We were about to launch our “Lent Challenge” at our Church plant, All Souls Southey Park (in Bristol) where I was preaching, asking us all to read the teaching of Jesus in the gospels afresh. Each Sunday we were looking at one of the gospel (and we looked at Jesus in Isaiah as we had an extra Sunday!) and daring to believe “What if Jesus really meant what he said?”
“What if Jesus meant the what he said” was actually the tagline for one of Claiborne’s books, Red Letter Christian, which he wrote with his mentor the activist, author and scholar Tony Campolo, who is one of the leading voices in America’s Christians on the left. In some Bibles the words Jesus speak are printed in red, but a “Red Letter Day” is also what we call a day that is particularly noteworthy or memorable.
A phrase within Claiborne’s previous book, Irresistible Revolution, had really stuck with me, I was inspired –or perhaps challenged is a better word- by a quote that was a bit tongue in cheek from Shane Claiborne who said this: “We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy, too. But I guess that’s why God invented highlighers, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”
I had just ‘preached my heart out’ and having finished I slumped into a chair, exhausted. Sam –who was leading the service- took the microphone and said laughing: “It sounds like Andy has a bit of a man-crush on Shane Claiborne… I think he quoted him more than Jesus in his sermon!”
So, many people will be surprised that this particular travelling companion nearly did not end up being included, yet I felt that much of what he says has been said elsewhere, and other people like St. Francis or Dorothy Day are saying the same things that he would say to us.
Indeed, I wonder if Claiborne himself might have agreed as he famously once wrote: “Most good things have been said far to many times they just need to be lived!”
GK Chesterton said in his book ‘What’s Wrong With The World’: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” –Claiborne as a younger man went looking to see where he could find the Christian life authentically lived out and embodied, as reflecting on his youth growing up in the American Bible belt of East Tennessee he found that “people taught me what Christians believe, but no one taught me how Christians live”. Sadly there are many Churches that might be doctrinally sound but in practical terms they are “sound asleep”! His search took him to the slums of Calcutta working with the destitute with Mother Teresa, or to hang out with the activists of the Catholic worker movement, or listening to crazy dreamers such as Tony Campolo.
Campolo has been something of an irritant to the American Church for many years, yet some of us feel he has been a prophetic voice, the grit in the pearl that produces beautiful pearls, as he seeks to live his life in as Jesus-like way as possible.
One of my favourite Campolo stories is when he is severly jetlagged and after speaking at a conference couldn’t sleep and ends up in an all night “greasy spoon” café, he gets chatting to those who are in there, several of whom are sex workers, and it turns out that one has a birthday the following day, more than that it turns out she has never had a birthday cake or party, so Campolo suggests throwing a party for her the following night, with cake and balloons etc, which they do, and the evening is a success. He ended up chatting to a guy who couldn’t believe Campolo was a Pastor, and said “A Church that throws parties for whores at 3:00 in the morning is the type of Church I would go to”. Claiborne talks of the world needing to see a “Church that looks more like Jesus” –interestingly most of the criticism we have of Church actually stem from the times we look least like Jesus; part of me believes that in that grotty café a tiny bit of heaven touched earth, and Jesus was glimpsed through the grace and love that Tony Campolo showed. It is easy in writings such as this to “bash” the Church, but we are the Church, at a moment of frustration he wrote this: “Shortly afterward, I sat puzzled, grieving over the state of our church. “I think I’ve lost hope in the church,” I confessed, broken-hearted, to a friend. I will never forget her response. “No, you haven’t lost hope in the church. You may have lost hope in Christianity or Christendom or all the institutions, but you have not lost hope in the church. This is the church.” At that moment, we decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of”. Claiborne is a revolutionary, and wants a revolution in the Church one that begins with you and I daring to live differently, and those of us that see and feel deeply how that Church we have inherited is not how it should be have the responsibility to be modern day Nehemiah’s restoring, resurrection and reimaging what it means to be God’s people with his redemptive and transformative plan for his Bride and his world.
Claborne is the founder of the Simple Way, a group of Christians living as a community in the heart of Philadelphia in a challenging neighbourhood, trying to live a Christ-like life in all that they do. They seek to live a radically differently in their ordinary every day choices, both large and small, they grow their own food, they make their own clothes, they are activists protesting at injustices in society and prophetic in their actions turning guns and knives taken from the street into gardening tools reminiscent of the words of the Old Testament Prophets who spoke of “beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:12 & Micah 4:3). Yet, this prophetic actions are matched by practical work on the streets to see kids not end up in gangs and cycles of ever escalating violence. The Simple Way is both prayerful and practical, on their knees as well as rolling up the sleeves. Clearly it is hard work, and they are faced daily with the brokenness of humanity and the world, and yet whenever I hear or read Shane Claiborne I am struck by the joy that seems to exude from him.
He is a crazy Christian hippy with dreadlocks and a bandanna who has an amazing air of joy about him, he laughs as he speaks and talks of being involved in holy mischief such as defying a city ban on the feeding the homeless by doing a Eucharist with take away pizza –I wonder whether he has more of a handle on what Jesus meant when he promised his followers “life in all its fullness” (Jn.10.10) or as other translations put it “life in its abundance” or “life in Technicolour”?
As I thought of my Christian life words like “duty”, “discipline” and “discipleship” seem to feature much more that “joy”, “fun” and “celebration” –I hear Shane Claiborne telling stories of buying a street kid from Calcutta a birthday ice cream -who instinctively shared it all with his friends- and I think although I have a whole study full of books I realise how little I know, experienced or “get” what the Christian life is all about and how to live it out in the way that God intended.
Something of Shane Claiborne reminds me of John the Baptist -who wore camel-skins and ate honey and locusts- that makes me ask has Christianity become too professional, respectable, clean cut, smooth and slick treading a well worn path of “how we have always done things around here” and imagine that most of our Churches wouldn’t let him –or Ezekiel (the dung eating prophet)- anywhere near there respectable pulpit or auditorium!
Yet we need revolutionaries and mavericks, holy weirdoes and crazies to dream with their eyes open and show us how another more glorious Kingdom can come and arise amongst us, and we can be a part of it.
I fear that too often I have been more worried about being “relevant” than being faithful, fruitful and a fool for Christ. As I look at my life, and my hunger for it to be more Christ-like, I realise that for most people who look at me I probably look much the same as everyone else around me, I fear that at times I have become too much of a Christian Chameleon. Rather than let my experiences make me jaded and cynical (which has been a very real and on-going temptation) I need to see “holy discontent” as a God-given gift to help birth something different and better. I will close with words from Claiborne himself: “If you have a deep sense of frustration and a deep sense that the world is in a mess, thank God for that; not everyone has that gift of vision. It also means you have a responsibility to lead in new ways”