Life in the Palace
A palace is a grand residence for royalty and officials. It takes its name from the Palatium, the hill in ancient Rome that housed the imperial residence. Across Europe the term came to be used for the residence of aristocrats as well. Eventually, palace also became the official residence for the church’s bishops and archbishops. A bishop’s palace was a clear expression of the Christendom church’s favor and status in society. But the place of the palace in our society has changed. Now many palaces have been repurposed as public spaces for museums, government, and amusement. Nevertheless, in many parts of the church, the palatial vision persists.
Some old-time churchgoers wistfully remember past times when the laws of the land and social pressure encouraged church attendance, when Christians and churches received preferential treatment in government and business, when those who expressed disbelief or other beliefs were treated as second class—when, frankly, the church resided in the palace. While some look back on that relationship between Church and Caesar as the heyday of a “Christian America,” that wedding of church privilege with state and societal power can also be viewed as “religious totalitarianism,” as Miroslav Volf discusses in A Public Faith.1 The wedding of the church with the world’s power tends not to nurture a servant church who lovingly and humbly bears salt and light in the world, giving itself away in love to her neighbor. Though perhaps well intentioned, the seductive power of the palace readily forges heavy-handed means for imposing and coercing compliance with palatial values. Such palatial status, values, and totalitarianism have shaped the Christian church in the West for centuries.
Yet at the same time, the palatial Christian attitudes came only by training—through modeling, socializing, and long practice. The training happens persistently without the trainees’ awareness of being trained. They are simply going about the normal life of their palace world. It is a persistent training, nonetheless—one that shapes the soul. This question haunts me: Can such training be unlearned? Can a church born and bred in the palace be retrained to live among the people, to thrive on the streets outside the palace?
Stories of trading places between palace and poverty, such as Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, illustrate the truth that people must be trained for their place in society. Simply transplanting a person from one world to the other, even if the dress and costume are perfect, does not immediately change one’s language and practice, let alone the mind and heart. Not only the behaviors but also the worldview must be transformed through training. Moreover, the replacement of deeply imbedded mental models only takes place with deep pain and at a great transformational cost.
Nineteen years ago my spiritual director, Father Pat, a Vincentian priest, was trying to help me understand that I needed retraining in my spiritual life. I understood the ideas. I affirmed the spiritual truths and insights. Father Pat, however, knew I needed more than knowledge and even understanding. I needed training. He told me about his experience in a jet fighter flight simulator at the military base, which his brother arranged for him as a birthday present. Father Pat paid close attention to the instruction he received—with its warning that he would crash if he was not absolutely devoted to his training: “In the moment of crisis you will not rise to the occasion,” said the top-gun instructor. “You will default to your training.” Through years of Father Pat’s spiritual training with me, I came to experience the truth of his wisdom again and again: In our moment of crisis we do not rise to the occasion. We default to our training.2
A church that has lived in the palace not just for generations but for many centuries has been trained in the ways of privilege. A church bred under the protection of the state is not trained to fend for itself on the streets. So when state and society withdraw their special favor toward the palace-trained church, it gets a very rude awakening. Disorienting and painful, it can lead to despair, anger, and denial.
How can a palace-trained church learn to live among the people, with the people, for the people, out on the streets? For a privileged palace church to learn street smarts it must undertake the training.
In Exodus we watch Israel freed from slavery under Pharaoh. Had they been immediately transplanted into the Promised Land, they would still have acted and thought like slaves. That would have been their default, the way they were trained to think and act. So God retrained them through a generation of wandering. During that time they became a people. They began learning to trust God rather than Pharaoh or themselves for their daily bread. They received a name. They received a law. Their identity was forged. They learned of God’s unspeakable name. They wandered for so long not because they were lost; God was leading them. By God’s grace they were being trained.
The New Testament talks about our need for training. Titus is told that God does the training: “For the grace of God has appeared . . . training us to renounce impiety . . . to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (Titus 2:11 NRSV). Similarly, Timothy is warned against being occupied by myths and speculation rather than “the divine training” (1 Timothy 1:4). In 2 Timothy 3:16 he is told, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for . . . training in righteousness.” Likewise, he is told, “Train yourself in godliness,” which is of value in “both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7–8). In these references, training is most often paideia, “discipline, instruction, training,” or paideuō, “instruct, train, discipline, correct.” Yet other Greek expressions nuance this idea of training: oikonomia, “management, responsibility, stewardship” (1 Timothy 1:14), and gymnasia, “training, discipline,” and its cognate verb, gymnazō (1 Timothy 4:7–8). In some cases the command is to be trained by God; in others to keep on training oneself. Paul insists that training matters: that it must be deep and persistent, that it is of eternal consequence. Also significant for us at Fuller, these passages all instruct a church leader to be diligent in godly training.
