Urban Hinterlands (9/10): What Do We Really Want?

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So what is it that we really want?

We all naturally seek comfort. For a moment I want you to forget everything I’ve written thus far in this Urban Hinterlands series. There is something innate within us that compels us to seek safety, comfort, familiarity, security, and peace. We are protective of ourselves and our families. This is quite natural and normative. I am not too sure why or how this works, but it just does. We are drawn to certain places and experiences more than others. There is some kind of gravitational pull toward what is beautiful, alluring, safe, comforting, and pleasant.

A couple of years ago I recall spending part of the morning with my brother-in-law Caleb and son Seth walking around Northwest Portland in the Alphabet District along NW 23rd. It is a vibrant street scene with lots of happy pedestrians strolling from shop to shop and from cafe to cafe. We stopped at a hipster donut shop and then went over to a hipster coffee shop. Everything was over-the-top cool. The people were all well-dressed and beautiful. Now, why is this so appealing?

I could let my guard down. I could breathe easy. No need to put my “street face” on. We chatted with people, petted dogs, and had a great time. I’m naturally drawn to places like these. 

But the Gospel is countercultural and counterintuitive.

As God through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ breathes new life into us, he makes us a new creation. His Spirit indwells us and not only are we transformed but that transformation process begins rearranging everything in our lives. We are compelled. We are compelled to sacrifice, to seek the welfare of our cities and others, to risk, and to take leaps of faith. Our lives are no longer about seeking our own glory or pleasure, but yet ironically we encounter deep and more fulfilling pleasure, experiences, and meaning because of our identity in Christ. We are given a greater capacity to enjoy our lives and relationships. We are grounded and rooted in Christ.

This is where it is all paradoxical. Because of the gospel, we give our lives away and yet at the same time we burrow deeper into loving and leading our families. This is the center stage of the drama of this book and where the tension is. On the one hand we joyfully sacrifice for the gospel, and on the other we are stewards of the families that God has blessed us with.

When our sole focus is on sacrifice, we can run the risk of leading our families poorly and neglecting their needs. But when our sole focus is on our families, we never sacrifice for the gospel. How do we do both? Where is the happy middle ground? This “location” then is the focal point of this series. 

Do we seek out cool neighborhoods knowing our families will have an enjoyable time and are safe and comfortable? Or do we seek out an uncool (troubled) neighborhood where the schools may be lousy and it is not the safest place?

We have a lot of terms that accompany our initial transformation when we are confronted with the gospel. After our transition from darkness to light we begin to grow. We have a number of names for it. Spiritual growth and maturity. Sanctification. Discipleship. Transformation. 

Earlier in the series I introduced to you the idea of conversion as spelled out in the book In the Company of the Poor. More than what happens upon the moment we are born anew in Christ, the term, synonymous with sanctification or spiritual growth, describes an ongoing, continual process. What is noteworthy in the book, though, are the parameters or boundaries of this conversion. As Western evangelicals we primarily focus on what happens internally. In other words, much talk about spiritual growth revolves around character development, stopping sinful habits and patterns, and day-by-day renewing the inner man. However, more is at stake in our conversion. Gutiérrez writes:

The change called for is not simply an interior one but one that involves the entire person as a corporeal being (a factor of human solidarity) and therefore also has consequences for the web of social relationships of which the individual is a part. That is why Archbishop Romero could make this strong statement: ‘Nowadays an authentic Christian conversion must lead to an unmasking of the social mechanisms that turn the worker and the peasant into marginalized persons. Why do the rural poor become part of society only in the coffee- and cotton-picking seasons?’ The will to conversion should lead to this kind of concrete analysis.

This sounds strikingly familiar to what the biblical writer James was alluding to when he wrote, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” It is not that good works saves us, but that our conversion is demonstrated by our outer lives. 

When it comes to the urban hinterlands, what do we really want? I would say that all of the church planters that I know want one thing: to live a life giving glory to God and to point sinners to the cross. With that said, I know I need more areas of my life radically converted. From darkness to light. From sinful negligence to holy embrace. “The encounter with the Lord in the inmost recesses of the individual does not exclude but rather calls for a similar encounter in the depths of the wretchedness in which the poor of our countries live.”

What we want may not always be what we need. I like safety, comfort, routine, and familiarity. Not very many of us run directly into the path of hardship or adversity. And yet, that is the only thing in life that causes spiritual growth and maturity. We seemingly only grow in the face of discomfort. This pain and struggle is what the Lord then uses in our lives to grow and mature us. While it is tempting to seek comfort, safety, and familiarity, more of us need to eschew that. I’m not talking about being impulsive, reckless, and foolish. Instead we need to let the gospel so radically alter our values, identity, and life goals that we would find ourselves seeking out the urban hinterlands.

Because Christ died for the people there, too. He gave it all up to be bruised and battered on our behalf. As a result, our sacrifice of comfort pales in comparison.

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This is an excerpt from the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places.