I've been back to the Roma village a number of times since those first two experiences. Entering their world has been a new way of living for us as we try to learn what it means to love others. Whereas we originally invited the Roma we encountered to join us for tea or meals - undeniably good gestures - we became convicted that these gestures were insufficient. We were asking those in need to step into our wonderful world, replete with warmth, abounding with food, and saturated with joy. We were asking the alien to enter into a world that simply made them feel even more alienated. Of course it's wonderful to share such a world with them and offer them a vision of what their world could be. Hospitality is a great thing. But overwhelming those in need with all the things they don't have can also be a catalyst for heaping up hopelessness on their backs. Rather than building community between us, our hospitality at times seemed to merely accentuate our differences. How great is the disparity between their world and ours, and how would they ever bridge such a vast expanse? We began to discover that outreach shouldn't be so much about forcing others out of their world to enter into ours, but it should first be us going out, leaving our world, to enter into theirs. Outreach should perhaps more appropriately be labeled "inreach," as we step out of ourselves and move into the lives of others.
It was with this realization that God convicted us to step out of our world and into the world of the Roma. We knew where their village was. Why weren't we going to them? So I began to go. And after I went a few times, we brought our kids to visit and play with the Roma kids. No great leaps of faith or lifestyle have been made in our handful of visits - by the Roma, or by us. They're still living in poverty and learned helplessness, and we're still living 99% of our lives in our world. But we have begun to see glimpses of humanity in that 1% of life we are sharing.
Most of the time our interactions with the Roma have felt objectifying and transactional. The Roma are always asking us for things and vying for a position to receive goods. We are objects for them - tools they seek to access in order to resolve their issues of poverty. At the same time, it is so easy for us to view the Roma as objects too. We view them as projects to fix, as obstacles we can't allow to get the best of us, or as objects with which we just need to download the right information in order for change to occur. Rather than just loving valuable human beings, we are often, like the Roma, positioning ourselves for power and outcomes. But one day while we were in the village, there was a small glimpse of humanity. There was one spontaneous moment when that objectification ceased. The objectification ceased when it was drowned out by laughter. Sam had a piece of cheese from breakfast stuck in his beard and Jean Claude reprimanded him for his sloppiness - probably because he thought it gave a bad impression of them to me. They assumed I was cultured and therefore they needed to put their best foot forward in order for me to favor them and bless them with material goods. A few minutes later, as I was about to leave, I asked if there was any food I could bring the next time we met. After they listed a few items, I smiled and said, "and I won't forget the cheese for Sam, because I know how much he loves cheese." We all laughed genuine laughs. For that one moment, we were all caught up in the shared gift of laughter, all of us enjoying and experiencing the same moment, seeking nothing from the other, but communing together. We were all equal. Laughter, like a meal, is a great equalizer. It allows all who are present to simultaneously feast on the same joy.
As I reflect on the past, I wonder why it took us as long as it did to embrace incarnation as the primary means of ministering to hearts. Maybe it's because we felt like we were already being incarnational. I don't know, but it seems the Bible views incarnation as pretty central to its message. The Old Testament shows us that for two thousand years, expectations, judgments, astounding miracles, repeated graces, and repeated mercies were not enough to change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, or to raise up a people who would perpetually follow God. Ministry and truth without incarnation are often merely hollow and demoralizing proclamations and actions. How strange of us to think that we could ever hope to see true change in the Roma without living incarnationally. Handouts, inviting them into our home, giving disapproving glances and head nods, or doling out unachievable expectations just won't change a heart. For humanity, it took God in the flesh living among us and sending his Spirit for true change and hope to arrive. That incarnate God is now our example, and his Spirit lives within us. We Christians are now God incarnate in the world - the hands and feet of Christ, the one whose Spirit indwells us and equips us. Perhaps the Roma, like the rest of humanity, need God in the flesh.
Sadly, I think the reason I failed to understand the importance of living incarnationally is because of what Christmas has become for many of us. Rightfully, we celebrate Christmas as the great incarnation. But usually we take this incarnation to merely be a description of God's magnificent love for us. "Look how much God loves us that he sent his son!" we say. This truth is a fantastic truth to celebrate. But as with most of Christ's teachings and example, we so often embrace the descriptive while doing away with the prescriptive. Jesus loves us, to be sure. But he also commands us. And one of the things he would have us do is to follow his example in living incarnationally. We should be all things to all people for the sake of the gospel. We should lay down our rights for the rights of others and for the weaker brother and sister. Christ's life, teachings, and example implore us to continue being the hands and feet that touched the sick, went to the sinner, and dined with the tax collector and the sexually immoral. And if we are promised that we will have a cross to bear, then our body, like our savior's, should be broken for others: our head pierced with thorns, our back striped with whips, our beard pulled, our side thrust through with a spear, and our hands and feet nailed. There is not one part of Christ's body which wasn't afflicted for us, so no matter what part of the body we are, we should likewise be willingly afflicted for others. We are called to go into the world to make disciples and to lay down our lives. We are called to be Christ in the world. We are called to live a life that seeks out the other. We are called to live a life incarnate.
