Just Stories

Yes, the title of this post is a play on words.  If you figured that out already, congratulations!  Here’s what I want to get at in this entry: 1) seeing our lives as stories that we can choose to make purposeful and 2) some helpful thoughts and resources I encountered while attending the Justice Conference in Philadelphia this past weekend.  These two topics–our lives as stories and what justice looks like–are themes that I’ve been contemplating these past several months, and I want to bring them together to help me (and you) think about what it means to live not just a story, but a story that is just.

 Our Lives as Stories

Seeing our lives as stories is an idea I’ve heard in bits and pieces from different sources at different times, but have found it to be most fully and beautifully explained by Donald Miller in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  The book is something of a sequel to his better-known Blue Like Jazz, and by my assessment shows the evolution of his thought as he’s lived and grown.  In A Million Miles, Don Miller explains how he learned about the elements of story through the process of framing Blue Like Jazz as a screenplay.  Thinking about what makes a story meaningful led him to contemplate what what makes real-life stories meaningful.  He describes several adventures that this process led him to undertake, the most pivotal of which involved establishing an organization called The Mentoring Project, an organization that pairs fatherless children with mentors from faith-based communities.  More recently, his fascination with story inspired him to create Storyline, an interactive “life-planning” process he started at conferences and has now also published in book format with an online component.  I’ll write more about this process at another time (I recently started working through Storyline)… for now, my point is we can take steps to create meaning in our lives… and often that means just stepping up and doing it.

Soon after reading Don Miller, I read The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne.  Claiborne’s simple, genuine, and passionate call to action combined with Miller’s honest description of his own struggles, risks, triumphs, and failures… and these authors forced me to face for the first time that 1) I have a a conscious choice about how to live my life (i.e. either meaningfully or not) and 2) if I’m going to call myself a follower of Christ, I don’t actually have a choice…  I cannot ignore or simply “leave to other people” His call to love, care for–and in some cases fight for justice–for His creation.


All of this was about a year ago… since then, much has happened in my personal life, and I’ve mostly been trying to survive life, much less ask myself how God can use me in my own brokenness to help others in their brokenness.  Still, in this past year, the experiences that I’ve had have continued to impress upon me that not only do I need to make the conscious choice to direct my story in the way I believe Christ has called us to live, but that I have the strength, ability, and tenacity to help affect change.  (As a side note, this statement is not meant to imply that I have some kind of unique or “special” calling or ability.. but that we all have both a calling and an ability, and that I’ve just recently realized this of myself.. and that I want to follow and work alongside those who have been working towards this end for a long time.  I hope some of these thoughts I’m sharing convicts and/or affirms you, too).


Fast forward to now.  My sister Karen had two tickets to the Justice Conference in Philadelphia and graciously invited me to go with her.  I’ll admit I had certain hesitance caused by my evangelical background that sometimes communicates that the justice movement=anti-gospel (see this Patheos blog entry for more on that)… and a self-conscious irrational fear that I would ignorantly wear something produced by a brand that doesn’t pay its workers fair wages (i.e., I half-expected everyone else to be dressed like Shane Claiborne 😉 ).  Still, I was excited about the opportunity to hear from people who have proven their commitment to working for justice in the world…and excited to see how it would connect with what I’d been thinking about in terms of my own life.


So, here are some thoughts and resources that I encountered at the conference.  I realize this entry is going to get a little long, but I don’t want to separate this idea of story from the call of justice… as I believe the best stories have to do with fighting injustice (see definition below).  However, if you need a reading/processing break, this is the best place to pause and come back later.


I also apologize in advance to those of you that will read the following and think “Um, yeah, this is all obvious and kind of old news.”  Or maybe you’re already thinking that!  You may be past this point in your thinking (and way past me in your action upon it), or maybe you didn’t know this point existed… either way, please just take these thoughts for what they are to you at the moment, nothing more and nothing less.


Defining Justice

There were many variations given at the conference, but most of them in some form related to the definition fleshed out by Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts.  Put simply, justice for humans beings is helping people to be who God created us to be.  Injustice, then, takes many forms (of which material poverty is only one–see below for more of that)… but all forms of injustice have to do with systemic brokenness in our relationships with…

  • God
  • self
  • others
  • Creation

As Fikkert points out, the fall happened to all of these relationships.  Another conference presenter, simplifying justice in a form to explain to children, said that justice is “what should be,” and acting justly is making what is “not good,” “good”… or looking for the wrong and finding ways to make it right.  In other words, justice is working towards restoration.


