Monday, February 28, 2011

If I Loved

This is the first step of a new project, I hope it connects:

Cripples, the blind, homeless mothers… yeah, I’ve walked past them. Street kids, war orphans, refugees and sick babies… yup, I’ve ignored em. Crazy street people, naked wanderers, and the shit covered destitute… sure, they’ve made their way to my rearview mirror. Those with seeping flesh wounds, rancid with AIDS, or missing limbs begging on the side of the road… them too. My confession… I suck at loving.

It’s not that I’m not very good at loving others, as if I maintained some broken functionality. Nope, I’m downright lousy at it. My mom, my sisters, and some of my brothers possess this broken functionality - not me.

I don’t always walk past, but at one point or another I’ve walked past them all. I’d like to say the time spent touching, talking to, and praying for those in an African AIDS hospice; the street kids I’ve fed and walked with; the homeless and the sick I’ve given money to; the operations I’ve paid for; the hands I’ve held; smiles I’ve given; heads I’ve touched; tears I’ve shared; and prayers I’ve prayed balance out against my failures. Perhaps the good done soften the blows of those left undone. But these are self-centered thoughts; they focus on my value and feelings. Ironically, defending or nullifying my failure based on my success only serves to condemn me more. I can’t claim ignorance, only indifference. I know the ting to do and yet…I still fail.

Dwelling on past failures isn’t the point. Neither is this an exercise in lowering self-esteem. Building up guilt and shame, so as to “do better” in the future or get God to like me more, is an empty and destructive endeavor as well. No, this is something different.

This is a confession of brokenness – my brokenness. My success in loving others doesn’t mitigate my overwhelming failure; rather, my failure proves my success exceptional. My failure builds the walls that echo the whispers of a divine standard, a standard straining to make itself known. This standard is alien to my nature, yet it resides in passing moments of my life. The surprise is not that I love others so poorly; no, the surprise is I love others at all.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The anointing of rudeness and offense

While talking with one of the pastors yesterday I kept on having to shift. We were in a narrow-ish walkway, him on one wall and me leaning against the other (right next to a door). Every few minutes someone would come out of the door and stand there patiently. Eventually I would remember it's culturally rude to walk between two people in conversation, and the person was waiting for me to give them space to walk behind. As stupid as this seems to me, it doesn't bother me. It's culture, perhaps inconvenient, but neither right nor wrong. Don't walk between people in conversation, don't walk and eat at the same time, don't greet someone while there is food in their mouth, don't toss things to people, etc. not right, not wrong, just culture. I once got a Thai kid to crash his bike because I greeted him, hands together nod, while he was riding by. Adults aren't suppose to greet kids this way, too much respect, but kids are always supposed to greet adults this way. An adult greets you this way and you damn well return it, even if you're riding a bike down a dirt road. I won't say trying to get the kid to crash was the reason I did it, I'll just say I was curious. Don't feel bad for the kid, we both thought it was funny.

In any case, the pastor and I were talking about homosexuality and the church/pastor's correct response to it (kinda a huge deal here in Uganda right now). I made some points he agreed with, one sin isn't more disgusting than another, we are called to love the broken, not our place to condemn, is our place to confront brothers and sisters, etc., but he kept getting hung up on what that actually meant for a pastor. It took me a few minutes to realize his concern wasn't with what scripture said, but with how the community responded. He kept saying it was very difficult to know what to do. I agreed with him.

He was understandably concerned with how the community would respond to a church/pastor welcoming in non-defensive, repentant, struggling, and believing homosexuals. Culturally, homosexuality is a nasty thing out here and it is offensive to basic concepts of nature and community. It isn't just the Christians who have a problem with it. For a pastor to accept homosexuals into the congregation, almost certainly, would mean getting condemned by the larger community, getting rejected and persecuted by other pastors, and getting fired by his leaders or abandoned by his parishioners. In essence, it would destroy his "ministry". The pastor kept arguing, for the good of the community and to protect his witness, he couldn't accept homosexuals into the congregation (to the best of my knowledge, this is a hypothetical situation).

