Theology on the Streets: Incarnation, Liberation, and Realized Eschatology

(I’m currently participating in a chaplaincy residence through St. Thomas Hospital’s Clinical Pastoral Education program and was asked to write about the theology implicit in my work on the streets. This is what I wrote.)

dry bones, nashville street art - Copy

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, aboriginal educator and activist

There is a sure and certain mystery in the idea of a God who chooses to put on flesh, to walk among us, to be beaten, bruised, and bloodied, to suffer with us and struggle alongside us. There is a sure and certain mystery in a world that is both dreadfully harsh and breathtakingly beautiful, where there is tremendous anguish intermingled with the most stunning hope. I live and breathe in this mystery every day and it feeds my soul. And sometimes, I’m not sure how it’s possible to feel so empty and full at the same time. I am surrounded by death and resurrection, by gravity and grace, by sorrow and joy. I am wholly poured out yet my cup overflows. And I think this is the beauty of yielding into who we were created to be, of grasping that sheer necessity, that purpose of being, and letting it seize us up wholly as Annie Dilllard says in “Living Like Weasels.”

I chose to spend my days on the underside of Nashville—on the streets, in the camps, beneath the overpasses, along the train tracks, in the jails and psych wards and emergency rooms. I’m drawn there not because I have something to offer, not because I have the answers or solutions or remedies. I’m drawn there because I have something to receive, something to learn, because this is where I find God moving most tangibly. I’m there because that is where I find myself being liberated from my worries, my concerns, from all the chains that hold me down and enslave me to my need for control, my self-reliance.

dry bones, james nesbittIn the 37th chapter of Ezekiel, God leads Ezekiel to a valley of dry bones. The bones cry out to the Lord, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone,” and the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” In his poem “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot writes about the disjointed bones singing, “We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other.” And I hear the bones on the streets crying and singing, praying that we will be rejoined, that we will “do good” to each other while there is still time. And then, in the valley, while the verdict is still out, there is a stirring. A holy breath pours into the slain and they rise up in a kind of resurrection, a kind of insurrection against the powers of death and decay. I feel this stirring when I’m on the streets, I feel it and see the bones re-joining, and I have to claim, every day, that the bones that are still dry can live, that there is still hope for them, for all of us, that the breath of God longs to pour through our hollowness, our ashes, our lungs so that we might live a resurrected life.

When I see these glimpses of resurrection, of insurrection, the kin(g)dom of God—the beloved community—is being realized in this world. Like a horizon, it is always beyond us yet also beneath our very feet. So yes, in this work, we’re a part of this horizon, this in-breaking, this stirring. When we choose presence over detachment, vulnerability over domination, solidarity over self-reliance, love over fear, there is a stirring that sends ripples, however small or large, into the fabric of the universe. This is the kind of work that is meant to be shared by a community, the kind of work that Reverend James Lawson recently called “fiercely beautiful”—the work of turning the black and red ink of the Bible into living, breathing flesh.

So despite my flaws and failures, or perhaps through my flaws and failures, I seek to embody the gospel—the good news to the poor—by the way I live my life. I seek to embody resistance to the powers of death, injustice, and greed; to all the things that keep us apart, that keep us from realizing the beloved community in our midst. I seek to nurture the seeds of light and love and hope that I see in others and to have grace with myself in the meantime.

tracks4There’s a song by Tom Waits called “Down There by the Train” and in the song, all the misfits, all the outcasts, and all those who live in shame and want can wander, as they are, down to where the train goes slow. There, regardless of who they are, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done, they can be washed, made whole, and liberated from the things that keep them captive. So I hold onto this image and claim it with everything I have. I can see all of my friends on the streets with all their scars, with their splintered hope, with their gifts and capabilities, with the tubes flowing in and out of their veins, with their bottles in their pockets, with the despair in their eyes, with their battered feet and their backs bent low. I can see them stumbling down to the tracks and finding, when they get there, that there is hope if they hop on, that even when they’ve lost everything, that especially when they’ve lost everything, they can be cared for in a deep sense… that they can be found, washed, and made whole. If I can’t claim this for them, if they can’t, one day, claim this for themselves and each other, then who else will? And I hope they will claim this for me, as well, for if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that my liberation is bound up with the liberation of others, that we are meant to be a living, breathing body, not dismembered bones wasting away in the valley.  So my prayer is that the living breath of God will breathe into me, into my friends on the streets, and into all of us so that we might come together and embody resistance, hope, and resurrection even, especially, when we walk through the darkest valleys.


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