Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Acts 20 on missional uncertainty and clarity

I'm currently at some InterVarsity staff meetings, and one of the hallmarks of InterVarsity's ministry is an emphasis on manuscript Bible study. During one of our sessions here, IVCF president Alec Hill gave an exposition of Acts 20:16-21:1 and invited us to examine the text with him. This is the passage where the apostle Paul is bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders, and it's significant because it's the only spoken discourse in Acts that is addressed to Christians, since all the rest are in contexts of evangelistic proclamation. It's also instructive because it is a Christian leader giving guidance to other Christian leaders, giving us rare insight into the dynamics of Christian leadership.

One piece of this text that jumped out at me is verse 22: "And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there." Paul did not know what was in store for him. Uncertainty is always going to be a facet of Christian life and ministry. Despite all our plans and preparation, there is always going to be a degree to which we simply do not and cannot know what will happen to us in the future. This "not knowing" is both scary and comforting - I might have no idea what is going to happen to me in the next year or five years or whatever, but that's okay. I'm not alone. Paul didn't know either.

This uncertainty is complicated by what Paul does know for certain. Verse 23: "I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me." The only certainty he has is suffering and hardship. That's just reality. Christian life, ministry and leadership are bound up with difficulty.

Given this uncertainty of the future and certainty of hardship, how in the world does Paul continue on? What empowers him to persevere? Clarity of vision. Verse 24: "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me--the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace."

So knowing what God has called us to do helps us persevere through the uncertainty and the suffering, whether it's church work or parachurch work or ministry in local suburban neighborhoods or in overseas global contexts. (And as a side note, I think it's significant that this missional perspective is thoroughly trinitarian - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all present in these few verses, calling, sending and sustaining us in our work.) Whatever task God is calling you to, may you persevere through the uncertainty and the inevitable challenges and find missional clarity of vision.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The gospel of shalom for both haves and have-nots

Most people only know of Jeremiah 29 as the source of that nice inspirational quote where God says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Yes, that’s true, but consider the context. God is speaking to Israelite exiles in Babylon, who are captives in enemy territory. They did not want to be there; they wanted to go home to Israel. And what is God’s call to them? Jeremiah 29:5 and following: Build houses. Settle down. Plant gardens. Have kids. Invest in this local community. Call it home, even if you don’t want to be here. Make it your own. And then verse 7 – Seek the welfare of the city, because in its welfare you will find your welfare. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city. If it prospers, you too will prosper. Seek the shalom of the city. In its shalom, you will find your shalom.

This is God’s call to suburban Christians and churches – seek the welfare of the city, both your individual local suburb as well as your larger metropolitan area. Whether you think suburbia is paradise or exile, if you’re in the suburbs, call it your home, commit yourself to it, invest in it. Seek the welfare of the suburbs. Minister to the suburbs as well as from them to the world around it.

A key word for me in all this is “shalom” – peace, wholeness, well-being, not just the absence of conflict but a portrait of how God intended life to be. Right relationships between us and God, us and other people, our communities, our environment. I’ve appreciated Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on this. Usually when we think of the gospel, we think in terms of deliverance, rescue, salvation from peril. And Brueggemann would say yes, that’s part of it. But that’s not all of it. Bruggemann says that there are actually two sides of the gospel of shalom, especially in the Old Testament. He talks about two different kinds of shalom – shalom for the haves, and shalom for the have-nots.

We’re more familiar with shalom for the have-nots, for the poor, the oppressed, the slaves in need of God’s deliverance. This is the exodus tradition and the prophetic tradition. These parts of the Old Testament narrative were about and addressed to people in peril – slaves in Egypt, those under attack from hostile foreigners, the poor, the desperate. For these, the have-nots, God has a gospel of salvation and deliverance. He is the God who rescues us from peril. When God saves us from slavery, sin and death, that’s salvation. That’s shalom.

But that’s not all. The other tradition, Brueggemann says, is the stewardship tradition. This is the gospel for the haves, the affluent, the wealthy. It is the parts of the Hebrew narrative when people were not at war, when they were not in immediate peril or dire straits. We see this during the united monarchy period, and it’s also a major theme of the wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs. And most significantly, it's in the Genesis creation mandate, before the fall. It is creational. After the fall, we needed deliverance and rescue. But before the fall, when things were as God intended them to be in his original shalom, God called us to this stewardship tradition. It’s the tradition that focuses not on the need for a deliverer, but the need for a wise manager, the good steward, the just king who will manage the kingdom’s resources wisely so that all in the kingdom may flourish. This is the gospel of stewardship and management – God calls the haves to steward their wealth so that the have-nots may experience this flourishing, this wholeness, this celebration, this shalom.