As we talked, and I mentioned he wasn't responsible to find the comfortable solution to challenges, or to be respectable in the eyes of the larger community and other pastors, I began to realize the situation wasn't that difficult - it wasn't all that challenging. I told him he was only responsible to be obedient to God and to ask "What does loving Jesus look like?"

In Matthew, Jesus says "Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." He forgot to mention the people doing the persecuting, insulting, and lying weren't going to be "the world", as we so often fantasize, but or friends, family, congregations, fellow pastors, and elders. Remember those persecuted prophets Jesus mentioned? They were almost only ever persecuted by their own people.

Being a christian leader/christian, and making the "tough" decisions, is a lot easier when you recognize it isn't your decision, it isn't your job to moderate God for his own good, it isn't your job to be respectable, and it isn't your responsibility to make life comfortable. The job sucks and it's painful, but it is easy. It's your job to obey God. The gospel is rude and offensive; it always was and it was always meant to be. Respectability, places of honor, lower case kingdoms, and legions of adoring followers were never on the table for you to work towards. This might sound bad, but it's much easier obeying God, loving Jesus, and lead meaningful ministries when you just don't care about the other stuff.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, etc. are remembered, loved, honored, and respected. The morons, who made their lives miserable, stand forgotten or condemned.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Stupid Ethics!

So here is an ethics question for you,

On Friday Ugandans voted in a presidential election. Everyone, except the sitting president (Museveni) and a few of his party people, acknowledged that the fix was in. The fix is always in during an African election. The strange thing is, the president is a fairly popular and probably didn't need to "bend" the vote (as nearly everyone assumes he, or his people, did). He ended up winning with 68% of the vote, his closest/only real competition officially collected 26%. Based on conversations, my non scientific guess is 50% to 38+% would have been a more honest result.

Facts: Museveni was going to be accused of manipulating the election results regardless of what he did; elections in Africa are a form of bloodsport; had the election been close, rioting and violence would have been much more likely; some of the losers are huffing and puffing, but it looks like everyone is going to peacefully accept the result.

Question: Ethically speaking, did the ruling party, hypothetically, do the right thing? By playing with the vote, even though they probably didn't need to, the manufactured popularity of the president, likely, reduced the tension of an election where the result was a forgone conclusion (regardless of the result, Museveni wasn't leaving office).

I hate how EVERYTHING is corrupt out here, and I hate how people expect and often accept it. More than that, I hate how people get "staby" when elections and politics, decided down tribal lines, blow up and a bunch of innocents get raped and dead (see nearly every country on the continent over the last 50 years). At what point do you say, "I don't like it, but it's better than the likely alternative"?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Drug of choice?

Two things are resting in my mind, and a third is growing.

A friend linked me to this post and a few days ago a westerner heading home made a comment about how tough spending time here is because of the way of life (not culturally, but in the "everything is broken" sense). I agree with both.

My first time to east Africa, some ten years ago, I regularly wrestled the desire to blow stuff up. When oppression wears the face of presidents, police, fathers, pastors, and tribal leaders (institutionalized and top down) it makes you think a clean slate is the only fix. I'm yet to see corruption benefit the corrupter in the long term. Yet, in so many settings, it is the coin of the day. The Bush boys, Obama, Clinton, Carter, and Reagan, regardless your political beliefs, would all resemble the stuff of Washington and Lincoln in most of the governments on this continent. We are truly privileged to be able to complain about the indiscretions and policies of Bush and Obama; though, Mandella lives well above both.

I'm not sure Westerners are blessed; we are certainly privileged. With minuscule exceptions, we were born with silver spoons. Contrary to popular white guilt/shame, this isn't our fault. Fault may belong to our ancestors, but that standard would condemn every people group throughout history. You can hate Bill Gates for his programs or actions, just don't hate him for his father or his money.

One reasons I'm grateful to be in Uganda has nothing to do with my spirituality, compassion, or "Super Christian" status, it contrasts these fictions. I'm grateful to be in a "challenging" and "broken" setting because I suck at Christianity, compassion, and spirituality. Believe me, if I was good at them, I'd be running a dive shop in the Caribbean, smoking Cubans, brewing beer, and fleecing tourists. I'm grateful to be here because "being here" forces me to depend on God, to depend on God's blessing rather than my privilege.

