Some of the most exciting and innovative Christian workers today describe their approach to mission as incarnational. But the term has been used in such diverse and contradictory ways that it is in danger of becoming clichéd, losing any real meaning. This means some will dismiss the incarnational idea before they even consider its important call to sustained faithfulness and relevance in mission.
The Same as . . . ?
Some people think that because Anji and I moved our family into Klong Toey slum in Bangkok, Thailand, that we are therefore incarnational—believing we have somehow become the same as our poor neighbors. However, just look into the wide eyes of little Lek1 and you will see this is not possible.
Lek is a 4-year-old girl who sports a toothless grin, dirty face, and matted hair as she plays with our son Aiden’s plastic action figure. The blood-stained spots on her ripped dress and dark purple bruises on her arms and back tell me I cannot possibly identify with her. Her life was dislocated and undermined before it even really began. I mean, even Jesus couldn’t be the same as little Lek and he was the Incarnation!
The day before Christmas, our daughter Amy and I cried out to God as we witnessed our neighbor beating his little girl over and over with a stick. The assault went on for 25 minutes, and we struggled with thoughts of intervening to make it stop. We knew that getting involved would cause the father to lose face and only make the assault worse. The brutality also bothered other neighbors.
It was wrong that we did not intervene. It is wrong that the culture values saving face over the safety of little children. And it is wrong that I, a Christian, failed to act regardless of the consequences.
Some Thais later explained that only someone older than the father could successfully intervene. If a Westerner got involved, they said, it would bring great shame that would result in a worse beating when we were not around. I am not sure how we could have done it, but I am upset that I let a small child be abused.
Everything, it seems, is connected and, yes, my actions would have impacted the neighborhood. The catalyst for the beating was when a neighbor yelled at the dad because he was owed money. The father lost face and took his shame out on his little girl. Lek’s mum sat by washing the dishes, and Amy and I sat by crying out to God to make it stop. Maybe God was waiting for me to stop it?
Joyous Times, Horrible Times
We are trying to bring the hope of Christ into the chaos of this neighborhood. We need to do this in word, deed, and sign. One of the upsides of being packed tightly together is the amazing opportunity to do life with lots of people. This often is joyous and hopeful.
But this hard fact remains: we cannot access these joyous times without also being part of the horrible times. So I seek comfort in that. The hopelessness is never a long-lasting feeling, but it is a very necessary one as I try to live consistently as a servant of God. I don’t always succeed at that, but I hope to keep improving. Christ promised that his kingdom will come on earth, and so I strive toward that end, seeing little glimpses of it here each day.
If I can’t really be the same as Lek (and of course neither Lek nor I can be the same as Jesus in so many ways), then one could easily assume that the attempt at incarnational mission is simply a costly, misguided approach. Jesus was the incartio (made flesh), as in “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). The metaphor of “enfleshment,” however, has real limits when comparing what we’ve done with how God became human.
Potential for Transformation
Despite these limitations, I believe incarnation can be used as a theological motif to help invite, inform, and inspire a new generation of Christian workers to reach the lost and poor. I am biased, but perhaps the most helpful description of incarnational mission comes from my PhD supervisor Ross Langmead in his published dissertation, “Word Made Flesh.” After surveying the different ways the term is used in diverse Christian traditions, he developed a three-part definition that is slowly becoming the standard of an incarnational approach to mission. He contends that incarnational mission includes:
• following Jesus as the pattern for mission
• participating in Christ’s risen presence as the power for mission
• and joining God’s cosmic mission of “enfleshment” in which God’s self-embodying dynamic is evident from the beginning of creation.2
This kind of enfleshing mission has great potential for transformation no matter where we live. Certainly it has inspired and informed our approach in ways I am not sure we could have survived and thrived without. How can we develop such an incarnational approach to our missions no matter where God calls us?
The risen Christ invites us to follow, join, and participate with him in enfleshing his kingdom on earth as in Heaven. As we take up this invitation, we don’t become mini-gods, special people, or the same as those suffering, but we do begin to uncover the presence of Christ in our neighborhoods and we enflesh, or make real, the promises of God.
