How one American suburbanite is trying to foster a healthy local economy

This is my neighborhood. We are people trying to get away from the city just enough to escape the rules and regulations, but not so much that we have drive too far to get to Target. We’re American consumers, blue-collar workers, homemakers, nurses, police officers, small business owners, veterans and retirees.

Listening to Wendell Berry this evening got me thinking about the culture I live in. The culture I’ve built. The economy I’m part of.

I buy clothes with tags that say they were made in Taiwan, Indonesia and China. I buy milk, ground beef and chicken thighs at Sam’s club. My neighbors, like me, probably give little thought to where our food and cloths come from. But we’re also a people trying to take the dirt on our little 1-2 acre plots of desert and produce something good from it.

My neighbor has a wonderful garden, milks dairy goats, makes cheese and all kinds of wonderful dishes from her small homesteadish place.

We, like most of our neighbors, have chickens, and very rarely have to buy eggs from the grocery store. We also have goats and make soap from the goat milk we’ve stored over the years.

In Berry’s essay, “Total Economy,” he writes how I, and those in my neighborhood have given proxy to corporations to provide ALL of our food, clothing and shelter, even our entertainment, education and care for our children, sick and elderly. And he’s right.

But I am seeking to live in a repentant posture from this proxy.

Why? Because I believe I was made by God to, “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) and be my brothers keeper (Genesis 4:9), and love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39), in a way that reflects God’s goodness.

I don’t believe I was made to let corporations do all of the subduing for me, do all the caring for my children, the sick in my community and the elderly in my life, so that I can do all the consuming.

I believe God made me to do the good, small and local work of all those efforts.

I can’t, of course, produce everything I need to live in this time and place on my little one acre lot. I can’t do all the caring for my children, or tend to the needs of al the elderly and infirm in my life. But I can do what I can do.

My next effort to push up through the concrete proxy I’ve given to corporations is to learn to plant something my family and I can eat, visit my neighbors, and humbly give thanks for those who make my clothes, package my chicken and care for my children and elderly neighbors.

Enjoy your 4th of July BBQ, but don’t swallow the bones

barbecue bbq beef cook out
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This weekend me, my friends and neighbors are going to BBQ and blow up things. My social media feed will be full of American flags and Happy Independence Day GIF’s and memes.

I enjoy a good 4th of July celebration. Fireworks are nostalgia for me. Growing up in a small town of log truck drivers and mill workers (my dad one of them), the 4th meant BBQ’d chicken, which my dad joked was a burnt offering. It meant parking alongside the road up the hill from our fair grounds to watch (for free) the explosions in the sky.

As my sons entered their school-aged years, I began searching for stories and lessons from history that would help my sons know more about their country than the suburban white culture they lived in was teaching them. My mom tried to do the same for me, taping images of babies from various ethnicities to the wall next to my crib. As I began my search for more diverse material to inject into my kids’ senses, I began to learn what I was never taught growing up.

I learned that the White House had been built on the backs of African American slaves.  I read Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass and shuddered. I learned about the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum and the black American’s who had suffered and died to access the freedom this nation sings. I discovered William Wilberforce, John Newton and Hannah More.  And so I began to realized those hot summer night, 4th of July grilled meats sure tasted good, but they didn’t help me realize I’d been swallowing the bones of my American freedom my whole life.

Yesterday I listened to a podcast with Dr. Walter Strickland. Strickland discussed his book, For God So Loved the World- A Blueprint for Kingdom Diversity.  Strickland described the African American Christian community bringing to Christian theology a Berean-like practice that chews the meat of the gospel but spits out the bones of errant tradition. Strickland pointed out this Biblical practice has been part of the African American Christian way from it’s inception. Why? Because if African Americans had swallowed whole the Christian faith they were force-fed as slaves, they would have rejected it all together. The gospel the slaves learned and embraced was filled with a bunch of dead boned theology that their slaveholders used to defend slavery.

The Africans who were enslaved in the U.S. and on whose backs the U.S economy and government structures were built, were able to chew the meat of the gospel that Christ died for their sins to reconcile them to God and spit out the bones of the evil of their slaveholders. How can I do any less?

In Fredrick Douglass’ now famous speech What to the slave is the 4th of July, the former slave eloquently lays out the irony and wickedness that young America was willingly blinded to. He pointed out how our father’s thought it right and noble to seek independence from Britain’s crown, and celebrated their victory in gaining this freedom, while chained to the dark-skinned men, women and children they denied this freedom too.