They’re two sides of the same coin. The gospel for both the poor and the rich. The poor and oppressed need to hear God’s word of salvation and rescue. The rich and well-off need to hear God’s word of stewardship and disposal of resources. (And of course it is also true that the materially poor may be spiritually rich, and the materially rich are often spiritually poor, so deliverance and stewardship run both ways.) We’ve all heard the saying about God comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Brueggemann would say that a biblical theology of shalom is a gospel of deliverance for the oppressed and stewardship for the blessed.

Here’s an example of these two sides of the coin. Think about police officers, law enforcement and firefighters. Sometimes they do the work of deliverance, rescuing people from immediate peril. But most of the time they are doing the work of crime prevention and fire prevention. That’s the work of wise management and promoting community shalom. Suburban churches can do the same thing. Sometimes we do ministries of deliverance – rescuing people from sin, addiction, self-destructive habits and so on. Other times we invite people into the work of stewardship and blessing others. Suburban people can participate in the kingdom either way.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lenten reflections on pain and transformation

A few random thoughts during this Lenten journey. A few weeks ago our church had a men's breakfast, and our topic was how pain shapes us in our spirituality. One comment made by our group facilitator, Doug Stewart (who has a chapter in this book), was that generally speaking, if we are not transformed by our pain, we will transmit our pain to others. I thought that was pretty profound.

So we talked about how we tend to avoid our pain or distract ourselves from it. Or we work to overcome or fix our pain. I commented that after losing my father to suicide, one thing that was helpful to me was rediscovering and practicing the spiritual discipline of lament. Walter Brueggemann says that the Hebrew psalms of lament were a way of ordering their grief and verbalizing their sense of loss and protest with how the world is and bringing these emotions before God. This certainly connects with Jesus' beatitude that blessed are those who mourn, who get outside what's going on inside, for the simple practical reason that unless we externalize our interior pain, we are not in a position or posture to receive comfort, whether from God or anyone else.

And something else that I observed was that when I was researching my grieving book, what came up over and over was that Western Christians tend to have a poorly developed theology of suffering. We see suffering as abnormal, something to be fixed or therapeutically overcome. In contrast, for the vast majority of Christians throughout history and around the world, suffering is simply a fact of life. And I think it was Henri Nouwen that said that our experience of suffering, pain and loss should help us have greater solidarity with the suffering of the global church, as well as Christ himself. That we should not see loss or suffering as unusual, but normative.

Anyway, I've been musing on this a bit this Lent. I was just at a conference where I saw a friend whose ten-month-old son also has Down syndrome; he was born last year right around our son Elijah's first birthday. My friend mentioned that our family blog, especially a first-birthday post by my wife, had been very helpful to her, that it gave her hope that things would be okay even if they weren't what she had anticipated for her son. So I was glad to hear that our experience had been an unexpected encouragement to her.

I'm curious - what do you do to prevent transmitting your pain to others? How have you been transformed by your pain, your loss, your disappointments?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Happy blogiversary to me

Today is St. Urho's Day, an invented holiday created by a Minnesotan in honor of a fictional saint who drove all the grasshoppers out of Finland. A teacher at my hometown high school celebrated it every year to honor his Finnish heritage. You can even send St. Urho's Day e-cards. My wife's family background is partially Irish, so we're naturally more into St. Patrick's Day (and always get shamrock shakes every year), but kudos to St. Urho and his fans. I just think it's kind of wild that someone can create an entire holiday. (Likewise, Sweetest Day in October was originated by a candy company that wanted to create an excuse to get people to buy more candy.)

Today also happens to be the one-year blogiversary of this blog. (There is dispute in the blogosphere over whether it should be spelled "blogoversary" or even "bloggoversary," but "blogiversary" seems to have the highest usage.) At first I wasn't sure I would have enough ideas to be blogging regularly, but I was surprised how often a bloggable thought comes across. Plenty of material for two or three posts a week, though lots of things have disappeared into the ether because I didn't post on it in timely enough a fashion. Blogging has eaten up a lot more time than I ever anticipated (more in reading other people's blogs than posting on my own). I'm trying to be more disciplined these days. But I like it. It's fun and generally more valuable than not. And I've recently drawn my wife into blogging - she has started posting more regularly on our family blog.

