From Everywhere to Everywhere (2.0)

This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day.  It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent.  But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.

That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.

And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there. 

Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:

“Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. 

The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.”  The people REALLY don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday.  And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…

 

And then something in Paul shifts.  His language changes.  

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation was as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.  

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and showed them where he saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

In my work earlier with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.    

 

Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily.   And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.  

65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.  

65.3 million.

And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.

One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.  

Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.

But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.

So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.  

 

The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.

The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”  (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

Our neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world.  And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.  

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

 

A Spotlight and a Platform

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Martin Shkreli, the man who raised prices on various life-saving drugs purely for profit, testified before Congress recently:

 

What really struck me in this video, was the plea of Mr. Cummings.

He lifted up the truth of the impact of Mr. Shkreli’s actions, but did not merely question or shame or condemn him.  Instead, he turned the interrogation into a witness to the power of transformation.  While so much of the world has written off Mr. Shkreli as a terrible, rotten person who deserves the worst the world can throw at him, Mr. Cummings spoke to his better angels.

“You have a spotlight and you have a platform.”

“I truly believe you could become a force of tremendous good.”

“There’s so many people that could use your help. May God bless you.”

 

And you could see, for a moment, Mr. Shkreli squirming in his seat.

 

How do we, as the church, speak the truth to people who have power?  We do it in love.

Shouting has its moments, but sometimes truth-telling happens with a quiet voice… a persistent voice (“are you listening?”)… that requires the other to pay attention.

Sometimes, it is the vision of what could be that is just as effective as what has been.

Sometimes, we appeal to the Kingdom of God by naming the small kernel of possibility and hope we see in the humanity of another person… even if it is really, really, really tiny.

 

Our politics and discourse with one another these days is so vicious and dividing.  It happens in elections and in our capitols and it happens in our church life as well.

What if instead we reached out to one another like Mr. Cummings?

What if instead we listened to the words of Christ in Matthew 5:43-45?

Love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.

 

Just as Mr. Shkreli has a platform and a spotlight, so do you, with every action you take every day.  And you have a chance to stand there and speak for truth and justice and love.

home #gc2012

The processing of what exactly happened these past two weeks will take time.  My brain is still too full and jumbled to even begin to dig deep. 

But in response to some initial thoughts by the chair of our Iowa delegation, I started to think about some things that I am bringing home:

1) a reminder that we cannot legislate trust
2) the amazing experience of working together with people who are so different from myself and loving one another
3) knowing that all of the things we do… in the grand scheme of things what really matters is that people have a place at the table in our local communities. 
4) a desire to learn French
5) a deeper understanding of the process and the people who lead our church – and a recognition that we are all just people… people who care, who make mistakes, who put make-up on in bathrooms and drink coffee and say the wrong things and the right things, who deeply desire what is best for our church and yet might disagree on what that is.  It is humbling and inspiring and beautiful and messy.

thinking ecumenically and maybe a little politically

Lately, I have been having quite a few conversations, theologically and politically with fellow pastors.

It would be fair to say that my current colleagues are more conservative than my colleagues in seminary or college. And what amazed me was the fear that “liberal” colleagues expressed 8 years ago over the Bush administration are the same fears being expressed now, under a new administration by my “conservative” friends. In both places, I heard words like “facism” and “homeland security” being thrown around with fears that their rights to the things they hold most dear would be stripped away. Each is afraid that their most important values will be tossed to the side.

In that same conversation, we also talked about the differences in how we recieve God’s grace in each tradition. In United Methodism it’s through the means of grace – which include works of piety and works of mercy. In the Lutheran tradition, it’s through the word – in preaching, study, baptism, etc. In the Reformed tradition God’s grace isn’t limited and yet there was a strong hesitation to say that grace comes through works.

All of these things together – both the political and theological conversation – have me feeling like we aren’t even talking the same language with one another. We are looking at the exact same thing: political decisions on one hand and God’s grace on the other, and we interpret each in completely different ways. After our conversation we got to a place where we could agree to disagree theologically – but we didn’t really even touch the political difference (well, we did debate torture for a bit).

I don’t know that I have ever wished for full unity within the Christian tradition. I understand that there are important theological differences in what we claim to believe. We can agree on the fundamentals, but how those fundamentals are played out – woah. VAST differences. Same with the political landscape. The idea of a one party system would be a terrible plan… in fact, I would be in favor of lots of political parties, each articulating clearly their perspectives.

