Born Again … Again
"All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."—Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being
After 17 years of intense church-based racial justice and reconciliation ministry in Mississippi, my gospel had largely become a matter of trying harder and doing more. And things I held dear began to fall apart.
At the same time that my African American colleague, Spencer Perkins, and I were traveling the nation preaching about reconciliation, we could hardly sit at the same dinner table at home, where our families shared daily life in an intentional Christian community called Antioch. The long friendship and partnership that we had forged in Reconcilers Fellowship, the national ministry we co-founded, was on the verge of breaking up.
While Reconcilers Fellowship was vibrant, in my eyes the Antioch community had shriveled up inside. We were riddled by unresolved relational difficulties, financial stress, and constant and intensifying busyness. I could no longer live with joy and excitement in one sphere and discouragement and hopelessness in the other. Nor could my wife, Donna. I was striving to make a national impact, but that wasn't enough anymore.
I didn't know it at the time, but I needed to be born again—again. This is how it happened.
Interrupted by Jesus
In 1997, Donna and I decided we had to tell the Antioch members what we saw and felt. But could we reveal our deepest concerns and have them received with compassion?
We took the plunge, sharing in a letter at an Antioch meeting what had become an unbearable contradiction. To our great surprise, a number of others responded positively. "That letter could have come from me," one said.
For Spencer, though, any talk that sounded like leaving was betrayal. What hurt me even more was that he threw down the race card. "Why do only white folks make ultimatums like this?" he asked. My anger, and his, escalated. This was the final straw, Spencer accusing me of being a deserter of the cause.
We asked two mentors to fly in for a last-ditch attempt to save us from a split-up. John and Judy Alexander had spent many years in Christian justice ministry. John had been the editor of The Other Side, the leading prophetic evangelical magazine at the time, alongside Sojourners. Now they were part of a small church in San Francisco.
John and Judy talked to Spencer, to me, and to Antioch members. A couple days later, we all gathered. I was on the edge of my seat when John gave his diagnosis of our problem.
"Which does the Bible speak more of, loving God or loving your neighbor?"
I thought it was a trick question. How can you separate the two? Jesus didn't! (Matt. 22:36-40).
After watching us squirm, John laughed. "I'm a very anal person," he admitted. He described how once he had actually counted all the Bible verses about loving God and loving neighbor. They were innumerable, of course; the latter included many about loving the poor that had profoundly shaped my work with Spencer.
But John said he had made a discovery: Far more than verses about loving God or loving the poor were stories about God's love for us. The most important truth in the world, said John, is not our trying harder to love God or others, but God's acts of love for us. "If you don't get God's love into your bones, you will become very dangerous people," he warned. "Especially activists like you. The most important person in this community is not Spencer, or Chris, or any of you, or the people in the neighborhood. The most important person in any community is Jesus. Your life has to keep Jesus at the center."