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Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” – part 3

These sermons was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

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Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” – part 2

These sermons was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” – part 1

These sermons was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

Henri Nouwen “the Beloved” part 1

This sermon was formative for me and for all of us in Word Made Flesh. I will post it in 8 parts:

The Poor as a Point of Meeting

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9

A few years back in Kolkata, I was working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying where I met another American who had just finished his doctorate studies in Ireland. The theme of his studies was the politics of peace. His desire was to work with the United Nations for the establishment of peace policies, but he wanted to come to India to get some experience working with people. I thought that India was an interesting place for him to come because of the dire poverty, the threat of different forms of violence, and the variety of faiths, cultures, languages, and histories. I asked him if in his doctorate studies he had ever seen a place where policy-making had successfully created peace. He said that policy-making never created peace; it could only create space for dialog or create structures that maintain peace.

I told my new American friend about an organization that I had visited a day earlier called L’arche that cares for people with handicaps. I told him that it was a hopeful model of people from different backgrounds living together in peace. Though the organization was founded by Christians, they accept people from different faiths, and in India that means people from the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian faiths as well as others. The name of this particular home was appropriately called Asha Niketan “Home of Hope”, and that is what I saw it to be. There people came together each day in prayer to be closer to God and to serve those with handicaps. Though we may criticize the lack of persuasion to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the community exists in self-giving love. There they make peace. They do not curtail conflicts in the name of peace, but they work through them for the sake of peace. That is because peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice and love. And love, justice and peace are fruits of the Spirit and not the fruits of policy-making.

At the L’arche community, it is evident that the poor have the potential to be a point of meeting for people of diverse cultures, beliefs and histories to come together and serve on their behalf. In a world where violence breeds violence, the poor give us the opportunity to lay down our weapons of destruction and to pick up tools of service. The weakest and most vulnerable provide a place where we can come together, and they show us the potentiality of striving for peace, justice and love. As Christians, we are called to love the poor. But we are not so naive to think that the poor can be separated from the world in which they live – a world of godlessness and idolatry. As we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and as we minister to the distressing disguise of Jesus in the poor, we must soberly engage the whole world with all her “regimes of truth.”

Mahumut Aydin said, “[I]n a globalized world, the duty of adherents of different religious traditions should not be to claim the superiority of their own religious tradition as an a priori entity, but to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good” (“Globalization and the Gospel: A Muslim View”). Many of those living in pluralistic societies share this view and see it as a way in which we can live together while keeping “our religion” private. Though Aydin is saying something important, his statement cannot be normative for the fundamental motivations of the Church’s mission.

We do agree with Aydin that liberation of the poor does point to faith. We recall that throughout Jesus’ life, He pointed to the liberation of the poor as a sign of the coming Kingdom and to point to His Sonship (Luke 7:19-22). Likewise, faith in God does develop the common good. When the God of love indwells His people, His people love. Where His Kingdom is, the world cannot escape the goodness of God. That is why Jesus says that He causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good (Matt. 5:45), and it is not insignificant that the evil are mentioned before the good.

We must also recognize that Aydin is correct in saying that the integrity of our Christianity can be measured by our relationship with the poor. Jesus says that “Whatever we do to the least of these, we do it unto Him.” If we are not serving the least of these, how are we being Christian? James reminds us that true and pure religion is this: ministering to the orphans and widows and remaining pure in the world.” If we – you and me and not just the institutions to which we belong – are not ministering to the defenseless and marginalized, how is our religion true? One does well to remember that religion (religio) means “to bind” in Latin. This term can have two diametrically opposing connotations: bonding or bondage. When we bond with the poor through solidarity and service, our religion is true; when our religion simply becomes a worldview that saves us or legitimizes our lifestyles, we live in bondage.

We can also follow Aydin in affirming that Christianity is not a religion of superiority. Christ leads us to seek the last place, even the place of death. We are not called to what the world sees as victory but to what it terms victimization. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul outlines how our faith is victorious when it is vulnerable. Unfortunately, we usually reject this place of vulnerability. Desmond Tutu said, “I fear that we have all been so seduced by the success ethics that we have forgotten that in a very real sense the church was meant to be a failing community.” The missioligist David Bosch said, “A church which follows the model of the victim-missionary is one that is called to be a source of blessing to society without being destined to regulate it. It knows that the Gospel ceases to be Gospel when it is foisted upon people.” At the same time, we believe in Jesus Christ because He is worth believing in. We therefore can stand before the world with what Lesslie Newbigin terms “proper confidence” which is a firm commitment to truth. 