The people of the Beatitudes weren't blessed because of privilege or success. They were blessed because they were broken and they knew it. They were blessed because they knew they couldn't depend on themselves; they only had God. Who is closer to redemption and healing, the addict with a bankroll or the one flaming at the bottom?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shakespeare can suck it!

I like the guy’s plays well enough and I’m sure he was an interesting dude to chill with, but never editing or rewriting his work? I hate him! Seriously, where does he get off?

Okay, so I don’t really hate Shakespeare, I’m just moderately annoyed by the editing process. I could have written at least two other first drafts in the time it’s taken me to edit and rewrite the one I’ve been working on. The upside is it’s much better than when I started.

In any case, if you’re interested this is the last chapter… it aint short:

13. The Beginning as Conclusion

It’s in our nature to share good news, it’s one of those things we do without being taught or coaxed. Keeping good news secret goes against our instinctive desires. Look at children who are told about a vacation or a party. Even when you tell them to keep quiet, it takes no time for the news to spill out of them. There is purity in the joy that comes through sharing the things that make us happy. Even as adults we like to share good news, as if telling others about a new job, an engagement, or a birth makes that thing more real - more alive. Sharing good news allows it to be reborn in the lives of others.

Sharing good news is one of the most natural and enjoyable aspects of life. Yet for some reason, this part of who we are often grows stagnant, when our spiritual beliefs are involved, especially for those of us several years down the road of faith. An odd balance can play out in our lives, the thing ideally the closest and most precious to us, becomes the thing we guard and protect from the eyes and criticism of others. Making this odd is the rarity with which this paradigm plays out in other areas of our lives. Most other times, the only thing preventing us from spouting off to everyone else is a lack of surety. The possibility of a promotion, the hint of a desired pregnancy, your team having a lead with time left on the clock are all exciting and good situations, yet we often keep silent about them until the promise comes is realized. This makes me think many of us either don’t understand the gospel as good news or we are unsure of its result. There are other options, but these two seem the most likely starting points.

For many of us, our relationship with evangelism begins on a broken leg. We hear it taught, Christians are “supposed” to evangelize and make disciples of people. This creates the impression following through on the great commission goes against our natural desires, as if we are being forced to eat our broccoli before we get a shot at dessert. We put together evangelistic outreaches, we build ourselves up for ministry, we get training to participate, and we breath a sigh of relief when they are over - having filled our quota of evangelistic effort for the year. I have no problem with evangelistic outreaches or with training; they are good things and I’m grateful I’ve participated in several versions of both over the years. The issue I’m trying to get at is how we come to understand evangelism as a “should” rather than a natural expression of our desires. This is different from what we see in the early church and in the lives of those who followed Jesus.

I don’t know what it was that brought about this shift - this twist in the theological and doctrinal intent of our lives - but at some point this change affected the way a large portion of Christianity related to evangelism. The perspective was transformed from one of nature to one of obligation. Perhaps it is attached to the popularization of Christianity through the conversion of Constantine, or is connected to the concept of penance, but the effects are clearly visible to anyone who looks at large sections of Christian culture. Obviously there are exceptions. Sometimes these exceptions envelop whole regions and countries for long periods of time. But it seems clear these truly are exceptions, at least within Western and large swaths of the rest of Christianity. I’ve felt the sting myself, having felt failure and shame for not being a better witness, for not taking more chances to share the gospel with my friends, and for not being a better more profound and prolific Christian. These feeling came from some strange thought I had failed God or let Jesus down.

I refuse to believe this strange brokenness is the result of a healthy relationship with evangelism, the great commission, or the gospel. I want to get back to the place where evangelism is a natural expression of faith, both in words and actions, and is a basic and common element of life.

