Thursday, September 22, 2011

Aching visionaries

A long, long time ago, when I was just learning to walk with God, I prayed that God would give me eyes to see people as he saw them.  Amy Grant's song "Father's Eyes" comes to mind, as it was during that era and I can remember singing along with her on my cassette player. 

When I prayed that, I didn't realize that what I was asking would be so hard.  I didn't realize that I would spend my life working with some of the most broken people in the world, and that as a result of my prayer, I would be facing them and their brokenness without the hardness and cynicism that would otherwise protect my heart.

I went away for the weekend to spend some time thinking, praying, and mourning.  I'm still grieving my father's death of course, but I think the process of mourning has brought out all of these other things that I see on a daily basis that are so, so sad.  And sometimes that sadness overwhelms me.

For example, I met with a couple of people in the county jail this morning.  One of the men is someone who is in the throes of alcoholism and is in such deep denial about it that he doesn't see how it's utterly destroyed his family and has landed him in his legal troubles.  He is blissfully unaware, while those who love him are sitting with their lives in shambles, trying to pick up the pieces.  Another is a man who, for the first time in his life, suffered a psychotic break and is now living with a mental illness that he doesn't even want to acknowledge let alone treat with the medications that could help him.

So many times in the last few years I've wondered if what I'm doing is worth it.  Is it worth my time and my energy and the heartbreak and the mourning?  Is it worth it to see the darkness up close rather than being able to live pretending that it doesn't exist?

In the end, I always tell myself that it is.  I think about Jesus's parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, and think that in Jesus's world, it is worth it.  That every moment I spend listening to, praying for, caring for, and serving the poor and the prisoners is somehow bringing about his kingdom on earth.

Jesus also said that blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.  A book I read this weekend expounded on that blessing like this:

"Who then are the mourners?  The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God's new day, who ache with all their being for that day's coming, and who break out into tears when confronted by its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity.  They are the ones who realize that in God's realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death.  The mourners are aching visionaries.

"Such people Jesus blesses; he hails them, he praises them, he salutes them.  And he gives them the promise that the new day for whose absence they ache will come.  They will be comforted."  Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, pp 85-86.

Are you an aching visionary?  Do you see the world as it could be and as it will be?  Do you long for that day?  Do you invite God to show you all the broken places of the world that don't reflect the perfection and goodness that he intended?

It's a powerful thing, I think, to mourn.  If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you long for the day when there will be no more mourning, sickness, death, selfishness, or brokenness.  And sometimes, that longing can give you the motivation to get out there and start making a difference now, working to bring about God's kingdom vision of loving God and loving others to earth.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thoughts on the church and missional living

So there’s a lot of talk within the church leadership culture/community/conversation about making churches and church communities missional.  I’ve heard sermons online about how to make your church more missional, how to teach people to be missional, and about why being missional is so important.  I thought I might be able to add something to the conversation because I haven’t heard anything about what someone who’s living missionally within the world needs from the church.  And make no mistake, we need the church desperately.

So, after about 9 years of living and working in the world while trying to live out a calling to be missionally investing of the lives of my friends and co-workers, here are a few of the things that I need from the church in order to support that missional posture:

1) Prayer.  No spiritual fruit is ever borne without the work of the Holy Spirit, and I am completely and utterly dependent on him to intervene in the lives of the people around me.  Day after day, I get up, go to work, have conversations with people about life, about spiritual things, about problems, about struggles.  There are many things that I pray for my friends about.  There are many needs that they have, spiritual and otherwise.  I need you to pray for me.  I need you to pray for my friends.  The work of the gospel cannot be done without the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

2) Fellowship.  Because I’ve chosen to spend most of my time with people outside the church, who probably don’t believe much of anything that I do, I end up feeling very different and very lonely much of the time.  I need the fellowship of the body to be a place where I can go and feel like I’m a part of something bigger than me.  And that the something bigger is not just an idea or a kingdom that exists somewhere in the future, after I die.  It’s a community of people that is following after Jesus right now.  Ideally, I would love it if I could find some other missional people who are living the same kind of life that I am–who would understand what it’s like to count people who don’t know Jesus as some of my closest friends.  I would love the support and encouragement of that kind of shared understanding.  But even if that’s not possible, just worshiping and talking with others who love Jesus and have given their lives to him is refreshing when most of the time, in my regular life, that kind of commitment is viewed as something strange.