As we reject the world’s terminology of superiority and power, so we must be critical about legitimizing our faith through our practice or, as Aydin puts it, “to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good”. Of course, faith and practice are intricately related. Christian belief normatively shapes Christian practices, and engaging in practices can lead to the acceptance and deeper understanding of these beliefs. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only the obedient believe, and those who believe are obedient” (The Cost of Discipleship). But we must ask with Miroslav Volf, “What grounds what: belief or practice?” (Practicing Theology). Is our service among the poor rooted in our faith in God, or is our faith in God rooted in our service among the poor? Subordinating beliefs to practices, as contemporary popular and academic culture does, leads to the completely functionalizing of beliefs. We as Christians must realize, as Volf asserts, that “adequate beliefs about God cannot be ultimately grounded in a way of life; a way of life must be grounded in adequate beliefs about God.” We identify with God through beliefs, and we encourage practices for the sake of God (Col. 3:23, 24).

Because belief has priority, we must concern ourselves with the disputed truth claims about God and that unambiguously includes the “regimes of truth” of other faiths and ideologies. That means that as we go into the world to preach Good News to the poor, we engage other claims to truth. If we detour these truth-claims, we are not faithful to truth but permissive of lies, and we are not makers of peace but accomplices of injustice. All regimes of truth are critiqued by the Truth which we come to know in the person of Jesus Christ. Truth is a person which demands that we be personally involved. “Truth, then, is available only to the one who is personally committed to the truth grasped. Knowing cannot be severed from living and acting, for we cannot know the truth unless we seek it with love and unless our love commits us to action” (Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence). In response to Aydin that means that we cannot separate our faith and action at any point and that our service (truth-commitment) to the poor is rooted in our belief in God (Truth) who loves and identifies with the poor.

How, then, do we engage the world? How do we come together as human beings to serve other human beings? How do we minister among the poor? How do we become peacemakers? How do we affirm the truth within diverse beliefs while critiquing the false truth claims? I do not want to offer any simple answers to these questions, but I want to provide a platform from which we can respond.

The poor can be a point of unity. When we put aside our own initiatives and selfish motivations, we can come together for the sake of the Other. We can do this together with people from other denominations and religions. Often, in our ministry among the poor, we have had non-believers work alongside us. They are not defining our motivations or direction, but they are participating in this work which we pray is bringing glory to God. Here we are not accentuating our differences but celebrating our common humanity. Behind this base of relationship lies a theology of creation. The Bible tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Yet, we are not primarily looking at our commonness as humanity; rather, we are looking together at the God in whose image humanity was created. Monotheism led to the concept of a single humanity. This is the God of whom it is said, “Hear o Israel, the Lord your God is one.” The one God in whose image humanity is created intrinsically links every person to every other person. But, as I said earlier, this does not mean that we blindly accept one another’s beliefs. What it does mean, in effect, is that we have created a point of meeting where we can mutually challenge one another.

360673052_74314353c4The poor can be an instrument through which God makes Himself known. Some theologians use the phrase “epistemological privilege of the poor” to describe the ability of the poor to understand and receive the gospel. To the poor, the Gospel really is Good News. Likewise, God often speaks and makes Himself known to the non-poor through the poor. Here we recognize a theology of the Spirit of Jesus. When we witness the injustice that the poor suffer, we can find hope in the God that is actively championing their cause. I know some non-Christians who are fervent advocates for the poor. As Christians, we can recognize and affirm the Spirit of Christ that moves beyond the edges of the Church into the world for which He died.

