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Bill’s Corner – The way forward is Incarnation.

The way forward is incarnation.

As I sit down to write this column, we are in the days leading up to Christmas soon to be followed by the close of 2016. What a year. If you are like me, there is much about this past year you’d like to put in the rear view mirror, not the least of which is the increasingly shrill tone of our political discourse. The political climate is further set off by a polarized and often petty media landscape. As much as the drama of 2016 was tiresome, I don’t see an end in sight. However, we have been living in these waters for at least the better part of a year now and I’m starting to formulate a strategy. A strategy that has something to do with Christmas.

This is the time of year when Christians celebrate the idea of God becoming ‘one with us’ in the person of Jesus. It is a radical idea that an all-powerful God, who presumably could save the world in any way he wished, would choose to express his love for humanity through taking on the pain and vulnerability of human flesh. Within this sacrificial choice is a core value that can be shared by more than just Christians. That core value is the concept of incarnation.

The word incarnation simply means “in the flesh”. As applied to the Christmas story it means God chose to solve a problem by entering the problem of the human predicament itself and living there. He did not solve the problem by having the right answer and shouting that answer down to creation, nor by appointing a delegation, but by actually experiencing it first. Within his example of incarnation is a core truth that we can apply to all human interaction. It can be a powerful thing to enter a problem and live there from the inside. It builds authenticity, sustainability and vitality. It is also a very challenging business as it leads to scars, vulnerability and the chance of real loss.

Maybe such opportunity for vulnerability and loss is why there seems so precious little incarnational problem solving in our world these days. Perhaps the avoidance of personal pain and vulnerability leads a country to elect a billionaire with golden furniture as the champion of the working class and develops a culture to support a twenty-four-hour news cycle that yields only a few minutes of real, substantive information each day. If there are any silver linings to this year (or most probably the year ahead), we might be about to learn that playing it safe on the sidelines doesn’t take you very far when it comes to ACTUALLY solving problems.

Our culture seems stuck between factions convinced that they are correct and shouting at one another. Situations get grid-locked and problems become entrenched and nothing ever really changes. Now I’m a member of one of those factions and, yes, I think I’m more correct than the others. I also know that screaming those differences across a chasm at my neighbors isn’t going to solve the real problems we face. Someone is going to have to climb down into those divides and get dirty enough to start measuring to build some bridges.

Put another way, I don’t think we can fundamentally think or talk our way out of the deepest issues that we face. Instead, I think we must embody our own values in ways that can be touched, felt, and experienced by others. The truth is that humans don’t generally think their way into new ways of living, they live themselves into new ways of thinking.

Here we turn to our work at Metanoia.

We seek to be an incarnational style movement. By having many of our staff and board live in the communities we serve, and by viewing our neighbors as fellow problem solvers, we hope to be solving problems from the inside out. This is not easy or simple work. It does not always fit into a sound bite. Sometimes we get dirty and sometimes we fail. And yet, in the intention to be embody our values, we have also built an authenticity and authority that is rooted in our community. This is the key piece missing from groups of problem solvers with little more than punditry and well-intentioned theory to support their agendas.

My hope for our work is not that we solve every major crisis (if you find an organization that can do that, I suggest you give them lots more money than you ever donate to Metanoia). My hope is that we can be an outpost for the value of incarnational problem solving and that our lessons learned can be shared more broadly for those interested in solving problems this way. Ultimately, I think this leads to more sustainable and tangible solutions to problems than the quick fixes that can be contained in a twitter post.

Having addressed chronic issues this way for nearly 15 years, I wouldn’t trade this form of problem solving for anything. This experience has given me completely new eyes to see the issues that are faced by both our neighborhood and our world and how they interrelate. For example, one sees how often well-intentioned outsiders make plans to solve problems for our neighborhood based on logic that sounds good from the sidelines, but that people working within the problem can easily see as flawed.

To do this well, we must consistently re-focus on our own values and reflect these ideals in the real world. We have to be less worried about opposing those that disagree with us and more worried about how we will embody what we believe today. It takes deliberate focus, especially in this climate.

This fall, at our weekly staff meetings, the crazy CEO (that’s me) instituted a new practice. Before launching into all the work of the week, from youth programming to housing construction, to building relationships and advocacy, all ten members of the Metanoia team sit completely silent together for two minutes. We conspire; we conspire with the root meaning, ‘to breath together’, in mind. After the two minutes are over, we then recite our mission and vision and talk for the next hour about how we will work to embody our values in the week ahead. These conversations are tactical and aren’t particularly glamorous, but using our example of the divine incarnation again, we remember that God surrendered his divinity to deal with bowel movements and perform basic nail care amid all the cool stuff we read about in the gospel. Exploring the raw realities of the problems we face does give us a place to start.

And isn’t a place to start what we need most these days? Not just people willing to think they have the right answers but people willing to give their lives to embody truth and engage in the critical second step of being molded by where that truth leads, even if it leads, gasp, to changing one’s mind? No matter what happens in 2017, I hope our work can be an outpost for a form of problem solving that is willing to get dirty and take risks. I hope we can be a home-base for people of different opinions who share a common vision that the best solutions to problems happen as close to the ground as possible.

It takes some remarkable people to support such work. Thank you for being one of those people.
I wish you a blessed holiday season and start to 2017!

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