Monday, November 16, 2015

two questions I need to keep asking

Image from call-of-hope.com
I am reading through the book of Acts. It is an account of the beginnings of the early Christian church. It is jam-packed with adventure, action, and amazing stories. Take Acts 16 for example. The summary or thesis statement of this chapter could be identified in this sentence in verse 5: "Day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size." But what exactly does "becoming stronger and larger" look like in practice? Not quite the continuous upward trajectory that we might envision. The details are found in the remainder of the chapter.

1. Paul and Silas set out on a journey to spread the good news of Jesus. 
2. They plan to go into Asia province but the Holy Spirit blocks them (really?).
3. They try to go north to Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus won't let them go there either.
4. So they go on to Troas and there Paul has a dream in which a Macedonian says, "Come over and help us!"
5. So Paul and Silas travel to Macedonia and arrive at Philippi.
6. On the Sabbath, they go down to the river and meet with the women who have gathered there.
7. A woman named Lydia hears what is being said and believes in Jesus, gets baptised, and invites Paul and Silas to her home. (Her home becomes the meeting place for the Philippian church).
8. Some days later, when Paul and Silas are on their way to a place of prayer, a slave girl (working as a psychic for her masters) starts to follow them, shouting, "These men are working for the Most High God!" After a few days of this, Paul turns to the girl and commands the evil spirit to leave her and it is gone, just like that.
10. The owners of the slave girl are upset because their source of income has disappeared, so they drag Paul and Silas into the market, rough them up, and turn the crowd against them.
11. Paul and Silas are arrested for disturbing the peace, beaten, and thrown into jail and put into leg irons.
12. Around midnight, Paul and Silas are praying and singing a robust hymn to God. The other prisoners are astonished. 
13. An earthquake shakes the prison and every cell door flies open, leaving the prisoners free to go.
14. The jailer awakens, sees the open cell doors and, knowing the loss of the prisoners will in all likelihood cost him his life, is about to kill himself when Paul stops him, saying, "Don't do that! We are all still here!"
15. The jailer runs to Paul and Silas and drops to his knees, asking them, "Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved, to really live?" They reply, "Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus."
16. The jailer puts his trust in Jesus and he and his entire household are baptised. The jailer dresses Paul and Silas' wounds, sets out a festive meal, and they celebrate together.

Often this story is told with an emphasis on how God sets Paul and Silas free from prison. Indeed, that is a good part in the story, but it is only a part. I believe it is important to note that the strengthening and growth of the church included a lot of ups and downs, a lot of detours where people tried things and they didn't work out. There was uncertainty about how to proceed, there were arguments and disagreements and fractured relationships (Read Acts 15). People were beaten and arrested. Officials as well as crowds of everyday people got angry and violent. In the midst of it all, there were many people who heard the good news of Jesus and put their trust in Him. I ended the story at a positive point in the narrative, but the book continues with more ups and downs, more disappointments and beatings and suffering. And yet, Paul and Silas keep going.

Because we in the West currently live in relative peace and enjoy a lot of religious freedom, we can be surprised and appalled when faced with trials and suffering. We are perhaps too accustomed to a triumphalist gospel, a prosperity gospel, a gospel which is supposed to make everything okay. But that is not the gospel which Paul and Silas were so passionate about. I don't know that they ever asked questions like: What caused people to turn against us? Will this affect how many people come to our church meetings? Why are we suffering? Why doesn't God do something about the evil out there? Where is justice? These questions, interesting as they are, are not all that helpful in showing us how to live.

In a short video found here, Father Rob Ketcham talks about the tendency we have to be upset by a culture which is increasingly ambivalent or antagonistic regarding matters of faith. He identifies two questions which bring us back to what is important. 

The first is this: 1) What are we for? In other words, what is God calling us to? What is our vocation? For Paul and Silas, it was to tell the good news of Jesus. No matter what they encountered, whether it was their travel plans being thwarted by the Holy Spirit (confusing), whether it was a new church started at Lydia's house (encouraging), whether it was being arrested and beaten (painful), they never stopped being witnesses to Jesus. This was their calling, to bring freedom in Jesus (to the slave girl, to the jailer and his family, to women like Lydia), and it directed them every day. 

The second question is this: 2) Do we love God? We can fight against evil and injustice and enter into debates about this controversy or that controversy, but the ultimate question is not how hard we push or fight for change in our world, but do we love God? And the next question is, what does it look like to love God? In Acts 16 it looks like prayer, like worship, like a robust hymn sung while bleeding in a jail, like faithfulness, like saying Yes to God's call over and over again, like not giving up when things get hard, and perhaps especially like loving everyone whom God loves, even our jailers and those who seek to do us harm. In the ups and downs of following Jesus, when we come across opposition, disappointment, and even terrible tragedy, we must remember the important questions which will keep us from getting distracted or confused, the questions which never change: What are we for (what is our vocation)? and do we love God? The answers will determine not only what we do but what kind of people we become in the process. 