We can come together with all humanity to serve the poorest and weakest. There is a humble place of solidarity in our human frailty and inability. But we cannot come together to offer simple solutions. When confronted with poverty, we are confronted by suffering and dying that exposes our own powerlessness. We can confess that our solutions are exhausted. We take heart in something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Germany during World War Two – a time and place where “the Final Solution” was propagated. Bonhoeffer said that Christians should not base their faith on the scientific method. He said we are not seeking after solutions to problems; we believe, rather, in the redemption of sinful, broken creation. Here lies a theology of redemption. Taking our foothold in God’s action, we as Christians can speak of redemption in the face of problems such as death and poverty. We can witness to a God who suffers with us and who has defeated sin and death.

Resisting Fatalism

I sometimes find myself caught in the clutches of fatalism. I grew up in a family with an alcoholic father. Although he went through medical and psychological treatments, worked the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and managed to stop drinking for months and even years at a time, he is beaten by his illness. He is resigned to his addiction. And his resignation finds reflection in mine.

For the past 16 years, I’ve served among youth and adults with addictions – addictions to the streets, to gangs and to substances. While we’ve seen many of them come off the streets and some of them into healthy situations, a number of them are in jail, in hovels or on the streets. I feel like Lazarus’ sister, Mary, who went to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and Martha, who said, “‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days” (John 11:32, 39). Despite love, prayer, support and opportunities for change, we are watching our friends die in their addictions. I find myself being moved unwittingly by an undercurrent that says that people cannot change.

I also look at my own life and the changes that I hope for, pray for and work for but which, after years, I still don’t realize. The lack of change, of answers to prayer, of expected results all cultivates fatalism: no hope for the possibility of change. This reminds me of Albert Camus, a philosopher who deals with fatalism in many of his novels. In his book The Plague, Camus depicts the torturous disease that dominates people and over which they have no control. Camus’ character suggests that we resign ourselves to eminent death because we “… will [only] have suffered longer.”

The flicker of fatalism is fanned by society. Most of the public replies to the government with a defeatist sigh. They look at our environment and say, “That’s just Romania”. They look at the disenfranchised population among whom I serve and say, “Why waste your time and resources? They will never change. And if they do, they won’t amount to much. They were born into poverty, into a bad family, into dysfunction, and that’s where they’ll remain. That’s just the way they are.”

Of course, our kids, youth and families are raised and living in this very fatalistic society. Social psychologists, like Csikszentmihalyi and Seligman, affirm that helplessness is learned. Many of our kids lack any vision for the future other than what they see in their parents. There isn’t even a perspective which hopes for something different.

What is worse is that we witness fatalism creeping into the church. There I see mixed messages. Some overstress God’s determinism to such an extent that they make God responsible for sin and minimize any human freedom or responsibility. Others proclaim a prosperity gospel, which is a form of positive thinking that has no basis in reality. It is a positive fatalism, believing that certain determined effects follow certain human actions. On the other side of this unhealthy optimism is a millennial pessimism. Those that purport this view believe that things will get worse and worse and then the end will come with cataclysmic destruction. What is worse is that some think that they will be raptured to heaven and saved from the pain of the world, thereby relegating God’s passion for the redemption of creation and skirting any personal responsibility for the stewardship of creation. And even worse is that these bad theologies project fatalism onto the character of God.

These are the shackles of fatalism – a chain that binds the families I serve among, the society in which I live, and my own life. But I would concede to fatalism if I stopped here. There is an alternative, transformative vision for the history and destiny of humanity. There is a reality that breaks our despair.

This reality is God. God, who is Creator, has a plan for the renewal of all creation and refuses to let us go. It isn’t so much that I need to find resources of hope for God, for the world or for our kids; rather, I find that God himself hopes. God hopes for us. In the person of Jesus, God met fatalism and all its correlates at the cross, bringing fatalism to its end. In the resurrection and ascension, Jesus is the declaration, sign and execution of all God’s promises of healing, redemption and transformation. This is the Good News that snaps the chain of fatalism. And it is here that I am invited to live and hope. Our hopes are rooted in God’s.

This does not mean that we simply believe without acting. Ultimately, it means standing in the face of addiction, dependency, death, destruction. There we must either resign ourselves to these domineering finalities, or we must find grounds for hope. And that ground is God. We see that Jesus acknowledges death, destruction and decay. He experiences the weight of this finality, for example, in the death of Lazarus. Jesus wept (John 11:35). But God brings hope, the possibility of change, and even the possibility of the impossible. Jesus said with a loud voice, “’Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44).

