Saturday, 3 January 2015

God’s plan and purpose through the church is more than issues, causes and a mission

Unfolding the story of jesus
For most of my life, I stuck with my kind of people. I hung out with people with similar cultural, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds; similar religious and political views; people with whom I thought I had the most in common. I did this before I became a Christian and afterwards as well.  I think it had to do with being affirmed, supported and feeling loved. When I was around folks who saw the world too differently from me, I would tend to feel tension a peculiar need to proselytize, to convince others of the errors of their thinking. I’m not just talking religion, it could be anything on the list of life events. I felt most safe, approved and loved in alikeness, and so I made a decision to stick with what I know without really understanding it's consequence.

What changed? Nothing really and yet a lot as I begin to realize the "otherness" of God and his free flowing love towards others, others who are not like me in many ways.

God's word intends to draw humans to a restored relationship with God, with each other, and to the fulfillment of our original purposes as humans created in God's image, including the care of creation.

In the past year, perhaps because I turned 50, I began to reflect more on the bigger picture. While my conviction on certain issues, causes and the mission of the church are clear and settled , I learned that discipleship is truly about what happens on the way to our destination. Sometimes the interruption, the intrusion of doubt, and questions of a stranger  is the day's purpose and is, in fact, our unscheduled destination. This meant I need to be available when the opportunities for conversations arises, which means I need to be in the position to modify my schedule to be available for such a moment.

I had become some 25 years earlier a Christian, I had married, have growing children, moved around, met many people, attended different congregations, listen to different pastors and their thinking, and read books. I read a lot and I read all four Gospels, including James and Paul who deal with different tensions in the still young church. The same tensions, by the way, we face today.  And with being married, and with every relocation, with every new book,  with every new congregation or conversation I’ve been introduced of understanding a well turned phrase in a brighter light. Each change has brought people into my life with whom I’ve had seemingly little in common but oh, what they’ve taught me by helping me see God's world broken as it is through their eyes. Some allowed me a deep insight into God working in them, healing, restoring and daily struggle. But most importantly they've taught me by helping me to read God's word through their eyes, and they provided new questions and suggested responses rather than simple answers about the big questions of life. Listening to other voices, be it in books or movies or one on one, allows me an opportunity to see myself as many others do, to see how my beliefs appear when they are seen through a different lens and to frame a response based on my love and respect for the fellow human, rather than in light of doctrine. As follower of Jesus our ability to help and influence people around the church will be in direct proportion to our understanding of the issues of the day and the gospel's response to them.

And it begins with humility. Humility requires that we acknowledge that many of our beliefs and practices represent our personal understanding of Scripture and preferences in forms, and are not necessarily binding on others. It also requires that we confess that there is often an immense gp between what I belief and aspire to and how I actually live each and every day. Our ultimate humility should derive not from our failures but from our awareness that we are following ultimately God in man, Jesus, and not a set of doctrines to be believed. This does not mean that we abandon truth or the use of our renewed mind to reach logical conclusion. It does mean, however, that we submit our truth-telling to the test of love. We need to nuance our discussion we have so we could hear and try to understand the person for whom the issue of death, gruesome pain, infidelity, betrayal, divorce, remarriage, abortion, homosexuality, gender identity was reality and not a theoretical discussion on issues, causes and a mission. Feelings ought not to change the ethical and moral conclusions on these issues, because feeling do not change truth. People feelings, however, will affect the way we talk, teach, and respond to the person in contrast to the subject. Behind every subject in the search for applied truth, contested or not, are human beings. We can treat subjects such as euthanasia, abortion, gay rights, or the questions around infertility as issues for which we have the right answer, or perhaps worse pretend they do not exist. Indifference is the opposite of love. Or, and that is what I would suggest, as issues affecting people made in the image of God whom we love, and not because they are our children or parents.  

Somewhere I read; Read one thinker and you become a clone, read two and you may be confused, read hundreds and you may become wise.  It is like the difference of taking a bath in a tub or taking a shower, the former allows for no new thoughts and the latter for no time for self-reflection. Both lead to pettiness, abuse of power, the urge to hide imperfection, spiritual pride covering fear, and exclusivism covering inferiority. We need to overcome both, disillusionment and the urge to pretend.
I also learned that we generally tend to avoid questions, because questions in general tend to challenge the status quo. Questions opens us up to challenges. But over the many years one question has still penetrated my defenses; How can we as the people of God uphold the ideals of holiness, the pushing forward, the proper striving for a perfect life, while avoiding mediocrity due to disillusionment? The people of God [church], should they not be both; a people who strife toward holiness, who press on who do not settle for mediocrity and yet relax in grace; a people who condemn themselves but not others, a people who depend on God and not themselves?

