Working Out Our Salvation: Voluntary Poverty, Accompaniment, and Enemy-Love

Change is inevitable, right? At least it seems that way to me. The Gospel stories describe those who are right with God in many different earthy tones (light, salt, wheat, good soil, etc.); words like that seem to evoke a change of heart in those willing to truly listen (“ears to hear”). But a careful reading of scripture and actual human experience will give us pause before simply accepting all changes as though it were God’s plan, knowing that change is not always good (or always bad). And, of course, our role in it is not merely one of acceptance or a tidal wave of so-called decisions.

For almost two years now, Julissa (my wife) and I have been discussing ways for our young family to follow Jesus more radically, especially in terms of the work I do, nonviolence, and community life. This urgency initially arose in us as Julissa became pregnant with our son and we began to look at our lives in the world anew. We were searching for ways to live with a deeper faithfulness to Jesus and a fuller witness to the world. We began talking through three areas related to the teachings and example of Jesus: 1) Voluntary Poverty (simplicity and giving our work for free); 2) Accompaniment (commitment to hospitality, spiritual direction, and a shared life); and 3) Enemy Love (non-violence, reconciliation, peacemaking, and healing).

These three goals (or dreams) have consumed my imagination, in many ways. They represent a large, sort of radical shift in my understanding about the good life, real faith, and living like Jesus. And yet Julissa and I have not always been in unity about what they mean and how to relate them to our actual lives. We continue to need practices and experiences to help us flesh them out. We want to learn Jesus’ way of loving in the kingdom of God (see Luke 4:17-19), covering our time, economics, politics, personal relationships, personal safety, spiritual community, and maybe especially our unique vocation and gifts.

Voluntary Poverty

In terms of my job, I am work as a school-based mental health clinician. I provide therapy and, increasingly, spiritual attention for low-income children and their families. It is something I love to do and something I feel called to. Nevertheless, it is not without ambiguity and a certain hypocrisy that I’ve learned to do this “helping profession.” As many of my colleagues would admit to as well, we began this job by “counting minutes” in order to reach required billing rates or at least demonstrate the maximum billeable minutes possible. Because of this and other reasons, I’ve made the way I spend my time with clients adhere to a double-minded approach to helping, prioritizing some forms of help and keeping other forms at a distance (i.e., “that’s not what I get paid to do”). Therefore, a true billeable need often takes priority over a true non-billeable one, and sometimes the minute counter of billeable time actually begins to define “need” (or create it) based upon arbitrary and abstract systems.

So why do I put a price tag on my calling and work, leaving behind Jesus’ promises of love given through us freely? Because my employer demands a payment from the county, because the state insurance demands a capitalist justification for their billing time, and, of course, because I also require to work for a salary. All of which I pray to get “set free” from by becoming poor, vulnerable, and singleminded for the good of others (i.e., Voluntary Poverty).


Most of the families I work with now and in previous positions have lived through significant traumatic events. Many have experienced sexual abuse, and still others severe neglect, domestic violence, and attachment-related insecurity and distress. Their pain and the stories of healing that often emerge have honed my listening skills as a clinician and, as a follower of Jesus, have given me a witness to the Graceful Spirit at work in their midst. Still, as a result of their experiences with violence and physical threat, these individuals and families often continue to live with stress responses long after their acute danger or threat is gone, which can make the difficulties of re-claiming a “normal” life even more challenging than it might first seem.

True freedom, however, is not a program, but instead is given through a body of real physical members. I love Wendell Berry in this regard. He has helped my understanding of enfleshed love and neighborliness in more ways than I can name, especially in his recognition of a spiritual belonging that includes, but even surpasses every humanly constructed home. I want the work I do to be more deeply given like that to particular lives and places, versus my commuter employment and the somewhat placeless relationships that result from working in a professional way.

