A white issue

Two years ago I was asked to join the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) advisory board. SCUPE is a ministry committed to educating leaders to revitalize congregations and community organizations to transform cities towards becoming just, inclusive and peaceful communities in accordance with God’s vision for the world. This particular board gathers twice a year to hear reports and dream about future possibilities. During the Advanced Latino/a Theological Education (ALTE) Program report a person made the thought-provoking comment that fundamentalism is a white person issue. Normally I would have just ignored the statement but Martin Marty, a well know writer on the subject of fundamentalism, was in the room and he didn’t raise any objections. For those of you who have heard the term but are not really sure what fundamentalism is, here is a quick refresher. It stresses the infallibility of Scripture in matters of faith and morals and as a historical record. These are the people who get stressed out about the theory of evolution.

I am not sure that I grew up as a strict fundamentalist, but it certainly shaped my view of God, the Bible, and the kind of choices I needed to make in life. It is never fun to discover that deeply held commitments are more a matter of culture than a universal Christian understanding. Facing this reality is uncomfortable and has the potential to be disruptive. We all want to believe that our Christian understandings are culturally neutral. Quite simply this is not the case, and never has been the case.

Our understandings of God are always culturally influenced. One of the only ways I know of moving beyond my particular culture is to put myself in places where other cultures and understandings have a voice. This isn’t easy. For many of us difference has and continues to equal sin. Allowing for difference can very quickly become uncomfortable. How do people who believe in a literal six day creation worship together with those who understand evolution to be true? Evolution versus creation is child’s play when put alongside questions of sexual orientation. Difference is not easy.

Can you imagine a church where difference is celebrated? Being with a group of believers who hold wildly different understandings of who God is and how God works? Potentially uncomfortable, certainly messy but also freeing.

A Christian One-Liner

The other day I was involved in one of those controversial Christian conversations.  As our discussion was wrapping up this person said to me, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin."  Then we hugged and went our separate ways.  This one-liner was not new to me.  As a matter of fact I have heard and used the exact same phase for years. I have probably even uttered it from the pulpit. This time the conversation was a tough one and the phrase did not sound so spiritual.  You see it was the first time I had ever been the target of the line.  To him I was the sinner that needed loving and my prayerfully considered convictions were the sin that needed hating.  Quite frankly it did not feel good to be on the receiving end.  I had been judged to be a sinner.  His love for me, in spite of my sin, did not make me feel any better, respected, or accepted.  I would not be whole until I quit sinning.

I have done a lot of thinking about loving the sinner and hating the sin.  It is one of those statements that sounds good; so good that many of us might even wonder why Jesus didn’t have the wisdom to use it himself.  I could just imagine Jesus as he looked a Peter after the third denial, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The problem with loving the sinner and hating the sin is that it shifts power.  It is an attempt at becoming God.  When I say love the sinner, hate the sin in essence I am saying that I have God knowledge.  I have the ability to name who sinners are and what sin is.  Granted there are times when this seems obvious to all.  Pedophiles and murders are two groups of people that come to mind.  However, most of us live in a world that is much less stark.  As much as many of us would like Scripture to be crystal clear on issues of war, patriotism, sexual orientation, speaking in tongues, hell, heaven, and many others, it isn’t clear.

When believers differ from each other it is tempting to name that difference as sin.  The temptation is especially strong when we believe that we have Scripture on our side.

I remember going to church and being told that drums were a sign of the Devil and that women were not gifted in leadership.  These opinions were held fervently, leaders believed they had God and Scripture backing up their beliefs.  I am glad that the church had the courage to grow beyond those convictions.

I do not know where we are going to end up with the big discussions of today, but I do know that if we keep naming those who are different than us sinners we won’t have the opportunity to see where the spirit of God is leading us.

Service versus the Servant

In John 13 there is an interesting story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.   I can only imagine the odd feeling in the room as Jesus, the top dog, pushes back from that table and begins to wash everyone’s feet.  And then after he is finished Jesus makes an interesting statement, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.   I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” For almost 20 years I have given witness to thousands of youth and young adults who have come to the city to “do” service.  They come to metaphorically wash the feet of those who don’t have as much.

Lately I have begun to wonder, does this passage call followers of Jesus to service or is there something more going on?  Doing is certainly important.  Giving a cup of water, visiting the prisoner, or feeding the hungry are things that Christians are called to do.

It seems to me that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was more than a “yearly” act of service.   His actions that evening were simply an extension of who he was – a servant.   In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself and taking on the very nature of a servant.

The dirty little secret about “doing” service is that the temptation to retreat back into privilege is intoxicating and overwhelming.  There is an entire Christian industry that has grown up around servicing this cycle.  It goes something like this: go on the annual mission trip, have your heart broken by the need, have your faith stretched, commit to making changes, go back home, begin the process of allowing the service experience to slowly fade into a distant memory, reengage your privilege – from how money is spent to only worrying about me, myself and I- then get ready for the next service trip and repeat.  The danger of this cycle is that it leads to a Christian faith without substance.

When Jesus called his disciples to wash each other’s feet, it was much more than a call to do.  It was also a call be.  Who we are is much more than what we do for a week.  The call of Jesus is to become a servant to all.  In some circles this is referred to as the upside-down kingdom, a kingdom where power comes from being a servant.  While it is possible to do service and retain privilege it is not so easy to be a person of privilege and a servant at the same time.  Even Jesus had to empty himself.

A Case for Short-Term Missions

According to David Livermore  this year 4.5 million Americans will participate in a short-term mission experience at a cost of $2.5 billion.  DOOR, the organization I work for, will host .06% or 2,500 of these folks.  Over the last two decades short-term mission trips have grown from a novel idea to big business.  This growth has not come without criticism. Critics of short-term mission range from those who worry about the wasted resources to those who fret about the cultural insensitivity of short-term participants.  Couldn’t the money be better spent on long term sustainable projects?  What does it mean to be respectful of local cultures?

The critics do have a powerful case against short-term mission/service trips.  It costs a tremendous amount of money to send and host folks for a short period of time.  Hosting short-termers means that someone has to redirect their energy from local ministry to working with visitors.  Short-term participants often show up with all their prejudices and stereo-types intact – this can be destructive to host communities.

Why host short-term trips?  When done with fore-thought and concern for local communities these experiences can become opportunities for conversion.  Not conversion in the “I have the answer for your deepest need so listen to me,” but rather conversion in the Acts 10 sense.

In Acts 10 Peter is asked to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion.  In an unexpected turn of events it seems that the Christian faith has expanded beyond the Jewish community.  Through a dream, mostly about eating unclean meat, Peter is convinced to visit Cornelius.  In the process of meeting each other, both Cornelius and Peter end up experiencing God in a new way - conversion.

When done well, short-term mission trips provide a space for conversation and mutual conversion.  When both the visitors and hosts end up in a new space, God moments happen.