Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On kingdoms...

Kingdom. That's one of those words for us Americans that we only really use in spiritual terms these days. We have little understanding of how actual kingdoms work except to believe that they are not democracies, so probably not good.

Except where God is concerned. I mean, after all, the Bible talks a lot--especially Jesus--about God's kingdom or the kingdom of heaven. So when I say my mission is to stimulate redemptive living and kingdom investment, what does that word kingdom mean?

Let me first say that the two authors I'd most highly recommend on this topic are Dallas Willard and Shane Claiborne, specifically Willard's The Divine Conspiracy and Claiborne's Jesus for President. Both are excellent and challenging treatments of the idea. (side note, I'm looking forward to meeting Shane for the first time in person in a few weeks at our No Need Among You conference in Waco, see nnay.org for info).

So at the risk of writing a whole book, let me share a few short ideas about my understanding of what the kingdom of God is about. If I get too long-winded, I'll stop and pick it up in the next blog. There's a lot to say.

First, kingdom is about a King. That probably should go without saying, but alas, it doesn't. There is a King. I'm not him, although the truth be told, I act like it much of the time. We all do. Our allegiances are sometimes divided. Who is your king? Please ponder the question a little, because if Facebook is any indication, many who claim Jesus as King sure promote some un-Jesus-like stuff...living in the kingdom means our allegiance to Jesus is above all other things (see Colossians for some good theology on this): above country, above job, above sports team, above family, above everything. Above all powers of any kind. Is Jesus your King? Are you living as the King would have you live?

Second, the kingdom as it currently exists is a "not yet" kingdom. We live in middle-earth, somewhere between the innocence of sinlessness in the Garden of Eden, and the redemption into sinlessness that will come when there's a new heaven/earth/creation. Jesus launched the kingdom in a new way, but the fullness of it won't be here until he's back. So we are new creations, but still battle the "flesh." We (by faith) are seated with Christ in heavenly places but we're physically still here (see Colossians 3).

Third, for whatever reason, God has chosen to partner with us to make the current "not yet" more like the "someday will be". We pray it in the prayer Jesus taught: "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This is our primary task: discipling people on how to live in God's kingdom now.

Finally, let me throw in one last point. It's not a key point in the defining of "kingdom" per se, but it is one powerful core value of the kingdom that I think of when I see the word in my mission statement. One of the core markers of the kingdom is cultural diversity. When the "not yet" becomes reality, there will be every tribe, tongue, people and nation gathered in a multicultural worship service like no other. I plan to write about this in more detail soon, but the basic summary is this: no earthly culture has it all right (or all wrong, for that matter). We need to be multicultural people to live in a multicultural kingdom. We need to learn other languages, other practices, other understandings of God's kingdom. Our churches need to stop being bastions of cultural protection and become places where cultural diversity is valued and practiced and lived out in grace.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Thinking critically about short-term missions

One of my good friends, Ronne Rock, recently wrote a post on her blog about the value of short-term missions. It is well-written (her stuff always is) and thoughtful (if you know her, you wouldn't ever think she's not thinking about orphans!). You should add her blog, twitter and facebook feeds--not to mention her great Instagram photos--to your daily reading.

If you're not familiar with the argument, short-term missions are basically the few-days-long trips to some faraway (in distance or culture) place to do something "Christian." Churches have been in this practice for decades, given the relatively low cost travel our modern USAmerican culture has brought us. The world has shrunk for sure.

But there's been a backlash in recent years. Many both inside and outside the Church have argued that short-term missions have done more harm than good. I've never been one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, so as a guy who has seen the good, bad and ugly in short-term missions, I wanted to share a few thoughts based on Ronne's experiences that are vital to the success of any relational endeavor, but especially when it comes to short-term missions, whether you're heading across your community or across the ocean.

First, it's vital to make sure you're exporting love, not USAmerican culture. Every culture is blind to the places where their cultural values shape their perception of the structure and message of the gospel and the kingdom of heaven. Hours of challenging due-diligence is mandatory for churches heading into a different culture than our own. This is true whether you're heading from Dallas to Antigua, or from suburbia to inner city, or from urban to rural. We need to adopt as one of our core beliefs the respect for cultures and their differences, and ensure that whatever work we do has thoughtfully removed as much cultural baggage to the gospel as possible.

Second, it should be about building relationships, not accomplishing a task. As Ronne points out, it's easy to do the same VBS, backyard Bible club, wall-painting, school supply providing projects week after week, year after year, because, quite frankly, that's easy. And while we genuinely want to positively impact the world, we prefer to do it in an easy and comfortable fashion, except for certain "creature comforts" we're willing to give up on the trip. We don't (usually) mind it being a little too hot or cold, drinking only bottled water, cramming into small vans, etc during the trip itself, but we don't spend enough time on the prep work around culture, values, and long-term, impact, we're just too busy. Churches and groups going on trips have traditionally looked for a variety of trips and projects over the course of a few years. That's probably because we start with the idea that the trips are about our own group's experience. The best mission experiences though are more about building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between people, churches, and organizations. Churches should choose to head back to places many times over the course of years, maybe decades, effectively turning short-term missions into long-term strategies.