Moreover, I wish the relationships and commitments I bring to my work were not characterized (as they always will be within institutionalized help) by human power, authority, and ethics. Though I see no conflict in working with families as they work within (or around), for example, Children Services and the Unified School Districts, I am often saddened by my own direct and indirect involvement as an agent of these institutions because of my paid role. Organizations like these tend to replace real people and also many of the radical teachings that Jesus gave to his followers. So rather than truly practice a singleminded commitment to following Jesus (i.e., dependence on God), I’ve chosen many times the lesser invitation offered by various social institutions and professionalized care (trusting in their power and foundation). True accompaniment, like in the parable of the good samaritan, can only be possible when one is concretely present, willing, and free (in the fullest sense of the word).


Our third goal (Enemy-love) relates to this experience of freedom as well, because Jesus’ way of loving is completely set apart from coercion, seeking revenge, and human ruling. Jesus demonstrated the extremity of his love while being interrogated and mocked (and finally executed), loving even Judas Iscariot (“Friend, do what you came for”, Matthew 26:50) all within close touch and vulnerability. I’ve come to see that Jesus’ kind of love also requires Jesus’ kind of faith, which is not necessarily something that is encouraged in a capitalist mental health or social services profession. And I now know that when I’m working for them I may have already significantly compromised my commitment to enflesh this radical love in my vocation.


These goals I’ve written about here do not necessarily need to be about the work I do (or even about me, as opposed to others in our family), but as I considered the changes Julissa and I may approach in the coming months/years, I realized it seems to start there. In all reality, this path may lead us away from certain relationships and support systems (as well as income) that we have enjoyed, appreciated, and relied upon. Pray for us that we would learn to follow Jesus better. Pray that we would grow deeper in our love for him—in true joy, dependence, surrender, and trust. For those who are interested, please find a document, Rule of Faith, which has a description of each of our goals in their fuller context.

Rule of Faith

1. Voluntary Poverty (simplicity and giving our work for free)

•    communal living (e.g., co-op purchases, common work, co-housing)
•    daily prayer/communion (thy kingdom come…for daily bread)
•    sharing of money and possessions
•    gift-economy for getting our own needs met
•    second-hand/homemade stuff
•    urban farming–eating what we grow
•    walking/public transit/biking instead of dependence on personal vehicles

2. Accompaniment (commitment to hospitality, spiritual direction, and a shared life)

•    communal “lovemeal” (e.g., cashbox combined with eucharist)
•    daily prayer/communion (thy kingdom come…on behalf of others)
•    hospitality–guests coming to stay with us
•    neighborhood groups for mutual support and care
•    weekly scheduled neighborhood-based gatherings
•    parties or special events in the neighborhood
•    weekly work in the 14th St. Garden (formerly the “Jesus Center Community Garden”)
•    monthly spiritual direction (e.g., at the Abbey of New Clairvaux)
•    neighborhood library and prayer room

3. Enemy-love (non-violence, reconciliation, peacemaking, and healing)

•    communal support and creativity in the midst of conflict (e.g., giving freely, prayers and blessing for enemies, etc.)
•    daily prayer/communion (thy kingdom come…for deliverance from evil)
•    alternative holidays with music, art, and dramatic expression (e.g., themes of peace, joy, hope, etc.), following the Christian calendar
•    forgiveness of debts/release of prisoners
•    non-violence/non-resistance
•    weekly counseling and conflict resolution

About Our Experiment

This ‘rule of faith’ is really just a quasi-riskier-than-usual attempt my wife and I have devised in order to take the ‘next step’ in learning to follow Jesus more faithfully. Of course, we expect to practice these promises among others and, hopefully, in a community that we can help start here in Chico (in fact, we are discussing the possibilities right now with some friends). On the other hand, we’re willing to go slowly and perhaps even practice them alone, if need be.

We also understand that making a choice to pursue something new ought to take a longish amount of time before any true commitment becomes evident. We see our participation in terms of a six month semester (to start with). It might be helpful to think of our experiment as a semester abroad—in that we will be learning to live immersed in a new way of life—or like an old-school trade apprenticeship, like blacksmithing or animal husbandry. Our specific goals will be integrated into an overlapping practice, depending on our individual calling, vocation, and skill. Weekly meetings with one another and trusted community members will assist us to find balance during the process. Orientation will also include a seminar-style monthly learning group for folks interested in community life.

