You Can’t Duct Tape Fruit to a Tree

Becoming Yourself through Uncredentialed Friendships

I don’t have any credentials—although, I managed to get 13 moving violations in 12 months (that was a busy year), and I have credits at a handful of junior colleges sprinkled across Northern California.

I was kicked out of the Army. I sold copy machines for three days, incontinence and feminine hygiene products for six months. I have neither a theology degree nor an arts degree, and I’ve never been to film school. I am, by every rational measure, unqualified for most everything.

Fortunately, Love and grace and God aren’t rational. They are absolutely irrational, in fact. They are upside down.

For most of my life I bought into the story from the systems of the first world that being uncredentialed informed my value. Have you ever felt this way? When reflecting upon your life, did you ever notice patterns, strategies, and striving toward a "credentialed" life? I think that is because, unfortunately, what we have learned overall is that power is too often the mediator in our relationships. I fell into it, into the systemic hypnosis that led me to believe that because I lacked various degrees of achievement, my voice was inadequate.

But as it turns out, my lack of credentials were my credentials. Because historically, God’s preferred conduits of inverted power of love and grace are people who are fall outs of the system.

I thought I’d offer up a little bit about my journey. It's an honor to serve The Work of the People community, to grow with you and collaborate with others who, I have to admit, know a lot more than I do.

Honestly, all I can do is pass on what’s been passed on to me.

Everything I have learned was a gift offered to me while sitting around the table with people who reminded me time and again that I’m not a powerless combatant trying to win (regardless of the cost) I am an empowered cocreator contributing into the soil of life while surrendering as an embedded seed willing to grow.

I was saved (the first of many, many rebirths) after I had an audible conversation with God in my room (and hearing U2’s song Hawkmoon 269 off Rattle and Hum. Longer story.). After that, I tracked down a church and started going. This was a good and necessary part of my journey. The structure was an oasis after being raised into new life in Jesus. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there is a type of stretching that only comes from getting pulled out from your "normal life" for a while.

Here’s what Wendell Berry says about change...

If change is to come...it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins...this sort of change is a dominant theme of our tradition, whose "central figures" have often worked their way inward from the margins. It was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets.

The world sees the desert as an unsustainable, dry wasteland, a place for the uncredentialed. But it was in desert-like settings that I recognized God staying with me while I awakened to the beauty of my humanity and started rejecting systemic domestication.

I don't want to be disingenuous, ungrateful, or self-righteous, I want to be honest about my story and pass on a couple of things from this particular time in my life.

Often, voices of authority from within good and necessary church structures advised against my desert journey. The advice was reasonable, and perhaps even loving from their viewpoint, but it came from a structure that could only communicate into the world in a particular way. These structures excelled at job descriptions, but weren’t as affluent in poetry. They could execute management techniques, but were not as good at dancing with life. They could grow buildings and or knock the ball out of the park when it came to executing Sunday mornings, but were not as good at growing people.

I only offer this tidbit to let you know that when you get called into the desert, people may warn you against it. I want you to know, that is because they depend on the system to feel safe (it feeds them in a multitude of ways), and someone choosing to embrace the unknown—virtually heading for the fire escape—raises all sorts of questions they’d just assume never ask or answer. They may want to remind you of the "vision’ and tell you not to lose sight of it. It is my hope that when this happens you will be clear enough to recognize whose lens you are being asked to see through. I'm likely treading on sensitive ground... Bonhoeffer says it this way:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial...It is not we who build. Christ builds the church...We must confess he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build.

It’s been my experience that many faith communities aren’t inclined to send people on risky desert journeys. Further, churches often aren’t set up to equip people for surviving desert journeys.

Ok, so, to make my long story as short as possible, I was called to a journey of discovery outside of my oasis and into transformational sands. I got on my hands and knees and crawled out of a room filled with smoky, Christian power where leaders were making people slaves to their own dreams and landed into the arms of the uncredentialed who cared for me and taught me to breathe in Grace and Love—who, like Jesus, said, "You're not my servant, you’re my friend."

I’ve filmed with hundreds of saints and sinners who do the work to love what God loves who stir my imagination and have been a deep breath of Grace and Love. Here are some insights I have learned from a handful of TWOTP people.

A few of the first friends I made in the desert were these Jesus freaks, Tom Yaccino from the Dominican Republic and Claudio Oliver from Brazil. When in conversation we talked about meeting, Claudio suggested I not come down to Brazil mission-minded, rather come heart-minded to be in relationship—a friendship trip. So, I went and Claudio and I made one of my first films, Friendship Trips. He taught me that buildings come and go, but friendships are eternal. He taught me that poverty is lack of friendship. After being at the table, with Tom & Claudio, I couldn’t go back to "normal." I knew that from then on, whatever The Work of the People was going to become, I couldn’t chase power. I had to go table to table, seeking Jesus’s friends. I knew I needed to be continually saved and it was friendship that would save me.

