Friday, August 27, 2010

Tenth Parallel

Just finished my non-fiction book of the year (so far!). It is titled The Tenth Parallel and it was written by Eliza Griswold. She is a journalist who has written a book of poetry, too. This book is her story or stories - about her travels along the tenth parallel or ten degrees latitude north of the equator through countries like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. She got started on this trek accompanying Franklin Graham's mission, Samaritan Purse, on a trip to Sudan where he wanted to meet with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir who was waging violent jihad against Christians and Muslims in southern Sudan and who would soon begin the genocide in Darfur. Griswold documents the clash of Christianity and Islam along the tenth parallel with research, interviews and stories about people who are caught up in the violence. And it is a violent world but she shows it is not as simple as Christian vs Muslim. It is a religious war but it is also a political one as the powers that be fight over oil, and land and identity. Sometimes it is just a matter of a job. If you have nothing else to do and no means of support, why not join the jihadists.

There is the matter of religious confrontations. Griswold, who was raised Episcopalian and whose father was the highest ranking bishop in the American Episcopal Church ( and who ordained the first openly gay bishop while wearing a bullet proof vest) is not Christian enough for Franklin Graham and other evangelicals, gives a balanced account of the religious warfare along the front lines. There are stories of massacres by Muslims and Christians along with the reasons they give to justify the violence. There are stories of many different kinds of Christians and Muslims, too. Islam is just as fragmented as Christianity. There is no monolithic Muslim movement against the west. Most Muslims in the Global South (and most of the world's Muslims live there and not in the Middle East) are not militant jihadists; they are only trying to survive. These are very poor areas.

There is a lot of confusion among Christians regarding Islam and its intentions toward the Christian world. Are they trying to take over the world and make everyone Muslim? Do they hate all Christians? Does the Koran teach death to all infidels? These are some of the questions Christians have. Christians are suspicious of the motives of Muslims. Few have read the Koran, and few know any Muslims. They know Islam was behind the destruction of lives on 9/11 and they are enraged that Muslim leaders would try to put a mosque on that site. Some even support the Florida pastor who says he is going to burn Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 this year because it is an "evil" religion.

Griswold's book helps us see that real life is not that simple. There are Muslims who are working with Christians to bring peace and reconciliation, teaching the next generation religious tolerance instead of hatred and violence (in some parts of the Global South Muslims and Christians have a history of co-existing peacefully). There are politicians on all sides who have used and are using religion to gain supporters for their positions which means more power for them. And there is oil. Each of the countries along the tenth parallel are oil producers and some of the religious conflict is a veiled fight for oil rights.

The mistrust and religious hatred between Christians and Muslims has a long history in this part of the world. In many of these countries Islam took root first so they see Christians as intruders. Both Christians and Muslims can be aggressively evangelistic and so they are competing for converts. It is a tense situation and violent confrontations are always possible. It has been a way of life for many years. Lately, though, since 9/11 and America's invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflict has taken on heightened tensions. Militant jihadists are actively recruiting poor Muslims and educating them in a hatred of all things western, especially, American. Christianity is seen as a tool of the West to subjugate Muslims. Some warlords are using jihad as a way to gain land and wealth for themselves. There are religious fundamentalists as well who interpret the Koran any way they want to make it right for them to do whatever they want.

Griswold tells stories of all sorts of Christians, too. There are many motives for Christian mission and there are many ways of doing it. One well known Christian evangelist is quoted saying, you gotta love Muslims but you can't trust them. There are stories of people with good intentions who have only made the situation worse and there are stories about people who are living a simple life following Christ, serving others. She tries not to make judgments or take sides but like a good journalist she lets the stories do the talking.

It is clear that the heightened rhetoric on the Christian right makes it more plausible that the clash of religious cultures may become violent here. When we lump all Muslims together and name them the enemy. When we ramp up the suspicion surrounding their every move. When we continue to remain in the dark about what Muslims really believe and what the Koran really says. When our first impulse toward Muslims is mistrust instead of respect - when these things are true - we are letting the media coverage of the wars of religion shape our attitudes and actions toward Muslims instead of the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is a Christian...

