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Holy incarnation

by Perry Engle

This past year, our family has spent a lot of time in cities. With trips to Miami, Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Diego, our travels have exposed us to culture, history, diversity, and some really great food.

Many people I know dislike cities. For them, cities represent everything that’s wrong with the world: crime, noise, traffic, pollution, crowds.

But I happen to like cities. A lot.

I like the energy, the diversity, the sights, and the sounds. I like the cross-section of humanity, the art and the architecture, the best and worst of what people can be. The smell of diesel mixed with coffee and cigarettes, the clattering of construction echoing through the urban canyons. I love the interaction of thoughts and words, light and darkness, and the collision of smells where Chinatown meets Little Italy and then melts into Fisherman’s Wharf.

Cities have always reminded me of what a struggle it is to be holy and live in the world.

I’ve always heard that Christ-followers are to “be in the world, but not of it.” And that’s great, except that when you live in a city, the city gets all over you. The stink, the grime, the sheer humanity of the place attaches itself to you, and you can’t just shake it off. Similarly, living in the world makes it entirely unlikely that some of the world won’t find its way onto you.

I try to imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to lay aside His divinity, clothe Himself in human flesh, and set His feet down on this filthy lump of clay. How gracious He was in accepting His incarnation, how patient in dealing with humanity, how engaged with a culture that was so thoroughly not His own.

I have come to the conclusion that to live in true holiness is to follow the example of Jesus, to embrace His calling to live as servants in a horribly misshapen world. If holiness truly is attained by becoming more like Jesus, then whether in urban centers or small towns, we must live more closely engaged with culture, not separated from it—conversing, not condemning—interacting, rather than avoiding.

Can light live in fellowship with the darkness? Absolutely not. Light exists in proximity to darkness, confronting and engaging it, dispelling and transforming it. Like a light on a lamp stand. Like a city set on a hill.

Like a God who so loved the world.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2007 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Perry Engle is the bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Conferences of the BIC Church. He and his wife, Marta, and their three daughters live in the ever-expanding city of Ontario, Calif.

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