At any rate, I'm celebrating my blogiversary with a new template, just to freshen up the look a bit. Also, in many cultures, if it's your birthday you don't receive gifts from others but instead are the gift-giver. So in honor of the blogiversary of The Suburban Christian blog, I'd like to give out a few copies of my book The Suburban Christian. I have five copies sitting here that I'll send out for free to the first five people that contact me, whether by blog comment or e-mail or whatever. No obligation - my only request is that you really read it (rather than resell it on Amazon or eBay) and, if you're so inspired and inclined, to blog about it on your own blog, or whatever other medium might be appropriate to you. Hope you find it helpful!

So thanks again to everyone who reads or visits this blog. It's been fun to have the interaction and virtual community in this small corner of the blogosphere.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Body image and artificial beauty

In the book Wanting to Be Her, Michelle Graham talks about an actress who didn't recognize herself in a magazine because of how different she had been made up. Well, More Than Serving Tea coeditor Nikki Toyama recently blogged about this link:

It has an amazing one-minute video of how women are made up and photoshopped to look entirely different from how they normally appear in real life. Even supermodels don't look like supermodels. Check it out.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Suburbia's origin story

[This is an excerpt from a seminar I did at the National Pastors Convention.]

If you’re a comic book fanboy, you know the importance of the origin story. The infant Kal-El was the sole survivor of the planet Krypton, rocketed to Earth as a baby, raised by his adoptive parents to stand for truth, justice and the American way, using his superhuman powers to defend his adopted world from all threats. That’s Superman’s origin story. Or Bruce Wayne, a young boy who watched as his parents were gunned down in an act of random violence, grows up to become a caped crusader, a relentless creature of the night, protecting the innocent, striking fear into the hearts of criminals as . . . the Batman. That’s his origin story. The origin story sets the tone for the character. It establishes their aspirations, motivation, rationale and destiny.

So what’s suburbia’s origin story? I find it instructive to go back in history and to see suburbia’s original goodness. Suburbia, originally, was about providing affordable housing in healthy living environments. Go back to the late 1800s, the industrial revolution. The culture had shifted from rural to urban. It was an urban jungle, people lived in overcrowded urban slums in the shadow of factory smokestacks, and it was toxic and dangerous. Bad sanitation, bad infrastructure, noisy. It was a public health hazard. People were at risk at home and at work.

Suburbs were developed so people could live away from industrial areas and have better living conditions, with green space and open land and better health. That was a good thing. Suburbia provided affordable housing for millions of families after WWII. All the soldiers and sailors came back from the war and there wasn’t room in the urban centers, which had decayed during the Depression and the war effort. Suburban housing was affordable and peaceful. It was considered the happy medium between city and country, away from an overindustrialized, mechanized culture, closer to parks and grass and woods, while still having convenience and access to the benefits of civilization. That’s the origin story, suburbia’s creational good. It points back to one of the most basic human needs – shelter. If the Bible starts in the garden of Eden and ends in the city of the New Jerusalem, suburbia was a way of bringing garden and city together.

The problem, of course, is that modern suburbia has departed from its original noble ideals, especially in terms of the vision of affordable housing for all. We all know that suburbia can be an extremely expensive place to live, that housing values have far outpaced income, making living in suburbia difficult for the lower and middle class.– the cost of living in suburbia now, for many, runs counter to the original dream. Instead of a place of peace and rest, a suburban home and lifestyle often generates financial anxiety and worry. It’s no surprise that debt counseling and financial management are now strategic ministries for many suburban churches.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Corporate language in worship

While I was at the National Pastors Convention, I had lunch with Mark Labberton, author of the new book The Dangerous Act of Worship. He mentioned that his church (First Presbyterian of Berkeley) had pretty much stopped using individualistic "I," "me" and "my" language in their corporate worship, replacing them with "we," "us" and "our" vocabulary in songs and liturgy. They haven't made a big deal about it; they've just done it. And Labberton said that it has really shaped the character of their congregation, that folks recognize that church is about their corporate identity as the body of Christ, not just the individualistic "Jesus and me" approach so common to American evangelicalism.