Some days are harder than others to own the name of Christian. Is a Christian someone who hates gays, and Muslims, and Democrats, and in general seems to hate more than love. Anne Rice thinks so and she publicly renounced Christianity but not her faith in Christ. In some ways, she sounds very much like an evangelical but she has had it with the church. Many of us have days like that. Is a Christian someone who will only have anything to do with people who they trust share the same detailed statement of faith including footnotes. Jim Wallis might think so. A Christian radio station withdrew its financial support of a huge Christian Music Festival in Wisconsin when they found out he was a key note speaker. On the station they are warning parents to keep their impressionable youngsters away from what is called LifeFest in Oshkosh. Wallis according to the station is guilty of fudging the lines between government and the church and preaching a version of humanistic "social justice". Wallis met with the radio people twice and made a public statement of his true beliefs but the station is not buying it. They 'stand by their stand". Wallis might be forgiven for wanting to do a Rice and follow Christ by himself. Then, there is President Obama. In a new poll by the Pew Foundation more people than ever think he is a Muslim. He has stated numerous times he is a practicing Christian but more and more people are not buying that either. Many of them are Republicans, the poll found. Probably some Christians there, too. Obama might consider joining Rice and Wallis. Then there would be a church of 3.

Some days its hard to stick with the church. Christians can do some dumb things, and sound like idiots. You just want to disassociate yourself from them. You find yourself protesting too much: "but that's not what I believe." And even with your own small group of Christians down at your local church, there are those days when you want to throw in the towel. Alright, I've had it. Pull a Rice and start your own church of 1. Simply follow Christ as you see fit. Not have to deal with other nosy and noisy Christians. Trouble is where ever you follow Christ, he is always attracting these other guys and if you are serious about following him seems like you have to try to get along with them.

Small Churches

I am the pastor of a small church. I have always pastored small churches. I have not intentionally chosen small churches. It's just that there are so many more of them than large churches. Small churches are like families. You can pretty much know everyone. You don't know everyone well but they are not strangers. In a small church the people of the church do most of the work that needs to be done. There are few staff. Maybe a secretary, a youth leader, a custodian, perhaps, but they are all part time. There are always maintenance projects, music ministries, ongoing Christian education and various caring and helping needs. These are filled by the people of the church who are all volunteers. Volunteers may not be a good word because a small church is like a family. You don't volunteer to do the dishes, or take out the trash or paint the bathroom - at your home. You are part of the family so when something needs to be done you chip in and do it. Ideally. Of course, we know there are no ideal families. Nor are there ideal churches. So, things go undone, sometimes important things and people are blamed for leaving things undone. Sometimes families don't communicate with each other very well and neither do churches. Sometimes families have high expectations of one another and so do churches. Sometimes families play all kinds of relational games - power games - with each other and so do churches. One power game that is played is to withhold yourself emotionally or physically from the family. One family member may refuse to talk to another or may refuse to chip in on the housework or even leave the household for awhile. It happens like that in churches, too. People get hurt, frustrated or think they are not being taken seriously and so exert their relational power. They may stay away for a few weeks, or conveniently forget they were assigned to do something, or stop giving financially, or in some cases, they just leave altogether. When that happens in a family, or a church it creates disequilibrium. The family dynamics are out of whack. We try to figure out what happened, what caused the rupture. It helps to explain it and it helps even more if we can find someone to blame. Then we can move on more easily. But, it is never easy. It is a relational breakdown. They happen in all families and in all churches. We should not be surprised when they happen but neither should we be unprepared. They are not fun to deal with but they are part of community. Because there is no perfect community. In large churches relational breakdowns are masked by the size of the community. People can be strangers. But not in a small church. Small churches experience life at its best and worst. We believe God is in the mix though. He brings healing and wisdom. Closure takes awhile. Sometimes it never comes. It helps to be honest and name the acts and feelings for what they are. It helps to pray even when the feelings feel raw. It helps to know God knows and he doesn't demand a perfection from us that we are incapable of. Family and church dysfunction is a necessary reminder of who we are. Sinners saved by grace. Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Church Questions

It helps to be something of an investigator, a private eye, if you are going to be a church leader. You want to be asking, why, a lot. Why isn't so and so coming anymore? Why did so and so leave to go somewhere else? Why did so and so just drop out? Why did Pastor so and so leave and go somewhere else? It's also helpful to investigate why someone joins a church. Why did so and so start coming, and why do they keep coming to the church? Why did so and so join the church? In a church we were part of in NY, one family who joined the church wanted to tell us why they chose to join our church. It was a helpful and affirming experience.

