Tag Archives: Richard Rohr

On wealth and solidarity

When we first arrived in China, many of my posts took the form of earnest prayers that God provide security to us in this unknown place.  I struggled to trust God’s faithfulness when our apartment flooded, when the visa process loomed large and complicated, or when my dissertation research just seemed too impossible to complete.

And I’m thankful for a community of supportive readers who hear me out when I fear and when I complain, and the process of writing through these feelings and the fears has been immensely important and meaningful to me.

Lahu children in the mountains of Yunnan province.

But it’s nothing compared to what many in the world face everyday.

When I listened to This American Life‘s radio show on Americans in China, when I visit with my foster families who are struggling to make ends meet, and when I remember that despite China’s growing wealth, half of the population lives on a dollar a day, I am reminded that we in America, for the most part, are on the side of the rich and powerful.  Even I, as a graduate student, am rich by most Chinese standards.

Chinese men in a church in Yunnan province.

I recently met with one of my Chinese friends who is struggling with these dichotomies. “I notice a lot of missionaries come here and live very comfortable lives, all the while speaking loudly of their sacrifices, in order to keep a steady stream of support from abroad for their kids to go to good schools and so the parents don’t have to work,” she observed.  “But meanwhile it’s the Chinese people who are working in the trenches, making the real sacrifices, spending their own money and time, on top of their bills and their full-time jobs, and much judgment from their foreign partners who chide them for worrying about money and not spending enough time with their families.”

This whole partnership and solidarity thing is tricky.

And rather than a drastic move across the world or an elaborate ministry to the poor, I think any effort at solidarity or partnership with others first requires us to admit how powerfully our own wealth distracts us from the Gospel and hampers our ministry, and based on this realization, agree to play a minor, humble part that is based on listening, rather than a major one in doing God’s work.

You see, as Richard Rohr writes, we who hold the wealth, the prestige, and the power, have been in the driver’s seat for far too long.  “And in this world, there is still a whole mass of other people who have other insights.  The white man first raises questions of power and control.  The questions we pose to the Gospel are always questions that come out of this bias.” (Rohr Simplicity 163)

A young female minister in the church in Yunnan.

Rohr goes onto specify the types of questions we need to ask if we are to be free of ourselves, namely, “In what sense are we ourselves rich?  What do we have to defend? What principles do we have to prove?  What keeps us from being poor and open?  The issue isn’t primarily material goods, but our spiritual and intellectual goods–my ego, my reputation, my self-image, my need to be right, my need to be successful, my need to have everything under control, my need to be loved.” (Rohr 168)

It seems we’re quite incapable of welcoming Christ because we’re so stuffed full of ourselves.  The real thing we have to let go of is our self.  We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves.

—Rohr Simplicity p. 168

It’s a process–we can’t look the three demons in the eye: the need to be successful, the need to be righteous or religious, and the need to have power and get everything under control (174), until we recognize that material wealth has its limits and has taken its toll on our ability to know God and others.  And it is that toll, that ego, those demons, that hamper our ministry and our ability to know and understand others.

There are no easy answers here.

The author with a foster child.

But that’s the beauty of this challenge to be vulnerable with one another, to craft a life built on the promise of abundance, sacred things, and mutuality.  As Rohr writes, “But Jesus doesn’t offer us any certainties; he offers us a journey of faith.  Jesus doesn’t give us many answers; he tells us what the right questions are, what questions the human soul has to wrestle with to onto Christ and the truth.

Our formulations determine what we’re really looking for.  Our questions determine what we ultimately find and discover.  Answers acquire power too quickly; they often turn our words into ammunition to be used against others.  And answers make trust unnecessary, they make listening dispensable, they make relations with others superfluous.  Having my answers, I don’t need you in order to take my journey.  I need only my head, my certainties, and my conclusions.  It’s all private.  But Jesus said we have to live in this world so as to be dependent on one another.  The real meaning of a poor life is a life of radical dependency, so I can’t arrange my life in such a way that I don’t need you.  We can’t do it alone.

–Rohr Simplicity p. 162

And isn’t that the bare bones of solidarity and partnership–that we can’t do it alone?  That dependence on others requires us to rearrange our lives around one another, however inconvenient, humbling, and excruciating that process may be?  

I have a confession– I don’t think I’m there yet.  

Me and a Wa woman in Yunnan, 2011.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I desire to grow in Christ, and I pray that I am growing, not just with every year spent here in China, or every realization of the Gospel as seen through the eyes of my brothers and sisters here or in America, but in the quietness of my heart, where I admit that my wealth and my power have led me astray, where I find the willingness to ask questions and really listen, rather than rely on my own answers, and where I discover that I am my own worst enemy, that my needs for recognition, power, and control pale in comparison to the a life of dependence on Jesus and my neighbors.

And perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s not so much about me and my rising above all this, but about the faults and the wounds that I carry, in which others may recognize their own humanity, and we might begin to tear down these walls that divide us.

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On Simplicity

Flashback photos from our January trip to Egypt. My husband photographing me by the Red Sea. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I’ve been savoring Richard Rohr‘s Simplicity, lingering over the pages for nearly two years (you’ll notice my nightstand rarely changes).

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my lack of speed when it comes to free reading, but Rohr’s is a book that has been so meaningful to me that I’ve read it repeatedly and with frequency, often returning to chapters after months away, yet feeling as though they’ve gained new meaning with the passing of time.

I had never even heard of Rohr before I came to China.  

