Monday, April 27, 2015

There Is One Body

"So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Corinthians 10:12). 

This Wednesday will mark the conclusion of a four-week series on the subject of race and reconciliation at University Presbyterian Church. A co-worker and I have been planning it since last October. I must say, it has been a very intense experience. I knew that race was a sensitive subject, but I didn't quite anticipate the strong responses (both positive and negative) that we have received from participants and the enormous sense of responsibility I have felt in stewarding these weekly conversations.

Through this planning process I've become a bit upset about how divided the church is: particularly across race, denomination and socio-economic status. "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6). The "church" does not appear to be "one" just yet.

In the past few weeks, we have heard from Christians of color share their painful experiences of racism in the church and in Christian settings. We have heard from White Christians who work in the criminal justice system and the ethical choices they make every day that affect communities throughout King County. We have heard in a small degree the pain and loss that the Black community experiences through systemic oppression and acts of violence that lead to the deaths of their loved ones.

The title of the series is "What Ferguson Means for Us." I learned early on that I had made a mistake in considering Ferguson to be symbolic in nature, a lesson for us in Seattle to learn about from a distance. It's impossible to look at photos of Michael Brown's uncovered dead body, desperate protests in the street and images from his funeral "from a distance." Things became very "real," very quickly when  I read a cover story article in TIME magazine, "Black Lives Matter." The published images of Walter Scott being shot to death shook me to my core. The article also lists incident after incident of young, unarmed black men being shot and killed by the police. I know for a fact that a similar situation of a white male police officer shooting and killing an unarmed young black boy has happened here in our very city. There is nothing distant about Ferguson.

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?...[N]ot to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (Isaiah 58). 

I believe that now is a time for the church to pay attention. We're going to need to be alert. We're most likely going to need to repent.

"[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2:7).


Do your work, O Lord, to form us into one Body--the Body of Christ!!

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Taking a Second Glance at Evangelism

It seems to me that pretty much all of us have a 'gross' evangelization encounter story. By that I mean, a stranger walking up to you and "sharing the gospel," oftentimes with the help of some sort of pamphlet with a diagram that visually represents salvation in God and has Bible verses on the back.

So for me, I was at the HUB one day back in my college years, getting lunch. I was headed toward the cafeteria to return my dirty tray when I was unexpectedly steered to sit down with a woman on a ledge next to an overgrown indoor plant. Perhaps the word 'ambushed' may be too strong to describe this encounter, but that's kind of how it felt at the moment.

The woman who had stopped me then proceeded to flip through her pamphlet with the diagram and the Bible verses, asking me some questions about who I was and who I believed God to be. I pride myself on being a thoughtful person, so responded honestly and from the heart, but discovered quickly that this woman was not as interested in knowing me as she was in getting through that pamphlet!

She asked me if I had "received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior," to which I replied in the affirmative. She looked at me suspiciously, squinting her eyes slightly, then proceeded to explain in great detail that many people may *think* they are saved but in actuality are not. It was obvious that she doubted my eternal salvation. At this point I started to get a bit ticked off by this woman's audacity and boldness to think she had me pegged as 'not really' a believer, that she had to 'save' from my own self-deceit and delusion.

"I have to go," I interjected firmly, and she looked a bit crestfallen not to have been able to 'seal the deal' with me by having me pray through the Sinner's Prayer (or so I assumed). I stewed on that interaction the rest of the day and still get riled up recounting it now. Who does she think she is? How dare she?

One thing is clear: that day I made a vow that I would never become an evangelist like that.

'Gross' Evangelism

A couple of people in my life have had even worse experiences. A classmate in high school told me that as a waitress at Johnny Rocket's a table of young men told her (as she was trying to take their order) that she was a sinner, was going to hell and then didn't leave a tip (but of course left a Bible)! Assholes! My dad was evangelized to in Mexico by a white guy who told my dad he was a sinner "didn't know anything" and heaped one verbal assault after another against him as his seven-year old daughter (I presume) looked on. Evangelical encounters like these are absolutely disgusting. The overt message is one of condemnation. There is no love. This kind of evangelism damages those it professes to 'save' and misrepresents the gospel of Jesus Christ (and Jesus Christ himself).

