Mission as a sign of privilege

•December 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Those moments only come to me every once in a while. Those moments when my wounds are reopened, when my trauma is re-experienced, when life’s most disturbing moments are revisited in vivid, visceral detail. Those moments that bring me to my knees as I cry out.

Those moments came to me during a meeting as someone described his or her perception of God’s provision in the midst of raising money for what could be an expensive mission trip. Another person replied that the money amount is a concern, to which the other person responded that being concerned about the money amount should be reason enough to move forward with planning the trip or experience because God will provide the needed monies.

And I found these feelings sweeping into my heart/soul/emotional self/amygdala as I attempted to explain what I find myself calling the American privilege of mission work.  I explained that our use of money in any situation is a sign of privilege no matter how we spend the money because each transaction is a conscious decision/value judgment.

Many people in the world will never have a single opportunity to travel internationally, let alone several opportunities to travel internationally throughout one’s lifetime. On top of that, travelling to other countries is much easier for Americans, which means that the ability to travel wherever one wants to go is another sign of privilege. People in developing nations have great difficulty travelling to America because of our stringent visa and immigration standards. My host mother was rejected three different times at the American Embassy in Lesotho (though she had all of the necessary paperwork and flight schedules) before she was finally given the visa.  I remember hearing staff in the SALT/IVEP program talk about how difficult getting participants in the IVEP program to the US or Canada can be, while having many fewer issues with getting SALT participants to their perspective countries.

So my concern grows as I consider the privilege that we actively use and rarely acknowledge because we too easily act on our world as if the playing field is equal for everyone, though even within the American economy, the playing field is rarely equal, let alone when we compare across international boundaries. So we almost always should consider the processes/notions of privilege that we are using in any decision. We must realize that privilege is masked in every moment so that we do not notice those structures and powers that maintain themselves through hierarchy, oppression, and injustice. We must realize that even in the midst of good intentions like mission work, we can fully and unapologetically use our privilege and then with that, enhance the meaning of our actions by claiming that God is calling/leading us to do whatever we might be doing and that God is working on our behalf to pave the way for our involvement. What we fail to see is how privilege might actually be the god that is paving the way for us to influence/shape the world in ways that are good and bad and that the God that we claim to serve has nothing to do with it. We use all of the structures available to us and then claim that we are trusting God in the midst of our experience to provide for us.

So then in the midst of my reflection, cynicism, and turbulent emotions, I found myself tearing up and unable to fully express all of the thoughts and feelings running through my brain. I gave my point of view in the meeting with conviction, and at the end of the meeting, I did not hold my hurt against anyone who spoke. I left, only reflecting on my feelings and attempting to unpack all that was happening inside me, which led to this blog post.

 

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An Offering Prayer

•December 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

So I serve as a worship leader at my church, which means that I lead the liturgy of the service. I wrote the following prayer for our offering time. The ushers come forward to pass the plate. I (as the worship leader) pray, and then they pass the plates around to collect the offering while someone plays some music. This is the prayer:

“God of all good gifts, we pray that you would give us the bread that we need for today and that we would be content with it. We pray with repentance and hope for transformation, for we know that our money is not clean or non-violent. We know that Caesar helps protect our money and way of life and that we trust that Caesar will continue to do so. Forgive us. We know that violence and oppression are built into our free-market system. We know that we can only use our money and save it the way that we do because our neighbors, here and around the world, do not have enough. We pray for a continued change of heart and mind about our stuff and the meaning that we think that it gives us. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.”

 

The missional nature of the incarnation

•December 1, 2017 • Leave a Comment

As I enter this Christmas season, I am reminded again and again of the ways in which we have co-opted the story of the birth of Jesus as another ploy to get people saved (lead people to jesus, get people to heaven, save souls, etc. whichever phrase you prefer to use for the transformation that occurs in the revelation that Jesus is Lord of the world and is working in the world to make it right). We miss out on many of the themes and nuances of the Christmas story when we can only see Jesus birth as the middle passage to Jesus’s soon-coming and saving death and resurrection.  I was reminded of this as I was glancing through facebook posts and one of the ads was a guide for the Christmas season on how to make the most of the services, in which whole families will be attending so that you can preach “the gospel.”