“You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and
that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country…. ” (What to the slave is the 4th of July, 1852)

But even Douglass, so freshly scarred and wounded in a time of open slavery, was chewing the meat of the virtues America ironically violated in their slave holding, while spitting out the bones of our country’s wickedness.

“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.” (What to the slave is the 4th of July, 1852)

I love America. I love her diversity. I love that she has an ethic of hard work and human rights. I love that she invites the immigrant and the poor. I love the bravery of those who fought and died for her. But those very appetizing traits have come with centuries of splintery bones we all too easily swallow in our fourth of July nostalgia. Tomorrow I’ll eat barbecued chicken and cherry pie. I’ll light up some store bought fake fireworks and sing our national anthem. But I want to celebrate with the wisdom of the men and women who perhaps sang the greatest anthem to come from America’s freedom- the cries of former slaves who discerning wisdom from above, took the meat from America’s declaration of independence and spit out all her bones.

Why I stopped listening to Matt Chandler and started listening to my pastor, Jason Vance

group of people raise their hands on stadium
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“Who’s Jason Vance?” you may ask. Nobody famous. And that’s the whole point. He’s the young church-planting pastor of my local church.

A few years ago my small church closed. My pastor retired, went into a teaching ministry role and moved to Oregon. That sent me and my two sons into about three years of having no local church. I tried. Every Sunday I set out to services at a different church, hoping to find the one that fit for us. As the weeks went on, and nothing seemed to be a good fit, John Piper, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, Ray Ortlund and other famous pastors’ fed me with good teaching online without requiring me to leave my house. And I found it harder and harder to even want to find a local church.

But when trouble came, I couldn’t lean on online preachers. I needed a local group of Christians I could get to know and who would get to know me so we could bear one another’s burdens. I eventually found a good church where I now serve as a kids ministry leader, and am part of a small group of people I would never have formed friendships with if it were not for this local church. But I noticed something in the first months at my church: I was comparing my pastor’s preaching and my church’s liturgy to what I had been listening and watching online for the past three years.

I’m not sure exactly when it hit me, but somewhere between my pastor preaching and prayers with a neighbor I was convicted that if I wanted to love my church and be part of what God is doing through her, I had to stop comparing her to famous churches and pastors or some ideal version of church I had in my head.

I am not saying it’s wrong to be a famous pastor or large church or even to listen to online sermons or teachings from well-known Christian leaders. But I am saying I think there’s a correlation between the obsession we Americans have with independence, fame, wealth and size and our disconnection from the unknown local pastor, church and Jesus’ call to love one another as he has loved us.  Actually, its not even just us Americans. The early church in Corinth had the same problem. And Paul chastised them.

“…for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” 1 Corinthians 3:3-5

In sharing all this with my pastor the other day he said something that really summed up the whole reason I stopped listening to Matt Chandler and started listening to my pastor, Jason Vance.  He said something like, “You can’t face conflict and use the gospel with an idea.” That’s all you have when you only listen to Christian leaders online or in books- an idea. But in the local church you have people that are going to fail you, and you’re going to fail them. In the local church you’ll have to use the gospel face to face.

I see loved ones and friends who prefer a church they can walk in and out of without connecting with anyone; or a podcast-ed sermon from a famous pastor; or even time alone with their Bible in silence over investing themselves in the lives of the broken people in their local church.  I was once one of them.  For many, past church hurt keeps them from connecting and submitting to a local church.  For others, it’s the problems we see in the culture in local churches that turn us off. The thing is, the very reason many of us have shrunk back from the local church is the reason we need to press into her.

The place where sin has caused damage is the place where we need to call each other out in love, seeking wholeness and restoration (Galatians 6:1). The place where we’re offended with one another is where we’re called to forgive (Ephesians 4:32). The place where we don’t agree is where we’re called to voice our concerns, pray and submit to leaders. The place where the burdens are great is the place we’re supposed help each other carry the load (Galatians 6;2). The place where it hurts is where Jesus has called us to take up our cross and follow him. We won’t have to bear a cross if we insulate our lives from one another.

As someone once pointed out, all those “one anothers” we read in the Bible are the local church. You can’t “one another” with a podcast or a book.

It’s too easy to be in agreement with the ideas of Christianity and not actually live them out. When you hear a compelling message from Matt Chandler online you can, “Amen!” all you want, but unless you’re having to forgive and be forgiven in a face-to-face relationship with broken people like you, you’re just an idea-lover. Jesus wants us to be people-lovers like him. He laid down his life, not for an idea, but for hypocrites, and humbled sinners, rich and poor, healthy and disabled, religious and rebellious. Jesus laid his life down for the church. And we’re to lay down our lives for one another.