Shrinking Back

As a consequence of these hurtful experiences with heavy-handed evangelists, I became extra sensitive not to 'inflict' my beliefs on others, and did my best to keep my faith somewhat hidden out of courtesy. I definitely didn't share the gospel. In many ways I agreed with postmodern values of pluralism and relativism--that everyone was entitled to believe what they wanted. Who was I to convince them otherwise (i.e. tell them that they were 'wrong' and I was 'right'--GROSS)? So while people around me may have known that I went to church, or may have seen me reading my Bible in public, I was not interested in evangelizing (sharing the good news).

Gross Evangelism=Proclamation-Love
My 'Evangelism'=Love-Proclamation

For this reason I stayed clear of working in 'church ministries' to serve the poor, or faith-based organizations, preferring non-profits or government work as a means to be present to the oppressed. I wanted to steer clear of 'gross' charity work--only offering to help with physical needs (food, clothing, shelter) if those served go to chapel. That carrot and stick stuff seemed so disingenuous to me and even, perhaps, manipulative.

All this to say, I became a very passive evangelist, if I was one at all. I was all good with being friends with unbelievers, listening to them, praying for them (when alone in my room, of course, never WITH them). Again, I was not going to be that gross evangelist!

The Stigma of Evangelism


In academia I learned of the term proselytization ("to induce someone to convert one's faith"). It was always used with pejorative overtones. Proselytization was nearly synonymous with 'cultural imperialism' (i.e. the Crusades, Spanish colonial 'missions' to Latin America). Proselytization implied an intrusion, usually with a strong arm, against a population, forcing them into belief. It was oppressive. To proselytize was basically to be an asshole. My professor of 'The Political Economy of World Religion' would talk self-deprecatingly about his Christian faith in class but always made sure to assure us quickly, "but I'm not here to proselytize [i.e. impose]." Evangelicals and evangelism in general were presented in pretty dim light.

The gospel is good news, meant to be a gift, yet it seems that in these days, to some it's seen as only inflicting injury.

Reclaiming the Gospel

"I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).

To be honest, I still carry vestiges of shame about the gospel because it has been misused by so many of these gross evangelist types, and a part of me is super embarrassed to be associated with them by sharing the gospel with people in my life. Recently I was convicted of the need to pray forgiveness over the evangelists that have hurt me in the past, to renounce that vow to never be like them, and to bless, yes bless, gross evangelists in Jesus' name. It feels like a turning point.

A part of me really does believe in the power of the gospel, and that it really is good news! Nowadays I am willing to openly talk about Jesus Christ with people, simply because he has done so much for me--like, I have a lot to share, if people are interested in hearing my story.

What I'm trying to say is that, gross evangelization encounters notwithstanding, I am ready to live into being an evangelist, even if that means risking looking or sounding stupid when sharing the gospel. This is kind of big, guys!

My Old Evangelism=Love-Proclamation
My New Evangelism=Love+Proclamation

Here goes nothing!

Friday, January 23, 2015

On Not Being a Pretentious Shepherd


"The next session covered briefly the three types of relationships we need, if we are to be people growing. We need those who are further along the way, who give us hints of where we are and raise the question of where we are going--what the next step might be. They may be teachers or counselors, or, when we are without these, books. Then we need those who are our peers--fellow pilgrims with whom we share the day-by-day events of our life in Christ, the discoveries we make, the places where we are challenged, our discouragement, our hope; brothers who hold us accountable, who remind us of our covenant relationship; brothers who mediate forgiveness. And thirdly, we need those who are not so advanced as we--a little flock which is ours to tend and nourish. 'All these relationships,' said Gordon [Cosby], 'are utterly necessary to our spiritual development, but the one I want us to look at in this class is the one of being shepherds, because it is at this point most of us will feel the most hesitancy or timidity. We will feel that it is pretentious for us to be guides to others at the point of their life in Christ.'" (110).
-Elizabeth O'Connor, Journey Inward, Journey Outward

So I've been reading this book about a group of folks in D.C. who started a coffee house church before it was "cool," and am fascinated by this quote. According to O'Connor and her peers, there are three essential types of relationships that every believer needs. I'm going to rename them into my own vernacular:
  1. Titans
  2. Sisters
  3. Little Sisters.
I had a bit of a contentious discussion the other day with a colleague of mine who was reluctant to consider anyone in his life to fit into category #3: "Little Sisters" (or "Brothers" in this case, whatever). In O'Connor's words, "We feel that it is pretentious..." I hear that. I feel that. I understand that there are hierarchical overtones to the notion of shepherds and the "little flock." Yes, the shepherd/flock "construction" creates a dichotomy that has implications of power and influence. Yet somewhere along the way, in our postmodern culture, hierarchy has become nearly synonymous with evil! I don't necessarily believe that to be true. I'm not saying that it's unwarranted. It seems that aversion to hierarchy is a reaction to countless misuses of power in the form of paternalism and dogmatism in the church. I mean, that and the fact that this country was founded on supposedly "egalitarian values." So it's in the American bones and psyche to defy hierarchy, so to say.