YHWH the Lord says: "So don't be afraid. I am here, with you; don't be dismayed [intimidated] for I am your God. I will strengthen you, help you. I am here with My right hand [of blessing and strength] to make right and to hold you up... After all, it is I, the Eternal One your God, who has hold of your right hand, who whispers in your ear, "Don't be afraid. I will help you." (Isaiah 41, adapted from The Voice and God's Word Translation)

Monday, November 09, 2015

boycotts and charity

Image result for boycott
Image from beforeitsnews.com
For the past few days, I have been struck by how imperfect the world is and how imperfect we as people are. I am also amazed at how beautiful it all is and how beautiful we all are, despite our imperfections. I have been thinking about this paradox in relation to two issues. One is the offense that certain Christians are taking to the red Starbucks holiday cup because of its lack of holiday symbols. There are those who would boycott the chain because of a perception that the company is anti-Christian. On the beautiful side of the equation, there are those who have suggested that instead of boycotting the chain, we might take someone out for coffee or pay for the person in line behind us. (An article summarising some of the controversy can be found here).

Another article I read in recent days critiques Operation Christmas Child run by Samaritan's Purse (you can find it here). It cites several problems with this project and the organisation in general, all of which are generally true. Indeed, people in developed countries like Canada choosing gifts for children in poor countries with unfamiliar cultures and contexts is not ideal. In some ways, it imposes our North American ideal of Christmas on another culture, and let's be honest, it has more to do with consumerism than incarnation. In all likelihood, what children and their families in developing countries need more than a box full of goodies is housing, healthcare, food staples, political stability, and long-term partners who will invest in them and their communities. By buying goods in North America and shipping them to another county, we are investing in our economy, not theirs. The idea behind Operation Christmas Child is not perfect, nevertheless, I think the simple act of putting together boxes of gifts for strangers is beautiful. It enlarges our hearts and, according to numerous first-hand stories I have heard and read, brings much joy and delight to the children who receive the gifts. 

In grappling with the issue of how we define righteousness and generosity, I realise that we, as North American followers of Jesus, often confuse righteousness with feeling morally superior (hence a boycott) and generosity with feeling good about some small act (sending gifts overseas). What is missing from both of these is loving encounter. Instead of getting up close and personal with people, we distance ourselves though boycotts, petitions, and diatribes on the internet. Instead of befriending strangers and people in need, we send cheap toys to children halfway around the world. When I look at the lives of Jesus' first followers, encounter was what it was all about. They encountered Jesus, they encountered those who opposed Jesus and his message, they encountered the sick and the demonised and the criminally inclined, they encountered children, they encountered hungry people, and perhaps most challenging, they encountered other imperfect disciples. And in the midst of the mayhem and the hardship, great beauty shone forth in these encounters as the disciples and those they interacted with were humbled by Jesus, transformed by Jesus, amazed by Jesus, and set free from their particular bondage by Jesus. 

I think it behooves us to be better informed about the practices of companies where we shop and the charities where we give our money or time or goods, but we can't divorce due diligence from the beauty inherent in all God's creation, and the loving compassion which Jesus asks us to give to all people. Because, in the end, we are all imperfect and we are all beautiful. The barista at Starbucks needs our kindness as much as those orphans in Romania. The CEO of Samaritan's Purse needs loving encounter with Jesus as much as every Muslim child in Africa. If our righteousness is used as a way to distance ourselves from others, like boycotts and petitions and diatribes tend to do, I would venture to say that it is not righteousness. If our charity does not require us to actually touch another human being or get our hands dirty in some actual, on the ground work with those we are seeking to help, is it really charity? 

If you want to boycott anyone, perhaps you should boycott me. I have supported unjust causes. I have diminished the story and message of Jesus. I have sought to further my own agenda instead of helping those less fortunate than me. I have participated in token acts of charity which were probably more harmful than helpful. I have practiced favouritism and acted out of prejudice. I have refused to listen to honest critique. I have believed that the way I do things is the best way. I have wronged people and excluded people and spoken words of death instead of life. And yet, God does not boycott me. He reaches out to me. He sees what is beautiful in me and calls it to life. He patiently shows me a better way, and he does it by doing it first. I am righteous not because of my good and holy acts, but because Jesus offered to trade his righteousness for my unrighteousness. I am generous not because of how much I give, but because Jesus shows me the best gift to give is myself. 

Like Jesus, let us not point out people's imperfections without identifying with them. And let us always remember that every act of generosity requires us first of all to give ourselves in loving encounter.