Archive for the 'Incarnational' Category

Damn Christians Part II

“Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”—Will Campbell

Orlando clubI’d scarcely clicked “Publish” on my last post “Needed-Damn Christians”—when I realized I needed to say more. I’d told the story of the late Will Campbell and his unique ministry to folks on all sides of political and religious divides. I described his presence at the long-delayed murder trial of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers. Bowers had allegedly ordered the killing of a number of civil rights activists, most notably Vernon Dahmer—in the mid-1960’s! In 1998, thirty-twoyears after the fact, Bowers stood trial again in Mississippi, this time with new evidence and a realistic chance of being convicted. Campbell spent some of the time at the trial sitting with Dahmer’s large family on one side of the courtroom–and about the same amount sitting with Sam Bowers, who sat all alone on the other side. When a reporter asked why he did this, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a damn Christian.”  I concluded that our fragmented society needs more “damn Christians” who will share the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) modeled by Jesus and pursued by Campbell, Martin Luther King, and countless others. I said, “I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides… with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.”

But I hadn’t said much about how we arrive at that conviction, or what equips us for that uncomfortable and challenging stance. Then the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened early Sunday morning. It brought folks together. It also re-opened some old wounds and re-started some old arguments:

  • Omar Mateen’s anti-gay feelings clearly informed his choice of target. Those feelings still live in many hearts and minds.
  • He was an admirer or supporter of Isis. That’s enough to reanimate both rational concern over terror and misinformed or simply mean-spirited anti-Muslim prejudice. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine the exact nature and strength of that connection in this incident.
  • His primary weapon was an assault rifle like the ones banned from sale in this country until 2004. We’re having that yelling match again.

Thirty or so hours after the shooting, before all the dead are identified and their loved ones notified, the noise around these divisive issues grows ever louder. Politicians speak out, seeking every advantage. Activists on both sides strain to shout down the opposition. But if we’re simply yelling past each other, once again we’ll generate plenty of heat but precious little light.

What if some “damn Christians” dare to love our neighbors more than our ideology? Something could change. If we behave differently, the future would play out differently. Don’t misunderstand me. I have very strong convictions about these issues. But beyond the issues are our relationships with our neighbors. “If it is possible,” Paul urges us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18 NRSV)

So I offer here a framework within which we who follow Jesus might find ways to “live peaceably” with “all sorts and conditions of persons” while still maintaining the integrity of our convictions.

  1. We see and honor the image of God in every person.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 CEB)

Every human being bears the divine image. No exceptions. No exclusions. No weasel words. No fudge factor. Sharing this divine DNA makes all seven billion of us family–for better or worse! That includes all those folks who post their ridiculous nonsense online (and who feel the same way about our brilliant, witty, profound posts); folks from places whose names we can’t possibly twist our tongues around; folks with whom we fit perfectly and folks with whom we clash catastrophically; folks who energize us and folks who drain us; folks with whom we feel welcome and folks who just give us the creeps. All of us, in all our glory and uniqueness, created alike bearing the divine image. All means all. “Damn Christians” practice the spiritual discipline of looking for the divine image, no matter how hidden, marred, or disfigured, in every human being.

  1. We recognize every person as someone for whom Christ died.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his…one and only Son…so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” John 3:16 MSG

Still no exclusionary clause. “…whole and lasting life” is God’s will for each of us and all our divine kin on this planet. Not exactly the message we get from our “I’ve got mine and I’ll take yours if I want it” culture. Claiming God’s gift doesn’t require a dazzling resume or a twenty-page application. It requires only “believing”–trusting with our whole being– that the way of life we see in Jesus leads away from destruction toward more and better life than we’d dared to imagine.

Easy to say, but very hard to accept. Abundant negative evidence exists, much provided by so-called “Christians” in the form of both actions and deadly silence. Our not-yet-believing neighbors want to be told less and shown more. “Believing” takes what God always knew it would take—incarnational evidence.

Orlando hug

  1. We will embody Christ for others through everything we do and are.

 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what…When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” Philippians 2:5-7 MSG

 That’s all it takes. Just turn my back on this 21st-century  privileged, entitled, “I want it all” culture. Climb down the ladder I’ve worked so hard climbing up. Invest myself in folks from whom I thought I’d managed to insulate and isolate myself. Give up my self-important illusions and just be my created-in-the-divine-image self. All that takes is someone who …didn’t think so much of himself…” “didn’t …cling to…status…” “…set aside…privileges…took on the status of a slave, became human.” It takes some “damn Christian” foolish enough to follow Jesus to places and people most folks say aren’t worth the effort; foolish enough to believe “God loved the world…” means the whole creation and everyone who’s ever been or ever would be a part of it. Some damn Christian like Miss Velma Westbury. According to Will Campbell, Miss Velma often said, ‘”If you just love the folks what’s easy to love,that really ain’t no love at all…If you love one, you have to love’em all.”