What is Poverty? (or, who is poor?)

To hear this in his own words, watch this short clip of Dr. Brian Fikkert on poverty.

Essentially, if poverty is broken relationships, then we are all poor.  In the west (particularly America), we tend to see poverty in terms of a lack of material things.  The way we define the cause of poverty will determine the solutions that we propose.

Even for those who are materially poor, material resources are not going to change the nature of broken relationships.  Fikkert points out that the way we in the western world are broken exacerbates the way the materially poor are broken… for example, those who are materially poor may have a broken relationship with self that expresses itself as marred identity, while our American society’s brokenness of self expressed itself in pride and “God” complexes.  Thus, the liberation of the materially poor is bound up with our liberation… and the first step in alleviation of material poverty is our own repentance.

Some Unhelpful Attitudes/Assumptions
  • Thinking you can be a “voice for the voiceless.”  Everyone has a voice; it’s a matter of whether their voice can be heard.  Justice would not be you speaking for them, but helping them find a platform to speak for themselves.
  • Justice being merely something you “do.”  Ken Wystma explained that being just is part of an identity… can challenged us to not just “do” justice, but to become just.
  • You are better off and so you’re going to help the poor. We’re all poor. See above.
  • You know how others need to be helped. It takes getting to know individuals and communities to know their needs.  They’ll probably get to know yours, too…
  • Blaming people’s troubles on them (what they did to make it happen) or on God (“it’s just what happened–we can’t understand how God works”). Brenda Salter McNiel pointed out that our justifications for walking past the “trash of life” are our attempt to exonerate ourselves… like the passers-by in the Good Samaritan story.  In that same story, Jesus doesn’t talk much about how the victim got on the side of the road… that part doesn’t really matter.  What mattered was that he was there and he needed help.
  • Doing justice “projects” rather than bringing restoration to people. It’s dehumanizing. (Eugene Cho)
  • New Testament love supercedes Old Testament Justice. Love and forgiveness don’t replace justice, they fulfill it and add to it… Nicholas Wolterstorff explained that forgiveness is going beyond what justice requires.  Love is not pitted against justice.  “Justice is to be done out of love–and true love is never unjust.”

Sound Bytes: These are all from my notes, so even though some of them are probably direct quotations, just consider them all paraphrases because I’m not sure which are truly which.

  • “We have an ethos in our country that demonizes and dehumanizes the poor… the fastest way to squash the image of God in a person is to take away their right/ability to exercise dominion.” -Lisa Sharon Harper
  • “The poor are poor because they don’t have access–it’s not that they ‘don’t know how to fish’ “-John Perkins (referring to the oft-quoted sayings, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life”)
  • Instead of just talking about justice as an aspect of God’s character or quibbling exactly how the church is supposed to live this out, say “hallelujah, thank God, and just get on with it.” -Gary Haugen
  • “The work of justice is a long and faithful love… the majority of which is filled with tedium and boredom.” -Gary Haugen
  • “We can’t fundemantally fix the world, but we can change it.” -Ken Wystma
  • “Humility is an honesty about weaknesses, not a dishonesty about strengths.” -Ken Wystma
  • “Justice is not just a good thing, it’s a necessary thing.” -Ken Wystma
  • “After awhile, you need to stop just pulling people out the lake, but find out who is pushing them in in the first place.” -Leroy Barber and Noel Castellanos
  • “Examine your theology–answer the question ‘Who is God?’ and this will tell you what you believe about people.” -Brenda Salter McNeil
  • “What does it mean for you to see an issues that so breaks your heart that you can’t avoid it… when compassion grabs you and you have to do something?” -Brenda Salter McNiel
  • For workaholics in our society, the “feedback signal is not that you’re broken; it’s that you’re successful… but God has his own feedback signals.” -Brian Pikkert
  • “When grass is greener on the other side… that’s the Holy Spirit telling you to water the grass that you’re standing on.” -Eugene Cho
  • “The best thing we can do is be honests about how laborious and messy enacting justice is.” -Eugene Cho
  • “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.” -C.S. Lewis, quoted by Melissa McCreary, when discussing education that focuses on intellect without a moral compass.
  • “It’s harder and harder to hate once we’ve tasted grace.” -Shane Claiborne
  • “If you cannot feed a hundred, then just feed one.” -Mother Teresa, quoted by Eugene Cho

Now… you’ve made it through–well done!  Now go back, choose one author/speaker that I mentioned, read about what they’re doing (on their website or in their books), see what connects with you, and do something about it.  (This is my challenge to myself, too!).

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