Archive for April, 2012

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A Christian Response to Poverty

04/27/2012

Yesterday I wrote a post for Jessica Goudeau’s blog. (Check out her blog here. It is good reading.) She has been doing a series about Christianity and poverty. She asked a few people to write about their perspectives, and I was honored to join the conversation. I reposted my thoughts below. (I haven’t had time to write anything else lately, so I figured I would just plagiarize myself.)

 

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” 2 Cor 8:9

What is the Christian response to poverty?

The angles one could take in answering this question are numerous. There are multiple strategies and methods Christians can utilize when engaging poverty. There are various principles and guidelines of which they should be aware in order to dodge potential landmines. These are critical ideas to be talked about. But, I would like to frame the question in a slightly different way.

Is there a response to poverty that is uniquely Christian? And, if so, what would that look like?

I think we need to have a lot of conversations about what constitutes an appropriate attempt at alleviating poverty. There is much to learn from other people’s experiences. In fact, I know of a few socially-engaged Buddhists who could add to the conversation. I’ve heard many good ideas from atheists about combating systemic poverty. As Christians, we can and should listen to the wisdom of others and add our two-cents as well. We need to be talking about better practices and strategies.

However, at some point, we need to take a step back from talking purely about economic theories, government issues, and business practices. We need to be reflective about how the gospel shapes our attitudes, perspectives, and service in regard to those suffering in poverty. How does engaging poverty change in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Here is what I think in the simplest of terms: the Christian response to poverty is a willingness to die for the sake of the poor. To be clear, I am not talking exclusively about literally dying, though that very well might be an option at some point. I am speaking about entering into the lives of the poor without holding onto anything too tightly. Let me explain.

I am a firm believer that the good news of the gospel is that the world is being renewed because death has been defeated in Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus, and thus our participation in that resurrection, creates a unique people who live differently in this world. No longer slaves to the fear of death, we hold everything loosely. All the things we grasp onto in order to seemingly gain power, security, and status—that is, those things that give us control over our own destinies—begin to lose their appeal. We now can cross borders for the sake of unity because we realize our national identities do not have the power to protect us from death. We can share our clothes, and not just the old ones, because we know that “image is everything” is a hopeless and tiring pursuit. We can move into poorer neighborhoods because we are no longer trying to keep up with the Joneses. Living under the banner of “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” is to move toward alleviating poverty.

Now, I am aware that poverty stems from a complexity of issues, such as systemic economic injustices, corrupt business practices, and a lack of educational opportunities, to name a few. However, I am becoming a bigger believer in the idea that the most significant cause for poverty is our (or at least my) unwillingness to live in reciprocal, self-sacrificing community with the “other.” I create poverty when I grasp on tightly to what is mine. I create it by holding onto the differences between “us” and “them.” I create the poor because I do not see them as my brother or sister. What the world needs is a people who hold onto things loosely in order to live in reciprocal and sustainable community.

Therefore, the Christian response to poverty is for God’s people to live as if the resurrection is true. This is the unique “strategy” we have. The church, at its core, exists for the sake of the other. It is the only entity that fulfills its call by giving itself away.

Let me juxtapose this with government intervention. I am all for nation-states giving relief to other countries. I would rather governments spend money on helping the poor than producing more weapons. But, I don’t put much hope in nations when it comes to eradicating poverty. Because, when push comes to shove, a nation will only give if its own power, security, and status are not at stake. However, once those things are threatened, self-preservation and the fear of death will ultimately maintain the status quo of inequality. Reciprocal community is impossible when a threat of violence stands behind acts of charity.

On the other hand, when the fear of death is no longer the power at work in us, the church can fully love and serve the poor, even potentially to the point of losing itself. If we can get to this point, then we can begin to devote ourselves to long-term community and economic development, not just periodic acts of charity. We can then downsize our homes and live among those whom the world often forgets. We can give, without remorse, our second shirt to the one with none because we realize grasping onto riches is actually taking away our freedom. We can live in reciprocal community with the poor because we live now in light of the fact that a day is coming when there will no longer be rich and poor. We can live without fear of death because, in Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting.

I realize that this might all sound idealistic. But, then again, eradicating poverty is quite idealistic. So, keep doing the little things to serve those in need and think hard about how we can most effectively bring about economic justice. And, most importantly, love so much that even death can’t stand in the way.

