Thursday, March 8, 2007

What exactly does infrastructure sustain?

NPR did a broadcast on Tuesday at 11 a.m. highlighting social critic and author William Vollman's work about 'Poor People.' He went around the world asking the question 'why are you poor?' I caught several minutes of the program and was particularly intrigued by one of his comments. He mentioned in reference to America that "our infrastructure has become so strong we have stopped talking to each other."

This haunted me as we continue to talk about sustainability especially as it relates to infrastructure. What good is infrastructure if it only isolates people from one another creating an independent way of life? Do we really want to be speaking about sustaining the self? Does this phrase expose more about us than Gospel? Could there be another way of speaking, such as "Life-sustaining", that integrates the profoundly relational realities of independence and interdependence?

I witness these "self-sustaining" expressions most clearly in large communities of faith that are celebrated for becoming abundantly "self-sufficient." And yet at the same time their infrastructure has become so strong that they make their own choices as to who is in and who is out, what standard/rule is the most appropriate guideline for The Church, whether they will continue to participate in a bigger, more ambiguous expression of church or play in their own sandbox according to their own rules as usually defined and directed by their own leadership.

It is not a coincidence then that I drink from this cup on a regular basis attempting to both understand and develop 'the true Jesus church' in a community that is faithful to following Jesus while witnessing churches who isolate themselves from everyone else because of their superior morals, scriptural clarity and infrastructure that touts mass production.

I am interested in a community that seeks to be "Life-sustaining" according to an infrastructure grounded in a Christian ethos of keeping time, hospitality, and learning while at the same staying engaged and connected to communities beyond ourselves.

What do poor people have to teach us? Do they exist to live a narcissistic spirituality more interested in how we feel and seeing the poor as a problem and project to be overcome rather than as human beings to engage and love? Do the poor only exist for us to make them self-sustaining like ourselves improving their quality of life? Perhaps as we wonder about ourselves as church we can admit when participating in God's radical, social reorientation, that we are no longer the center, bringing good news on the white horse to a world in need of salvation, when at once we are just as in need of conversion as those we seek to convert or at least 'assist.'

I appreciate a recent email from a friend who played around with some of my words from my last sentence in 'sustaining realities' expressing much more clearly and eloquently that "church is created by God allowing us to be held and to hold each other as we live independent and interdependent lives, looking for meaning in the most obscure places and finding it in our relationships with each other." Now this is a community that I would love and be proud to participate in as followers of Jesus!


robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

If you want insight into the generational poverty of the poor in America, read Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. This book is not spiritually-based. But, it provides incredible insight into generational poverty.

If you want to work with the poor, be a foster parent, be a mentor at a public school, be a mentor for Big Brothers.

dave said...

tim, i'd really like some more engagement and conversations around the issues i'm putting forth rather than merely suggested reading materials. sometimes i don't really feel like i'm being heard as much as this is a venue for you to just make suggestions which then makes me feel like you're the expert just dishing out info for the student, me, to read. if you want to engage in conversation i'd love some dialogue around some of the stuff i'm putting forward rather than just using it as a spring board from which you can dispense advice, albeit, good intentioned.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has something to teach others - and it seems as if our society has made us isolated due to the fact that we have become so independent in our way of living and our thinking. With churches trying to keep their membership and trying to bring new faces into the communion of the Holy Spirit it is not uncommon to want people to fit some sort of "norm" rather than being able to come just as they are.

Today our society dictates that if you don't move a the speed of light, hold down three jobs and make sure your kids are as involved as possible, that somehow you are a failure. We see so many families that meet each other coming and going, and they never get a chance to spend time together, nor even find time for church. So, we need to take the message to them wherever they are! We can learn from those "poor people" who don't necessary move at the speed of light, but just want to have a conversation with someone and want someone to love them and care about them.

Keep up the great information sharing Dave! This is a great way to help start conversations and develop this emerging church. Kudos to you!

jWinters said...

Interesting post Dave,
I too can see that we have something to learn from the interactions of the poor and impovershed about how they go about life.

Of course, I'll hang my 'caveat' out there and say that not everything about the poor is to be emulated.

That said, I grew up in the Philippines as a missionary brat and many of my friends were poor both by American ex-patriot standards and by Filipino standards. I learned a lot about the interdependence there. I also recently visited a refugee town in Nicaragua (called Sta. Patricia just outside of Chinandega) which taught me much as well.

Above interdependence, however, I think the real lesson that both individuals and churches can learn from poverty is resourcefulness. Even the poor don't want to be poor. They want to be able to use tools and "stuff" to make their way through life.

Many times our churches can be "big Americanos" that insist on hot food at every meal (an almost entirely American concept), a powerstrip that is connected to power that runs 24-7, etc.

What kinds of things do you think we would do without some of the resources we all too often take for granted?

Curt said...


Yesterday I was talking with a friend about the question of sustainability that you have posed. It hit his passion as he talked non-stop for a few minutes about how we are and have been taking advantage of this good ol' earth and then he directed me to look at a web site he had just run across that gives 'modern' congregations a plethra of ideas on how they can do 'things' on their own that would be very helpful. Here is the site:
Take a look for yourself. Very interesting.

