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Practically free

San Francisco-based author and activist Mark Scandrette visited Church Mission Society earlier this year and challenged us to “live free”. Interview by Debbie James and Jonathan Self.

What do you think keeps us from “living free”?

There are some dominant scripts in western culture that define our ideas of success. Those scripts tend to be about materialism, consumption, more, bigger, better. They push us towards a life that’s hurried, anxious, cluttered and unsustainable.

We have believed a narrative of scarcity; this creates a hunger in us to want to control things, to have a fetishised relationship with feeling secure. And this holds us back from freedom.

Can you tell us a bit of your story?

I live in San Francisco, in the Mission district. It’s historically a Latin American barrio, but it’s become newly attractive to people who work for Facebook, Apple and Google. So there’s a kind of convulsing between old and new residents. We have been creating community around mission practices in this neighbourhood for 20 years.

I came to faith as a teenager and I wanted to tell everyone about it. Over time I realised that instead of talking so much about Jesus I needed to learn to live his way. I’m grateful to have come from a family where my father would read the Bible to us and then ask, for example, about the good Samaritan story: “So who are our neighbours and how can we love them?” And we’d brainstorm: bake cookies, invite everyone to a holiday party, etc. So at a young age I picked up the idea that when we engage with scripture we are invited to do something in response. And I knew that’s how I wanted to live as a follower of Jesus.

Before Lisa and I moved to San Francisco, we worked with people in low income estates, who were struggling with trauma and addiction. Trying to love them and share Jesus with them gave us the chance to reflect on, and in some ways interrogate, what it means to be Christian. I grew up thoroughly middle class. Most of my pat answers didn’t connect with their deep needs and that put me on a journey of finding a way of understanding the gospel that connects more truly with human ache, something that’s more practical.

When we got to SF, we bought a drug house and rehabilitated it. Our neighbourhood at the time was plagued by drugs, gunfire and gang killings.

We got some resistance from the neighbourhood; ethnically we are different from the majority of the population. When they found out we were Christian, they were initially suspicious.

What often happens to people when we cross a cultural boundary is that our Christianity changes, our understanding of Christianity expands. When we tried to share about our journey with people, many wondered, “have they lost their minds?” Because it didn’t look like the Christianity they practised. It’s been a big learning curve.

How would you define mission?

I would say it’s waking up to God’s reality and participating in what God is up to in the world. It’s joining in God’s heart to see renewal of all things.

Church Mission Society talks a lot about calling. How can the idea of calling help people live free?

My book Free talks about limiting consumption for justice, equality and environmental reasons, but interestingly, we start with the question, “What matters most?” Calling relates to being free in that we are all in the process of discerning, “Who am I? What was I made to do and how can I, as the specific person I am, join in with what God is doing in my context?” This forms the basis of asking other questions, for example, “Am I spending my time on my calling? Are my resources helping or hindering my calling?”

If you had the whole UK church’s attention for a few minutes what would you say?

I would say that the church here is in one sense like an art museum; there are many beautiful buildings and historic institutions. And institutions preserve the history of people who’ve been on a journey. They are important. But if the church is an art museum then it needs art inside. Now, the impulse to be a curator is different than being an artist; we need the church to not just see itself as curator of history and tradition, but as creator of something so beautiful and alive that it’s worth preserving the story. The contrast is interesting: institutions are well ordered, but where art is made is usually in the low rent district and it’s messy, experimental.

We need to celebrate innovation and experimentation. I like the word “experiment” because it says that for a period of time we will try something new. We hope it will connect and meet needs. And after trying for a while we will consider what we’ve learned and what to do next in light of this learning.

Sometimes, when trying new things, people think they have to have everything charted out, and they can’t. Like in technology, you develop something just enough and then you go through various iterations. And you evaluate again. I also think that trying something new can help create community and help people become more selfaware and depend more on God. We need to give people permission to try new things and to fail, because that’s where you learn.

Can you share an example of a mission experiment?

Where I live the Muslim community is separated from American culture. They don’t feel safe. Last year I arranged to take some friends to celebrate Eid at a mosque I had previously visited. We were blown away at the hospitality we received. I brought some teenagers and they met Muslim teenagers and became Facebook friends and much good came from that. We’ve now done this a few times and seen more understanding and empathy.

Our faith invites us to consider what it means to love God and neighbour in a small world. There are urgent issues to grapple with, incredible inequities – the 12 per cent who live in Western Europe and America are responsible for 60 per cent of global consumption.

So how can we live and love in light of this?

Among people I journey with we are really wrestling with this. We know that the climate is changing and human activity has shaped this, so part of loving God and people is figuring out how to change our behaviours: install solar panels, eat less meat protein. We already know that if we were to live more fully in the wholeness that God desires for this world, we would take lots of small steps like these. I’ve found that these steps are easier to take with others. Together we can create the culture of wholeness God desires.

When it comes to living free, you seem to place more emphasis on practice than knowledge?

There was a time when information was scarce. Now I have more access to information from my phone than most intellectuals had in their whole lives 100 or even 50 years ago. If information was the key to transformation, we would see a different species of human beings: loving, tolerant, gracious, compassionate. We aren’t seeing that.

What happens as we gather more and more information, is that we start to feel like there are piles of things we know we should do better, but we don’t have the space to. I’ve said this before: people probably already know as much as they need to know to get active. Many of us could shut our Bible and, based on memory, have enough to do for the rest of our lives. People we admire from ages past had much less information. Early Christians had maybe a letter from Paul or a few vignettes about Jesus that got passed around and that was enough for them to start actively living the Jesus way.

We learn things not just by data, but by experience. When Jesus taught he wasn’t teaching theory; he was talking about life as it actually is.

The Christian spiritual path is essentially inviting us into reality; what we need to do is to test it out. In John’s Gospel, people ask Jesus to prove whether his teaching comes from human sources or God. Jesus could have argued from reason but instead he says you will know if the teaching is from God if you choose to do the will of God. So we have to act in order to know and I think we’ve got that flipped. It seems Jesus started inviting disciples to do things before they understood fully what was going on. Choosing to follow him allowed them to confirm who he was or at least to keep asking. So it would be helpful for us to invite each other into action and practice. Because we are shaped by our practices.

Whatever kind of life we have, our repeated activities have brought us here. If I live a life of worry, resentment, anger, stress, lust, jealousy, I’ve been practising for that. Practice helps shape us to become a particular kind of person. The gospel invitation is to become a person in the likeness of Christ.

We Christians like to say, “It’s not about what we do; it’s about what God did for us,” but Paul said to work out our salvation in fear and trembling because it’s God who works in us. God is inviting us into the kind of life we were created for, but we have to participate. We can’t just sit and wait for it.

The Call in Action: LEARN

Mark and his wife Lisa have written a new book called Belonging and Becoming: Creating a Thriving Family Culture. We also recommend their book Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most