3) Understanding.  I need you to understand why I don’t join the worship team, teach nursery or Sunday school, run a small group, cook food for our gatherings, or work as a youth group sponsor.  Even though I could do all these things, and I could therefore add a great deal to the building up of the body in that way, I need you to understand that I’m called to the world.  So I need you to help me guard that gift and bless me for using my gifts for the church and the body outside of the body.  I need you to understand why I don’t show up at all the social or peripheral activities of the church.  I need you to recognize and celebrate my activities outside the church as just as vital to body life as what I might do if I was helping to support or attending all the programs of the church.

4) Opportunities to invite my friends to meet some of you.  Most of my friends are not at a point where they’re going to jump at the opportunity to go to a church service.  Many of them are not even really interested in going to a church program or a church building.  It sounds boring.  It sounds stuffy.  It sounds religious.  However, there is nothing in the world as powerful as seeing how the community of believers loves each other.  Jesus even said that people would know his disciples by their love.  I need opportunities to invite my friends to meet you and to see how you treat each other.  I need places where those of my friends who come from broken homes or who have been abused and neglected and struggle to have quality relationships can find home and family in a way that it’s never been available to them before.  I need you to be the church to each other, even outside of church time, and I need you to be willing to invite my friends into those relationships.  And when you do, I need you to love my friends as much as you love your friends.

So these are the first 4 things that come to mind.  Do any of my readers have anything to add?  Or for those who are in church leadership, any ideas of how to make these things a reality?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who is my neighbor?

So I've been going through the book of Luke with a friend of mine.  I send her a part of a passage each morning with a couple of words--sometimes an explanation of the historical background, sometimes questions about interpretation, sometimes thoughts about what it means to apply those stories to our own lives.  We've just hit Luke 10, and this morning I sent her the story of the Good Samaritan.

I'm sure you know the story, where Jesus was doing some teaching.  A guy came up and asked Jesus how to find eternal life.  Jesus asked the guy what he thought, and the guy answered "Love God and love my neighbor."  Jesus told him that he had it exactly right.  But that didn't satisfy the guy, so he asked who his neighbor was.  And in response, Jesus told a story.  He told a story about this man who was beaten and left for dead.  Religious person after religious person saw him, but did nothing.  Instead, they crossed to the other side of the road so they wouldn't have to deal with him.  And then a Samaritan, that most-hated race, walked by and took care of the guy--treated him just like family and gave everything he needed to get well.  And then Jesus asked the guy, "who did you think was a neighbor in this story?  The answer, of course, was the Samaritan.

When I read this story this morning, I thought of the conversation that's stirring in my community about this billboard that our local atheist group put up in our community, saying that you don't need God to hope, to care, to love, or to live.  This has caused a firestorm of controversy in my very religious community, and some people are saying and doing some hateful things.  Some people who claim to be followers of Jesus, in fact, have not been loving toward the people who put up this billboard.

Is it just me, or does this completely contradict the message of Jesus--the message of the cross--the message of redemption?  I get the fact that people might feel like their ideology is being attacked.  I get that they take this personally, because their belief in God is a part of their identity.  But how can anyone think that responding by publicly disparaging other people or by doing cruel things to people who don't believe in God somehow advances the kingdom or the message of Jesus?

What happened to the message of loving God and loving others--even those who would ordinarily fall into a category of people we might consider our enemies?  Because the Jews and the Samaritans--they hated each other.  They had major ideological and practical differences that made getting along with each other impossible.  But when Jesus wanted to talk about what it means to truly follow him, he used the example of going above and beyond for someone who is your enemy.

What if, instead of reacting to this ideological statement in the abstract, the church actually got together and tried to think about how to extravagantly love the atheists in our community (or the Muslims or the Bhuddists or the Hindus)?  What if we started mowing lawns, providing for physical needs, or having conversations with others who don't believe the same things we do?  What if (gasp!) we actually became friends with those who might never see the need to believe in God?  How would that change the world?  How would that change us?

So I'm heartbroken, personally, as I think about how my community has responded.  I long for the kind of world that we'd be living in if everyone acted like the good Samaritan all of the time.  I wish that everyone in my community who loves Jesus would actually take the time to figure out a practical, sincere, and extravagant way to show the love of Jesus to my atheist friend and all of his friends.

I wish...