The Anti-Comfort Zone

I’m a big believer in comfort zones. I figure God made them for a reason, and if I could, I’d crawl into mine and live happily ever after. It’s been said, though, that the best stuff in life happens to us when we purposefully step out of our zones. If these are words to live by, my friends are the philosophy’s perfect poster couple.

Lisa Samson is one of my favorite novelists. After I’d read a few of her books, I began commenting on her blog, which often features subjects of interest to writers. Then my husband started leaving comments on her husband Will’s site, a decidedly more theology-and-politics-driven one than Lisa’s.

It wasn’t long until we’d arranged a double date in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, where we enjoyed a fantastic Italian meal followed by a hasty exit from my particular comfort zone. As the four of us walked through the city’s inner harbor area, Lisa spoke softly to her husband: “Do you see that woman standing alone over there? I’m going to get her a cup of hot chocolate.”

Will nodded and ordered five beverages at a nearby coffee place, as if he did things like this everyday. Looking back at how naturally they performed this kindness toward a needy-looking stranger, I’m certain they weren’t novices in the good-deeds department. I, however, at home in Kansas City, routinely bypassed the panhandler planted in front of Barnes & Noble. Not only did I avoid meeting his gaze, I also avoided giving him a second thought. Will and Lisa’s quiet faith in action challenged my soul.

Not long after we met, Will decided to leave a successful career in business and political consulting for the pursuit of an advanced degree in theology. Lisa supported him all the way, even though it meant she would become the main breadwinner for a season. In addition, the couple shared a growing desire to incorporate serving “the least of these” into their faith-walk. So they began to search not only for the right degree program (to find it, they’d be leaving their beautiful suburban neighborhood, where Will says they “never encountered a single person in need”), but also for the community of believers God would have them join.

Lisa expressed only one deal-breaker: No way would she agree to move with their three children into the inner city. Passing out hot drinks on a cold night on an occasional trip to downtown Baltimore, sure. Inner-city living? Not gonna happen.

One day, Will stumbled onto information about a group called “Communality.” He learned that its members, who live in close proximity to one another, “do Kingdom life together.” He really wanted to find out more about them, but Lisa balked—especially when she found out the group’s families occupied homes in the urban core of Lexington, Kentucky.

Still, the couple planned a fact-finding mission to Lexington, both to check out the university and to meet the members of Communality. Before their trip, Lisa took time out for a personal retreat, during which God totally changed her heart about the prospect of urban living. The journey to Lexington confirmed God’s direction in both of their minds, and before long they’d moved their family into The House on Third Street.

These days, garage door openers don’t conveniently prevent the Samsons from coming into contact with their neighbors. In fact, the family now prefers walking to driving whenever possible, since it fosters intentional involvement with others.

“As Americans, we think that intentional living means going somewhere so we can do something,” Will says. “But I wonder if intentionality means to already be in a place where God can do something to us, where He can transform us. When I’m walking to class, I consciously think about the people who live in the places I pass. How can I pray for them? That just doesn’t happen in a car or on a commuter train.”

Will and Lisa have chosen to live as locally as possible, serving both their faith community and the neighborhood residents they’ve come to love. Will routinely hires one local—a man who has a difficult time gaining regular employment—to do odd jobs around the Samson house. And Lisa has bonded with a mentally disabled neighbor lady over their mutual love of The Flintstones.

As with other members of Communality, they’ve aligned themselves with ministries and causes already in full swing in Lexington, especially those with a bent toward social justice, such as the Catholic Workers Movement.

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Lisa is the first to admit that the path the Lord has taken them down hasn’t been easy, but she’s less disturbed by the discomfort than she used to be. Besides, she says, “Easy things don’t cause us to grow, to move forward.”

As for me, I’ve often imagined that the pace of living in the city would be more frantic than in the suburbs, but Will and Lisa have found the opposite to be true.

“The pace here is more organic,” Lisa says. “We used to schedule everything. It’s not like that here. People drop in, we talk to the neighbors—it’s not so much planned activity as spontaneous. It feels natural.”

What have I learned from being friends with Will and Lisa Samson and observing their obedience to follow the path God’s placed before them? I’ve learned that a cup of hot chocolate, once given to a lonely soul, might have eternal consequences. I’ve learned one cup almost always leads to another, and that the second may present more challenges—and changes of heart—than you bargained for. And I’ve learned that the third, if you’re not careful, may lead you out of your very own comfort zone for good.

Just so you know.

Watch for Will and Lisa’s book, Justice in the ’Burbs, to be released in May 2007. Lisa blogs at www.lisasamson.typepad.com, and Will at www.willzhead.typepad.com.

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