Centuries before Christendom raised its head, followers of Christ required training in godliness, in renouncing impiety, in righteousness and justice. All the more today, followers of Christ trained in the palace and now spurned by Caesar need new training for life after the palace lest they default to their training in the ways of privilege and power. Who can train a palatial church in the ways of God and the ways of the people on the streets? We can find many of the trainers we need in the often-overlooked immigrants and aliens already among us.
Trainers for the Palace Church: The Center Needs the Edges
Today the palace church suffers because of its palatial instincts. It needs to be trained by people without these palace instincts, most likely people who have never lived in the palace. Where better to find such people than among the immigrants in our midst or those who have long been systematically excluded from the palace? These people may be awkward inside the palace and lack palace manners, but they have street savvy. At Fuller Seminary we have numerous brothers and sisters who come from other lands and have no part of American palace life (unless, perhaps, as servants). They have learned to thrive in business, in living communities, and in churches, but they do not show up on the radar of the palace church.
It has been hard for the “majority” church in most denominations to appreciate and receive the gifts that immigrant churches have to offer. Traditionalists easily criticize newcomers with stereotypical criticisms: they don’t respect time; I can’t understand their English; their records are a mess; they don’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order. The criticisms also get more personal: their food smells; they smell; they huddle in cliques and only talk with each other. We fail to connect in many obvious ways. This failure comes readily when we use the cultural values of the palace to assess the worth of the cultural values of the streets. What if we could appreciate street smarts for what they are?
The palace church tends to engage its extra-palace neighbors as objects of “mission” projects or as people who can cook exotic foods and dance and sing for their church programs. But rarely has the palace church looked to their immigrant brothers and sisters as trainers for the church’s future strength. Our immigrant churches have generations of experience living on the edges, displaced from the center, as more than survivors. Are we as the palace church open to receive training from them?
“The expression ‘Spiritual Exercises’ embraces every method of examination of conscience, of meditation, of contemplation, of vocal and mental prayer, and of other spiritual activity that will be mentioned later. For just as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so spiritual exercises are methods for preparing and disposing the soul to free itself of all inordinate attachments, and after accomplishing this, of seeking and discovering the Divine Will regarding the disposition of one’s life, thus insuring the salvation of one’s soul.”
—St. Ignatius Loyola
An Example of a “Palace Church” Being Retrained
It is delightful to see how this is happening in, of all places, the Church of England through its ecumenical Fresh Expressions movement.3 In this liberating movement, the church is moving to the edges, to neighborhoods where it can live among the people, listening and learning and loving neighbor rather than automatically imposing the traditions of the palace. In their case, the most important support for this movement actually—literally—came from the palace. Lambeth Palace is the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. For a decade, then-Archbishop Rowan Williams fully supported this movement. He regards Fresh Expressions as the one thing he wants most to be remembered for in the Church of England, “the thing that’s most cheered me and encouraged me in recent years.”4 In full support, he went to spend time with new, young Anglicans—often marked by tattoos and piercings rather than robes—who love him and know him and call him Rowan. The movement has flourished and grown ecumenically. Thousands of Fresh Expressions of church have been birthed in neighborhoods throughout the UK, at least half of them non-Anglican, and the movement is spreading around the world, even in America. The move from the palace to the streets is possible. It is happening now.
Thus, our best resource for training for life after the palace is the very people who have long been excluded from or have gladly eschewed life in the palace. The immigrants and those we consider alien among us can be our teachers. This will require great humility and attentive listening. But the dominant church has this treasure among us if we can suspend palatial judgment and receive gifts from outside the palace walls.
Thus our best resource for training for life after the palace is the very people who have long been excluded from, or have gladly eschewed, life in the palace. The immigrants and those we consider alien among us can be our teachers. This will require great humility and great listening. But the church has this treasure among us if we can suspend palatial judgment and receive these gifts that come from outside the palace walls.
Trainers from Surprising Places
My grandfather, whom we call Ojichan, which is like “grandpa” in Japanese, was a small truck farmer, and my mother was a junior high girl in Harbor City, Los Angeles, in the spring of 1942. One day notices were posted in their neighborhood that in two days all people of Japanese ancestry would have to report to be shipped to internment camps. They could bring only what they could carry in their arms, which explains why many families like ours have no family heirloom furniture. Japanese American farmers tried to sell their possessions for cash. They received pennies on the dollar. Some women chose to shatter their own china rather than feel exploited by their neighbors offering a pittance. My Ojichan owned a houseful of family possessions, a barnful of farming tools, a truck, a tractor, and a car. His crops were ripening in the field. Rather than cash out his possessions, as seemed wise to the rest of the world, my Japanese immigrant grandfather gifted all his possessions to the family’s beloved Mexican immigrant farmhand, Pedro, whom he called “Pi-do-ro” in Japanese fashion. My mother remembers that she loved the kind young man, Pi-do-ro. Rather than suffer the financial loss and humiliation of scrambling to cash out, Ojichan saw a way of grace and redemption and dignity. He earned the inestimable satisfaction of helping Pi-do-ro’s family start a new life. That experience shaped my mother for a life of grace and generosity. I hope it has in some small way also shaped mine. Ojichan’s instincts and insights were so completely foreign to the values of the palace. My point is that we need the Ojichans to train the church. We need trainers unspoiled by the palace, fit to live on the edges of a wild new world. Smiling and thriving, that was always my Ojichan. Today’s “Ojichans” are young and hungry app developers, organic urban farmers, holistic healers, environmental activists, entrepreneurs, labor organizers, and artists. They come in all colors; they live in intentional communities and they have never been at home in the palace.
Can Leaders Formed in the Palace Really be Retrained?
It is one thing for someone who has never lived in the palace to have those nonpalace instincts. But can someone who has been formed by palace life be changed? For this I look to Victor Hugo’s Bishop Bienvenu in the novel Les Misérables.5 In the popular musical version, the recently paroled Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware while a houseguest. But the bishop cleverly averts reincarceration for Jean Valjean by telling the arresting police that the silver was not stolen, but was a gift from the bishop. Reinforcing this act, the bishop takes the most valuable silver candlesticks from the table and hands them to the thief, singing, “You forgot I gave these also; Would you leave the best behind?”6 The police depart, and Jean Valjean’s world is turned upside down by this act of grace. It is a profound moment in the musical’s story.
For 25 years I wondered, “Wow! Could I be so clever a pastor in a moment like that?” I marveled at the bishop’s quick thinking. Then the new movie version of the musical came out last year and I wept again, this time determined to learn the full story. In the novel, this Bishop Bienvenu, appointed by Napoleon himself, arrived at his bishopric of Digne and immediately began divesting himself of the privileges of the bishop. Upon seeing the splendid bishop’s palace next to a small, crowded, and cramped hospital, he quickly decided to give the spacious and airy palace for the care of the many sick, and he converted the small hospital building to be his living quarters. He gave his bishop’s stipend to provide for the poor. He walked so he could give his transportation and carriage allowance for the care of others. He wore his robes to tatters so he could spend for those in need. He eschewed the palace to walk the streets, living among the people, touching them, knowing them, loving them. His integrity earned him the love and respect of many, and he became adept at getting the wealthy to give money for the poor. He gave away all his family’s possessions until the only personal possessions of value remaining were his family’s silverware and candlesticks. Then in the moment of crisis, he gave them away freely and instantly.
It was while reading the novel that it struck me: The bishop did not “rise to the occasion.” He defaulted to his training. He had been training for this moment so persistently for so many years that when presented with an opportunity to show mercy to a thief, he could do nothing else. More than a trick pulled on the police or the quick thinking of a clever bishop, this act flowed naturally from who he had become. He defaulted to his training. Today in real time, life imitates art and I am inspired by Pope Francis. From his palaced privilege he actually lives the grace that Hugo wrote into Bishop Bienvenu’s character. I do believe that if today’s pope can do this, even evangelicals can. And, by God’s grace, it is happening; the movement has already begun. Because of the vibrant, thrilling happenings taking place at the edges, I am more excited than ever about the abundant life of the church bursting through all humanly constructed walls—in the palace and the street and beyond.7