One hot and humid day in the fall of 2007, I left College Station, the home of Texas A&M University, and drove my car south on Highway 6 to Navasota, Texas, a town regionally known for its rural poverty, lack of foundational culture, and overt racism. These social elements were never really talked about and they seemed to fly under the radar of the general public. Most folks, including myself, are generally ignorant of their white privilege and do not spend a great deal of time thinking about what they could do to fight institutionalized racism. I’m not sure whether it was the university’s students that hadn’t woken up to the anything outside of their class schedules or it might have been the constant distraction of their credit card with their parent’s money on it. Or maybe it was just the the normalized classism that exists in most places that goes unaddressed by the white majority conveniently preoccupied with their own careers, zip code, and socioeconomic status.
At the time I was volunteering 15 hours a week working with the organization that relies on thousands of relational hours spent by college students willing to pour their time into the lives of high school kids. I could go on and on about the stories I have from the few years working to bring the free gift of the love of God to high school kids, all along trying to forge some sort of social justice movement that might shift the culture in the town a few degrees towards equality. I experienced both revival and sadness, beauty and ugliness during those years. Like most endeavors, there are two sides to every coin.
This particular afternoon I was frustrated. I had been driving down to Navasota (what we jokingly called “the nav,” the “nasty nav,” or most often just “the nasty”) for a few years and had seen little spiritual or cultural movement by almost anyone or group of people. I was frustrated. The good kind though, not the “what’s in it for me” kind but the truly “heartbroken, I wish the world wasn’t so dark” sort of frustration. A pastor friend of mine said he called it “righteous anger.” The kind that burns inside of you like a wildfire and causes you to spontaneously weep over the injustices and unnecessary suffering in the world: physical, mental, and spiritual.
I remember driving in my car, sitting on the same road making the 20 minute drive in silence, praying for God to move in ways that were powerful and miraculous.
In the quiet, in the stillness of that drive, I heard the Spirit speak to my heart and mind, so clearly and profound. So much so that when I walk away from situations like these it is so remarkably clear to me that the still small voice that had spoken was surely not mine. It didn’t come from within me, it felt like it was given to me like a gift from the cosmos. It was clearly the Living God, the Divine, the Holy Spirit, His or Her living presence that is here, now, and near. This is what they said:
“What if all of this…all of this work…all of this effort…all of this frustration…all of these dollars you are putting into the tank of your car…all of the heartache…all of the seemingly wasted time…
What if all of this… is as much about what I am achieving within you, rather than what you are achieving for others?
What if this whole experience is rigged for your transformation, not what you accomplish?”
Looking back on this idea now seems entirely elementary, but at the time it turned my world upside down. I had lived in a pious self-denial mentality that the Spirit was trying to free me from. There was so much more joy, hope, and spiritual unearthing to be involved with rather than simply our external surroundings. I have lived in this truth every day since this moment for over twelve years now, but at that moment it significantly shaped my life. Things I do are now things that I allow to transform me. As a wise person said, “let everything be your teacher.”
The call of Jesus was, “Come, follow me,” because Jesus knew that deeply effective transformation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Memorizing Bible verses does not achieve anything practically for us until it is put into intentional motion. As Eugene Peterson once said, “We don’t acquire information about God, but skills in faith. An apprentice of Jesus learns not in the setting of a classroom, but sitting at the foot of a craftsman.”
Our transformation into a loving and truth-seeking person must be in practice. In the same sense, God has both loved me radically and also has given me a passion for truth; God in His essence is both love and truth. God is the truest version of humanity, wholeness, and unity; both passionate love and honest truth recklessly smashed together. Jesus came to show us how to be a healthy human: addressing the real problems within before we address problems outside.
His kingdom wasn’t a kingdom of re-establishing a power of state or government. His kingdom was a restored world where people treated each other the way they wanted to be treated. He gave us all the same capacities to love and live in wholeness because He has instilled in us from the beginning his Imago Dei: God’s image is buried deep within all of us.
It is the responsibility of all people, most importantly those who call themselves the loaded term Christian, to must spend our lifetimes unearthing this truth within us.
If we miss the transformative movement within us that God so lovingly desires, then I believe we completely miss the purpose of it all. “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matt 23:26).”
And so, my prayer is that you may hear that still, small voice, calling you outward into the world to make real, lasting change for others. But as you go, let that same voice do the work in you that it requires…calling you to unlearn and relearn, deconstruct and reconstruct, and pass through the refining fire that God calls us through.