You Can't Duct Tape Fruit To the Tree
A few semi-random thoughts (and a video montage) from TWOTP founder Travis Reed, incoherently-titled, "You Can't Duct Tape Fruit to the Tree: Becoming Yourself through Uncredentialed Friendships."
I don’t have any credentials…I once managed to get 13 moving violations in 12 months though, 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, and 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, the Kingdom of God isn't a rational place—it’s absolutely irrational, in fact. It’s upside down.
For most of my life I bought into the story from the voices around me that being uncredentialed informed my value. When reflecting upon our lives we might notice patterns, strategies, and striving toward a “credentialed” life because what we have learned overall is that power, unfortunately, is too often the mediator in our relationships. I lived into such a reality, one that consistently told me that because I lacked “powered credentials” my voice was inadequate.
But as it turns out, my lack of credentials were my credentials. Because in God’s Kingdom, the uncredentialed are God’s preferred conduit of the upside-down power of love and grace.
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 gotta admit, know a lot more than I do.
I don't want you to feel like you’re wasting your time reading this or not, but honestly...all I can do is pass on what's been passed on to me.
Everything I have learned was received by sitting at the table with people who remind me time and again that I'm not a powerless combatant trying to win (regardless of the cost), but an empowered co-creator contributing to the soil of life while surrendering as an embedded seed willing to grow.
A little backstory...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 to new life in Jesus. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there is a type of growth that only comes from the desert.
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’s in desert-like settings that God grows us into our humanity.
I want to pass on a couple of things from this particular time in my life. I don't want to be disingenuous, ungrateful, or self-righteous, I want to be honest about my story.
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 within structures that understand the world in a particular way. These structures excelled at job descriptions, but weren't as good at poetry. They could execute management techniques, but weren't as good at dancing life; they could grow buildings and could knock the ball out of the park when it came to executing Sunday mornings, but weren't 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. It is just that they are dependent 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 to not 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, so I'll defer to Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this one. Bonhoeffer says,
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 around the Kingdom who’ve all stirred my imagination and taught me to breathe in Grace and Love, but I’ll just mention a few foundational conversation parters…
A few of the first friend I made in the desert were these Jesus freaks Tom Yaccino form the Dominican Republic & Claudio Oliver from Brazil. I made one of my first films, Friendship Trips, with Claudio. He suggested I not do a mission trip, but do a friendship trip. 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 true Kingdom discovery and transformation experience is 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 through 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 with 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.
Jean 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. He taught me "you gotta do what you can't not do." Simple, but really big.
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 co-creation.
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….that success is kind of easy, growing fruit and throwing legit banquets are hard.
I was discovering my uncredentialed-ness were my credentials.
I thought I was filming theologians, but I was growing friends.
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…
That the uncredentialed are not only invited to the table, but honored guests.
They remind me I'm continually being saved, and that salvation comes through friendship. That where there is friendship, there is communion.
They remind me I have to go INTO the darkness, not around it, and that pain given voice is pain that's empowered.
That weakness is strength and growth lies in my capacity to be wounded and willing.
They remind me to be still…be quiet…to listen.
That you don't owe Pharaoh anything.
That nothing grows in the soil of power.
That all that comes toward you is for you.
It’s a long road to growth.
It's all held together in love.
They remind me that 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. All you can do is pass it on.
It's not all on your shoulders. Its 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 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.
Here's the story.
Who is God? What does God want? What is God up to?
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 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 fleshy 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.
As we head into a new year, I finish up here by NOT asking you "What are you going to do?” But I will leave you with a simply complicated, beautifully scary question: "Who are you becoming?”