Christopher L. Heuertz: Staying is the new going

A vocation of cross-cultural service can become little more than sanctified tourism.

The “Neighborhoods Issue” of “GOOD” magazine is packed full of captivating articles on the value of living well in the space your home occupies.

The editor writes, “We want to communicate our fear that Americans’ sense of community has been dissipating, and we want to bring it back. . . The way we interact with our neighborhoods helps to define us and the places we live—all those beautifully diverse places around the world.”

I love my neighborhood, but I travel a lot to many of those “beautifully diverse places around the world.” I’m out of Omaha anywhere from five to seven months a year, and have logged over 500,000 airline miles since 2005. Living local is a value to me, but one that seems more like a hoped-for ideal teasing me from a distance. I’ve not been able to really be as good of a neighbor as I desire.

I also picked up a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s newest book, “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture” (Paraclete). Jonathan takes this dissipating sense of stability head on: “To practice stability is to learn to love both a place and its people. The twelfth-century Benedictine Anselm of Canterbury compared a restless monk to a tree that, after being ‘frequently transplanted or often disturbed,’ will not take root anywhere, but only withers and dies. ‘If he often moves from place to place at his own whim, or remaining in one place is frequently agitated by hatred of it,’ Anselm observes, then the unhappy monk ‘never achieves stability with roots of love’.”

Jonathan, in addition to being the most prolific Christian author under 30 (I think this is at least his sixth book in the past two and a half years, not to mention the other dozen or so titles he’s edited, compiled or contributed to), has become the publicist of the New Monastic movement. Living in Durham, North Carolina, at the Rutba House, a new monastic community he co-founded, Jonathan also pastors at St. John’s Baptist Church in his own neighborhood.

Reading through the text I found myself remembering the glory days of my own childhood. On Sunday afternoons we’d go to my grandparents’ house and play street football with the other kids from the neighborhood. Things looked very different then. My grandparents had lived in that same house for almost 50 years; my grandfather had one job spanning the time he returned from World War II until his retirement. The predictability of it all made it feel safe.

Today, predictability seems stifling.

The US Census Bureau notes that nearly one in six Americans moves each year. The average American will move almost 12 times in her or his lifetime. The US Labor Department estimates that the average American will have as many as five different careers during her or his lifetime. Ironically we complain about having to endure long delays in airports, when the journeys we make today in mere hours used to take several days to complete.

For Jonathan, “Staying is the new going.” North American Christians seem to have a credibility crisis in our theology and practice of “location.” And this is reflected in how we’ve come to understand our vocations of service.

A vocation of cross-cultural service can become little more than sanctified tourism. Raised as opportunistic individuals, we bounce from one emersion experience to the next. We keep our options open and avoid committing to any one community or set of relationships -- so much so that many of us would rather work 20 hours a week pouring coffee than give our lives to helping secure safe drinking water for others.

The challenge for our communities of service is working with those who are culturally conditioned to subvert stability, those who are brilliant yet doctrinally conflicted and so they avoid plugging into local churches; those who feel alienated and lonely yet community-resistant; those who are cause-driven while unable to commit themselves to fighting for justice; idealistic yet cynical; magnanimous yet suspicious; and, not least, over-educated yet deep in debt. To challenge them to establish stability in their faith, vocations and communities by cultivating authentic friendships and relationships sometimes seems impossible.

“The desert mother Amma Syncletica said, ‘If a bird abandons the eggs she has been sitting on, she prevents them from hatching, and in the same way monks or nuns will grow cold and their faith will perish if they go around from one place to another’.”

I’ve appreciated this book more than any other I’ve read this year. The Wisdom of Stability couldn’t be more timely.

Christopher L. Heuertz is International Executive Director of Word Made Flesh. He is based in Omaha, Nebraska. His most recent book, co-written with Christine Pohl, is “Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission” (InterVarsity).