While it is important to understand the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of the incarnation - that God is love, and we should be too - I think there is one more aspect of the incarnation which is even more overlooked: the rational aspect. We see what Christ did and we hear what he prescribes for us. But why? Why incarnation? Surely God's method says something as to his mind. While the incarnation does help to expand our understanding of who humanity is, how severe sin is, etc., at the core of the incarnation and why we're called to live incarnate lives is a theology of the world which harkens back to the very beginning of Genesis. We understand that the Garden of Eden was a place of perfection and beauty, destroyed by humanity's choice to define good and evil for themselves. Rather than adhere to God's laws and trust him for their provision, Adam and Eve decided for themselves how they would run things. The moment they looked to themselves to define good was the moment they saw themselves for the first time - and they realized they were naked. It was only when sin entered the world that Adam stopped living for God, for Eve, and for tending to nature, looking instead to himself. Adam and Eve were created incarnate beings, living to uphold others and keeping their eyes focused outwardly.
The incarnation and life of Christ - the New Adam - shows us what our forebears didn't. God calls us to trust him and his goodness, and the life of Christ shows us why we are to trust God to define and bring about good. Jesus shows us that God is sovereign and brings about our good even when we don't understand how good could possibly be obtained. His life incarnate, his death, and his resurrection are proof to us that we can live incarnate lives to others and trust God with the outcome. There is no greater example of this than the resurrection and glorification of our savior, Jesus Christ, which only proceeded the "defeat" of God himself as he was hung in humiliation to die on a cross.
Perhaps the greatest lesson and encouragement we can glean from the incarnation, then, is not that God loves us. For what good would it do for God to love us if God were not sovereign to bring about our good - to actualize his love towards us? And what hope would we have in exemplifying a defeatist strategy of God in loving all if victory could not be assured? In my estimation, the greatest lesson we can learn from the incarnation is that our God reigns, though his reign is a bit unconventional. In his sure, victorious reign, God rules by love and service, in what may often initially appear to be humiliation and defeat. Just look at what Philippians 2 has to say about the incarnation.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross!
God's ultimate ordination of history, the death and resurrection of his Son, came through a weak but obedient servant. Isn't that really the story of most of the Bible - God's prevailing through the use of weak vessels? God calls old Abraham to birth a nation. God uses Jacob, the second born, to carry on the nation. God uses Joseph, the youngest of all his brothers, to save the nation. God uses Moses, a murderer and bumbler, to lead his nation out of captivity. God founded the largest religion in the world largely through illiterate fisherman. The list of sinful, socially disadvantaged (e.g. prostitute, women, etc.), and inept people God used to bring his Kingdom is long. Conversely, we see God passing over strength or whittling it down when it is present. He significantly reduces Gideon's army to a miniscule size. He passed over the tall, strong, and popular Saul and favored a young shepherd boy to be king. He severely punished David with the deaths of close to 100,000 citizens after David sought to quantify his strength in the numbering of his people (likely to assess his fighting capacity). Time and time again God sets the stage for us to understand that true power comes through our humble faithfulness to him, entrusting God with the direction of history.
I believe it is our misunderstanding of power which often causes us to forgo a lifestyle of incarnation and faithful obedience. Like Adam and Eve, we believe power is about our control over defining the events of our lives. We cannot submit to another, for it is us who must control history. Perhaps this is why Samuel likens rebellion to the sin of witchcraft. It is trusting in the power of a false god to bring about desired results. It's only that in rebellion, this god is ourselves. But we are not gods. We are humans. God, through Jesus Christ, shows us what it means to truly be human - to truly image God. And there is the beauty of the incarnation. Yes, God loves us. But through the incarnation he also shows us how we ought to love, and perhaps more importantly, he shows us that love will always result, even in the bleakest of circumstances. Pragmatism is not my ethic. Objectifying others as objects in need of change isn't my position. My job is to love God and love others as Jesus did. I know I can live faithfully to God in whatever circumstances he has placed me because Jesus did. And though God allowed Christ to die, I know I can trust God because he also raised Christ up and has promised the same for me.
I have found that a more holistic look at the incarnation is adding more significant weight to my Christmas celebration this year. I am reveling in the love of God, as usual, but God is also using the incarnation to convict me. He has me asking some pretty pointed questions to myself. Are infrequent incursions into the Roma community really what it looks like to be incarnational? How much of my time spent with the Roma objectifies them as things I seek to change rather than as images of God whom I serve out of love and obedience? If I truly believed in God's power to change the heart even through me, an imperfect vessel, wouldn't I be a lot more optimistic about the likelihood of God's spirit moving through the Roma community?
As we dwell on the incarnation this Christmas season, let's reflect not only on God's love for us, but on all that the incarnation teaches us. Incarnation is not one moment in history 2,000 years ago. Incarnation is a lifestyle God has prescribed for us from the very beginning - a lifestyle born out of a trust in both his goodness and his sovereignty. It is this faith that Christ, the new and perfect Adam, had when, as Philippians says, he gave every ounce of power and volition he had over to God's plan and purpose. We Christians are new creations called to follow Christ in living incarnationally. We are called to allow God to define good. We are called to be faithful servants who entrust God with the effects of all things, especially when our continuing in faithfulness appears to lead to defeat. For what better proof is there of our God than to show the world that he is both good and sovereign, able to use imperfect, but faithful servants like us to accomplish his purposes? And what greater hope is there for us than to look on our example, Jesus Christ, the firstfruits of God's power and goodness, the demonstration of God's ultimate victory, and the promise of our resurrection? The story of God in the flesh should not merely give us a sense of nostalgic wonder at what was. Rather, it should embolden us to live our lives in faithful obedience to God as we embody his Son to the world through his Spirit today.