Christopher L. Heuertz, Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World. InterVarsity Press, 2008. Pp. 159. $15.00, US.
I wish I read this book more slowly. It’s a very accessible read, but that doesn’t mean it should be read quickly. Heuertz wrote a vulnerable book, one that puts his heart on display, and I couldn’t help but want to let his words do work on my soul–but that takes more time. Heuertz doesn’t claim to offer any secrets to spiritual success. Instead, he shares what God is teaching him through his friends, who happen to be the poorest of the poor. Through the ministry of Word Made Flesh, Christopher and his wife Phileena have discovered God’s love poured out in the poor, God’s presence in brokenness. Heuertz is on a wandering journey, learning to see God among the hungry in Brazilian favelas and the children sex slaves in Thailand. Can we see what he sees? As Jesus asks, Do you have eyes to see?
The book is organized around 5 virtues, each of which are chapter titles: Humility, Community, Simplicity, Submission, and Brokenness. The threads that bind these together are Heuertz’s engrossing stories about his friends. They are the context. His spirituality isn’t a call to close your eyes and think about God; instead, friendships with the poor make friendship with God possible. Solidarity is primary: “We literally live among the dying as an act of solidarity with our neighbors and our God” (20).
But Heuertz doesn’t start there. His beginnings are steeped in American evangelicalism. He writes, “Growing up in an evangelical Christian home, I was introduced to a very familiar, very informal God. I was culturally conditioned to perceive God as ‘on demand’ and at my beck and call” (36). But the beauty of God and God’s deep longings for the poor saved him. Scripture introduced him to “Someone beautiful… this God who cares for those in need–I mean, really cares for them” (37). And Heuertz began to fall in love with this God of the bible, a God who has a special place in his heart for the humiliated.
When we usually talk about humility, it’s something we can do in the privacy of our thoughts–something we can decide to do if we only have the will power. We pray and think to ourselves, Well, I’m going to work on being humble today. But this sounds like a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ spirituality. For Heuertz, we learn humility from the humiliated. He writes, “Perhaps those on the margins, the unrighteous and the people who live in poverty–those familiar with humiliation–can see purity more clearly through their unpretentious ‘impurity’… Perhaps we have something to learn from their humility” (34). There’s no privatized technique for mastering a spirituality of humility. Humility isn’t a possession. We learn humility from those who re-present the humiliation of Jesus. We receive the gift of humility when we sit at the feet of the poor; they infuse us with the virtues of Christ. They are the ones who can save us from our domesticated Jesuses. Here’s Heuertz in his own words (37):
It is in our intimate relationships with people who are poor, or more accurately our friends who happen to be poor, that our tainted views of God are transformed. It is our intimate relationships with our friends on the streets or in red-light districts that open our blinded eyes to really see Jesus for who he is. Through their desperation and forced vulnerability, they help us see what intimacy with God looks like. We are compelled to follow our friends who are poor to God’s heart.”
Our parents were right: we are who we hang out with. Our friends shape who we are. That’s not something to run from. Humans are relational animals. There’s no such thing as autonomy; it’s a delusion. The fibers of our being, Heuertz notes, “are made for relationships” (54). But we can choose with whom we form these friendships. Our hope is that the church may be a place where those friendships can happen. But what does it mean when our churches don’t welcome the poor? Or, to put it more strongly, what does it mean when we aren’t begging the beggars to worship with us? Heuertz doesn’t mince words: “If our community makes no room for those who are poor, our community loses all credibility” (58). While Jim Wallis is trying to fight for justice on the national scale, Heuertz offers a much more intimate vision, one that transforms our daily lives: “We work not for justice for everyone but instead to ensure that we’re on the ‘right’ side of the poverty line” (58). Are we on the side of the poor? That’s his question. This isn’t a political platform for a lobby group. Rather, it’s about what side of town we live on. Who are our neighbors, who are our friends, who sits next to us when we worship, who eats at our table? These questions mess with our lives. They haunt our everyday decisions. But these questions also send us to the poor, who offer us intimacy with God. And typically God shakes up our lives so he can offer us an unimaginably better one. Jesus: “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” But overflowing abundance gets really messy. “We want to let God in,” writes Heuertz, “but usually on our terms. We want to make room for Christ to reign on the thrones of our hearts, but only a clean Christ who doesn’t make a mess of our lives” (63).
Too often our churches are havens from the real world of death and oppression. Thus Heuertz asks, “The world is a place marked by suffering and poverty. Where is the church?” (65). Too often our churches are clean drugs that make everything better in our heads–an opiate, as Karl Marx once said. We worship because we like to close our eyes; we want to remain blind to how our lives are in bondage to sin. And this blindness keeps us from seeing the light of Christ. Heuertz quotes Jean Vanier, “We can even hide in various groups of prayer and spiritual exercises, not knowing that a light is shining in the poor, the weak, the lonely and the oppressed” (61).