This being said, I am coming to a pretty strong conviction that there are varying stages of spiritual maturity (in the Greek it'd be nepios, teknon, paidion, and huios--see Cooke, Prophecy and Responsibility), and that any any point in time, any believer has people "ahead" of them (titans), "beside" them (sisters) and "behind" them (little sisters). I have also come to the strong conviction that it's high time that I start giving some attention to my lil' sis cohort and stop being a greedy asshole!

Titans

If you know me to any degree, you'll probably hear me at one point and time rant and rave about the 'titans' in my life. These are the folks that I just 'want to get in the room with' to soak up their words of wisdom, receive their prayers, encouragement and teaching for the journey. I also often describe these people as "nuts" (in the best way, duh). In the spirit of the now far outdated meme, here are my titans in somewhat chronological order:

Grandpa &
Susan &
Ann &
Ruby &
Joyce &
Celia &
Debbie.

These are people that have walked beside me, shared of their lives with me and listened to me. I pretty much just draft off of them. They are my coaches and consultants. I love them and thank God for them VERY frequently.

Sisters

My peers are also folks that I cherish deeply and love and want to hug constantly. They're the ones that I talk to on a regular basis, who are usually grappling with similar questions. They're less intimidating than my titans but they go hard spiritually:

Hillary &
Faith &
Laura &
Lisa &
Courtney &
Naomi &
Kim.

These are my peeps! They're the ones I can pray with throughout the week and who keep me accountable. I love them so much, too!

Little Sisters

Okay, so now I hit the dreaded "growing edge." It was a sobering realization that while I love to receive oodles of instruction and encouragement from my titans and my peers (who wouldn't?), I'm making little to no concerted effort to "pay it forward" by seeking out and staying loyal to any "little sisters." Do I actually have little sisters in my life? HAHAHA, maybe two, perhaps three, and those being very informal mentorship-esque relationships. My best friend has an older woman at her church to prays for her literally every day. I am not that dedicated.

It has recently emerged in prayer that the Lord is calling me to step into a new role of discipling some of the people he's brought into my life. Is it "pretentious" of me to start moving in obedience to that call? I'd like to believe not. Did I think it was pretentious of my grandpa to disciple me while I was in high school? Hell no! "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers" (1 John 3:16). My grandpa would have laid down his life for me, so I could all the way trust him to be my shepherd. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11b). I believe God is inviting me to shepherd others with this same heart of love. I mean, literally in prayer I heard, "Are you willing to lay down your life for these people?" My first thought was "Fuck," but, after some crying and stuff, I said, "Yes."

I've been thinking a bit about what it means to be a part of the "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). It's part of my priestly duty not to be a spiritual elitist, and to draw near to those who may be (relatively) immature spiritually (believe me, I have plenty of immaturity issues I am praying through). "Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God... He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness" (Hebrews 5:1-2). This just makes me think of Pastor Kerry, of Japanese Presbyterian Church, who in my opinion is a shepherd of shepherds and lives this out daily. Rather than disdaining people around me, or getting overly frustrated with them for being fearful, hard-hearted, unbelieving, etc., God is inviting me to intercede on their behalf, love them and in humility consider them to be better than myself (Philippians 2:3). In many ways I sense the Lord reminding me to remember the condition I was in when he first found me, so as not to become blinded by my own self-righteousness and self-importance. I'm just learning loads!

As you go, disciple

All this to say, I'm entering into a new season and stepping into a new role of discipling others. *Scary!* What I am writing about isn't especially revelatory and it isn't profound. It's just that I am discovering new levels of meaning to the words of the Great Commission, which used to make my skin crawl (I save that for another blog post), but now have a whole lot of operational meaning: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). A student who was doing Fuller extension once told me (and I never went back to fact-check, just trusted him blindly so... *shrug*) that a more accurate translation of the verse would be as you go, disciple, like it should just be part and parcel of the whole following Jesus thing. It doesn't necessarily feel natural to me now, but I am praying that one day it will.

Followers