Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Proximity > Politics

Last night, somewhere around eleven o'clock, Cory and I paused the show we were watching. I don't remember why. It might have had something to do with a snack. Maybe one of the kids needed a drink. Maybe the extra little one sleeping upstairs was thrashing around as she does sometimes, screaming, "No! No! Stop it!" in her sleep. Take your pick.

I checked my phone before we resumed, me at one end of the couch and Cory at the other, my feet resting on his lap. Before I knew it, we were ankle-deep in our newest favorite argument. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's either about trash day or an existential crisis. These discussions flame as quickly as they dampen. The truth is, I love fiery debates. (A friend of mine recently asked me what my Enneagram number is. I don't know much about this business at all, but I know I'm an 8. When I told her she smiled. "Ah, 8's build intimacy through anger." Zing! I now take the blame for all these "heated talks.")

Cliff's Notes version: Cory says Christians probably shouldn't be political at all, though this isn't what comes naturally to him. He says it's a distraction from the real brokenness we face. I say it has to be both. It's people and systems. Oppressed people might not feel our withness if we aren't actively fighting the broken, unjust systems that grind their faces in the dirt. It has to be both.


"Mmmmm, I don't know," he responds, much too calm for my liking. "I think if we would fix this at a heart level, if we would truly stand with the people Jesus stood with, change would come."

In all fairness, the man spent over a decade in federal politics. He saw enough grandstanding and empty promises, whiplash-inducing election cycles and power-grabbing to earn himself a lifetime supply of Congressional skepticism.

In some ways, I see his point. But it sounds eerily similar to all the Christians I've known who claw for an excuse to stay fresh and keep their world tidy. Also, isn't it more than a little too optimistic?


Last week after Sunday lunch, a man came by and asked if he could mow our lawn for $20. "I noticed your yard looks different from your neighbors yards." (This is the most diplomatic way of saying, "Y'all, CUT YOUR GRASS!" I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.) It was awkward, just sitting there on the patio while a near-stranger in baggy jeans pushed our mower around, but we have learned a few things along the way. Dignity often requires discomfort.

Fifteen minutes after he went on his way, a different man approached us. He had some steaks in his freezer, some really good meat, would we want to buy it for twenty bucks? We recognized him from the pawn shop, where he waves to passersby now and then for minimum wage. He said his dad had just died, and he was trying to get to the funeral.

I spent time with a kiddo who had just watched his mom get beaten bloody. "She lost her purse, her glasses, and one shoe." He said without expression.

I sat with a mom who pushed an envelop across the table, asking if I could help her understand why her middle schooler was being called in on deliquency charges after he'd worked all year to live by the letter of the law. There was no case number. No explanation. Just a command to show up at court in a couple of weeks. But first, she'll need to make sure she can get the day off at her minimum wage job. First, she'll need to find someone who can give her a ride. Various white people, smartly dressed, keep telling her her boys are "trouble." It is patently untrue, but she keeps lapsing into believing them. Just last week she took them for their annual physicals and the pediatrician looked one of the boys in the eye, in front of his mother, and said, "You're a mess. I don't know how your mom does it." For context, this is the boy who brought me a candy bar tonight just because and hugged me for the very first time. When his brother asked why he gave it to me he said, "I just can't stand to see people suffer!" He's the one who helped me pick blackberries. He's the one who found a plastic rosary on the street and asked Cory to pray with him, his mama isn't feeling well tonight. "Be with all of the people who don't have as much as we do," he prayed.

This weekend, at a birthday party for one of Ruby's friends, I met a guy who explained in detail why he served eight months in jail and spent over twenty thousand dollars in order to avoid prison after getting caught selling two hundred dollars worth of drugs. His bail alone cost him nearly ten grand he didn't have. His mom mortgaged her house to pay for an attorney so that he could be around to care for his family. Across the shelter, his wife smoothed their daughter's hair and smiled often. She'd made her niece's cupcakes, they all take care of each other. Like family. When we left, the friend's mom thanked me, "This was the first year we let her invite friends but Ruby is the only one who came."

All of this, in the span of just a few days.

Tonight, minutes before I sat down to write this, Cory's phone rang. Am I allowed a small exaggeration, to say our phones almost never stop ringing? Can I go ahead and say it that way, since that's how it feels? (Can I also tell you that as I typed the last sentence a text popped up, "I really need to talk to you," and that this sometimes overwhelms me to my core?) Tonight, Cory's call was a friend fresh out of prison. His bike had a flat tire. He was stuck at the grocery store one town over with his whole life stuffed into a backpack and two trash bags, on his way to stay with another former inmate who understood his position. Could he please come and give him a ride?