One interesting theme that I have always been reminded of in this season comes from my time in Lesotho. We talked in several different training sessions about how the most effective missionaries/mission workers/aid workers have been conscious of the home culture that they are entering. They immerse themselves in the language and culture, appreciating those things that are life-giving and not being too harsh toward those things that may not make sense to them. After all of those conversations, I began to realize how the incarnation (God coming as a human being into this world as the person of Jesus) reflected this idea. Rather than God coming as a king, overthrowing the Roman empire, and starting his own kingdom with bloodshed and dominance, God becomes a human, specifically a Jew. God grows up in Jewish culture, language, meaning, symbol, etc. God moves through the world that God created with us as God’s image-bearers, learning what we think it means to be human and coming alongside us, showing us a new way to be human.

Then at the age of 30, God decides that he has enough learning and tradition to move forward in the streams of scriptural thought from the Old Testament (OT) that reflect those things that he has been trying to teach the Israelites since God made God’s covenant with Abraham. In the actions and teaching of Jesus, God explains how the Jews of the first-century were missing the point (and by extension, we continue to miss the point often).

In that process, God realizes that this teaching and the traditions that precede it in the OT is so radical and earth-shaking that the people in power will be threatened and are threatened. This idea of powerful people wanting to keep and maintain their power and privilege starts in the nativity with the story of Herod in Matthew and Caesar Augustus in Luke. Powerful people want to make sure that all threats are snuffed out right away so Herod kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem and Caesar Augustus calls a Census, which is a painful reminder to the Jews that they are still under the thumb of empire. They are not their own people because they are forced to move to their hometowns to register, which would disrupt any plans of insurrection or revolution from this small region on the eastern edge of the empire.

So where do we go with all of this? I don’t know. My initial thought has always been that we become incarnational and missional ourselves. We enter every situation as an opportunity to learn from another person (how they think, what makes them tick, how their experiences affect their everyday). In those moments, rather than seeking to change people and tell them how to be saved, we come alongside them in love and hope, calling each other to be and become more truly human.  We sit and ask questions, putting away our schedules and our phones, focusing out attention and energy on this other person. Have you done this recently? Really paid attention to the person sitting in front of you or beside you?

Everyday communion

•April 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I was meeting with a couple of friends just to hang out and be present to each other, attentive to what we are hearing through and in our conversation together.  Often, transformation is a result of people listening and speaking authentically and transparently to each other with no agenda.

In the conversation, communion came up as something that was going to be a part of the upcoming Sunday church service. I expressed at that moment that communion was happening already between the three of us as we attempted to respect each other, eat and drink together, and encourage each other. I have found that the sacraments more authentically happen outside of the church walls than they do inside them. We find ourselves eating together with people that we care about, and in the midst of those moments, we find ourselves changing into more caring, loving, transformed people because we come to those moments with no pretense.

In church, we mask who we are in our brokenness and beauty because we don’t want people to know how we don’t measure up or how we have fallen short of all of the expectations that we have for ourselves and of all of what we think God expects of us. Communion as a small cup of juice and a little piece of bread but devoid of the radical destruction of hierarchy in foot-washing and the call of Jesus to be more human, to be more of who God created us to be, is missing the whole point of Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples. Jesus is getting at the transformative power of sitting around the table together, as equals, eating and drinking together, enjoying the presence of the other people in the room and only being attentive to them. We like to cloak the experience in spiritual language about the body and blood of Christ, but we must get past the smoke and mirrors of our church traditions and work toward a more authentic worship that invites the Spirit into our daily experience of communion.

With that, who do you do communion with? Who are you eating and drinking with on a regular basis? Are there people that you would rather be eating and drinking with? When you eat and drink, is everyone included and welcomed, or are certain people left out? How do you know who is not fit?

The resurrection of Lazarus

•April 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In the lectionary this past Sunday, John 11 was the gospel text. I did not realize that most of the gospel texts for this Lenten season came from the book of John, which was interesting, only because I have been reading the book of John over the last few weeks, not even realizing that some of the signs of Jesus in John’s gospel were the focus of Lent.

As I sat and listened to my pastor work through John 11, I looked again at it, thinking about the entire narrative that John was trying to tell, which culminated ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah or King.