Debate and conversation are important (in United Methodism, we call it conferencing). They help us to form and reflect upon our beliefs. They call us to know our own positions well enough to speak for them. But they also call us to listen and to be aware of when our positions are in need of reformation. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in… to help us reach a consensus… to help us reach God’s will… in the midst of our vast differences.

That last piece of the puzzle isn’t happening. In politics and in the church, we hear what we fear from the other side. We interpret the actions of the “opposition” as being tactical moves to wipe us out. And especially when we throw around labels like facism, we are invoking the idea that we need to stand up and fight back – not have a conversation, but stage a full out rebellion. I was there and listening to those points of view in 2001, I am there and listening to those points of view now in 2009. I’m hearing those same arguments in the church around our constitutional amendments right now. And it doesn’t work. It creates dissension instead of making room for the Holy Spirit to move and perhaps change all of us. Fear and unwillingness to listen only makes us more rigid in our points of view and more ready to see subtle differences as vast gulfs.

Jon Stewart had a guest on earlier this week, Cliff May, and they discussed torture. And I mean discussed it. They both spoke clearly about what they believed in an informed and articulate manner. And they respected each other. That doesn’t mean that neither made mistakes. But at the end of it, they both understood one another better.

I pray that we might all do this. We might all listen more and fear less. That we might ask questions instead of making assumptions. That we would be willing to look at our own positions through the eyes of another. And then, if after we have done all of that, we still have fears – if we still believe that the foundations of our beliefs and values are crumbling around us – YES! stand up and speak loudly and be the prophet you are called to be. But listen first.

And… fyi – I’m extremely disheartened by the Pew Research Center poll (altho it was a small sample) that going to church – especially a mainline church – makes you more willing to support torture.

dos lenguas

I have been blessed to be able to work with other pastors in our district on a new hispanic ministry opportunity. We are working to build a monthly bi-lingual worship called “Two Languages, One Flame” and we had our second official meeting to plan today.

We talked a lot about how in many senses, most of us are gringos trying to do this for others. But what is really important is that we do have some partners in the hispanic community who are partnering with us, and we are just the starting point. Ideally, this is a shared cultural experience, where we have the opportunity to learn and worship in Spanish, and the hispanic community learns and worships in English. And as we worship, we help one another to discover gifts and talents and our dream is that a church will be born out of this community.

As we begin planning, one thing we are not aiming for is perfection. =) At least not yet. For me, it is much more important for the worship to be vital and authentic and from the heart – and if we make mistakes in translation along the way, we will laugh together about it and move on. We just want to praise God in two tongues through the power of the Holy Spirit that we share. If we do that, nothing else matters.

perception and judgment

I have been struggling with how we can stretch our minds and start to think of the bible from another perspective within the church. How, in a postmodern world, we can acknowledge the multiple lenses we use to read the bible, without somehow destroying the fact that this is a tradition and a heritage we want to hold on to. With all that thought about how we read and what we are trying to get out of it, I was directed to this New York Times article.

Op-Ed Columnist
Divided They Fall
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: April 17, 2008
Even
though the policy differences between the two Democratic candidates are minimal,
each camp is becoming increasingly aggravated at the other.

I was particularly intrigued by the title of a book referenced – and the idea of a “post-fact society.” It think that it is a true (eek – can I say that?) description of our world! we live as though there were no set truth – only what is right and true for me. Truth – as in capital “T” Truth, is elusive, if not downright dismissed, ignored, denied, well – you get the picture.

I am more prone to acknowledge that truth is NOT something that we can grasp in and of ourselves. I would be willing to talk about truth being held between us – as a collective truth (which some people would say is just a larger idea of relativity). But it’s also kind of Wesleyan – you know, that whole notion of christian conferencing and the spirit helping us discern the truth in our midst.

But if we are going to allow the Spirit to help us discern the truth – be it in the bible or in society, then we have to get out of the way and let the spirit work. We need to let go of our own presumptions. The article talks about getting in better “mental” shape – by reading thoughts and opinions that aren’t our own and getting used to thinking critically. I agree. But I also think that prayer plays a role.