The obligation to evangelize can be built on a few “great commission” type passages in scripture. I won’t argue with these or try to take away from the importance of them. I’m not that stupid or foolish. My desire is to remove the burden of performance, and accomplishment, they sometimes bring to our relationship with God. I’ve grown up in and around ministry and I’ve often found myself in leadership and in official team roles. Most of the time these have been fun experiences and they’ve always been great learning and giving opportunities. One of the most important lessons to come out of these experiences, as well as one of the easiest to forget, is that God doesn’t need me. My participation, or lack there of, can influence God’s plan and action, but the final outcome of God’s cosmic will doesn’t depend on my ability to succeed in ministry.

The simplest ministry trap to fall into is the one telling us the outcome depends on our abilities. This belief can come from a place of humility or arrogance, but it is always attached to ignorance. This burden damages, or destroys, the people, relationships, and ministries connected to it. Skill, sacrifice, and perseverance all have places in ministry, but they are not the source or the foundation of ministry. The simple truth is we don’t fulfill, or bring about the will of God, through our actions; rather, we participate with God as He accomplishes His will through the power of the Holy Spirit. We own the opportunity of participation, not the burden of performance. The greatest preacher in the world, if disconnected from the Holy Spirit, will only be able to accomplish his own desires. Yet, a functional illiterate with a stutter, when connected to the Holy Spirit, can accomplish the fullness of God’s desires.

A couple of events have helped me understand the force of God’s will and recognize the extensive nature of the tools available to Him. One familiar to us is the conversion of Paul. God decided He wanted to use Paul to accomplish His will, and so He confronted him. Eventually other people played parts in Paul’s development, but the call and the power of his conversion belonged exclusively to God. The evangelism of Paul was the violent revelation of God.

While traveling in Indonesia with my brother Aaron, we were exposed to a similar event. One of the great benefits of ministry in nonwestern environments is crazy stuff is much more likely to happen. Culturally, there is a more open and connected relationship with the spiritual realm, for both good and bad, in communities with philosophical perspective that don’t reject the spiritual realm.

At the time of our trip, many parts of Indonesia were going through serious cultural and religious violence. For every story of violence and tragedy we heard, saw pictures of, or passed through the aftermath of we also heard a story or saw evidence of God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of people. Some of these stories were absolutely crazy and amazing while others were simply touching and heartwarming. One of the coolest stories we heard took place in a Muslim community on one of the larger islands:

A group of Muslims were praying together in a mosque when Jesus appeared to them. He essentially told them who he was and asked why they weren’t following him. The impact this had on their lives was catastrophic. After they started telling people what they saw and that they now believed in Jesus, family members started abducting them and locking them away. This was to enable the families to force the new believers back into Islam. Protecting the family honor and defending the cultural grip of Islam was important to them. Knowing they were in trouble, and that their time was almost up, about a dozen of the new believers fled their homes and families and took refuge in a Christian community.

It would be easy for Aaron and myself to file this story in the “urban legend” category of mission field experiences. That is, it would been easy had we not met several of these new Christians in the community sheltering them. When we asked what Jesus looked like they said, “Hairy!” Indonesian men are not known for their robust body hair.

There is much to take from the story of Paul, and of the Muslims who saw Jesus, but what I want to focus on is the revelation that God doesn’t “need” us to evangelize and to accomplish His will. These stories of conversion are not the norm, but they show God is capable His own thing. When we are called into the great commission, we are called into a work God is already active in. Much like an invitation to go on a walk with a close friend, the commission to share the gospel is not a demand for performance but is an invitation to participate in a journey already underway.

Matthew 9:13 is a pivotal passage in my life. In it Jesus tells the people he didn’t come for the healthy but for the sick, he then says, “Go and learn what this means, I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” I spent a lot of time working through this passage and connecting the implications of it to my life, and how I saw God. Toward the end of this long process, a central reality of this simple phrase dawned on me. Jesus wasn’t telling people God desired/required compassion because He was unable to act in that way on His own; rather, He desired/required compassion because it was consistent with who He was. God’s desire for His people to be filled with compassion is consistent with His desire that we be made in His image. God values compassion because it is consistent and intertwined with His nature. In order for us to participate with God in the fulfillment of His will we must join with him in His nature, we must begin to become like him.