Jesus didn’t hide from the harsh realities of life. Jesus didn’t outfit worship spaces with the comforts of middle-class culture. He didn’t make sure his followers had seats with cup holders for their coffee. Jesus didn’t buy the best sound equipment so the wannabe rock-star worship team could jam for the Lord. No. Heuertz writes (69),
Jesus’ ministry was not to the upper class, the educated, the elite or the most influential social figures. Jesus came and ministered among those who were poor, with the poor and as a poor man. His ministry was to the children, those who were begging, victims of leprosy, the woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery, the tax collectors, the fishermen communities and those on the margins. Jesus came to the common people and lived alongside them. As a church, we must learn new ways to celebrate our faith inclusively so that those on the margins of society will feel welcome–and so that our love and acceptance of the other will aid in our paths to holiness. Jesus’ ministry was marked with a distinctive compassion for the oppressed poor.
Has the church followed this way of Jesus? Not really. It’s more often the case, Heuertz says, that “the church…isolates the poor” (72). The poor have their place in the world, and we have ours. “Do our multi-million-dollar sanctuaries in North America send the same message?” Even if they did stumble into our worship services, could we hear their silent cries over the cool music and the soothing voice of the preacher? “As the statistics of poverty grow, the church only sings louder so as not to hear the staggering numbers and the cries of the victims” (71). Heuertz makes me wonder if most of our churches make us immoral.
What we are desperately missing is what Heuertz calls “the prophetic presence of the poor” (82). Our churches look and feel different when we worship alongside someone who doesn’t know where they will sleep that night, or a parent who has to prostitute themselves so they can put food on the table. How much does that cordless microphone cost? How much we eat and what we waste takes on new meaning if we’ve seen what Heuertz sees: “my waste was offensive…. My poor friends became a prophetic presence” (83). “We would often invite local friends (many of them extremely poor) to join us, their presence a constant reminder not to waste” (86).
At the heart of Heuertz’s book are these friendships with the poor. And it sounds like his life is all the more rich because of them. Our lives are possessed by our possessions; we are slaves in need of Christ’s redemption. The call to a simple spirituality is the possibility of making those friendships that liberate us. The gift of God’s grace doesn’t baptize the lives we live; instead, grace sets us free for a new way of life, Christ’s abundant life, freedom. But this freedom can’t be enjoyed without the ones to whom Jesus gave his Father’s kingdom: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” All we can do is open ourselves to receive. We beg from the beggars. That’s how we learn simplicity. “This is not simplicity for the sake of simplicity of lifestyle”–which is what Real Simple magazine is all about. Instead, this is “simplicity for the sake of relationship–relationship with God and relationship with each other” (97). The simplicity Heuertz describes begins with submitting our lives to the prophetic presence of the poor. They will teach us what humility and simplicity looks like. We start with submission; we submit the lives we’d rather keep private to the gaze and advice of the poor. We enter into those intimate and messy relationships that provide “the opportunity to submit to the cries and the needs of my friends who suffer” (120).
Some may find all of this a hard pill to swallow. We may want to separate our love of God from our love of the poor. But Heuertz holds them together in a single vision of following after God. It’s all about God. He’s deeply evangelical. He’s simply sharing with us the Jesus he’s learning to see. And this Jesus is resurrected flesh that still bears the marks of suffering. That’s the profound argument of his closing chapter: Brokenness. “It’s terrible to imagine how to remove a dead body form a cross,” Heuertz writes (137-138):
I can only guess that they would have had to either pull the nails out, aggravating the wounds even more, or pull the body off, leaving the nails embedded in the cross. Either way, the holes in the corpse of Christ, those in his hands or wrists and feet or ankles, must have been gaping, atrocious. I wonder what happened to such gaping holes in the corpse over the course of the forty hours Christ’s body was dead.
And what happens to these holes when Jesus is resurrected? John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus appears to Thomas with open wounds. “[H]is resurrected body still bears those open wounds–those still-fresh lacerations, cuts, gashes and holes” (138). So, Heuertz asks us, “where do we find his open wounds today?…. Unless we have the courage to put our hands into the hurting places of Christ’s body–the hurting places of the world–the world won’t have reason to trust that God is good” (140).
I am now haunted by this wounded Jesus. Heuertz’s friendships have given him eyes to see this Jesus. After reading his stories of profound sorrow and joy, I don’t know if I’ve seen the same Jesus. But I want to. And I am grateful to Heuertz and his friends for showing me that such an abundant life is possible. I can’t begin to do justice to Heuertz’s storytelling; that’s what makes the book a must read. Read it for the stories of real life, of real friendship, of people we can never meet because they are dead now. And also read it for the joy of abundant life, the joy of Christ’s resurrected life, a life broken open for us.
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Thank you so much for this review. I will read this book for certain.
Another book that is along the same lines is the book How To Become A Saint by Jack Bernard. He was one of the founders of the Church of the Sojourners and he died in 2002, but he left this gem of Christian spirituality with us, so that we too could become saints.
This book seems fantastic. Thank you for the review; I’ll be sure to read it at my public library if it is available or request it.
Thanks for the review. If you’re interested, click on my name to read my review. Keep up the good work…