Tuesday, April 24, 2012

it's a cultural thing

When I was 13, my family moved overseas to Singapore.  It was a crazy time, that first year and a half.  I remember the culture shock, getting used to being asked "Have you taken your lunch?" instead of "how are you?".  And the looks I got when I said "no" in response were just like the looks I'd get here if I said, "terrible, actually... let me tell you about it."  But no matter how many times they asked me, I'd still answer the question honestly.  I couldn't say yes when I really hadn't eaten yet, could I?

One of the results of living overseas at that time in life is that I got used to spending a lot of time watching and listening.  You're trying to figure out who you are at that age, and I had a whole other world to deal with.  I had to figure out not just who I was, but who and why everything else was the way that they were.  I had to decide who I wanted to be.  So I watched and I listened.  I tried to hear the values and motivations of the people around me.  I wanted to fit in, so I watched what everyone else was doing and mimicked it.  After a while, I realized that even with all these differences in cultures and values and expressions, at the heart of each person is basically the same thing.  We're all human, we all make mistakes, we all long for love and connection and a meaningful or significant existence.  I've carried that knowledge and that habit of listening and watching with me throughout life.  And I've found those things to be incredibly valuable as I learn to share my faith with others.

When people from the church step outside the church doors and begin to try to connect with those who aren't from that culture and that value system, I'm convinced that they feel every bit as uncertain as I did when I moved to Singapore.  And I'm convinced that the culture of the church is every bit as different from the culture of the rest of the world as Singapore is from the US.  Just like I had to learn to be cross-cultural, I think church people who long to see others transformed by Jesus do to.

As I sat in church after the sermon on Sunday, which was about reaching outside your comfort zone to be Jesus to the people around you, the small group I met with just generally said that the problem they have is not really what others will think of them, but not really knowing what to say.

In response, I think I'd say that cross-cultural communication is hard work.  I don't know how many confused looks and crazy misunderstandings that I had when I was in Singapore.  But we pressed on and I got to know some people there in a really deep and interesting way.  And many of them are still my friends.  We made our way through the cultural craziness and connected at a human level and were able to share with each other from our differences.  And we enriched each other's lives in the process.

I wish that we could see relationships with people who don't follow Jesus in a similar way.  I don't think we have to think of it as this thing that has to be scripted down to the last minute.  I don't think we have to be overly concerned about exactly what we're going to say.  I don't even think we have to worry about getting out our 2 minute elevator speech about who Jesus is to us. 

Instead, what if we looked at it as seeking human connection with other people?  What if we spent the first 20 hours or 20 days or 20 months just listening and learning about people and making the natural connections that come up - about kids or work or fun stuff we like to do on the weekend?  And what if, in the process, we had opportunities to talk about who we really are on the inside and why faith is so much a part of our lives?

Do you have any "cross-cultural" relationships with people who don't share your church culture and values?  Listen to them this week, and look for points of connection around your similarities--even if you have to go really deep, I bet you'll find them.  Without saying a word about Jesus, how can you invest in their lives this week?  How can you share out of the abundance of love and grace that you've experienced?  How can you share a part of yourself that is utterly and simply human?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Expect Resistance

"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."  John 16:33
Jesus told his disciples this as he prepared them for his own death and their lives afterward.  They were about to enter an adventure that none of them foresaw.  If they thought following Jesus around and listening to his perplexing teaching was something, they hadn't seen anything yet.  What would follow was his death, resurrection, ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And all that was followed by them learning to walk after his footsteps, in step with the Spirit, to bring the kingdom of God on earth.

And we've been invited to do the same--to follow after Jesus's footsteps and bring the kingdom of God on earth.  We do this with our lives, as we daily surrender our thoughts and actions to him, allowing him to make us ever more like him.  But we also do this by doing the kingdom works of God--seeking love and justice and humility, learning to share God's story with those around us.

But just like the disciples, we should expect to face resistance.  Jesus did not promise that the path would be easy, and it's not.  The Apostle Peter explained to the early church that the devil roams around like a roaring lion, seeking for those he can devour.  Devour is such a graphic, violent word.  Why do you suppose he used it there?  And Paul seemed to have a similar idea when he explained to the Ephesian church their desperate need for what he called the armor of God.

I have to say that my experience has borne this out.  Whenever I see the kingdom making headway here on earth, so that Jesus is praised or his will is being done more fully, I also see and experience resistance at a spiritual level.  And though I can't say that all human suffering is directly linked to hearing and following the voice of God, I will say that much suffering in the lives of the surrendered often comes.  I can't help but think of our 11 baptisms at church last week on Easter Sunday, and then this Sunday's devastating news about the suffering of some of our church's families.

But my pastor's response on Sunday was just the response that I think we're meant to have.  Instead of preventing us from walking forward, I think that we are meant to fall to our knees and cry out to God to intervene.  We need to ask for the strength to keep on walking along the difficult path.  And we need to keep asking God to make the name of Jesus known through our attitudes and actions.