Cory mouthed the words to me, "Can I go get him?" Of course. Of course. Go.

And that's the precise moment some understanding clicked into place. My husband is right, or at least for the most part.

Twitter is a constant hotbed of controversy and outrage and I slurp it up like a spicy bowl of pho. I find intimacy in anger, along with taco memes and literature, apparently. The past year has been a rush of information, uncovering the layers both over and under the broken systems of race, education, immigration, poverty, and incarceration. Our words and our thoughts don't cost us nearly enough.

As a follower of the weird way of Jesus, I am uniquely and specifically called to fight for the things God cares about. I am invited to believe my neighbors deserve the same life I think I'm entitled to, then do whatever I can to let it be so.

These are not strictly political issues.
These systems form the rubble around us no matter who is in office.

Sign petitions and retweet popular columnists if you want to. Get out the vote. Show up at meetings with a holy fire in your gut. Burst into tears after yet another fruitless meeting, then go back in for more.

Just remember, my friends are selling frozen steaks for cash.

My friends' days are numbered. If they don't find a place to live and a job, they'll go back to jail.

My friends have grown used to being ignored because they suffer bad teeth, DIY tattoos, and the stains of generational poverty.

My friends have learned to let others talk for them, even and especially when those "others" seek to harm them.

My friends hope the phone will buzz with an invitation to be included in almost anything.

My friend lost a purse, eyeglasses, and one shoe, and their pre-schooler lived to tell.

My friends have grown nearsighted in their search for Jesus. They do it alone, at close range, because no one else wants to stand in their line of vision and be the real Jesus, who existed in and for and because of community. No one wants to be near enough to see that same Jesus reflected in them - we can't bear the humility required.

It's almost midnight, and I honestly think Cory would just like more people to field these calls. He knows what an honor it is. He goes because he wants to. He can. (And sometimes, he can't.) Our friend circle primarily consists of hard-life people drained from trying to prove themselves to the power class dangling the carrot. We're protective of them, because they are among the greatest treasures we've ever known.

But we are also vastly outnumbered.

As for all of our competing political inclinations, whatever. My thoughts and opinions are many, but until we get this settled, I really don't care.

We answer only to Jesus, and we are missing the mark.
We are not getting low enough.
The fall will cost us dearly, and that is exactly the point.

Do you want to know what will begin to truly change this devastating world? Living as a neighbor, wherever you happen to be.

Take a look around and search for the hidden corners you'd rather avoid. Listen to different people. Dare to believe your life isn't half as chaotic as it's supposed to be.

May our words and our ideologies be few.
May we end this race good and sweaty for the sake of the kingdom right in our midst.


Jesus Untangled by Keith Giles is one of the books that really got us talking after hearing about it on a podcast. I haven't read it yet, but I'm eager to.
I Twitter-met Michelle Ferrigno Warren, the author of The Power of Proximity, earlier today and bought her new book immediately. She speaks my language. 
Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne is another one on my list. (I have loved several of his other books.)
Falling Free is the book I wrote, which recounts our fall from political jobs, comfort, and safe faith to everything I shared tonight.


  1. 1. I think this is my favorite of anything you've ever written.
    2. Thank you for sharing your family with us. (I'm looking for words to say you are inspiring me to give more of myself to others for Jesus, and they are all too weak.)
    3. Which podcast was it where you heard about "Jesus Untangled"?

    1. Hey, Ann!
      It was Preston Sprinkle's podcast, Theology in the Raw. Guest: Keith Giles. I'll go ahead and update it in the post, too. Thanks for asking!

  2. Thank you for writing this post. It's wonderful and inspiring. I need to look around some hidden corners and start being a better neighbor!

  3. Great Post! I find myself grinning and scratching my head, however, because now that we are settled, I am trying to reach out and find "my place" in our new area and so far every door but one has remained closed. So, I'll go to the coffee-meeting tomorrow and see what happens. In the mean time, I'll keep smiling and waving at the neighbors when I see them and bake them some brownies this weekend!

  4. DAMN, girl! Preach!!! And welcome back to the world of blogging! ;) You still got it. This was thought-provoking and well spoken.

  5. I love this conversation. I am a former political junkie who has been completely burned out by the last 24 months of politics, so I am wrestling in my own head with this same discussion between you and Cory. I think the answer has to be both/and - like so many things.