A friend introduced me to Walter Brueggemann’s work, and a book called Prophetic Imagination. Walter taught me about the "juice of emancipation" and that we don’t owe Pharaoh anything. He introduced me to the idea of "right relationship" and that justice didn’t just mean retribution, it also meant restoration. That the juice of emancipation came from stitching relationships back together. That manna is the real wonder bread. That transformation and spiritual growth are a dance not a systems problem to be solved through middle management. He helped me see that being successful or not successful is different than being formed or not formed. That inspiration is different from wisdom. He introduced me to the poetic and showed me that wisdom isn’t like a how-to book, it’s rich and deep and beautiful like a great steak and good bottle of red wine.

A friend who was crawling though a dark time in his life introduced me to an author he was reading at the time—Jean Vanier. I went to film with Jean at L’Arche north of Paris. L’Arche is a community where people with mental disabilities live alongside people who don’t. It's that simple. L’Arche is a community empowered through weakness—a community of love. A community that has power by giving up power. A place of daring friendships, where "credentialed" and "uncredentialed" cross over to meet and listen and grow through deep communion with each other and God.

Jean taught me that growth is measured by the capacity to be wounded and looks like Jesus on the cross. He taught me to stay weak, not strong. You can’t intellectually make sense of it, but you can be shaped and formed into it.

I heard Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability on the way home from filming with Jean Vanier. We have gotten together to make films a couple of times and have become friends.

Brene’s perspective deepened and reinforced what I had just learned through Jean—growth lies in my capacity to be wounded. That vulnerability isn’t letting yourself get hurt, it’s being honest and speaking up about getting hurt.

She affirmed that it takes courage to create healthy boundaries that communicate fears and pains and ability or inability, and that although I do not ever want to be enslaved to another’s vision I can still extend friendship. It takes courage to make womb-room and abide in growth.

She’s credentialed. But what she says with her credentials is, "Your credentials aren’t enough. Your credentials can’t shape you into being fully human. You become human through vulnerability, through creating space for the wounded to cry out, and by growing into our stories."

Jean Vanier told me about his friend Parker Palmer and that I had to meet with him, so soon after leaving France, I showed up at Parker’s front door. Parker has taught me you have to go into the darkness, not around it. His encouragement to me was simply this: "you gotta do what you can’t not do."

YOU GOTTA DO WHAT YOU CAN’T NOT DO.

He taught me that having courage to hold space for your own voice while helping other people find theirs is important.

As I continued to live table to table, all of these experiences worked their way into my soul. I started to see power is good for combat, but not good for cocreation.

I was starting to understand that you can’t duct tape fruit to a tree and expect a healthy feast. We learn and grow from the inside out—worldly success is kind of easy, but growing real fruit and throwing legit banquets are hard.

I was discovering my uncredentialed-ness was my credentials. I thought I was filming theologians, but I was growing friends.

One meal at the table intersects and intertwines with all the other meals and yet each one its own unique and deeply personal discovery and feast.

Barbara Brown-Taylor taught me that all that comes toward me is for me. Before I met with Barbra, I joked that she needed to tidy the space up before I got there. When I arrived she had thrown a bunch of dirty socks around everywhere. Which has nothing to do with theology, except everything. If your theology is chasing success you don’t have time for silliness or weakness. If your theology comes from growth, you have room for both.

When her answer to a question was "I don't know," it was humble and wise, rooted and strong. She could speak with authority, but wasn’t comfortable speaking on behalf of Mystery.

She told me that she tries to see everything that comes towards her as for her. That’s embedded in my humanness now. It’s a posture that’s been affirmed by lived liturgy.

I don’t have to read books by successful authors on how to manage relationships for increased efficiency. I can take what comes towards me as for me in openness and love. I can listen deeply and patiently, even in messy conversations. I’ve been learning openness and love along the way at previous conversations at the table. Barbara confirmed it again with her words, in her way.

Again, I’m just passing on what I have learned from others while listening at the table.

Richard Rohr taught me that everything is connected...by Love.

He gave me permission to move out towards more of Christ. I don’t feel like I’m on a "slippery slope"—I feel even more like I’m Jesus’s friend. Richard gave me permission to let go of words like "liberal" and "conservative" because they maybe aren’t as important to God as we think they are. He taught me that wanting more of Jesus and more of God might mean people who call themselves Godly could accuse me of being cowardly or just wanting to be popular, but that it didn’t matter because I’d have more of Jesus.

