruction’ so often cited in 2 Peter 3:7-8 is not about the wholesale destruction of this entire world, but rather the burning away of the bad stuff—the corruptible and impure will be consumed, and the good work of God will be revealed in relief.
All week long, guests of this ‘learning party’ drank deeply of such hope and wisdom. The day after the conclusion of the conference, a few friends were whiling away the hours as our respective airport departures picked us off, one by one. After leaving our bags with the hotel concierge, we were getting some lunch at a popular square where big restaurants sit beside tiny joints and carry-out windows. All of which were serving local beer, rum drinks, and big plates of fresh seafood. We stepped into one empty restaurant, roused the server, and begged for some steamed conch with macaroni and cheese.
As we waited for the sleepy server to rouse the cook, and then waited a good while for the food to be prepared (this is island time, after all, in all of its Sabbathy glory), our daughter got antsy and so I excused myself to take her for a walk. As I was headed for the door, my peripheral vision turned my head to the back of the building, where a striking scene stopped my breath: the wide doorway perfectly framed a moored sailboat with sails furled, floating on a placid, deep blue inlet on a sunlit Caribbean cay.
Had it not been for our little walk, I would have missed the best thing about the place. For some reason, this was an upside-down restaurant: patrons sat at tables facing blank walls, or overlooking the dirty street, while the cooks and dishwashers worked and sweated in ‘the back’. They may have toiled in obscurity and even ignominity, but they also did so in an environment of stunning beauty, if they had eyes to see it.
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