Living Incarnationally in an Increasingly Excarnate World

Something is wrong.

You can feel it in the air. Many of us can sense it in ourselves.  Something has shifted and it’s not for the better.

Never before has a generation existed that is more connected and isolated at the same time. We have hundreds of Facebook friends yet we do not know our neighbors. We have scores of LinkedIn contacts and Twitter followers but very few people we can call in the middle of the night when we need a friend.

It used to be that friendship involved lots of being physically present together in the same room. Now we are increasingly substituting flesh and blood relationships for digital ones. Sociologists increasingly affirm the two are not the same and we are beginning to see the effects.

Not long ago I attended a networking event for young professionals. When I arrived I walked in to find no fewer than a dozen twentysomethings all sitting next to each other on couches in the lobby. No one was saying a word to each other, each one glued to their phone.

You’ve seen it too. It can be observed every time you’re at a park, mall or school. You can see it in the eyes of children as they clamor for their parent’s attention while mom and dad peruse their news feed.

Ever seen that parent? Ever been that parent? Me too.

This is our generation.

We no longer know how to be fully present where we are. We somehow feel we can be everywhere at the same time and so we end up being nowhere most of the time.

Consider that America is one of the only places in the world where when you ask someone what they do for a living, it is common to hear in response, “Well, currently I’m…” In other words, this isn’t really what we plan on doing long term. It’s just temporary. We’re just passing through. Gone is the day when we viewed our job as a craft through which to glorify God and serve others.

You can see our increasing disconnection in the way we build our homes. There was a day when homes were built with the porch out front. There neighbors would lounge after a long day’s work. Connections were frequent and inevitable. Now we build the patio on the back bunkered behind our six foot privacy fence. After a long day’s work we press a button, pull into our garage and disappear as the door shuts behind us.

You can see it in our purchasing habits. Generations before us bought local goods from local business owners and craftsman. This supported local families and helped infuse life into the local economy. Now we buy products made on the other side of the world in sweatshops. We save a few bucks, but do we stop to consider a what cost?

We have a physical address but no real home.

For Christians, being a part of a church used to mean calling a community home – a place they gathered together each week, where they knew others and were known; a place where they physically prayed for one another and broke bread together. Now it has become normal to bounce from place to place or to simply stay home by ourselves and listen to a podcast. Faith itself has become disembodied from the body of Christ that is the church.

Rather than “drinking the marrow out of life” we are constantly rushing from place to place worrying about the next thing. And the next thing. And the next thing. Until before you know it, another decade has passed and we wonder where the time went. Because the truth is we missed it.

Ours is a generation that might be described as increasingly disconnected, disembodied and absent.

And sadly, sometimes we Christians can be the worst. You can see it in every church and tribe throughout history where dualism exists, where we treat the spiritual but ignore the physical, where we talk about body and soul separately, as if God is concerned with one and not the other.

One book that has really challenged me on this is Michael Frost’s Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement. In it he reflects on the disconnect between what has become normal modern living and what we see modeled for us in the incarnation. He writes, “Whereas Jesus Christ was God incarnate and his church was called to an incarnational lifestyle, today we find ourselves drifting towards excarnation – the defleshing of our faith and life.”

Defleshing.

Excarnate.

These words have been haunting me for much of the past year.

They seem to perfectly describe what has become increasingly true of many of us. Most importantly, it looks so very different from “The Word [who] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Think about it. Can you possibly imagine Jesus always looking at his phone, always rushing to his next meeting, always looking over his shoulder to see if there was someone else more important or interesting to talk to, spending his evenings isolated watching Netflix and surfing Facebook?

Those familiar with the gospels will answer with a resounding no.

When we stop long enough to examine the life of Jesus we see something altogether different.

The religious professionals of Jesus’ day went to great lengths to maintain distance and disconnection from the world around them in order to maintain their holiness. But Jesus shows us that incarnate holiness involves deep connection – not only to God, but also to ordinary people in the stuff of everyday life. 

This is the Jesus who chose for his inaugural divine act to spare an ordinary couple the public shame of running out of wine at their wedding celebration; a couple so ordinary we aren’t even told their names.

This is the Jesus who took the time to regularly sit with people whom the religious community deemed unworthy of their time or attention.

This is the Jesus whose time was in high demand and yet who stopped long enough to take naps, play with children and eat with friends.

This is the Jesus who never seemed to be in a hurry; who had a plan yet was regularly moved to compassion when he saw a need. 

I can’t help but wonder what Jesus would say to our frantic pace and busy calendars. Something tells me it wouldn’t be good.

I think if Jesus could follow me around for a week he’d have some things to say about my tendency get focused on tasks instead of people. Throughout the day I imagine he’d make a point of engaging with many around me who’d otherwise go unnoticed as I rush to the next thing. I think he’d challenge me to slow down, to look into people’s eyes and consider what story might be on the other side. I imagine more than once he’d lovingly ask me what it is on my phone that’s so important and remind me that my full attention is one of the greatest gifts I can give to those he has placed in my life.

These are the kinds things I see in the beauty of the incarnation. And the longer I look at it the less satisfied I am with the excarnate kind of life that has become normal for so many of us. There is a better, more beautiful way. It is a life lived in the rhythm of Jesus – one that is slower, rooted in time and place, more physical and less digital, available, present, incarnate.

It is a sad irony when Christians speak of the abundant life Jesus promised while at the same time generally ignoring the kind of life Jesus lived. The incarnation was not just an event. It’s a revelation. It is an invitation to an entirely new way – the way of the kingdom. We miss it when we reduce the gospel to a God who only came to die.

Jesus didn’t just come to die. He also came to show us how to live.

So if you find in yourself a nagging dissatisfaction and a longing for more as you drift down the cultural stream of disengagement, don’t ignore it. There is indeed so much more to be had.

SOURCES:
  • Image source: Eric Pickersgill
  • The sermon version of this: https://vimeo.com/143544658 
  • I've consumed so much of Michael Frost’s work over the years that it's hard to know where his thoughts end and mine begin on this one. For further reading on the subject I highly recommend his book "Incarnate."

 

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