This is not hope that evades and avoids fatalism; rather, it addresses it head on. It is the hope that, with Abraham and Sarah, looks at our bodies and our possibilities and still hopes in God. That is, against possibilities for hope, still they hoped (Romans 5:18).

Hope isn’t something we always have at the start – a source that motivates us in the midst of trials. Rather, it is a result. St. Paul tells us that sufferings produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4). This is hope that is formed in the fire of pain and waiting and unfulfillment.

And this is the place where we must cultivate in the lives of our kids and their families, in our church and in our society. Although hoping hurts and although the things we hope for are not seen and often contradicted, we hope against hope in the promises of our Father in the Son and through the Spirit. Apart from the discipline of hoping against hope, I would also suggest two other actions.
First, we can pray. We pray for the things we hope for. In this way, the very act of prayer cultivates hope. In prayer we affirm our own powerless to transform and our faith that God can. Here I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that is said at every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Second, in our communion with God our imaginations are infused with God’s dream for humanity and for creation. As ambassadors of Christ, we are called to give articulation to God’s dream. This is part of the prophetic office of the church. One way that this gift may be manifested is by affirming God’s dream and vision for those that are given over to fatalism.

Although this isn’t necessarily an example from within the church, the move The Cider House Rules depict such words of destiny spoken over children’s futures. It is a story of an orphanage – children that are abandoned and from the very early stages of life are in positions of disadvantage and despair. But every night as the children go to bed, the director of the orphanage tells them, “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” This is a prophetic vision that refuses the temptations of fatalism, opening up possibility and horizons to those who thought they had none.

We can affirm the destiny of the children and their families as being God’s creation and God’s beloved. We can affirm God’s plans of good and hope for every life. We can affirm life, wholeness, health and salvation in the face of fatalism. We can invite them to God’s dream and God’s hope for each one: Christ in you, the hope of glory!

Cemetery at the Margins of Galati

Our community practices remembering: remembering the forgotten, the marginalized and the lost. This past summer a group of students from George Fox University spent a few weeks serving with us. One afternoon we visited a cemetery on the periphery of our city where many of our kids have been buried. Sadly, many of their graves are no longer marked; some have been removed altogether.

Margi Felix-Lund, one of the leaders of the summer team, wrote this poem:

God remembers…
…the birth of each child
the smiles & the tears
the injustice & the sorrow
the hope & the joy

God remembers the death of each child.

Although men & women may try
to wipe these children from the face of this planet-
although they may succeed in eradicating
the physical commemoration of their death-
these children, these vulnerable ones
will remain forever present
in the memory of God.

Identifying Assumptions in Christian Approaches to the Poor

Today with the George Fox Discovery Team, we discussed the assumptions of different Christian approaches to the poor.

We looked at:

– Evangelism leads to social change

– Social action is pre-evangelism

– Transformational ministry

– Christian presence

– Microfinance

For each approach we asked the following questions:

What are causes of poverty for this approach?

What are the assumptions of this approach?

What would this approach use for scriptural support?

What are other examples of this approach?

What are positives? What are negatives?

How would you answer these questions?

Blessed or Cursed?

(I wrote this reflection in the spring of 1998, while living with boys that we were taking off the streets.)

Every time I return to the US, I have been asked by my brothers and sisters in Christ, “Seeing the poverty, did you realize how blessed we are here in the States?”  It is difficult though for me to find a response.  If we reverse the question, we ask, “Do you realize how cursed they are?”

Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”  I am living with four children who have spent most of their lives scrapping to survive on the streets.  They have known poverty.  They have known hunger.  They have known sorrow.  And they are blessed?  They have experienced disease, sexual abuse, and rejection.  And they are blessed?  Everyday I have to remind them of normal habits like to change their clothes, to speak without screaming, and to resolve their problems without beating each other up.  And these teenagers are blessed?

I would say they are cursed.  They have little education and little hope of reintegrating into society.  They are stigmatized by a city who knows the faces of her beggars.  They bear the emotional and physical scars of being beaten, being rejected, and being cursed.  In turn they beat, they reject, and they curse.  Sin and evil in people and society perpetuate the curse.