For more information into my perspective on community life and following Jesus, see my blog and specifically my posts titled, The Look of My Church 1, 2, 2.5, and 3.

About Our Place

We are located in a small Northern Californian city by the name of Chico (no pun intended), often recognized for our local microbrewery, a large city park, the historic downtown, the local food scene, and many tragic stories of drunkenness at Chico State. The house we reside in sits at the intersection of a great neighborhood called Chapmantown, a culturally diverse mix of poor and working class families, activists, artists, gang members, homeless, medical marijuana growers, and squirrels…lots of them. You can read on my blog about our community garden project and see a side shot of the house, with a view of 14th St. As well, please check out an article done by the city’s newspaper covering the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood. Contact me personally with questions and/or inquiries about visits (wintonjason AT hotmail DOT com).

updated 10/25/15

Hard Questions (R#5): Radicalism, Family, and Following Jesus


What is a young family to do with a desire to follow Jesus more radically? This series of email exchanges I had with Paul Munn over a year ago (starting in April of 2009) attempts to explore some of that. To get caught up with the series, read question #1 and response #1, question #2/response #2 (which are one post), question #3 and response #3, question #4 and response #4, and question #5.

Response #5

Date: Fri, 15 May 2009 07:10:17 -0700
From: Paul
Subject: Re: work, gift, prayer
To: Jason


Glad you got back safely and were happy with your trip.

I think I’d probably advise against attaching yourself to a “master” (or being a master, for that matter). I often quote Jesus’ words, “You are not to be called rabbi [that is, teacher], for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.” (Mt 23.8-10) We can and certainly should pay attention and learn from others, especially those who seem to follow Jesus’ example closely. But I don’t think we should put complete trust in (or become followers of) anyone but Jesus.

The main purpose of life (including the spiritual life), as I see it, is to continue to live by faith, to continue to grow in our dependence and trust in God. To attach ourselves to another human being and depend on them does not help us in this. Jesus himself continually tried to point his disciples (as well as all those he taught and healed) to direct dependence on God, culminating in his leaving them (bodily) and telling them to trust the spirit of God.

I think the specific way God provides for us varies among people and their particular situations. So I can’t give you a model that works for everyone (lest we trust the model rather than God). But I think there are similarities and hearing the stories of others may help us recognize possibilities in our own lives when they are presented. One well-known example that encouraged me was George Muller. And I once wrote in my journal that some of the best examples of people living a gift economy are missionaries and mothers.

The one disappointment I’ve seen with most modern missionaries is how they usually raise their support in advance (and won’t go if they don’t get it), and have to devote a lot of time to fundraising to keep up their work. Also missions organizations have developed more institutional forms of financial security now. Heather and I find George Muller’s approach much more inspiring and closer to Jesus’ example.

Other specific things I’ve learned from experience so far (and we still have a long way to go): I’ve had medical care provided by hospitals or doctors waiving their fees, churches offering to pay the bill, Heather volunteering in a medical clinic and then receiving care from the nurses she knows there, and a dentist offering free care as a contribution to our retreat work; as I said before, living in a closer community setting allows much sharing and reduced living expenses (we live, very well, on a little over $7000 a year right now, and have no car but can always borrow one, usually while doing errands for others); taxes drop to nothing with no property and very low income; all our furniture and bedding for the retreats was donated; we don’t have insurance, which is a conscious faith-based decision, not just an economic one, but we have yet to see how that will play out (with kids also), though the doctor experiences we’ve had so far are encouraging; we work on a volunteer basis on the farm and bakery, setting our own hours (and jobs) and just accepting whatever they choose to give us at the end of the season, and the donated money for the retreat work (including our housing) is held and controlled by the church. I don’t know, any other questions?

I’m glad to hear of your dad’s response. My parents came around very slowly, but they are strong supporters of what we are doing now. There is hope!


Is Jesus Remaking Society?