Richard taught me that dualistic thinking—in/out, right/wrong, black/white might work for the early stages of my life, but God is calling me to my full self in which everything is connected by the Mystery of Love. Everything belongs.

He taught me that "Christ" is not Jesus’s last name. He taught me to not be afraid, and that helping people see is usually better than giving them something to know. He helped me see all this through friendship. When I greet Richard, I call him my Father, my Brother, and my Friend, because each one is true.

Friendship is salvation.

Father Pico was a friend and collaborator of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero risked losing his power and credentials to speak out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. In 1980, Romero was assassinated while offering Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in El Salvador.

Recently I talked to Father Pico in a garden that was also the burial site of many of his murdered and tortured friends. I was filming with my back to the garden when I asked Father Pico what salvation was and where he sees signs of resurrection. He looked into the garden where red blood stains were now roses and said, "Friendship."

Friendship is salvation.

Father Pico wasn’t saying something that would be good for a book title and speaking series. This humbled, uncredentialed man lived through struggle—a life and death struggle. The weight of what he said confirmed so much of what I’ve learned from folks who’ve offered me a hand up, and set me off on the dangerous, risky, life giving journey of becoming myself, through friendship.

These table friendships have taught and continue to teach me:

  • The uncredentialed are not only invited to the table, but honored guests.
  • I’m continually being saved, and that salvation comes through friendship. Where there is friendship, there is communion.
  • I have to go INTO and THROUGH the darkness, not around it.
  • and that pain given voice is pain that’s empowered.
  • Weakness is strength, and growth lies in my capacity to be wounded and willing.
  • To be still...be quiet...listen.
  • That you don’t owe Pharaoh anything.
  • Nothing grows in the soil of power.
  • All that comes toward you is for you.
  • Growth is an everyday movement down a long road.
  • Everything is held together in love.
  • Life comes from death. That you can’t duct tape fruit to the tree; real fruit grows from being planted in ripe compost and calls for investments of time and nurturing. It’s hard, but anything good is hard—real transformation happens from the inside out. People’s hearts don’t get nurtured by fake fruit.
  • Soil is made of layers of decomposed dead things. When our "spiritual" soil is made of composted layers of a daily dying to power, it becomes the kind of soil that can sustain growth. That growth leads to a capacity for patient co-creation. The patient co-creation that eventually leads to sweet, sweet fruit.

As long as you live out of these upside-down mysteries what you do will matter. When I said at the beginning "All I can do is pass on what I’ve received" I wasn’t just being cute and self deprecating. It’s honest and it’s also deeply true. That’s the beautiful freeing thing about all of this. All I can do is pass it on. That is all any of us can do, so please, keep giving from what you have been given.

It’s not all on your shoulders. It’s on all of our shoulders. We just have to be still and quick to listen and receive what’s being given. Learning to receive what comes to us over time relieves us of the urge to take. That’s how a person goes from combatant to co-creationist. It’s not a cop-out. We actually grow by receiving. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s Eucharistical.

You don’t have to get a job and a haircut. Now, I don’t know if you want to go into a job interview saying, "Hey, I’m weak, powerless, and good at dying," but that is the good news. That’s what I’ve learned. Giving up your credentials is what gives you the credentials that matter.

You can’t take the story. You share the story.

You don’t protect the story, you give it away.

Who is God? What does God want? What is God up to?

Love.

That’s the answer to all three. Seriously.

Who is God? Love. What does God want? Love. What is God up to? Love.

What does that look like here on earth?

Love looks like the man Jesus, who is also the eternal Christ, sitting with us at the table saying, "You are no longer my servants, you are my friends." Love, looks like Jesus passing on the Love he has received from the Father and the Spirit.

Love looks like Jesus abiding in earthly friendship. Opening his arms, his very human, incarnate arms. It looks like Jesus willing to be wounded so he can pass on the Love of the Christ, the Father, and the Spirit. Jesus is the template.

Sit at the table together, pass on what you receive. That’s it. It’s that simple and that complicated. It’s that beautiful and that scary. It has brought me to this affirmation, equally simple and complicated, equally beautiful and scary:

I don’t want to win. I want to grow.

I want to be an encourager, sojourner, and continue evolving personally and communally. I want to be in and through and with and toward, because that is the template I follow. Your evolution with Love and mine are what is going to keep making room at the table. This is part of the story of my becoming. I hope some part of it speaks to you, and that you keep exploring and expanding.

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