Third, you need to balance overall impact on the culture you're traveling to, not just on your own group. One key aspect of the hard work required is to understand that as great of an impact short-term trips can have on changing you or your church, if the work done is inappropriate or not beneficial in the long run to the place you're going, it's not worth going.

Fourth, because its about relationships, deep listening is required. The most important thing Ronne said in her post was how they listened to the leaders of the orphanage, then abandoned their own plans based on what they heard. I can't emphasize this enough. Listen, and listen hard. Listen over the course of time, not just in one conversation. Listen and listen again, before ever planning a single trip or project.

Finally, let humility reign. Don't, under any circumstances, allow yourself to think that the serving/giving/loving involved is about you, a church of plenty (plenty of wealth, plenty of knowledge, plenty of  "good Christian stuff") taking what is not there to a people without. Be open to the idea that your project idea, your insight into how a culture needs your help, may not be accurate. Be ready to abandon ideas about projects altogether if necessary. If you're willing to do these things, I guarantee you that you will see how God has already been at work where you're going.

And you will likely begin to see how poor you really are.

A resource list:

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbiggin
Cross-Cultural Conflict  by Duane Elmer
Ministering Cross-Culturally by Sherwood Lingenfelter

Friday, September 06, 2013

Making a living

We've been spending some time talking about my mission statement:

Stimulating redemptive living and kingdom investment

What does "living" mean to you? We use the word in several ways:

How do you make a living?
Where are you living now?
This is a nice living room.
I'm glad to be among the living.

What makes something alive? Breath? No, gotta be more than that, because plants and single-cell organisms are alive, and they don't breath. Wikipedia (which  is never wrong) says that scientists define life as "objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes" as opposed to objects who used to have those processes and no longer do (dead) or objects that don't have such processes.

That sounds to me more like a definition of surviving, not necessarily living.

Living is so much more than surviving. Living is embracing what really matters, and sucking the life out of it. Not like that boring acquaintance sucks the life out of a party, but more like the way I suck the melted ice cream out of the bottom of a DQ Blizzard. I do not want to waste a drop of that precious elixir.

That's the kind of life I want to live. And what I hope I stimulate in others. That full to the max, get all you can out of it kind of living.

So here's the deal, the way I see it. Jesus wants people to live. Not just make a living, not just to survive, but to have life. Real life, maximum life. Suck it dry and go back for seconds life. But there is a major hindrance to finding and living this life:

We want to do it on our own terms.

At first I was thinking that there are two ways, but really there's not. Just one, but it shows up differently in two broad ways: some people follow their own terms by looking for life in their own religious piety, and other people follow their own terms by looking for life in the stuff of the temporal. Jesus makes it clear in interactions with both types that neither will ultimately satisfy. We all want to be the doorway to our own happy life. But its only found in a real relationship with Jesus. He's the bringer of life.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Going dark

Going dark is one of those terms that I know is real, because it's in a lot of spy shows. And I like spy shows, so I'm an expert. Going dark is when a spy has to go so deep undercover that they cut off communication with their handler and their peers.

Yesterday, I went dark.

Not that I'm a spy, I'm an "alien and stranger", a sojourner, and that's not quite the same thing. (If you're unfamiliar withe the phrase "alien and stranger" grab a Bible and look up 1 Peter 2.11) Or is it? I'm a subversive member of a King's following, a King who isn't my current world's ruler, trying to overthrow the system currently in place. Hmm...

But I digress. I went dark, not because I was going deeper in my cover, but because I was having a pity party.

Yep, me, Mr. Optimistic under most circumstances. Yesterday I spiraled out of control. My apparently fragile ego was not handling my unemployment situation well, so I went dark. Left God outside and tried to ignore him. Other people too. And like most of those situations, it only got worse from there. I turned to that one thing that if you'd read my blogs before, you know is my besetting sin (besetting is a theological word that means "butt-kicking").

I ate. Overate to be more precise.

I withdrew, shut out the world and the One who cares most, and I ate a bunch of stuff that I found.

And then I felt worse. Surprise!

I'm better today. Maybe. At least I'm confessional. And I'm talking to you, whoever you are. I'm not dark today. It's made me think of 2 or 3 things I probably need to focus on when I'm throwing a pity party.

1. Do some work. Wash the dishes. Do some laundry. Focus on a writing project. Work seems to help the soul regain some sense of purpose.

2. Get around people. People who refuse to be invited to your pity party, but who will be around you nonetheless.

3. Confess. You may not be one to confess on a blog, but confess. Your spouse, a friend, definitely God. Confess honestly, not in a Sunday-school fashion. But confess. Healing is there. His love doesn't go away.

He comes to give life. But that's my next blog.