This essay is actually an email and was part of an intense exchange between myself and three other friends during the election debates, just days before the vote. The heatedness began, I suppose, when I told them I would not be voting. I had some support in this choice from at least one of my friends, but there was an equal or greater measure of questioning and challenges from the other two. Without bringing their arguments and questions into the mix, I thought it might be helpful to consider my response to them.

[John] is probably right about me in terms of at least one thing. I do not think Jesus was aiming for a remaking of society. If so, his program must have failed. The centurions continued with their brute might. Caesar and Herod continued with their ruling power. The peasants continued with their revolts and oppressed lives. What did change, however, was a relatively small band of followers who were able to live according to a different order (like yeast in dough or wheat in tares). And, of course, it was a political order. This political order gave them food to eat, security (sheep amidst wolves), and justice in this life (proof texts not needed, right?). The difference as far as I can tell was origin and size. They believed God gave them those gifts (for free), whereas Caesar (and by proxy, the Jewish elite) promised them the Pax Romana and, it could be argued, also restoration of past political and cultural strength. Their power came with an expensive price tag, as does ours, especially in terms of requiring complicity with their imperial domination and sin.That being said, why didn’t they (Jesus and his followers) set up societal systems of justice? Probably because they were taught to expect persecution by the world, not real justice. The societal structure was opposed to Jesus’ Kingdom. And the amount of people willing to live Jesus’ way, again, was (and continues to be) relatively few. On the other hand, there was (and is) no shortage of people willing to make war, kill, lie, use force, etc., usually for some kind of desirable or good end. But these aren’t necessarily the most ethical people. A lot of the time, they happen to be the strongest or the ones who get the most frustrated. For them (us?), it’s a matter of doing what is necessary to insure the boundaries of security that most need defending. Would it be dangerous for followers of Jesus and others if some or all were to live without power or force? Yes and no. The yes part has to do with personal contact with injustice and the use of ruling power (nearly a guarantee, right?), be it societal or interpersonal. It is not “safe” in that sense to be a Christian or a weak member of civilization. As long as the world behaves like it does, there will always be a real risk. So, following Jesus, in and of itself, does not really “work” to prevent the crumbling of big societal mechanisms or to make others behave lovingly. But I do think God can use individuals who are generally opposed to Him, including Empire itself, to accomplish his purposes (even against their will) for the good of creation and those who trust his ways.

On the other hand, what if all people decided to follow Jesus in this way, would it be dangerous? No. Or probably not. In that case, none of the justice system or current politics would be necessary (no vengeance, pride, lust for power, etc). People would act generously, lovingly, forgiving each other and self-sacrificing their needs on others behalf. This seems to be “the end” (or completion) that most Christians already believe will come to pass, even though most probably think it is impossible to live like that now. And in a way, they are right. It is not possible (with human power) and it probably doesn’t “work.” But it’s still the best way to live. And it’s what Jesus called his followers to practice right away.

As far as the different situations you [Chris] mentioned [where coercion might be necessary and good], I think I covered the basic orientation I try to take with what I said above. Maybe I should clarify, though, that I recognize how difficult it is to live this way and perhaps also my own inadequacy. There can be many ways to respond creatively and nonviolently to danger or injustice, but they may not work in a reliable way (e.g., to stop violence or create justice). So, I’ll just have to figure that part out as I go, given the situation and what I’m willing to risk or put my faith in. Also, you make a good point about children and parents. Of course I’d like to think I’m not coercive toward Santiago, but good Lord if he’s running into a road I’m going to grab him. We can talk about it with him afterward. But this power-over relationship is somewhat unique and also temporary. Still, us parents need to be very careful with how we treat our children, precisely because coercion seems to be a part of parenting (though as an exception maybe). The true kind of authority I’ve known comes from one’s skill, gifting, and experience. In that regard, I like the master and journeyman relationship, assuming it is voluntary and free.