    But I don't think we all need to be doing both. I think all of us are called to be in relationship with our neighbors, to grow where we are planted, to do the stuff Cory is talking about in our own communities, however differently that looks from person to person. (I also think a critical component of this that people rarely talk about is actually caring for the dirt right beneath our feet, but I digress...).

    I don't think we can take address the systems until we have the experience in the more nitty gritty. In order to operate out of a place of "withness" as you call it, we have to actually BE with oppressed people, first. After we have that foundation, we can act out of true empathy. Or we can relinquish our privilege and voice to someone else who doesn't have a voice, which I think IS a political act. I think some of us are called to pivot that experience into "politics" as most of us understand it, but not all of us.

    I also think the parent who mortgaged her house to keep her son out of jail does more for the Kingdom than 99.9% of Tweets. I have to leave that .01% because words do matter :)

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  7. I love the idea of searching those hidden corners and living as a neighbor. It reminds me of Mother Theresa. Many people recount stories of wanting to join her in India, and she responded by telling them to go serve in their own towns.

    My question is: how do you avoid getting jaded and feeling taken advantage of? My husband and I employ people at our restaurant struggling with many of the issues you talk about: generational poverty, drugs, alcohol, crime history, lack of education/skills, etc. (We are in a rural, white area, so systematic racism doesn't play much of a role here.)

    We pay well above minimum wage, but many of them refuse to work full-time hours or they'd lose state benefits. They try to get us to lie on forms or pay them cash so they'd be eligible for more. Some have stolen from us. Many have very unreliable attendance and/or show up high. One disappeared for over a week after her boyfriend got out of prison, then continuously changed excuses. One got an OWI just minutes after leaving her shift. One purposely cut himself the first day on the job. One disappeared for a weekend bender and then expected immediate forgiveness and his job back. I could go on and on...

    These really are our closest encounters with those "hidden corners," and I strive to show mercy and compassion. I know that a lot of behaviors stem from difficult childhoods and difficult circumstances. We cover a lot of shifts and give a lot of second and third chances and advice when possible. We borrow money for baby clothes, offer odd jobs for extra cash (mowing the lawn definitely resonated!), we babysit their kids. But my husband is fatigued by all of it as we still have a business to run. I'd love to see a post sometime touching on some of these issues of feeling taken advantage of and when to draw boundaries. At what point does our mercy and compassion become enabling? At what point are government programs systematic enabling?

    I know the biggest difference is probably your role as chaplain/neighbor vs. employer, but I'm sure you've felt taken advantage of at times, too. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    1. This would interest me, as well. I have difficulty finding the balance between enabling and truly assisting. I remember one time school shopping with a fellow mother who was recently released from prison. My heart wanted to pay for her daughter's supplies...but as we bargain hunted, my spirit sensed that she NEEDED to do this. She needed to be the hero in her own story (and that of her daughter's), so my role was to walk with her into victory. This has been a good precedent on other occasions where I seem to fall into "Savior" mentality.

    2. I totally hear you on this. I do think it's different to be a neighbor vs. employer. It's just a whole different set of expectations, a different (necessary) power dynamic.

      Since I write as a neighbor, I definitely avoid writing overly personal or negative stories. I know this leaves a bit of an unbalanced picture, but it protects my heart from every feeling like a victim (I'm NOT) and choosing to focus on the positive people and situations are a much healthier place for me to operate from. I write often that my neighbors can break my heart. Watching spiraling addictions is #@$%^@. But painting people who society already hates in a negative light is not my interest. They get enough bad press, you know?

      I know you guys will understand what I'm saying. I don't mean to imply that you don't "get" this.

      We have had to work hard to figure out boundaries as we go. (I honestly don't even like that word, not sure why.) We do not let our neighbors' "emergencies" become our emergencies. (When they are actual emergencies, that's different. But this is rare.)

      In the examples in this post, we did not buy the steaks. I mean, sometimes we say yes. Sometimes we say no. But my response doesn't change the fact that there's a man trying to sell his steaks, you know? The constant tension can be almost unbearable, and it's also so necessary for my soul. It goes a long way toward keeping my pride, privilege, and judgment in check.

      Last thing, there are a couple of people in our life who are extra needy. One is particularly manipulative. We treat manipulators carefully. We'll love them forever, but we probably won't ever trust them. And with one of our needy friends, I finally had a "come to Jesus" where I just laid it all out. It was the very best thing for our relationship. It catapulted us into family. When the relationship is real and enduring, it can withstand hard and honest conversations. We have to earn that right.