I picked the book up at a closing sale in Colorado, a couple days before we left the country.  And in this new one, I rediscovered the contemplative life and the radicalness of Jesus’ life.

Greeting minority Christians in Yunnan, Nov. 2011. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Rohr writes passionately on the importance of women’s leadership in the Church today, on the great wisdom to be found in great humility, and on the simplicity of letting go.  A couple days ago I sat with an intelligent Chinese friend of mine, a woman with great gifts for ministry and leadership in the Church.  She mentioned a fascination with Catholic spiritual formation, and I immediately brought up Rohr’s name.

And then it occurred to me that after two years of reveling in this wisdom, it was nigh time to pass it on.  I’d leave this little paperback with my friend, hoping it would encourage her to share her gifts, hoping that as Rohr believes and has led me to do so as well, that out of contemplation comes action.

Inside a mosque in Cairo. Photo by Ben Robinson.

And so I’ve been tearing through these last few chapters with newfound vigor and appreciation for Rohr’s teachings.  Rohr writes,

I think this is the clear meaning of the story in chapter 25 of Matthew: the people were suddenly to discover Christ in the least of their brothers and sisters, and not just in other charismatics, not just with other evangelicals.  Otherwise, all you have is collective self-love.  Then the group is, so to speak, just an extension of my own ego.  This is evident in the need to use the same Christian jargon as I do, so that we can be together.  But this isn’t the freedom of the children of God.  Such people will never unite or reconcile anything, because their life at the bottom keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Real Christians are able to discover and love Christ in the not-me, the totally other–but this always means taking a step beyond previous boundaries…

I chose the story of the rich young man to demonstrate the change we seek has to be very concrete, very immediate, and very practical.  Otherwise it’s an intellectual thing.  Jesus asks the rich young man to move from here to there–and he meant economically.  For most of us this means turning to people who are different from us.  This the only thing that can liberate us from our egocentric attitude.  Maybe this means that as younger men and women we go to the elderly, or maybe as healthy persons we go to the physically and mentally handicapped, or if we’re homophobic we work in an AIDS hospital…

I believe that circumstances change us, not sermons.  We’ve changed when we’ve moved to a new place and when we expose ourselves to the truth of a different standpoint, one that’s not our own.  What else is metanoia, or conversion, supposed to mean in the New Testament?  It means to go to a different place; and this practical step will see to it that our growth as Christians is something real, something earthbound.  Otherwise there is always the danger that our so-called love of Christ will be just a disguised love of self.

–Richard Rohr, Simplicity, p. 154-155

With parents in Yunnan province. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Although I’ve been a Christian for decades, this transformation of living in a different place, seeing the world through different eyes, and being faced with a new reality, has taught me more about God than many of those years combined.  And as Rohr suggests, it’s the freedom of letting go of what I thought I knew, and seeing Christ in the least of these, and in those who were formerly strangers, that has made all the difference.

Church Renewal from Below

Richard Rohr writes,

‘In 1961 the pope asked us to send 10 percent of our personnel to Latin America. Nobody did it. Even people who claim that they obey the pope didn’t do it. When I went to Latin America, I was told: ‘We’re glad they didn’t send any priests then. If they priests had come, things would have gone on the way they always had. This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to celebrate any Eucharists or that we don’t want to have God’s word preached. But we were forced to seek out our own way, and now we have a country like Brazil with between eighty and a hundred thousand base communities.’

…or a continent like Africa, a country like China.

Rohr goes onto say, “It seems to me that Jesus is renewing the Church, not from above but from below” (Simplicity 112-113).  These words are on my heart this week as Evan and I leave to participate in the third annual English Exchange offered through the Presbyterian Church USA‘s Outreach Foundation in Nanjing, China. It was an experience last year that changed both of us- a rare opportunity to interact and fellowship with Chinese church leaders, pastors, and professors.

A Chinese pastor friend and myself at last year’s English Exchange at Jiangsu Bible School in Nanjing.

And as this opportunity returns this summer, I’m left pondering my reflections regarding my experience with Chinese Christians over this past year, particularly my fears about the lack of theological education available to the growing house churches in China, and the impact of that on Chinese Christianity.

And yet, Rohr reminds me that these fears are my fears, and they have little place here.  These fears reveal that despite my best intentions, I hang onto a supremacy of sorts that suggests that the type of renewal that can and will happen in the Chinese Church is not “enough,” in that it needs Western intervention, Western wisdom.

But, of course, it is enough, and it’s precisely what China needs.   The Gospel is best understood by the least of these rather than by those whom the world credits with all the knowledge, power, and wisdom.

This premise undergirds the myths Rohr draws upon from Anne Wilson Shaef, myths that world systems are built upon.  They are myths that our systems are superior, omniscient, logical, and truthful, when really such systems blind us from the truth that Jesus gave us, the simple command to love God and love our brothers and sisters, and regard them more highly than ourselves.

And at my best, this all induces great humility in me, the kind I felt in the mountains of Yunnan, among the Christians there who welcomed me and my American friends with open arms and full hearts, or the kind of repulsion I feel when Westerners declare that our role in the Chinese Church today is to “provide training.”

Of course, training will happen, with us, or (probably more effectively) without us, but I know one thing in my soul: we’re called to listen, to encourage, and to learn here, but not to lead.  

God, give me the faithfulness and the courage to do so over these next few weeks.  And God make me an instrument of you, open my eyes to see, my ears to listen, and my heart to learn from those to whom in the world’s eyes are may be regarded as poor in spirit, but to whom I know much has been given.  Amen.