“But I was exposed early to the real stuff – Top Shelf Christianity – Deep and Old Christianity. This kind is practiced by people who work until they stink and take life in great draughts. Their hands are as rough as their hides, and they DO their faith in secret, hiding their good works in obedience to Christ. They know how to love and be loved in return. Their laughter is loud and has its roots in joy.” – Gordon Atkinson
“There is no shortage of good days, it is good lives that are hard to come by.” – Annie Dillard
I’ve spent a great deal of time both in my writing and my personal life sorting out the ways that I’ve seen race & culture mishandled, especially by Christians & the Church. Sadly, it’s not a difficult experience to find – we are, undeniably, a broken people.
Recently, however, I’ve started reflecting on the ways that I’ve experienced healing and growth in the midst of the deeply broken places. As I ponder, I remember quiet lives of reconciliation lived with a steady faithfulness and unwavering commitment to heal this deeply broken piece of God’s kingdom. In honor of Martin Luther King’s legacy, I’m compelled to share about them today.
I think first of my father-in-law, a humble and unassuming man who surrendered a successful medical career in the US to return to his war-torn home and serve as a government doctor in the rural areas that were suffering greatly from the violence. The war was ethnic, and my father-in-law was often the only ethnic majority person living in areas dominated by the country’s minority group. There were long days with no electricity or water at times and resources were severely lacking. In spite of this, he worked hard to provide the best medical care he could in an area of significant deprivation for years. His work broke down ethnic lines and over time, he became beloved in this community. It wasn’t safe or comfortable or even ‘wise’ at times, but the reconciliation story it tells is striking.
I think next of my brother-in-law, an African-American man currently serving as a public defender in Amish country. A graduate of the East’s most prestigious schools, he could have pursued a far more lucrative path, but instead chooses to work in the broken places and genuinely enjoys his work. Over the course of our lives, we have spent hours in conversation working out life’s details, many of which inevitably include racial issues. While I cringe when I remember questions about race I’ve asked him over the years, he never has. Instead, he’s patiently and kindly shared the reality he has walked for a lifetime. He regularly extends kindness to those with whom he has little in common – mennonite theologians, criminal clients, pig farmers, neighbors in the midst of very difficult lives – and spends hours listening to their stories so that he can learn from them. His consistent honesty and commitment to providing justice in the midst of broken places brings healing to our world one small step at a time.
I think of the white history professor at the small university in the midwestern cornfield, a man fiercely-but-gently committed to educating a predominantly white campus about the history of the civil rights movement. His understanding of racial brokenness ran deep, and he was masterful at helping privileged and often ignorant people engage in realities they had not ever known. When we announced our departure from those very cornfields, he and his wife overflowed with joy for us, for they understood the deep strain the environment had held for our family. We felt the hands of God upholding us through their joy for us in those moments as we hobbled out of town.
I think of another white man of deep kindness in that same small cornfield town. He loved rhododendrons, his wife, and generally everyone around him. His kindness alone created safety for sharing brokenness, and so we spoke quietly at his dining room table about the reality we knew that was so-very-different-than-his. While he may not have fully understood our reality, his willingness to say-so and then to listen and even admit ignorance was a breath of fresh air in a place where so many assumed everyone was just-like-them.
I think of the elderly African-American academic who has mentored my professor-husband in Christian higher ed for most of his adult life. While their relationship is not frequent, it is potent and life-giving, helping my husband navigate the maze of often being-the-only-one with boldness, grace and dignity.
I think of the countless women of color who have modeled such grace and dignity for me. Their lives of fierce honesty and intense pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation remind me that this path is not always smooth, quiet, or simple. When I pause to remember what is good, their stories of perseverance and wisdom linger long in my story.
I think of the handful of dear-friends who have walked alongside us – celebrating with us when we rejoice and listening to us when we ache. They know our whole-story and still, they remain, sometimes in moments far-too-spaced-out, but ever-present, always steady.
The cacophony of the masses fade when I pause to remember the quiet and steady faithfulness of individual lives pursuing the reconciliation of all things. They are not merely ‘good people’ but rather quite normal people whose choices and life direction stem deeply from their Christian faith, from their belief in what the church should be and the role they are to play in it regardless of how flawed it actually is.
They are my “Top-shelf Christians”, these secret, hidden, and unadvertised lives, never to be known widely beyond their own social spheres. Christian magazines will not feature them in headlines nor will they boast of their own initiatives on social media. They don’t wear Christian t-shirts or boast fish bumper stickers; they just do their best to follow Christ’s example of loving the other and tending to brokenness. They are no Barack Obamas, Mother Teresas, or Martin Luther Kings, but their lives of steady faithfulness serve the same purpose. There are so many more just like them, and these well-lived lives offer glimpses of hope into what could be were we all to follow their example.
If you are so inclined, I’d love to hear stories of the Top-Shelf Christians in your lives who model this same faithfulness. This reconciliation-business is a complicated tasks, and the more examples we have, the better we learn how to go about actually living it out. Share your own stories or links to other examples in the comments below!