But as I seek to know Jesus intimately in the least, He begins to reveal their blessedness.  It is hidden and sometimes evasive, but let me tell you how they are blessed.  In a few words: they need a Savior.  These boys realize they can’t save themselves, as opposed to some of the wealthy who do just fine on their own.

Last night I had a one-on-one discussion with each boy.  They had each been misbehaving and asked me to discipline them.  We discussed their consequence and then prayed.  Each one asked God to forgive them and to change them.  I wish I could so easily admit my errors and recognize my need for correction. They are blessed because this is the posture of the heart that pleases God, and God joins them and fights on their side.  Blessed are the poor!

These former street children are teaching me how to seek God.  My understanding of “blessed” is not God’s understanding.  The Father sent the blessed Son to “redeem us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”  He was not only cursed but became the curse for us.  Jesus identified with the cursed of His day – those working in commercial sex, the outcast, and the diseased – and calls His church to do the same.  Jesus even countered the blessings with the verses under which I tremble:  “But woe to you who are rich, for are receiving your reward in full.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you shall be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”  In the past, I identified the blessed as having enough money to sustain a comfortable and healthy.  But my own life identifies much closer with what Jesus warns against than with what He blesses.

And that brings me back to the question which I struggle to answer, “Do you see how blessed we are?”  I think it is better asked, “Do you know how blessed they are?”

How do we understand “advocacy?”

What is the goal of advocacy? We have said it’s “raising awareness.” Others who advocate say “to create change” or “to acquire justice.” I think we are saying, “to create relationships.” This is not “networking” – as I don’t really like the mechanistic language – but it is connecting people. We are a channel that connects the non-poor to the poor; we help create space where the voice of the poor is heard. Here too advocacy implies justice, but we understand justice as a relational category.

Here is a brief sketch of what I think is a good trajectory for the kind of advocacy we’re talking about:

The OT word for redeemer is “Go-el”. We read this word today as “personal Savior”, the One who has purchased us by His blood and given Himself as a ransom for all. That’s fine and good, but it’s bad exegesis to impose contemporary usage on concepts formed in a different historical context.

Go-el meant “kinsmen redeemer”. It means that the next of kin, the closest family member, is obliged to buy back property or to buy out of bond-slavery. See Leviticus 25:25ff. The whole chapter is about the jubilee, the context of redemption, reconciliation and redistribution. See also Lev. 27:13ff.

Justice isn’t just positive for the poor; it is negative for the perpetrator. So, Go-el also means “avenger”. If your family member was murdered, the kinsmen redeemer would kill the murderer. If the murder was not intentional, the kinsmen redeemer would still seek compensation for the family. See Number 35:18ff and Deuteronomy 19:6ff. This is not, then, simply legal justice but relational justice that seeks restoration.

The word “Go-el” is close to the verb “ga-al” which means to liberate, to redeem, to ransom. The Go-el, then, is the one who pleads justice and does justice; he/she is the avenger, arbiter and redeemer. The goal is familial freedom and restoration.

If there is no kinsmen redeemer, then the Lord is the kinsmen redeemer. See Numbers 5:8.

In Job, he calls God his Go-el (19:25). “I know that my redeemer lives and that he shall stand on the latter day upon the earth.” Here there is a hint of resurrection and new creation.

Ruth is the best narrative on kinsmen redeemer because Goaz plays this role and redeems Ruth. Read chapter 4.

God is also called the kinsmen redeemer in Exodus. He hears the cries of His people and redeems them.

We can draw a lot from this and I think it fits well within the frame of awareness, worship and action.

–       Family – We cultivate community among the poor, creating familial relationships, and take on the obligation of kin. God also calls the poor family and names Himself as their kinsmen redeemer. If He is our Father, then His family is our family. So, we also are kinsmen redeemers. It’s about being family to one another.

–       Justice – We put justice in relational categories not legal ones. Raising awareness means creating relationships. We work towards modeling communities of liberty, restoration, reconciliation, and redistribution. Doing justice might be hard and even ugly, as the cross is hard and ugly, but it beautifies.

–       Voice – The vulnerable are not voiceless; their voices are marginalized and silenced. We hear the cries of the poor and respond.

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