Messy Spirituality

The first time I donned my green apron as a new barista, things moved quickly. Espresso shots descended faster than cups to pour them in, and drinks that were so easy to enjoy on one side of the counter seemed to suddenly morph into complex mathematical equations on the other side. But pouring espresso shots seemed elementary compared to the most daunting of challenges: language. Never before had I given so much thought to what constituted a tall, grande, venti, or worse yet, the mysterious “short.” It wasn’t enough to say that someone wanted an Americano with white mocha syrup, an extra shot, and some steamed 2% milk. Rather, it had to be called out as a “quad grande white mocha steamed 2% Americano.” It took a while, but I learned that being a barista involved adapting to a new language and culture. Not just occasionally visiting, but actually becoming the culture in a way that made the actions and choices almost secondary.

But despite the hard work of learning, I persevered. I’d spent a few years learning Greek and Hebrew. Why not barista? Little was I to know that being a barista in the community in which God was calling me and my wife to start a new church was to be my first class in missiology (the idea that Gospel becomes indigenous within a local culture).

You see, language and culture run deep. Deeper than we are able to put into words. Language and culture aren’t things that you simply read about in a book or dabble in for a couple of weeks. They represent the ways in which you choose to do life. Your belief system. Your philosophical outlook on who you are and the world you live in. They determine the decisions that you make each and every day. And all too often, they happen without us being aware of them.

And that’s why it becomes so troubling to conceive of a God who simultaneously is anything but human and, yet, chooses to contextualize himself in such a scandalous way as to be both human and divine. He takes up residence among us, his creation. Eats food. Listens to music. Wears sandals. Walks along the same road that everyone else does. And to be honest, if it were me, I would have most assuredly done things differently. Don’t get me wrong; entering the world in humble circumstances is all well and good, but he’s the creator of the universe. Why not throw a little flair into things. Maybe enter on a flaming chariot that says Easy Rider on the side.

Guess that would be too easy.

I had the opportunity to catch some coffee with a pastor much older and wiser than I. He has been at the same church for over 20 years and leads a faith community that has spearheaded new church plants in the past 3 years. We talked about the differences between our two cultures: him being from Arkansas and me from Oregon. We talked about what it means to be Jesus to people on a daily basis. Part way through our conversation he paused, and striking the pose of an ancient sage, he made one of those wise comments that only comes from years of tested experience, “You know Dwayne, for the past few years we have been describing church planting as a way of starting a church and reaching out to our surrounding culture. But you guys aren’t doing that. You are raising up a church with your surrounding culture.”

Quite frankly, I think the first option would be a whole lot easier.

In fact, it would be downright cleaner. Incarnation gets messy real quick. It’s much more sanitary to live within the confines of a Christian bubble and create artificial barriers that will prevent germs from spreading. We don’t like to say this, but we do it. Perhaps we buy interesting Christian trinkets, talk about the latest Christian bands, or just end up socializing with, you guessed it, Christian friends. All done in a concerted effort to make life within the bubble more comfortable and guarded from the world. Sprinkle in some pithy, insider Christian lingo that is sure to keep outsiders out and we effectively inoculate ourselves within a bigger, more secure bubble. And all the while, in our attempts to keep life safe and secure, we succumb to nothing more than a Christian subculture that prevents mess from entering in. Or worse yet, from good news from ever going out.

Somewhere along the way we took up a mantle of defense, guarding ourselves from the onslaught of what was perceived as a detestable culture. But ironically, it is now that same culture that feels as though it is defending itself from us. Maybe it was when we assumed that the “church” existed in a position of power and prominence, as though our role were to command moral solidarity with short-sided behavioral adjustments, such as no drinking, smoking, or dancing. Perhaps it was when Christ followers stopped listening to the world around us, in effect communicating disdain and blatant hatred. Or possibly it was when our self-understanding withered and we assumed a defensive, fearful posture. And maybe, just maybe, we made our own bed of distrust when we effectively pushed the mess to the margins.

Nonetheless, we ended up choosing the easy way.

But what if Christ followers changed things up a bit? Took a different posture. Became listeners again. And here’s a wild one: spent more time with our surrounding culture listening to the rhythms and values that make people tick. Perhaps even popping the mythic bubble so that, God forbid, we might actually rub off on the world around us. Not as people who are better or even more valuable in the eyes of God, but as followers of this Jesus who genuinely care about the world around us. To be Christians, literally “little Christs” in a world that isn’t even sure of what it believes and, yet, is hungry for something. To be humble and respectful in a way that gives power and privilege away rather than hording it for ourselves.

To wear a green barista apron, if you will, and take the time to speak a new language.

Dwayne Hilty is the lead pastor at Soma: A Church of the Christ located in the Edgewater District of West Salem. Dwayne is married to Julie, has 2 energetic boys (Riley and Logan), and loves to be involved in his local community through the Polk County Service Integration Team, West Salem Neighborhood Association, the West Salem Urban Redevelopment Advisory Board. Dwayne insists that life would be made better if everyone grew a coffee plant in their backyard.

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