It does not feel like a positive and affirming experience when someone leaves, of their own choice. We are left with feelings of guilt, failure and self doubt. What did we do to cause this? When someone drops out, or leaves of their own choice, the fingers of blame point to us. And there is often a kernel of truth in what is being said although due to the heightened emotions at the time we rarely discover them.

We are a ragged bunch in the church. We are sinners who often have a higher view of ourselves than we ought. We get sanctification confused with justification and wind up thinking we are justified by our sanctification. God chose us, saved us, and created the church to put us into. Its supposed to be the place where we grow up in Christ, to maturity, attaining the full stature of Christ as the Scripture says. But in the meantime, we are often unbalanced, uncertain, and not blessed with perfect vision or understanding. Now, we see through a glass darkly, as Paul wrote. Best, not to act as if we have perfect clarity because we don't. We are very much a work in progress. But, so is every church.

We end up erring on the side of judgment or grace. Better grace than judgment, it seems to me. God is a good sorter of these things out. We can trust him. It seems a lot of the time we are stumbling along and not making much progress. We are making more than we think. It is a long process, this maturity business. It takes a lot of commitment, flexibility, and patience with others and yourself. It takes a body of Christ who is in it for the long haul, as well. Who is there for you when you may not be at your best, and we all have those days, or years. Better remember the words of Paul in Philippians: What I'm getting at friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you've done from the beginning ... live in responsive obedience... be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent, and sensitive before God. That energy is God's energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure. (from Philippians 2, The Message Bible)

Church, warts and all

"Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult. Sooner or later though if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with church. I say sooner. I want to begin with church. Many Christians find church to be the most difficult aspect of being a Christian. And many drop out - there may be more Christians who don't go to church or who go occasionally than who embrace it, warts and all. And there certainly are plenty of warts. It is no easier for pastors. The attrition rate among pastors leaving their congregations is alarming.

So, why church? The short answer is because the Holy Spirit formed it to become a colony of heaven in the country of death... Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not the kingdom complete, but it is a witness to the kingdom.

But it takes sustained effort and a determined imagination to understand and embrace church in its entirety. Casual and superficial experience with church often leaves us with an impression of bloody fights, acrimonious arguments, and warring factions. These are more than regrettable, they are scandalous. But they don't define church. There are deep communities that sustain church at all times, everywhere, as primarily and fundamentally God's work, however Christians and others may desecrate and abuse it. C.S. Lewis introduced the term "deep church" to convey the ocean fathoms of tradition that are continuously re-experienced at all times and everywhere.

It is easy to dismiss the church as ineffective and irrelevant. And many do dismiss it. It is easy to be condescending to the church because so many of its members are unimpressive entities. Condescension is widespread. It is common to become disillusioned with the church because expectations formed in the country of death and by the lies of the devil are disappointments. Disillusionment is, as a matter of course, common.

If the church is intended as God's advertisement to the world, a utopian community put on display so that people will flock to it clamoring to get in, it has obviously become a piece of failed strategy. And if the church is intended to be a disciplined company of men and women charged to get rid of corruption in government, to clean up the world's morals, to convince people to live chastely and honestly, to teach them to treat the forests, rivers and the air with reverence and children, the elderly, and the poor and the hungry with dignity and compassion, it hasn't happened. We've been at this for two thousand years now, and people are not clamoring to join us. Obviously, the church is not the ideal community that everyone takes one look at and asks, "how do I get in?" Clearly, the church is not making much headway in eliminating what is wrong in the world and making everything right. So, what's left?

What's left is this: we look at what has been given to us in our Scriptures and in Jesus and try to understand why we have a church in the first place, what the church, as it is given to us, is. We are not a utopian community. We are not God's avenging angels. Look at the church as it is right now and ask , Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church. Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing us up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church. (from Practicing Resurrection by Eugene Peterson, pages 13-14)