The call to preach the gospel, to witness to who God is and what He has done, and to make disciples of the nations, is not a command separated from the current actions of God. The great commission is a task God is actively pursuing and it is a task He has invited us to participate in. If you want to spend time with God, start doing the things God does. Spend time with the sick, learn how to love those who are hurting, and share the gospel with those around you. If we are, as we claim to be, Christians, then it is in our nature to be like Christ.

The realization that we are to be “like Christ” becomes a burden to those who believe they can accomplish it according to their own ability. Fortunately, this burden of accomplishment is not intended for us. The Holy Spirit is our point of connection with the Union of God. It is the Spirit that transforms us into the image we are incapable of finding on our own. It is through the Spirit of God that we are able to participate, in ever increasing ways, in the will and the work of God. How the Spirit influences our ability to engage the fullness of the gospel, and walk in the great commission, is as unique to each of us as we are from each other. Consistent for each of us is the necessity to ask, seek, knock, and yield; absent is the burden of guilt and shame.

I spent the previous chapters trying to share a greater depth and a more compelling relationship with the gospel. This was an attempt to break the gospel free from our preconceived notions and as an exercise to help me reform what I believe and understand about the gospel. Everything is done in the desire to see God more clearly and to allow the reality of God to remold our actions and behavior. This forced me to acknowledge several places of disconnect in my life between what I say I believe, and what my actions reveal about my belief. Through this process I’ve come to believe the anxiety and fear many of us develop, in regard to evangelism, develops from an incomplete connection to the truth and the power of the gospel. This same gospel, ideally, establishes our faith. As I’ve said, if we believed the gospel to be good news and we are sure of it, our natural response will be to share it with others.

One of the roots, in this broken relationship, grows from believing the “prize” of Christianity is the right to dodge hell and get into heaven, or that the “goal” of Christianity is to stop sinning and live better lives. Oddly enough, and much to the benefit of my own peace, I’ve stopped considering either of these as attached to, or at least central to, faith in Jesus. The true prize and goal of Christianity is a developing, and eventually unmitigated, relationship with God.

I’m not sure how heaven and hell figure into a healthy Christian motivation, but I’m increasingly sure they shouldn’t be primary. A new heaven and a new earth are clearly part of God’s plan, but as Christians, we may never see heaven. To indulge in a rabbit trail, a strong argument can be made for the new earth being our eternal inheritance rather than heaven. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I recognize it as a possibility. This shakes me free from the power of my own limited fantasies about heaven and frees me to remember: God is Himself the prize. As anyone playing competitive team sports can tell you, winning the game needs to be the reward for winning the game. When indulged, personal glory, showmanship, or the desire for trophies break focus and erode a team’s ability to win. Whatever comes after the game comes after the game. At the same time, it seems pretty clear, cutting back on the sinning and becoming a better person is a positive aspect of a developing relationship with God, but it is a reflective aspect rather than the motivation or the purpose of it.

What’s appeared to happen, through focusing on getting to heaven or in making people less sinful, is our motivations and desires have been corrupted. In a subtle way, God is removed from the reward, and the value, of faith. As Johnny Cash sings in The Wanderer, “…they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.” This may be a bit harsh, but an element of truth exists here. The concept of God as the prize has been transformed into God as the regulator of the prize. I wonder how people would respond to the question, “Would you rather end up in heaven, even though God isn’t there, or never go to heaven, but be with God?” These subtle shifts from center twist the starting point and impacts what we believe and how we talk about God.

As I said in the first chapter, it is best if the reward for a thing is found in the action of that thing. If we speak the gospel for the purpose of bending others to our beliefs, to get them to join our club, or to pass some entry requirement for heaven, people will recognize it and they will build their barriers. To which I say, “Good for them”, I wish more of us demanded integrity. If we need a response to validate our efforts, we are setting ourselves in a position to fail and offend. At the same time, if we share the gospel for the simple purpose of telling people about the good news, the same news that changed us, the reward is found in the act of giving rather than the response it produces. If someone says, “What do you expect from me?” And we respond with anything other than, “Nothing. I just wanted to give you what I’ve been given. Your response belongs to you and God.” then we need to question our motives. Obviously we want them to come to the party, but our part is to tell them they are invited. Obviously we want our friends to be healed and made alive in God, but the purpose for us is in the telling.