Tim said...

Dave - Please forgive me for being haughty. I get wrapped up in my own conceited thoughts that I don't really communicate an understanding ear for what you are trying to say.

Tim said...

Dave - My understanding of what you are saying is that the church excludes the poor from our doors because the poor don't contribute in ways that we find meaningful. (correct me if I'm misreading your blog) You ask questions about relationships: interdependence v.s. independence. I've heard that emotional immaturity in believers demands immaturity, while emotional maturity can handle stable interdependence. Do you think that emotional maturity enters into this? Could it be that emotional maturity could be a product of upbringing? If that's the case, certain socio-economic environments might contribute to unstable upbringings. (I don't know if I believe that, b/c issue like domestic violence and divorce are found across all levels of society.)

How do you establish interdependence with the people in your congregation who are from diverse socio-econimic situations? How do you bring depth to relationships which only exist because people choose to show up at the same place and time every week? Sure, we know each other's names and can talk about basic secular issues. But, most of us don't know each other nor will trust each other enough to reveal the weakness inside of us.

How'd I do? What this comment more relevant? :)

Tim said...

Jwinters - My parents were headed for the Philippines but I ended up being born in Japan instead. The poverty in Japan is mostly moral poverty, much like the United States.

I envy you being able to go Nicaragua. How was that? Hasn't the Sandinesta (sp?) government regained control in the past few years? Did you get dysintery? What was the receptivity to the gospel?

dave said...

thanks Jay! i too agree that not everything about the poor is not to be emulated and that's really not what i'm trying to say. i think that resourcefulness can be a real concept learned from the poor but there are some poor who choose to be resourceful in unethical ways. perhaps when it's a life and death issue, 'food on a plate', it becomes a sitational ethic of circumstance. there is something to be said for resourcefulness, but for me the point is actually engaging the poor as human beings rather than as problems to be solved. to answer your question 'what would we do without the resources we take for granted?' i think the answer is that we are left with each other and the opportunities to just learn to engage one with another.

i think i may have titled this post differently given some of our comments. i'm interested in jumping off from the idea that what the poor have to teach us is not merely that we can give help them sustain to construct affluent lives like ours. rather i wonder if they really challenge us to see them as human beings created in God's image. i'm not making a reference in any way to the poor not being welcome in church because they don't contribute in ways we deem meaningful. rather i was juxtaposing their life as completely dependent on others with the american life-style that has created such strong infrastructures that actually cause us to disengage from one another.

jWinters said...

Why were you born overseas? Military family? Something else?

Nicaragua was pretty cool. We were there doing eyeglass clinics and "youth programs" for kids from 11-16 (you're basically considered an adult by 16 in most parts of Nica from what we were told).

The Gospel is actually recieved pretty well in Nica. It is a culturally Roman Catholic country and people can talk about religion in schools without any problem whatsoever.

It was surprising that even during the time that the Sandanistas were running the show, Roman Catholicism (although no other church) was allowed because they knew that the people would revolt if they shut down the churches. If you wanted to work in the government though, you had to relinquish your faith.

Dysentery - No, we were pretty careful about not drinking the water and staying away from "iffy" uncooked foods, but that is a problem there (although mostly a problem for gringos that don't have the right antibodies).

How long did you stay in Japan?


jWinters said...

Hey Dave,
Hah! Yeah, I'm just used to making caveat statements like that because of the people that visit my site and accuse me of stuff. I get the thrust of your post a little better. Sorry about the misunderstanding. It's amazing how the title does seem to distract me, hah!

John Douglas Hall (a fellow lutheraner) in his book "The Cross In Our Context" talks about St. Francis and his way of seeing the poor. He asks the question, "should we be trying to solve poverty or make it holy?" It's an interesting question if you let it marinate for long enough.

It is rather interesting how the American sense of infrastructure not only creates a certain sort of social poverty (this concept really put together well by Putnam and his book Bowling Alone), but that it also reinforces the poor/not-poor class distinctions.

Leading that group to Nicaragua was an interesting experience for me because seeing a 2/3rds World country is nothing new for me, but it was for them. Seeing basically "Gringos" interact with poverty all around them forced them to give up that sense of American infrastructure.

In Christ, jW

Tim said...

I was an MK in Japan for 10 years and have been back a few times for mission, pleasure and business.

God has directed my life down many paths that I didn't forsee. Now, I spend most of my time teaching, being a dad and spreading the gospel.

Let me share with you something that God has shown me through some YWAM missionary books that I was reading. If I don't serve and minister to the population He gives me because I LOVE THEM and CARE THAT THEY ARE JUSTLY GOING TO HELL, then my witness is a fraud. Of course, the Holy Spirit causes the words of Christ spoken to accomplish what He has decreed and His word does not return void. But, my witness is not glorifying to Christ, only to myself. Say a prayer for me in this. Much of my ministry is self-motivated - not Jesus-motivated.

As you study for the pastorate, allow me to give you one piece of advice: Preach salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Don't convert people to a birth to death religion that only involves Christ. Convert people to a dependence entirely on Jesus Christ for life, forgiveness and incredible fulfillment.

I'll probably be signing off this site... so I hope to see y'all in heaven!