Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts 2:36–39).
Five years ago my wife, Bethany, and I and our small children found ourselves in a strange new city in the American South. We had had about four days’ notice to pack our things and relocate. This was not a grandiose leap of faith. Nor was it a perceived calling from the Lord. It was simply a decision based on economic necessity – or so we thought.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, sits in the heart of the Bible Belt and is in many ways culturally “Christian,” but it is a divided city where gang violence runs rampant and race relations are still a white hot issue. Even in the church the echoes of the strife ring loudly: “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter”? We have learned much from our new neighbors in the African-American community as the drama on the national stage has unfolded.
In the few years preceding this move, our life as a young family was confronted with the mighty “either/or” of God’s kingdom. Our spiritual journey had become entwined with the brothers and sisters at the Bruderhof, and God’s call on our lives became clear: Repent – every day!
This daily repentance was not a heavy spiritual matter or a once-in-a-lifetime conversion experience. Rather, it was unfathomably simple: Change. Turn around and leave the selfish life. It wasn’t about mustering up the strength to do it. We only had to see ourselves as we really were: poor, broken, weak, and full of fear.
Our pastor and his wife would ask us over and over again, “Josh and Bethany, what do you want for your life?” It didn’t matter what issue we were mulling over, it would always boil down to the same question, “What do you want?” And then they would exhort us to “have courage!” I have to admit, it took years for us to really understand what they were driving at. It is easy to list all the things you want for your life until you actually have to give them up. That takes courage. And courage was something we were fundamentally lacking. And what did we really want? It came to nothing more and nothing less: Jesus.
So what does it look like for a young family to take Jesus at his word, obey him, and live according to the kingdom of God? How does this change everything? Here in Chattanooga, we see the need for a witness to church community that is deep enough and courageous enough to transcend the divisions of culture, socioeconomic class, political opinion, and church denominations. Grand slogans, generalized impressions posted on Facebook, and picking sides in a cultural debate will not cut it. What we learned from the Bruderhof is that a genuine life of unity in Christ is the only solution to the brokenness of sin, oppression, and victimization – and that this is given to us through our repentance.
God uses our repentance to draw us out of a private existence and lead us together to share our lives with others. It is the everyday, person-to-person messes of life that foster true reconciliation and redemption. This is what a life completely submitted to Jesus leads to, but as others have pointed out, this is a quiet revolution of the heart that will not be branded, televised, or tweeted. It is simply life abundantly lived. For us, the move to Chattanooga led us to a home with a revolving door of housemates – brothers and sisters of different ages, shapes, colors, weaknesses, abilities, and cultural backgrounds. We have been tremendously blessed by each of them.
As you might suspect, this has not come without its challenges. The great “either/or” still confronts us daily as we either live according to the spirit of Jesus or according to the spirit of self. There is no in between, and the spirit of self does not go down without a fight. The mercy of Jesus is coupled with the command to “go and sin no more.” We have found that sin must be actively fought against in a spirit of humility and love – first in ourselves, then in our brother and sister. The trouble comes when our sinfulness is wrapped up in our identity and we forget that we are children loved by the Father. When this happens, admonitions from a brother or sister, even in love, can become a real stumbling block.
Just recently we had a house meeting where we had to confront this head on. We had fallen into the malaise of sleepy, selfish living. One sister said she saw it in herself and also felt it whenever she walked in the door. She said it made her not want to live in our house. All I could say was, “Amen.” The darkness was actually overtaking the light and I could feel it in myself as well. We had become shipwrecked. We had let it go too far and our only hope was to put all of our mess back in the light of Jesus, admit it, confess it, and turn from it. In doing so, we all felt the load lift and the joy of the Lord return. We had to proclaim again out loud what we wanted to live for: to live as witnesses to the beloved community of Jesus.
Of course, there is a cost that goes with that. It’s daily repentance, which we must experience again and again. Not an emotional feeling of remorse, but a continual turning our lives around, away from ourselves and toward Jesus. Egoism, mammonism, hedonism, and racism – all these infiltrate our hearts and minds when we are not alert. Daily repentance shines the light on all of them so we can turn from them.
God is giving us a sense of purpose and fulfillment in the small band of people we are journeying with here. We keep seeking out others who, though they might not place the same value on church community, have a sense of justice, childlikeness, or servanthood and are willing to act on it. Yes, it can be challenging, with four children, home schooling, working full time, and sharing life with others. There is need for daily forgiveness, sacrifice, denying self, and seeking renewed courage in the Holy Spirit. These are the postures of our hearts as we yearn for God’s reign.
Joshua and Bethany Livingston live with their four children at the Hillside Community House, located in the East Lake neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee.