Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with theologian, missiologist, educator and story-teller Ruth Padilla DeBorst, who currently lives in an intentional Christian community in Costa Rica, and discuss with her the nature of God’s Kingdom and how she seeks to be faithful to God’s call in her life today.
Tearfund: At the start of Mark’s gospel, Jesus announces that “The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15]. How do you respond to the sense of urgency in this passage?
Ruth: We read the gospel from where we live, from our own experience and such. As I read about the urgency and immediacy, the ‘now’ of God’s Kingdom rule breaking into history in Mark 1:14-15 – I experience this a lot.
My family went through this intense experience a few years ago when my husband was murdered. My children and I really had this sense that we had been given a second life, we were granted an extension on what might have ended. And that obviously brought a keen awareness to the importance of every moment you live. We have now, we don’t know if we have tomorrow. The premature death of my husband and the experience of going through that just really gave me the sense that we only have the moment we have and God calls us to be faithful in that moment.
So much of Christian thinking is concerned about what will happen in the future. Yet the call of Jesus is a call that is immediate, contextual, in the midst of the messiness of life. It’s about embodying the presence of the Kingdom in the midst of those uncertainties. People talk about “carpe diem” and “grab the moment” to justify doing what they want without much thought for the future. But our call is to grab the moment and live fully into God’s purposes for the world.
Tearfund: How have you sustained yourself through dark times, both in the past and more recently? How do you find the balance between the urgency of now and the reality of eternity?
Ruth: A prayer I love is attributed to Archbishop Romero from El Salvador. In it he says ‘we are ministers, not messiahs; we are prophets of a future not our own; we plant seeds that others may see grow’. So there’s this sense of yes, the now is very real, very demanding, very present and calls us into being part of God’s work. But on the other hand, there’s a restfulness that it’s not about me. This is God’s work. I could not be here tomorrow but God’s purposes will be fulfilled in God’s good time through God’s people, through God’s Spirit. It’s all important and at the same time I’m not that important. So I can take the calling seriously, but I don’t have to take myself so seriously. Some of us, when we’re aware of the needs of the world, we can get so overburdened by them. When things don’t change and there’s so much pain, so much injustice, so much brokenness and we need to mend it all, we get so discouraged. But if we can hold it in the sober realisation that we’re not the messiah, we’re not going to save the world, ecologically, economically, we’re not called to save it. We’re called to follow Jesus in faithfulness to God’s purposes. All that and only that.
Tearfund: From where you sit today, what is it time for now? What are the urgent, pressing needs that need to be addressed?
Ruth: I have four things that I would want to share:
First, I think it’s time finally for the church, for God’s people, to really live into the calling we have as God’s people. To live out God’s purposes and quit bickering so much about if we have the correct definition of every concept and doctrine and such, and to really live in the light of what we do know. So much time and investment and energy and squabbles and exclusions happen, because people are so bent on having the right ideas. But those things that are pretty clear – God’s calling to places in the world as witnesses of God’s reconciling work – it’s clear, why don’t we just live it? And what does that imply? That implies being good neighbours, being aware of the needs of people other than our little group, or my family or my little ghetto or my little church or my little something, but the needs of others. It means becoming aware of the groaning of creation, that is just being exploded and burning up and getting flooded over.
Second, I live in Central America, where one of the huge challenges today is that there are so many refugees, because of either: climate change, which has taken away their livelihood; or violence, which is taking away their children, or their possibility of ongoing life.
The reality of Central America is we’re so close to the border of the US and it’s seen as a place where “they” (Central Americans) might have some possibility of escaping violence or escaping hunger but then they get detained and their children have been separated at the border, children put in cages and families separated and such. And so then I see the Kingdom showing itself, making itself evident, among people who are resisting that oppression of others by being out in the desert, bringing water to the people that are escaping, caring for them at the detention centres. These are expressions of God’s care for people today. It’s actually illegal right now to undertake some of these acts of care for refugees, but there’s a higher law that some people are responding to. So, now there is an urgency for others to join this type of faithfulness, around the world.
Third, in recent years I’m much more aware of how the wellbeing and health of the earth is intertwined with the well-being and health of the human community. I used to think more about the human community and not realise that we’re imbedded. Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian Catholic theologian who says ‘Everything that exists co-exists… and it only subsists by that co-existence’. I’ve really been growing in my own understanding and then also how that feeds into my own practice and my living, recognising how much we are mutually dependant. The groaning of these fires here in Australia and the Amazon and Bolivia and Brazil, or the flooding that is happening and the droughts in other areas, or the fact that coffee growers in Honduras can’t grow their coffee any more because the weather has changed so much that the places they used to plant no longer yield and so they’re left without livelihood and that’s forcing them to migrate... The intertwined-ness of the groaning of the earth itself with the poverty and the vulnerability of human beings is just enormous.
So then, what’s our call? Come Lord Jesus, come heal this land. It brings a keenness to that yearning for God’s rule to finally be complete. For the new heavens and the new earth to come and show themselves among us. And then everyday things like how we live in community, what we eat, how we live, how we manage single-use plastics and cars versus bikes and solar heating rather than electric and all of these very menial, very every-day things, take on a whole other weight, a difference sense of importance, in light of that.
Finally, there’s so much fake good news. Fake news of supposed goodness. We’re told good news is having more stuff, or having a more appealing public image, or accumulating things. The Good News that Jesus proclaimed was so contrasting with the supposed good news of the empire, of Rome and its expansion and its domination of people, and its oppression. In a similar way, the Good News today has to do with full life for people, rather than the supposed good news of the market and of progress and such.
Living out the Good News happens in restored relationships, in fruitfulness, in attempts to live differently.
Living out the Good News happens in restored relationships, in fruitfulness, in attempts to live differently. There’s a whole movement of de-growth for example: we cannot continue seeking for more and more of everything. There is such a thing as enough. There is such a thing as too much. We’re experiencing this in a small way in our local intentional community in Costa Rica, Casa Adobe. Several families sharing life: a common pot, morning prayers, neighbourhood engagement, as a means of living out the Gospel in visible, concrete, everyday things, everyday relationships, and priorities and values and such. We can reduce our carbon footprint, for example, and that is a witness to God’s love for creation. We can start questioning some of our values system of consumption and just live more simply, and still very joyfully. Our sense of accomplishment in life, as Jesus said, doesn’t depend on all the stuff you have.
Ruth Padilla-DeBorst is a wife, mother, theologian, missiologist, educator and story-teller living in an intentional Christian community in Costa Rica.
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