Hard Questions (Q#5): Radicalism, Family, and Following Jesus


What is a young family to do with a desire to follow Jesus more radically? This series of email exchanges I had with Paul Munn over a year ago (starting in April of 2009) attempts to explore some of that. To get caught up with the series, read question #1 and response #1, question #2/response #2 (which are one post), question #3 and response #3, and question #4 and response #4.

Question #5

From: Jason
To: Paul
Sent: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 7:16:20 PM
Subject: RE: work, gift, prayer


We’re back, finally. It was a great trip, with it’s ups and downs as would one might expect. But a really good trip. I am always reminded when in a place like Lima of how our American wealth and extreme reliance on money is easily exposed and put to shame by ordinary folks just doing life. I’m tempted to re-consider many ordinary-for-them-but-radical-for-me alternatives (like showering with cold water and using about 1/8 of the amount of water we would normally use here), although I have also tended to think that these economic/cultural measures are mostly drastic and unrealistic–odd “choices” and uncreative for an American like me. It would be in my best interest, however–don’t you think?–to begin to employ their gracefully-but-odd-imaginations, even while I’m absorbed (willingly or not) in the mind and heart of our “beloved” Beast.

I started my new job this Monday. This may in fact be a job I would do whether I was paid or not (a good feeling, if that’s the case), however it still has within it the external criteria of the “bottom line,” “efficiency,” and “productivity” (the last two words are direct quotes and were used several times during my orientation to describe their philosophy of work). Nevertheless, I think I will truly enjoy working with the kids and families as their therapist. My loyalties, though, will always be mixed, not single-minded. The values of Jesus will, at times, be in conflict with the values I am assigned to deliver. Assuming my faith does not change as I write this (so that I quit taking a salary and sharing in their benefits), I hope to truly value and care for the families I am assisting, as best as I am able within the limits of my duality.

Surprise, surprise…I’ve got a few more questions about how one enters into this “gift economy” we’ve been discussing. Like you said, Jesus had 12 disciples who he took responsibility for and who were dependent on him. Do you recommend for us, as disciples, to follow a “master”, like the disciples did with Jesus? Should we depend on the faith and sustenance of someone else who is already living faithfully in this way? What kind of alternative options for food, shelter, medical care, travel, fun, etc. do you suggest for a family learning to live accordingly? Are you accepting any followers? :)

You wrote: “But in recent years I’ve shifted more to simply living the reality of it (and learning more and more through experience as we go) and letting that reality be the demonstration of the truth of it. When it’s real, when it’s right there in front of people, they can’t say it’s not possible.” Could you sketch out some of the details related to living that kind of faith (I recognize you have already done this in many of your short stories, essays, and journals. I’m not done reading those yet. So feel free to simply direct me over there, if you prefer)? I am curious as to how you have experienced God’s abundance (or gifts) in the midst of long-term need. Can it be something as formal as the missionaries who fundraise to live and work? I realize modern day missionaries are probably not the best model to use, but they are some of the only examples I can think of for Christians who mostly (if not wholly) rely on gifts to sustain themselves and their mission.

By the way, speaking of faith (a few paragraphs back!)…have you ever heard of the theory that the rich young ruler eventually came back, that he was in fact Barnabas (like Paul and Barnabas), “who sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37)? Wouldn’t it be great if the rich young ruler was able to follow Jesus afterall, even if it happened much later?

Thank you for taking time to respond to my questions, thoughts, and concerns. Your words have enriched me, Paul, truly. Sounds like a cliche, right? Even so, everyday I feel less burdened and distracted (though I’m not always sure what the next step is going to be), and it’s mostly because I’ve wrestled with the conversations we’ve been having. Thank you!

Last thing. My dad told me something quite unexpected but really encouraging this afternoon. He said that if I were to come to him and tell him that I had heard from God and, according to my desire to follow Jesus’ path, I had decided to sell everything and follow Him wherever it takes me, he would support that decision. He distinguished this support from full agreement, but it was support nonetheless. He is the first family member to encourage me to take the “next step,” whatever that may be. If you knew my dad, and how we have tended to interact, you would be so pleasantly surprised to overhear our talk this afternoon. Wow!