Witness

Embodying the Imagery of the Prophets

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“The wolf will live with the lamb…a little child will lead them…the infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Is 11:6)

Any meaningful embodiment of Isaiah’s vision is often relegated to a distant landscape when the heavenly city finally descends, and Jesus proves once and for all that he is the rightful King of the universe. Instead of engaging with the darkness around us with a swelling expectation for the in-breaking of God’s peaceable reign now, we often settle for passivity and spectating as we lament that which we are convinced we cannot affect. With lattes in hand, we domesticate the cross by associating it with mounting family-career tensions and masquerade bi-weekly coffee shop discipleship as apostolic fire. Unlike King David, our problem is not the blood on our hands.

I confess my own propensity toward apathy. I might not favor lattes, but the aroma of the single-origin coffee I brewed this morning still lingers in my kitchen. It seems we all need to be branded again with the searing iron of the ageless prophetic summons most often associated with those we’ve labeled fanatics. Missionary Jim Elliott was one of those fanatics. He didn’t dabble in nuance when he called out his generation’s passivity:

We are so utterly ordinary, so commonplace, while we profess to know a Power the Twentieth Century does not reckon with. But we are “harmless,” and therefore unharmed. We are spiritual pacifists, non-militants, conscientious objectors in this battle-to-the-death with principalities and powers in high places…the world cannot hate us, we are too much like its own. Oh that God would make us dangerous!”1

It is lamentable that many who claim to serve the King have never been told the dangerous truth that we indeed were made for this type of militancy. I pray, for the sake of the world, many more come to see it and to act upon it.

Incarnation is Intercession

Many years before my arrival in Kansas City, a number of families had felt God leading them to move into Lykins neighborhood just a few miles east of downtown Kansas City. With one of the highest crime rates in the United States, zip code 64127 looked similar to the apocalyptic backdrop to the film The Book of Eli. Condemned and gutted buildings marked most intersections. Drifters sprinkled the landscape pushing shopping carts down hemorrhaging sidewalks, their hands gesturing at invisible characters in front of them. This was a veritable wasteland.

I landed a room in the historic old house of Jason and Candy Fields. The Fields had sold a landscaping company and relocated their family to Lykins not long before. Jason then formalized a non-profit called The Urban Farming Guys and began to cultivate a space implementing sustainable farming practices. Like urban missionaries, they planted their lives like seeds in the ground, hoping to raise up indigenous leaders committed to having an impact on both the physical landscape and also the trajectory of future generations.

The momentum of this vision grew with time. Others gathered around us, equally committed to affecting change. The existence of a formal entity like The Urban Farming Guys created a context where the interaction between a wide variety of persons, both professional and casual, could happen quite naturally. Most of the dirty work was done in the community gardens and in neighborhood homes. Gutted, abandoned buildings on one side of the street and a collection of thriving raised-bed gardens on the other were a constant reminder of our mission: signs of life and death separated only by sidewalks and asphalt.

Gutted, abandoned buildings on one side of the street and a collection of thriving raised-bed gardens on the other were a constant reminder of our mission: signs of life and death separated only by sidewalks and asphalt. Click To Tweet

The contrasting environments stood in protest to one another, contending exhaustively for the generations to come. Never before had I experienced the stark reality of light and darkness so tangibly. Lykins is a case study of what happens when hope, purpose, and love are torn away from a community and meaninglessness becomes the shared experience of one generation after another. If the gospel of Christ’s kingdom had real power, it needed to show itself in a place like this.

An Invitation to Dinner

One of the primary ways we interacted with the neighborhood was through communal meals. We practiced Jesus’ exhortation to go and gather from the highways and byways people for a feast.2 Every Sunday we would hit the streets in groups of twos and threes, making our way up and down the local arteries, mostly on foot. Sometimes we would go door-to-door and other times to local hangouts like McDonald’s. Our message was simple: “Would you like to come to dinner?”

Sometimes we would go door-to-door and other times to local hangouts like McDonald's. Our message was simple: “Would you like to come to dinner?” Click To Tweet

Back at the house, a potluck-style meal was prepared by a variety of persons and always smelled inviting. Those who were new to the house would articulate their embarrassment for their smell and attire through a withdrawn demeanor or neurotic apologies. For some, the discomfort was insurmountable and the only relief was to leave.

Those who were regulars had come to know that their appearance was nothing to be ashamed of. We were not there to judge or condemn them, but simply to welcome and serve them as our Teacher had commanded us to.3 Helping our friends to see that they we were all honored guests was an obstacle we fought hard to overcome.

Mealtime was typically followed by worship and ministry to anyone in need. It was here in these moments that heaven and earth would collide. Unexpectedly, God’s Spirit invaded our aging house on Myrtle Street in observable ways. Those who had come to the gathering inebriated sobered up. The angry recluse in the corner suddenly exchanged cursing for a mouthful of praise. The grip of depression and anxiety was lifted by God’s calming presence. Paul’s words to the Roman church were being written on our hearts, “The Kingdom of God is justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”4

During those meetings, we all came to believe in God’s attraction to messiness. Certainly, there was nothing on our end that could persuade God’s hand. The purity and simplicity of our diversified and desperate fellowship seemed to be what drew his mercy down onto our lives. In those precious moments, our differences melted away. We were no longer rich and poor, black and white, clean and unclean; we were all just objects of his grace and love—every last one invited to receive his salvation and healing. This was not choreographed tolerance anchored in the promise of impermanence, but true and tangible peace anchored in the Prince of Peace who said that when lifted up, he would “draw all people to myself.”5

The Vision Manifests

Bob was of the reprehensible sort. A local metal-scrapper who lived just around the corner, he became a regular at our weekly gatherings. He was a short man and always wore the same weathered, winter-ready suspenders and grungy leather boots. He liked to talk, but never about anything deep or engaging, mostly stories acquired from years of transient behavior. Every sentence was peppered with vanishing syllables, which made him difficult to understand. But, tonight, maybe for the first time ever, these complications were irrelevant; two small boys, Asher and Titus, had brought Bob a book.

To the boys, Bob was no vagrant. Their concern was not for his social standing or personal hygiene. All that mattered to them was that he was familiar, and of course, that he could read. With his approving smile, they jumped up into Bob’s lap and leaned back into that sunken-green couch together. While the festivities around the trio buzzed, Bob and the boys entered into the shalom of Isaiah’s vision:

The wolf will live with the lamba little child will lead themthe infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”6

My time in Lykins taught me many things, maybe most of all, that messiness is not to be avoided, that risk-taking is a prerequisite to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, that the love of God is demonstrated most profoundly in Christ’s fearless embrace of that which is rejected and broken. Jesus offers his very life to the world because he knows that only in this selfless exchange is healing found.


[1] Jim Elliott

[2] Matthew 22:9 and Luke 14:33

[3] John 13:14

[4] Romans 14:17

[5] John 12:32

[6] Isaiah 11:6-9

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