Such enfleshed hope can change the trajectory of people’s lives and advance the whole of creation’s redemptive destiny. This is the good news we have to offer the Leks of the world. It is the promise that a new kingdom can come alive and be seen now in the flesh through us even as we wait for the complete fulfillment of all his promises.
This is not an easy approach to take, even for those of us who relocate to slums. Despite living so close to thousands of people, some days I am just so overwhelmed by what is happening that I can’t find Jesus, never mind respond with following, joining, and participating with him in transformation.
For example, just yesterday (May 9) Lek’s mother fell to the ground and died in early morning hours, probably a result of methamphetamines. A neighbor told us, and I heard the screams only a few feet from our home. At first, without the right words, I froze. Yet, somehow, even when I am out of sync with God like this, the situation can still be redeemed. An enfleshing of hope beyond my own strengths is still possible.
Care, Quick Cure, or Run?
Don’t underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.
This is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.
Those who can sit in silence with their fellow man, not knowing what to say but knowing they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.
When we’d rather be competent than fools for Christ, we miss sharing our greatest gift of vulnerable, personal solidarity with Jesus among the poor where the transforming Spirit is released. To join Jesus in the fellowship of the broken, we need the help of other Jesus fools so we can keep finding, learning, and growing in Christlike responses. Living a life centred on Jesus personally and enfleshing hope in our neighborhood is more than just geography; it’s about Christian discipleship. Sometimes it simply requires being present, as we were at Lek’s mother’s funeral.
A Costly Calling
As Urban Neighbours Of Hope workers, we covenant together to discern the will and heartbeat of our Lord together and respond faithfully. We know this is a costly calling, but urban poverty is far more painful and awkward for little Lek than I could ever experience. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). In this parable we are promised we can meet Jesus in the awkward embarrassment of poverty and human suffering and find dynamism for transformation and hope.
Seeking any hope and transformation through Christ will cost. Offering grace requires suffering, or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Unearned suffering is redemptive.” Think of any who have made a difference in the world and you know they personally paid a price for the change they saw. Think of King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Toyohiko Kagawa, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, the apostle Paul, John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus.
People often think that suffering for the gospel is a kind of stoic-romantic experience, but taking up our cross daily in following and joining Christ comes at us in all kinds of ways. When our motives are impugned and gossip and deliberate misinformation is spread about us, the pain is as real as any physical hurt we have experienced. Even our sense that our contributions are not valued can be devastating.
We have limited power in these dark experiences. God knows what is happening, and when the end comes we know all will be put right. In the meantime, I know that the hard and awkward experiences of living with those in need is nothing compared to the sense of purpose and meaning infused in us as we watch hope rise in lives of the little Leks of our neighborhoods. Relocating to a slum home is a small price to pay to have the best opportunity possible to enflesh hope.
This kind of approach—enfleshing hope—is very different from the colonization, empire building, and institution-centered mission of past eras. We have seen the failures of these and are determined to find more Christ-centered ways moving forward. We don’t want to take over and dominate the world. Our churches, programs, and missions are not the incarnate Lord. Only Jesus is Lord. We recognize that organizational and community disciplines are crucially important for sustainability, but even this cannot be the main focus. We instead give our best personal and organizational attention to participating with Christ in the slums since he has already moved into the neighborhood.
An incarnational approach, then, is not one special method, model, or moral vision. Rather, it’s about living in ways that detect and enflesh the special presence of the risen Jesus. No matter where we’re called to live, I pray we can all find ways to join and make real the hope found only in the Incarnation—the crucified and living Lord Jesus Christ, who invites us all to “come, follow me.” To follow, join, and participate with this Christ is to find our true lives.
1Not her real name.
2Ross Langmead, The Word Made Flesh (Lanham: University Press of America, 2004), 8.
Ash Barker serves as director of Urban Neighbors of Hope in Bangkok, Thailand.