We're starting to do this in our own church. Last month for our annual meeting, we sang "Be Thou Our Vision" instead of "Be Thou My Vision." This past week Ellen and I planned and led worship, and while looking at our list of songs, we noticed that many of them were "I" and "my" type songs. This especially jumped out in the song "Lord, Have Mercy," which says "Lord, have mercy on me," which contrasts with the "Lord, have mercy on us" in the liturgy earlier in the service. We opted to keep it but changed it to "us" the last time through the chorus. Likewise, our recessional song was "May the Mind of Christ My Savior," and one of the verses of the original version reads "Looking only unto Jesus as I onward go." This seemed too individualistic an application for a corporate recessional song, so we changed it to "as we onward go," as well as all the other singular references in the song.

Now, I should clarify that we didn't change all individualist language in all of the songs throughout the service - several eucharistic songs were still "I" and "my." There's certainly a place for both, since worship is simultaneously personal and corporate. But if the bias of the evangelical church tends toward to be the individual, then we need to be more intentional about recovering corporate language. After all, we pray, "Our father in heaven," not "My father." And the great creeds of the church say, "We believe," not "I believe." So as we believe and pray, so too can we sing acknowledging our corporate identity as the body of Christ.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Youth Specialties makes public apology for racist content

Over the last week I've been following various Asian American blogs regarding a recently published Zondervan/Youth Specialties skit book. The book included a skit that perpetuated some horribly racist stereotypes of Asian Americans. Soong-Chan Rah (professor at North Park and one of my authors) brought the issue to light and has been working with Youth Specialties and Zondervan to resolve the issue.

To the amazement of many, Zondervan and Youth Specialties have acted quickly and justly. They have frozen all copies of the book and intend to destroy all existing inventory. They are publishing a new edition replacing the offensive sketch and are offering to replace copies for anybody who has the original.

Most significantly, this weekend Mark Oestreicher (president of YS) posted a public apology on his blog, and the Skit Guys have also apologized. In cases like this of public sin and offense, apology and taking responsibility must be equally public. So I am very impressed with how fully they have responded and owned up to this whole situation. I sent Marko an e-mail earlier in the week, and I just got a personal response interacting with my message. He said that he's been grieving over the fact that Asian American kids may be present in youth groups where the skit is performed, and he is appealing to youth pastors out there who have the book to please, please not use the skit.

To me, this is a huge, significant contrast with the Rickshaw Rally VBS curriculum fiasco a few years ago, where the offending publisher basically stonewalled, dismissed and ignored the outcry from the Asian American church community. (See Soong-Chan's chapter in Growing Healthy Asian American Churches or Ed Gilbreath's Reconciliation Blues for more on the story.) Kudos to YS and Zondervan for a much more constructive approach for racial justice and healing. They have provided the church with a positive model of how to move forward.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Being missional, being glocal

I just read through the winter 2007 issue of Leadership Journal, which is on the theme "Going Missional." Some random but related ideas and thoughts from it:

Oak Brook Community Church
, a suburban church not far from my work, flies a different national flag every Sunday, and the congregation prays for that country that day. The mission task force gathers, prays for peace and runs the flag up the pole. "We want to demonstrate that God loves the whole world and that everyone is welcome here," says pastor Richard Glyman. The church started doing this five years ago, after 9/11, and has flown over 300 different flags so far.

Bob Roberts, pastor of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, and author of the books Transformation and Glocalization, asked his congregation to invert the shirt collar of the person in front of them, find the label and call out the name of the nation where the shirt was made. China, India, Vietnam, Mexico, Chile, Kenya, Dominican Republic and Spain were all mentioned before anyone said "USA."

I just checked the tags of my sons' shirts, and they're from Guatemala, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Indonesia. The InterVarsity shirt I'm wearing right now is from Bangladesh, and my T-shirt, which is from a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, was made in Honduras. So I just brought out our globe and showed the boys where all these countries are. My copy of Operation World is not the most current edition, but that and our T-shirts can help us pray for the world.

And Brian McLaren has an article about the theology books he's reading by Latin Americans, Asians and Africans, like Rene Padilla, Alan Boesak, Emmanuel Katongole, Jon Sobrino, Mabiala Kenzo and Leonardo Boff. Their perspectives have helped McLaren see how limited our North American notions of "being missional" are. He says, "How can we preach about fine-tuning esoteric points in our systematic theologies without also addressing brute realities like corruption, injustice, and unemployment? As I read brothers and sisters from the global South, I can't sideline these matters any longer. My sense of what missional means is irrevocably deepened, broadened, transformed."