Just before this chapter begins, Jesus has narrowly escaped arrest by the Judeans again in the city of Jerusalem. The Judeans were the power-holders of the time, from whom the Pharisees were a part. These were the people closest to the center of political, religious, and economic power in the capital, Jerusalem. They had wanted Jesus in chapter 10 to claim to be the Messiah, or the new king, which would warrant them to arrest him and report him to the Roman authorities who would then kill him for claiming to be King rather than Caesar. However, Jesus continues to challenge them, telling them that they should look at the work that he has been doing and make the decision themselves, based on their knowledge of the scriptures. He does this because he knows that they will not relinquish their power in order to name Jesus as the coming Messiah because it would endanger them as much as him. They want to stay close to Rome so that they do not lose the working relationship that they have currently with the Roman empire. Claimed-to-be messiahs and their rebellions have already been crushed previously by the Roman empire, so the Judeans are not going to let their power be taken from them.

After Jesus narrowly escapes arrest, he goes to the wilderness on other side of the Jordan river from Jerusalem, keeping himself under the radar for the meantime from the Judeans and Pharisees, who are still on the prowl. While he is out there, messengers from his cousins, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, come to meet him and ask him to come visit them because Lazarus is sick. Jesus’s cousins are from Bethany, a village just outside of the city of Jerusalem. When the disciples hear Jesus say that they’re going back to Bethany to see his family, Thomas speaks for everyone that they may as well go and die with him because last time that they went to Jerusalem, they were nearly killed as well for being Jesus’ followers.

When they arrive there, Lazarus has been dead four days already. At that time, common knowledge was that the spirit stayed with the body for 3 days after death, and then left. Lazarus is really, really dead now, having no chance of being resurrected. Jesus first meets Martha on his way to their house. In their meeting, she is not fully understanding what Jesus is telling her about raising her brother, but she does make a radical statement by claiming that Jesus is Israel’s messiah, promised from many years before. Good thing none of the Judeans had followed her out to meet Jesus; otherwise she would have been reprimanded for her false statements and lumped in with Jesus and his followers.

She leaves her meeting with Jesus to go tell Mary that Jesus has arrived. Mary gets up right away to go see Jesus with a group of Judeans just behind her. The tension is building here because Jesus knows that he is going to encounter Judeans in this part of the country, but what conflict and fear this meeting might bring is hard to tell. When they meet, Jesus is moved by the mourning of Mary and the Judeans who have come with her, and he joins with them weeping with them. The Judeans admire his transparency, but they are critical of his appearance because they have seen the signs he has done and wonder why he couldn’t have stopped Lazarus from dying.

Jesus then moves to the tomb and raises Lazarus from the dead, much to the amazement of everyone there, including some of the Judeans, who come to believe in him as the Messiah though they were the ones who wanted to kill him in the previous chapter. Others, who are still committed to arresting and killing him, report back to the Sanhedrin, which is the overseeing group of priests and religious leaders in Jerusalem. Seeing that Jesus is a mighty man of God, who may start to gain some undue attention from the Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders decide that only by killing him will the Jewish nation be saved from utter destruction by the Roman empire. Rome could not stand to have another King, especially one coming from an area of the empire that they had had trouble with before. That is why Caiaphas, the leading chief priest says that one man must be sacrificed to save the nation. What Caiaphas doesn’t realize is that he is ironically predicting his own defeat and the saving power of God coming into play in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus on Easter. Masterfully, God works good out of the evil intentions that the ruling authorities have toward the Messiah.

Heaven and Earth

•March 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

When I was a kid, I remember envisioning heaven as I sang hymns and praise songs at church. I remember it being a very bright, light-flooded expanse of space with gold floors, in which a huge group of people were gathered around a traditional throne with God in its seat. I don’t really remember having any sense of where Jesus or the Holy Spirit were in the midst of all of it, but I do remember feeling a rush of warmth and security as I sang love songs to a God who had rescued me from my own inadequacies as well as loved me in the midst of them.  I grew up, thinking that heaven was some far off distant space from which God watched the world, working in different ways performing miracles for people over here, answering prayers for people over there, and generally interacting with the world but keeping himself separate because he is holy, distinctly different from this world. From this view, I remember having notions of the world as dirty, soon to be done away with and replaced with something better when Jesus finally returned.