“Of course,” Campbell points out, “some folks said Miss Velma was crazy.”

Death Rattles or Birth Pangs?

My wife Dianna and I went to a church meeting last night. It was a historic occasion. During my nearly two years of retirement from active ministry I’ve religiously avoided church meetings other than choir rehearsal. This one was advertised as “brainstorming” for the church’s future.  Technically it didn’t qualify as “brainstorming”, but that didn’t matter. In the course of 40+ years of pastoral ministry I led dozens of similar sessions variously identified as “brainstorming”, “goal-setting”, “long-range-planning”, “visioning”, “strategic planning”, etc. Nearly every congregation, from house-church- size to mega-mega, does this regularly on some level.

I went to listen. Would I hear death rattles or birth pangs? Even without knowing the congregation I could have written much of the script for this church meeting and thousands like it. We’d hear concerns expressed about:

  • Survival—attracting more (younger/healthier/energetic) people who’d give more money and time.
  • Attracting and serving families with children (like the children and grandchildren of the retirees who composed most of that group and congregation—now including Dianna and me!).
  • Financial stability/sufficiency/survival.
  • Maintaining and improving the building and grounds—a growing challenge (bordering on burden) for a heroically faithful but declining, aging, and increasingly-burned-out group of volunteers.
  • Increasing the volunteer base, primarily by recruiting more people to serve on existing committees and groups.  

Everyone read their lines about as expected.  I heard what I was afraid I’d hear. I heard death rattles of a church (terminally?) turned inward on itself, afraid to die and afraid to change. I’m not blaming anybody in past or present leadership. I’m just telling the truth for a disturbing number of churches in this country. They/we keep doing things the same way we have for decades and expecting different results. As you may know, that’s one definition of insanity. Institutionally speaking, it’s suicidal behavior.

But I also heard faint cries I pray are birth pangs of new life (Romans 8:18-25):

  •  Genuine concern for children in the community—not just to fill up empty classrooms, but to help them discover the wonder of being children of God and part of the Family of God.
  • Passion to care for caregivers. “Caregivers” includes anyone caring for a family member who requires significant assistance due to some physical, emotional, developmental, or other issue. This small congregation seems to have more than its share of such situations. The folks raising this issue (feeling this calling?) understood that this ministry requires us to form creative partnerships with other community resources.
  • Desire to move mission beyond arm’s-length donation to personal relationship. In the interest of full disclosure, this was my contribution. This church (like so many others) does a good job of raising and sending money and “stuff”, e.g., food for the local food bank and those well-filled Christmastime shoe-boxes. A few individuals volunteer faithfully with various organizations. But I don’t think that in its nearly forty years of existence the church has ever sent a mission team to serve beyond its local community. I believe authentic Christ-following mission means that we go in person wherever and whenever possible. The big theological word for that is “incarnational” mission–going in the flesh, the way God did in Jesus!  I identify this as a possible “birth pang” not because it was my brilliant idea but because it seemed to resonate with some other folks.

Death rattles or birth pangs? It’s far too early to tell. It depends on the follow-up from that session. It depends on the presence and practice of persistent, courageous leadership. It depends on our willingness to respond faithfully to the Holy Spirit’s gentle nudges (and less-than-gentle shoves) toward the future.  It depends also on the preponderance of the congregation that wasn’t present at last night’s meeting. They can lead, follow, or get in the way. They can choose life—the harder way, the uncomfortable way, the messier and more chaotic way. Or they can choose slow, lingering death.

God set the prophet Ezekiel in the middle of a vast valley filled with dry, parched bones. “…can these bones live?” God asked the prophet. “Master God, only you know that,” Ezekiel replied.(Ezekiel 37:3) That’s where our church and many others in North America find ourselves today. One of the church’s traditional rituals affirms that “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time…”  Particular churches come and go. They come into being when God’s Spirit calls some people together into a new expression of the Body of Christ, the Church, in order to accomplish God’s purposes with people in a particular community. They  pass out of existence when God no longer needs that congregation in that particular setting, or when God finds other, more suitable instruments to accomplish God’s purposes in that particular setting. I think God can still use this congregation in this place. Will the congregation choose to be sufficiently responsive to still be usable by God?

 


Categories