Incarnational Theology emphasizes that the Father has sent Jesus as one of us. God does not scorn the human condition rather God dwelt in the fragility of the human body (Phil 2). This human form brought the Glory of God down from Mt. Sinai to the streets of Nazareth. The fullness of God somehow, someway was displayed in the limitations of the God-man Jesus. He embraced those limits to model for us how to be present, really present. Jesus was a “manger wetter” as the poet Stephen Mahan states. This is not sacrilegious, this is sacred. God experienced human flesh and in it opened up space to observe his kindness. (Rom 2:4). The incarnation continues as we are sent (John 20:21) and now the Divine is being downloaded into the ordinary. An Incarnational God leads us to inhabit the world not as one fearing but as one searching; searching how the Kingdom of God breaks into the crevices of our world through tangible touch. This imagination is a burst of light into my life offering me a framework for being available in my local context.
Cost and Consternation
I’ve had the joy of meeting many young Incarnational Theologiz-ersspringing forth with fresh vision about this vital spirituality. I too drank a firehose of books years ago that helped me visualize incarnation as a refreshing path forward in the world. Yet I’ve sadly observed that many with all this incarnational ideation often lose steam with little on the ground sustainable actualization. It’s not mentioned often that many who leap into “doing justice” burn out from discouragement or fizzle out because of boredom. It’s one thing to learn about the content and another to live into the content. My suspicion is that our imagination for Incarnational Theology is still elementary and quixotic. For all my fervor, my imagination needed to be filled out with the cost and consternation. I’ll be honest, incarnation is a thorn in my side, and it’s exceptionally inconvenient and even irritating at times. Many days that I press into the mystery of the incarnation and attempt to move it into practice I get a bit ornery, straight up grumbly in my spirit. The incarnation confronts me with a private emotion; I don’t love people. I don’t hate them but I don’t love them either. I know that’s not cool to say as a church planter and community cultivator. I have sentimental love, maybe even theological love but practical love comes and goes for me.
I live in a cold, economically depressed part of the country that is fighting for progress. I’ve lived here for a few years now, buying a former abandoned drug house, gutting it and renewing it. We’ve had multiple families do the same, taking the plunge into this pocket of the city extending renewal. All of us champion a missional-incarnational life but we know it’s not a pretty scene at times. The sidewalks are littered with trash, the roads are peppered with boarded up houses, the gang violence can make you nervous to go for a walk and mental illness on the streets is no longer interesting, it actually frightens your children. My wife and I scratch our heads at times wondering “how the Gehenna did we end up here?”
The deeper we dive into this particular place the more inconvenient our lives get. I’ll give you some examples: people knocking on my door looking for a ride at weird hours when I’m exhausted laying on the couch, sitting and listening to a neighbor’s drama when I’m privately stressed on my way to an appointment, pouring the energy of love into someone and having them steal from you, cultivating trust with another and having them go “Gollum” on you. You can read about incarnation in a book and idealize it but translated to real life it is invasive. There is relentless disappointment in the up close and personal space of incarnation. The sheer dashed hopes can do an angry-dance on your perseverance. Sure I can gain applause outside of my hometown when I speak about incarnation but on my streets few are impressed. I preach and teach incarnation but I want to be truthful, I have a hard time in good conscience making it sound sexy.
The Curriculum is People
Yet something continues to happen on a subterranean level in our community: we are being discipled by the phenomena of being with people. The curriculum is people; they expose our attitudes and our actions. There is resistance within me. I do not want to bear with others. My un-love regularly rises to the top and I can feel it floating on the surface of my heart. At that point I either tackle it or pamper it. God is not interested in a professional compassion he wants to take us through the labor process of birthing the real thing. This practice of tangible love has brought me face to face with my own limits, impatience, stubbornness and resentment. Trying to be present, really present in a particular place has ironically made me aware of what is present in me. Everyday I’m challenged to bail on beholding the beauty and brokenness in others. Will I stay? Will I lean in? This is the battle ground in my heart. I share all this to summarize that I love Incarnational Theology but we must speak about its proletarian irritation to be truer to its actuality. We must be careful not to perpetuate the abstraction of “being incarnational” or we do a disservice to the Incarnation. To know the incarnate God you must experience the pain of incarnation.