An interesting trend within the gospels is the way Jesus connects the image of partying, celebrations, and banquets to the central reality of the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the act of evangelism is often presented as the simple act of freely inviting people into the midst of an existing celebration. In light of who God is, or we at least believe him to be, shouldn’t we eagerly invite our friends to meet Him and to spend time at one of His parties? For those of us who don’t, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why, rather than blindly accepting the guilt and shame of being sub-par Christians?

As we move past broken goals and twisted desires we come into contact with more personal issues. For some of us it is our lack of confidence and desire that moderates our communication of the Gospel. These may develop because we don’t think our friends would want to come to our churches or from a fear of rejection; these have certainly influenced me in the past. Likely though, the most common challenge for me has been figuring out what to say without sounding like a tool. I can talk sports, politics, theology, movies, books, music, art, and culture with almost anyone at almost any time, and I can do it without any fear of rejection or embarrassment. I don’t really care what other people think about these things. We can respectfully disagree, grudgingly agree, or call each other idiots and move on, with or without our friendships intact, and I’m fine with it. Yet for some reason, sharing the gospel doesn’t fall into this category of indifference. I think this is because I do care about what people think about the gospel, and I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want to push people further away from Jesus, or myself, because I come across as some crazy street preacher or a disingenuous door-to-door salesman. Another aspect is the gospel is much more central to my identity than any of those other topics. To figure out how to share the gospel in a genuine way is to figure out how to be naked in front of others and say, “This is who I am.” The humbling thing is this is exactly what Jesus did.

As Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation…” The power of God is the nakedness of God revealed. As much as we might want to shy away from this statement, we must instead desperately cling to it. God, both literally and figuratively, stripped Himself naked in the person of Jesus. In front of all humanity he stood naked and said, “Rest easy, this is who I am. Be at peace, this is who my Father is.”

Out of some broken sense of modesty and propriety, we are constantly caught in the sin of trying to cloth Jesus. The problem is he doesn’t provide us with garments of doctrine that can cover his nakedness, or place him at a safe distance. Like fools, we use our own garments and doctrines to cloth Jesus and protect ourselves from the violence, beauty, and intimacy revealed in the naked image of God. I call this sin because we become guilty of rejecting God yet again. In a cosmic game of chicken God stands raw before us, and more often than not, we are the ones who turn away. Only rarely do we let ourselves mirror Jesus and allow ourselves to stand raw before God. The funny thing is, when we stand naked before God and say, “This is who I am”, the voice we hear says, “I know. I have always known, and you have always been enough. You are my child whom I love and I am well pleased with you. I know you, and I am happy to be your Father.”

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, He created all of creation and said, “It is good.” The divine Trinity formed humanity in their likeness and they said, “We like this.” The rest of the story dwells in the truth of these two statements. No matter how many miles we put under our feet or how many scars we pick up along the way, the truth of God doesn’t change. The good news of God is that God is who He is. He is the Alpha and the Omega, He bookends creation, and He is on every page of every book that rests between. The first picture given of God, the one who walked with Adam and Eve because He wanted to, is the same picture we are given when Jesus walked with his family, friends, countrymen, and enemies. It is the same picture given when the Spirit of God came at Pentecost and became inseparable from the children of God. The gospel of God is the revelation of the God who desires to be with those He loves, the revelation of a God who loves for the sake of loving and gives for the sake of giving. Justice is defined by His desires and true love reveals itself through His actions. The simplest description of the gospel is this: God is who God is. As He told Moses, “I AM that I AM.” After all of the arguments, wondering, wandering, and searching, it is the identity of God that establishes everything. It is all that matters.

The gospel is all that matters because there is nothing else. The question left to us is, do we believe?