It is a question that calls for self-reflection in light of God's love, his character, his call to follow him. 
 Winnipeg, MB R3C Canada

One of the things I’ve discovered through all this is that people are not the same everywhere and yet they are in their own way. There are lots of common traits in people: there is goodness, kindness, compassion, but there is also pettiness, arrogance, selfishness. Both, evil and goodness are found in us, we simply have a hard time admitting it. Partly because, by and large, we’re regional thinkers and feelers. It goes way beyond food and fashion and accents. Different places plant different kinds of thoughts in us. Thoughts that inform our values and likes and dislikes. Thoughts that at times react violently against other thoughts.
Perhaps for that reason, God gave as four accounts of Jesus' live ad death and resurrection. Different accounts that are vary in many details and yet point to the person that matters, Christ.  For that reason we are called collectively to go into all the world. Evangelism is not an individual enterprise, but forces us to confront our individual differences in the lights of God's otherness, his love towards us while we were still dead in our sin.  It is in this tension of different thoughts, and upbringings that the world truly can see true love. This is the reason why Jesus prayed for us, his body today in this world where we are being confronted with many different thoughts. Thoughts not just from the world, but even differences from within the body of Christ.

I’ve learned so much from people who aren’t my kind of thinking and feeling. The friends I’ve made, and the diverse groups I’ve broken bread with, have taught me to value our differences, our diversity instead of feeling the need to conform myself or to reform/inform others [funny as I am writing this]. In fact, I have learned to rejoice in our diversity as one. I’ve certainly learned that it takes all kinds of kinds to form the body of Christ, and it is not about like but about love, it is less about me as it is about us and it is even more about Him who builds His church.

If it were practical and possible, I’d recommend everyone uproot even if only for a year or two and plant themselves in an entirely different region to live and work with people they don’t think are their kind. And since this is not practical and possible, perhaps it is more practical to move within the city, to make new friends, to change work and to read. We will realize we have remarkable things to learn from "strangers"! Fair, learning can be unsettling, leads to growth and abandoning perhaps the "good old ways" the roads well traveled but . . .

"Teach me your way, Oh Lord that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. Ps 86.11 

Yet still, I find myself occasionally irritated with differences, yearning for predictability, weary of being challenged and forced to grow by deviations from what I know. After every new place, new person I encountered new issues, new causes, new mission I previously was ignorant of. And each new encounter is unsettling, takes away the 'control' of my thinking I previously believed I had.  

Unfortunately Christianity in North America and Europe tends to buy into the Enlightenment ethos of "enlightened self-interest," "rational individualism" and "self-sufficiency" and therefore of regional autonomy. The individual, and by extension the individual congregation is a free agent, the starting point for thinking about society. I believe this reduces community to little more than a collection of individuals who come together either out of self-interest, out of obligation or around an issue or cause.

There’s indeed a common kind of “love” where we don’t really see the other person at all: a love that’s based on projection and on wishful thinking, a love where we idolize the other and so us.

  Love is not conditional in any way. It’s based on an     empathetic resonance with the other person.   

In a similar vein, there’s also a form of love that’s highly conditional. We love the other person as long as they’re enjoyable to be with, or as long as their desires, their thinking, their focus are in accord with ours, as long as we get what we want, perhaps as long as the other person doesn’t change. When conditions change — when we stop getting what we want our “love” collapses.

Often we don't engage ourselves deeply enough into each others differences. There remains a simple desire for sense-fulfillment while God's love is much more complex and does not allow for meritocracy or self. In Christ alone we can hold love in our hearts for others whether or not we like them or even know them. It’s a completely unconditional love. There is a danger of finding unity over an issue or a cause. Whenever we want something from another person, there’s a danger that we’ll lose sight of our basic commonality. We all are being made in the image of God and being loved unconditionally by God. We loose the sense that we’re all in it together, sharing a mode of being in which suffering of not being known and its end are our deepest drives and our deepest connection. Love that seeks to “know completely” just as we are completely known is what I think of as real love. We can lose touch with this understanding very easily.

A congregation saturated with a conditional thinking and feeling about the relation between persons as individual and persons as the body of Christ tends to focus on individual salvation and individual sin and less on the Kingdom of God as communitarian ideal, collective salvation. And that leads often to an disengagement with the big picture of love. We compensate with an engagement with a socially comfortable issues, causes or a particular personal mission which promises control and a level of autonomy and achievement but also alikeness. Perhaps it is a dissatisfaction with the indifference of the church as David Plett suggest. After all, "we aren't content with a church that turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to the realities of social injustice in the world. We want our lives -- and the church -- to count for social justice." After all an issue can be addressed, a cause can be simply popular, and a mission can be exclusive and can unite, whereas love calls for self-reflection.

Love seeks truth, truth which challenges myths, half-truths, denials, and lies.

After all, somehow we all know that the Gospel is about being free from the ancient, pervasive, and delightful oppression of sin, fear, even self in order to be a very different community. We know we ought to be an alternative kingdom here and now on earth by means of living and celebrating the way of Jesus -- the reign of joyful weakness, renunciation, enemy-love, self-denial, sharing, foolishness, community, deliverance and love overcoming evil here and now. We can do that by identifying, facing, and resolving our own ideological fears that keeps us from moving toward the otherness of others. After all when it comes to "move" we face the problem of our human desire for the status quo "staying is easier than moving."

We know we ought to be different and yet we find it difficult to embrace our differences. We want our lives to matter. We know we ought to live in such a way that our neighbours will be glad we did. God invites us by calling us into fellowship to outlive our earthly lives not just in heaven but here on earth.

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