Pick up any book in the spirituality section of your local bookstore and you’re likely to find the same three or four stock photos on the front cover. There’s the one where the crisp morning mist is hugging the blue-white peak of a single majestic mountain, or maybe the silhouette of a lone figure standing in a beam of light cast between the limbs of a lush old growth forest. Spirituality is often cast as the solitary pursuit of a focused individual who finds time to steal away from humanity and rediscover themselves with a mountaintop experience. The more we can do away with the physical and focus on the transcendent, or so the story goes, the more spiritual we become. Just close your eyes, drown out the sounds around you, and escape from the here and now.
Jesus did occasionally get away from the hustle and bustle to pray to his Father. But we’re surprised to read that Jesus’ spirituality did not keep him tucked away in some holy huddle with his closest, most spiritual followers. He was not a distant figure on a lone mountain casting off the trappings of this human life. Neither did Jesus hide away in a cave and remove himself from the rabble-rousers of his day. Rather, Jesus entered head-long into his humanity, and the humanity of others. He moved into the neighbourhood (John 1:14) and it transformed the way people forever relate to God.
The theological term we use for Jesus’ astounding act of entering into humanity is, “incarnation.” It’s the idea that Jesus, very much God, also became very much a man. He took on all the qualities of a human life. Incarnation, literally means, to take on flesh. Think, carnal, carnivore, and carnival. Meat. Rustic. Sensual. God came to take on, and step into, the sinewy, sinful, sticky stuff of life. The incarnation of God in Jesus was a radical idea that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day just couldn’t accept. The religious people had a keen focus to tame the carnal world and present themselves to God, clean, pure, and ready to hear from God. What they failed to see was that they could, under no circumstances, ever be clean enough. They could never be good enough. Never right enough. In fact, their separation from the world around them actually prevented them from tasting and seeing the very good things that God was doing all around them. The incarnation of Jesus ushered in a shift from me-getting-it-right-before- God to a new spirituality: me-trusting-Jesus-and-entering-into-the-world-with-God.
Jesus laid out the terms of this when he said that we ought to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbour as ourselves (Mar 12:30-31). In many ways, this summarizes ‘Jesus-Spirituality’. Jesus had a deep prayer life, and it was evident when he was loving his neighbours. People sometimes called him a drunk and a glutton, and friend of unsavory people because he was often seen with that crowd. Jesus was touching the untouchable, he was embracing the sinner, he stepped head-long into the world that was before him. He must have done so with enthusiasm because thousands came to follow him. They loved Jesus as he loved them. Jesus’s model for spirituality was hands on, crowded, local, patient, and incarnate.
As a follow of Jesus and the hand-on-people-loving spirituality that he exhibited, I’ve found that I have become a neighbourhood enthusiast. I am starting to see that right outside of my front door is a world of people and activity; sometimes banal and sad, sometimes beautiful and exciting. What I had once only seen in passing from the driver’s seat of my car, I’m now starting to engage with everyday. I am meeting people, hearing stories, sitting on front porches, and playing with kids on the street. I’m throwing parties, and joining in on other parties. I am finding help and friendship, I’m learning names and trusting others. And through it all, I’m experiencing the presence of God. As I love others and delight in them, I am being reminded of how much God loves and thinks the world of me. Loving God and loving our neighbours go hand in hand.
A few years ago I became a beekeeper. It’s a strange, old-fashioned kind of hobby. But I find bees fascinating and amazing teachers. Did you know a small beehive can pollinate a whole neighbourhood? When bees pollinate, it changes the landscape. Apple trees fill with crisp fruit and raspberries pop with mouth-watering plumpness. Bees make neighbourhoods green, productive, and beautiful. Although small and, to some, insignificant, honeybees are so much more. My bees have become a picture of the kind of calling I think God has on our lives. By engaging locally, faithfully loving our neighbours in small and consistent ways, and stepping into the messiness that is immediately around us, we become life-bringers. By doing what Jesus did, right where we live, we have the God-given ability to affect change. We bring beauty to the streets and cul-de-sacs, and to the condos and apartments where we live. Our presence in our neighbourhoods, and our loving attentiveness to the people around us, join us into the very loving heart of God.
Jesus is already present where you live, loving your neighbours. Are you?
Dr. Preston Pouteaux is a pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alberta and is a neighbourhood enthusiast, beekeeper, and family man.