In my studies of NT Wright, I have found much better understanding of how heaven and earth relate, and how God’s work in the world is redemptive, reconciliatory, and rescuing.  Rather than two separate geographical places, heaven and earth are two sides of the same coin of reality. One of them, earth, is painfully present to us every moment, while the other, we catch glimpses of as it breaks forth in God’s work in the world. When the bible talks about Jesus ascending to heaven, it is not some other place that he waits for God’s cue to finally come back. It is another sphere of present reality, in which Jesus is Lord and King of the universe. He is very real, very present and yet not entirely detectable to our daily experience as we muddle through our own emotions and moods.  

In the work of Jesus’ death and resurrection 2,000 years ago, God began his renewing work in the world. He is not going to one day do away with the world like a piece of garbage that he has used for a time, but in the end, has no further use but to destroy it. God loves his creation and world, and he is working constantly to bring renewal and hope through the work of his people. In that sense, we join God and Jesus in bringing heaven and earth together, working for the kingdom on earth as in heaven.

These ideas make me think of different children’s books that I have read that explore these notions of alternate dimensions and worlds that people have access to through magical entrances such as a wardrobe, a rabbit hole, or some other rather ordinary piece of modern furniture. I think that those authors were on to something in their explorations, though I thinks that they all fall short.

So what can we take from all of this? Creation is good, a gift from God and a place that continues to reflect his beautiful work in the world. It is not something that we can use and abuse for our own ends and then hope that God will bail us out when we have destroyed every good part. In the same way, we work together as bearers of God’s image in the world, reflecting his work of reconciliation, renewal, and rescue. We honor and take care of creation, bringing new life to it as God has brought new life to us. We live in such a way as to bring heaven and earth together into a single, seamless reality that only come fully into fruition when Jesus appears again. Heaven is not a place that we go to when we die so that we can escape God’s world. We live and die in expectation of the resurrection and renewal of not only ourselves, but the entire universe. 

A month…

•October 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

A month of insanity has gone by. We have harvested 2000 acres of corn and just gotten a start on soybeans. Finally, we have a rain day. After 3 full weeks of working every day, I’m ready for a break. I forget how much I love the sound of rain on my roof and the boisterous thunderclaps in the early morning hours before dawn. 

I have had more time to read in the last month as I wait for a load of grain to haul into the elevator. I finished 2 books and started a 3rd. Each of them has touched me in different ways, but I have appreciated each of the authors. The first that I finished is called If God is Love by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. I had started reading the book several years ago and lost interest for whatever reason, but in this current ungracious and often harsh political climate, I have tried to keep my thoughts and feelings gracious as I think God does with us at all times.  Being gracious and respectful is the theme of the book, but he explores it from many different angles and scenarios, which creates tons of challenges for me because I do not always want to be gracious. I hold grudges and get annoyed easily with the different people around me, but I try my best to not return a spiteful remark with another one or an angered reply with another equally harsh reply.  What I realize the most most though, is that I have been taught my entire life that proper justice is a hurt for a hurt and a pain for an equal pain. My challenge here is to move beyond these responses and walk in the way of Jesus, responding with doing good to repay evil or harm and to sacrifice my pride and selfishness for the good and well-being of another person.

Another book that I just finished was called If the Church were Christian by Philip Gulley. This book taught me again to look at my own life and church and ask if we are truly looking to Jesus to guide our actions individually and communally. Gulley created ten more than statements that highlight the shift in priorities that needs to happen in the church for it to follow more closely in the way of Jesus. I am listing them below as a way for you to consider what these shifts in thinking and habits might look like in your personal life and community life.

If the church were Christian, then…

1. Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship.

2. Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.

3. Reconciliation would be valued over judgment.

4. Gracious behavior would be more important than right belief.

5. Inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers.

6. Encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity.

7. Meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions.

8. Peace would be more important than power.

9. Then it would care more about love and less about sex.

10. This life would be more important than the afterlife.

Think about these ideas and how they might challenge our ways of doing church and meeting together. Could we begin a different shift in the church toward love, mercy, grace, peace, justice, and reconciliation? What would our communities look like if we did?