      Thank you for asking tough questions, ladies!

    3. Shannan... thank you for your response to the above question. And thanks for your honesty about the non-stop phone calls and texts... this is something that gets me. I want to love everyone. I want to see people. I want to be a life-giver, value-adder. But most days I also want to hermit in my house, shut off my phone, and ignore the world. The struggle is always in me. Thanks for sharing the tension, but thanks for sharing how you overcome it, too. Your blog and book came into my life when God was already working this desire for authentic community in me... I always look forward to your words. I love reading about you and your neighbors.

    4. Thanks for your response! I totally understand your reasons for not wanting to share negative stories. It does help me to know that you've had to say "no" on occasion and have experienced similar manipulative behavior. Compassion fatigue is tough. It's one more reason we need more people to engage in the kind of authentic community you encourage. More people to bear the burdens, help, listen, hold accountable, etc. Thanks again!

    5. This reply was very helpful to me, too! I appreciate your desire to keep it positive; I understand that even more after your response. But like others have said, it's good to hear that you don't say yes to every crisis. I came from saying yes to everything, making everyone's problems my problems, and I know firsthand that that's a sure way to wreck your life (and not help theirs in the process). So thanks.

  8. straight manna, every word of this. thank you, my friend.

  9. "Our words and our thoughts don't cost us nearly enough. " I'll be mulling that over for weeks.

  10. Shannon, this is the most powerful piece you've written and, untouched, would make a fine short chapter in your next book. Well done.

  11. Shannon, I want so much to be as brave as you and Cory. You are rare beings in this world. I don't even know where to start, but I really want to. You're perspective is beautiful and I thank you for sharing. 💕

  12. Well written ! What I have found is many Christians are living is the suburbs well insulated from any of the encounters you described. We also live in the suburbs to be near our daughter and grandchildren but we decided we needed to drive out to the "real" world to go to church and rub shoulders with "real" people. Our downtown church sings in 3 languages, Swahili, Spanish and English, our congregation has refugees, the working poor, middle class, and lots of mixed race marriages. We feel at home finally .

  13. You are an inspiration. Thank you for making me feel uncomfortable in a good way. I need to be more open for my neighbors and my "community" and to live more like Jesus!

  14. Jesus. He's the answer. Seems trite to even say it (or type it rather.) Bending low, no matter the zip code, goes hand in hand with speaking His truth in love. There are no "more important" people. All are broken, which manifests it's self differently in every area. I can hardly get my neighbors to look me in the eye. They don't want me to see their brokenness. But they are. I know they are b/c I am. Political policies are good and right (when, I agree with them, of course 😋). Advocating is important. I want to know where others are suffering and if I can help. But they will never change the heart. Ever.

  15. So So good!! Will be thinking about this post for a very long time and looking for ways to serve.

  16. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I always need to be reminded to step out of my comfort zone and help those in need.

  17. This cut me to the core of my laziness and desire for comfort. It cut me to the core of my desire to be something more to those around me. This is why I read tour blog Shannan (And because you're hilarious, make good food, on and on etc.). Thank you for this today!

  18. I had never heard of Enneagram numbers before, but I never shy from online personality tests. Can I just say I wasn't ready for the deep insight on my own personality brought to me by the internets? I was thinking it would be vague and flattering like horoscopes. NOPE! "What all Sixes have in common however, is the fear rooted at the center of their personality, which manifests in worrying, and restless imaginings of everything that might go wrong."

    My husband shares your "Eight" tendencies and as soon as I read "builds intimacy through anger" I knew I had found a new understanding of our spicy, argument filled marriage. Yay!

    Thank you for your writing and your constant exposure of what the Christ-life actually looks like. It keeps me between the lines (most days) and it goes a long way to building this community. God bless!

  19. I continue to be so grateful for your voice. Keep on, my friend.

  20. This is one of your bests, Shannan! I've learned so much from your words all these years and they have shaken me while they simultaneously connected with truths I've always known deep inside.
    As a person who can hardly bear confrontation, I am intrigued by the thought of intimacy through anger. I definitely fall on your husband's "side" of the politics argument and I'm not sure where blogging falls in the spectrum but your family's example active compassion has inspired me more than any political ideology or public display. I thank God for leading your family to and through this and thank you for painting the picture of what it looks like for us. His peace to you!

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