And the comfort Jesus gave is meant to give us peace.  Because at the end of the story, justice, wholeness, healing, reconciliation, love--it wins out.  Jesus overcame sin and death for all mankind, and God is working still to reconcile all the world to him.  Good things are coming, and the brokenness of the world will be set right.  Hallelujah.

Have you sensed a spiritual resistance to the coming of God's kingdom on earth?  How did you respond?  How can Jesus's words encourage you and strengthen you?  How might Jesus want to use you to strengthen and encourage others in the body who are walking alongside you?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

living grace in community

"By this, all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another."
John 13:35

I had a friend that I put a lot of time into getting to know.  We were very different on many things, but we shared a common concern about justice issues.  So we first got to know each other talking about those things.  After a while, we started talking about other things, life things.  We talked about dating, morality, spirituality... basically all the important stuff.

When I first met him, he was very, very hostile toward any discussion of religion and spirituality.  He wasn't from my super-religious town, and would vent about how rude it was when someone in the grocery store asked him where he went to church.  He couldn't understand how that was anyone's business.

Over a long time, I was able to share things about my faith with him.  When we were talking about my life and I was asking for advice, I'd mention that I was thinking about this or that related to my spiritual or moral beliefs.  When he asked for advice, I'd mention what I might do or the questions I might think about as I was making the same decision.  Many times those things included consideration of the spiritual.  I was never quite sure how much these conversations were making an impact, if any at all. 

But one day, maybe 2-3 years after we'd become friends, I got a facebook message from him.  He messaged me, wanting me to know what an impact I was having on his life.  He mentioned the idea of grace, and he mentioned my relationship with my two roommates.  He said that watching us interact was one of the most impactful things he'd experienced.

So what was it that began the work of softening him toward the gospel?  It wasn't me in a vacuum; it wasn't me loving him; it wasn't even my great conversations with him about life and God and everything in between.  It was his opportunity to watch my little community relate to one another with love and grace, even in the hard times.  And let me tell you, he'd seen us in some pretty hard times.

I was really struck by that message from my friend.  It was so clear to me in that moment how important it is for us to be connected with other believers and to be inviting those who don't know Jesus to see and experience those relationships first hand.  There is something powerful about living in relationships in a graceful way - not just showing grace to our friends who don't know Jesus, but showing grace and love to each other.  There is no witness as powerful as that.
Who are the people who make up your Christian community?  Are your friends who don't know Jesus seeing relationships filled with love and grace? Are you inviting them into your Christian community?

Monday, April 2, 2012

But God

Do you really believe that God transforms lives for the better?

I'm often so conflicted about the brokenness I see in the world.  I had a rough day on Friday because I was meeting with a mentally ill client and his mother.  Hearing his story, hearing and seeing their pain, knowing that I can't do a thing to solve any problem but perhaps the legal one is crushing to me.  And add to that the fact that I also see the hundreds of ways that the system is broken and unjust and is oppressing this client... I'm still exhausted (three days later) from that one-hour meeting.

But God...

Our worship pastor got up this week at church and spoke about God's transforming power in his life.  He told us his story--where he came from, how he met God, and how the very quality and experience of his life is different now.  And that gives me hope.  God is seeking to transform.  He's seeking to transform individuals, whom he loves.  And he's seeking to transform whole systems of injustice and brokenness that fall so short of the ideal he had in mind when he created the world.  What's even more amazing is that he does it by somehow using us broken people to change things.

What was most interesting to me as I listened to our worship pastor sharing was that his story wasn't just about meeting God.  It was about the people of God who showed the love of God to him that led him into the presence of God.  This is the case in very nearly every story of spiritual transformation I've heard.  For some reason, God chooses to use us, right where we are, to be Jesus to the world around us.

So then the question is how... How do we put ourselves in a position where God can use us to bring his peace and presence to the world?  Where do we even start?

I think we have to start by seeking God himself.  We have to know him and seek to hear his voice in our lives.  Specifically, I think we have to ask him to help us see the people around us--to really see them in all their beautiful and broken humanity, and to see his vision for them.  And then I think we need to pray for those people and ourselves.

About once a year I make a list of the people my life is touching.  Well, it's more like a picture, actually.  I use my colored pencils and I draw little boxes all over a piece of paper and put all the names of all the people I can think of.  And then I hang it in my bathroom so that while I'm brushing my teeth or getting ready to go somewhere, I can see the people and remember to pray for them.  When I see it there everyday, it reminds me that my life is not my own, that there are people that God longs to touch through my life.

I'm absolutely called to confront and subvert injustice in our legal justice system.  But that's just one part of the calling God has on my life.  The other is to be a friend to those in my world, to love them, to pray for them, and to bring the peace of God--shalom--into their lives.  Indeed, I believe that whatever else you are called to, being the peace and presence of God in the world is always there too, if you're a follower of Christ.  

So who are the people in your life right now, today?  If you were to make a list of them and hang it in your bathroom, would that change your interaction with them?  If you really believed that God transforms lives, how would that change your prayers and your interactions with them?