a few months ago a dear friend called me and asked me if i knew of any bible study material for poor single moms who needed an infusion of hope (she works for a ministry that provides practical help for them). i racked my brain for any material that was designed specifically for that demographic and came up with nothing. i realized as i was talking to her that poor single moms living in section 8 housing aren’t at the top of the christian book marketing lists. publishers print books for people who will buy them. and people who buy books usually have margin. by “margin” i mean sufficient resources to work with–emotionally, financially, practically.
even though my mom was a single mom and we always scraped to get by, ever since i graduated from college i have most definitely fallen into the category of “people with margin.” i am white, have a graduate degree, a nice house, medical insurance, car insurance, the ability to put gas in my car, and united airlines flight benefits, ha ha. i whine and complain about money but the truth is that if i made some different choices i could make more of it.
i think about this a lot because in the world that i live in i am painfully aware of how much easier life is when you have margin. doors open. people return phone calls. some practical parts of life are easier. and churches want you.
a lot of my friends don’t have a ton of margin in the typical ways. educationally, practically, emotionally, spiritually, they live on the fringes. they struggle to get by. to make ends meet. to feel loved. to feel hope. to feel change is really possible. life is hard for everyone, but when you don’t have margin, i think it’s definitely extra hard. simple solutions don’t work. there’s not an exit route or an end around or just one-smart-move-away-from-digging-out-of-the-hole-forever.
the most interesting thing to me, though, is that regardless if we have “margin” or not, i think all people share something deeply in common: our desire to love and be loved, to be connected to other human beings and something bigger than us, to taste freedom and hope and joy and purpose in the midst of real life. i believe this is our common denominator, the thing that we all share.
i spend an inordinate time thinking about the church, the wild and beautiful and absolutely frustrating body of Christ. i know that God is at work in all kinds of wacky and wonderful ways despite us, but i can’t help be frustrated by the gravitational pull the church seems to have toward margin.
toward people with resource. toward people with power. toward people with voice. toward people who are “gifted.” toward people with margin and ability to contribute financially and practically. there’s a gravitational pull toward margin, resource, and power–and those with power and voice make the rules and influence the systems.
unintentionally or not, because it’s made up of humans, the church often aligns with the ways of the world and naturally gravitates toward margin. i don’t think anyone intentionally mean to do this; i really think it’s just so engrained in us that we don’t even notice it. so we end up creating and perpetuating structures and systems that don’t really make a lot of room for real, authentic, lasting relationship together across the divide between those with margin and the marginalized.
it’s always interesting to me that on the whole, there are usually lots of people with margin grouped together or lots of people without it grouped together but very rarely are they all intertwined and interconnected together in true loving equal community.
and when we settle for this, when we segregate instead of integrate, we continue to perpetuate the divide.
to me, a true reflection of the kingdom is when those with no margin and those with lots of margin live together in brotherly and sisterly love, where economics and education and mental health and gender and all kinds of other things that separate us don’t get in the way of loving freely.
i have to say that i get glimpses of this in our nutty little community sometimes, the weird combination of people who are learning the ways of love together even though honestly it appears they have absolutely nothing in common. i have so much respect for my friends who could do just fine in an average church but have said in their hearts–i have something to learn here that i can’t learn when i keep hanging around people who look like me, think like me, believe like me, buy like me, are like me. and i will be honest, sometimes i get really sad that the people who tend not to stay with the refuge are usually the ones with the most margin. there’s no doubt, we have become more lopsided than we could and should be.
and then i look at the gospels. and the nutty life of Jesus. and how the kingdom he proclaimed looked radically different from the ways of the world. that in his economy the first are last and the last are first. that he had a gravitational pull toward the marginalized, to the ones on the fringe of life and faith. and so when i see the christian-marketing-wheel-go-spinning-round and the boys at the top of the heap and the salaries and the money floating around and the resource available at people’s fingertips after a good round of golf i have to take a deep breath and say “yes, God, the disparity is real, but i can’t worry about that or change that. help me focus instead on what i think the gospels are saying and do my best to keep walking this path despite the usual pull. help us be brave and stay the course and focus on what we have, not what we don’t have–because what you’ve given us it’s awfully pretty.”
i think this topic needs some attention in the whole new-community-cultivation-conversation because we want the cultures that we are nurturing to be infused with kingdom values, not worldly values. yet, so many of the church planting and natural-human-tendencies-that-we-bring-to-the-table make it really hard to stay the course when it comes to resisting the usual attractions toward margin.
i know it is possible. but i think we need to respect that it is a much harder path. to fight against the gravitational pull toward margin, i think we need to:
- examine our own hearts. i am reading a book about personal and organizational change called deep change by jim belcher. the key point he makes is that any systemic change that happens has to first come from personal change in an individual. and true, deep change is much easier said than done. we need to get radically in touch with what’s going on inside of us, what God is stirring up in our own hearts related to this, what we are afraid of, what we hope for when it comes to living out the kingdom in more than just words.
- respect that margin is not bad, the world needs it! sometimes i can make it sound that way, but that would be mean that i was turning against myself. having resources, power, voice, influence, and all kinds of other things is a gift that should be used on others behalf. my sadness is not that margin exists, it is that on the whole my observation has been that it can keep people separated, safe, protected and often keeps the marginalized marginalized, preventing us from really living in true community together.
- be careful about deferring to it. this is my hot button, for sure. we have a natural human tendency to defer to power and margin. Jesus turned that upside down, and i think we need to, too. this means we make decisions for the ones with the least amount of voice instead of the most amount of voice. the least amount of power instead of the most. this is totally topsy turvy to average church leadership, where most often we defer to power and voice because that is who pays the bills and carries the most clout. true change will come in our systems when we refuse to defer to margin and open up not just space but power and voice for those without it–whatever that looks like.
- recognize our fears about each other. this goes both ways. those with margin have fears and misconceptions about people without it and vice versa. we need to find ways to live together, to learn from each other, to be together, to celebrate what we have in common which is often unseen but needs a place to rise to the surface. we must work diligently to create spaces where we can listen to each other and be honest about what we are afraid of.
- refuse to be controlled by money. oh this is so hard not to do, especially when there are bills to pay. but i also believe strongly that we can’t default to those on the margins just to make this “work” financially. this is what always seems to happen–ministries/churches need money, so they need to get people with money, and they have to give people with money what they want (and the top of the list doesn’t usually include “messy, intimate, complicated relationship with a lot of people not like me.”). this requires a scary weird freaky trust that i need to keep learning more about. it will also require not comparing ourselves to others or being insanely jealous of other ministries’ prosperity.
- ask God to show us the way. no question, i need God’s spirit to guide and direct when it comes to this hard road of living on the margins of life and faith. i believe we need God to show us how to keep walking this path when all the forces are against it. we, as community leaders and planters and dreamers and just-trying-to-figure-out-what-this-whole-way-of-the-kingdom-really-means, will each have to seek what God might be stirring up in us when it comes to this gravitational pull toward margin & power and how to stand against it.
like so many other things, i am in the midst of wrestling with all of the implications of this, too, and readjusting so many of my expectations of “the way things are supposed to work.” i definitely don’t have any easy answers. but the more i reflect on this, i sort of think the Bible does. the way i see it, Jesus is pretty clear on this one. over and over and over again he told us what kingdom living looked like. and it always pulled in a different direction than most everyone else was going. it always looked a little funky, odd, off kilter to the norm. it messed with the status quo. it tilted toward the least and the last, the spiritually poor, the hungry, the desperate. and no question, it shook the foundations of the systems that default to religion, power, and margin.
oh i would love to hear some of your thoughts on this one.