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.
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.