By the way, I am in no way speaking from experience in this post. I am a long, long way from living like this. But, I like imagining a life such as this. And, you never know—maybe, after a time, my imagination will become reality. Here’s hoping. 

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Heroes of the Faith-Ryan Woods

04/21/2012

I have never met Ryan Woods, but he is one of my heroes. Ryan is the brother-in-law of Ben Ries, one of my closest friends. Ben told me a few years ago that Ryan and I would get along well if we ever met. Thus, I would periodically check his blog and get updates from Ben on what he is up to. Let me say this: he is definitely someone we can follow as he follows Christ.

Ryan, along with his wife and two kids, are starting a missional community in downtown Vancouver, WA. They call this movement Grassroots Conspiracy. They are being intentional about inviting their neighbors, people of every variety, into living out the radical and alternative way of Jesus. When I read about their ministry, I am reminded of Shane Claiborne’s idea in The Irresistible Revolution of “getting smaller and smaller until we take over the world.” Ryan and his family are not trying to be flashy or coercive in how they do ministry. They are not trying to attract people to church by being the biggest or coolest. They are simply trying to do the hardest work of all—loving the person next to them. He describes their work as one “that is marked by individuals who are experimenting in dying to self and living for others.” I like that.

I am so impressed with how they approach ministry. It is such an encouragement to me to know that people like Ryan are living missionally (in the truest sense of that word) and doing church planting in that vein. I would love to partner with a ministry like this.

While Ryan’s ministry is a huge inspiration to me, it is not the whole story about why is my hero. Last year Ryan was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (though the tumor is technically around his spine). I still remember when I heard this news and the deep sympathy I felt for him, his family, Ben and Jen and others close to him. To the say the least, this past year has been quite a journey. I have watched from afar, and my respect and appreciation for Ryan has grown immensely. I cannot begin to describe to you the honesty, humility, vulnerability, courage and beauty with which he endures this struggle. While my heart breaks for him, I can also say that I have experienced the divine through his words of grace on his blog. I am blown away by the way he is walking through this with his wife and kids. (I strongly recommend reading this post.) I am encouraged by his steadfastness to calling people to the way of Jesus and how he continues to serve those in his neighborhood. And I am blessed to witness, in some small way, how he is walking with God with all the rawness and hopefulness that is necessary for a time like this. Without a doubt, I will follow Ryan as he follows Christ.

*As I was writing this over the past few days, Ryan received some very disappointing news. You can read about the latest update here. Please be praying for Ryan and his family.

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Heroes of the Faith–Bryan and Libby

04/11/2012

I recently wrote a post about the need to expand our criteria when lifting up ministers and pastors as heroes of the faith. The norm these days is to admire people who are articulate. We want to follow people who speak well. We respect those who write well. Words are important, but I hope we can make a shift and begin to emulate people who radically live out the way of Jesus—at times with their words but mostly through their daily surrender to Christ.

So, in that vein, I thought I might write a few posts featuring people who are my heroes in the faith. They would most likely balk at being referenced in this way, but their lives inspire me to follow Jesus. These people are not influencing people by speaking in front of huge crowds (though they do speak and write words of grace). They are doing their best to follow Jesus, wherever he might lead, and inviting others to join. I would like to follow them as they follow Christ.

The first “heroes of the faith” I want to mention are Bryan and Libby Harrison. I was in graduate school with Bryan and met Libby through her uncle Larry. I have always been impressed with these two. Libby grew up in Kenya on the mission field, so she is a kindred spirit with Ann. She exudes grace and warmth. Bryan is wise and has a heart of compassion like few I know. They make a great couple. Since the moment I met Bryan, I knew where his heart was. He has had a passion for serving a specific people in North Africa for years. He knew his life was going to be wrapped up with the lives of these people long before he moved there. I have always been impressed with the love he has for the people there.

Bryan and Libby moved to the mission field about three years ago, close to the time we moved to Phayao. Ann and I would always joke, during those times we began to feel sorry for ourselves during the first year, that we need to read their blog and be reminded of what real missionaries are like. They have experienced and endured things that would have made me tap out after a week. I don’t have the time to tell you all the stories of their experiences living in their new home, but the grace and humility with which they settled into their community is incredible.

They are now in a time of transition due to the unrest in their area. They were forced from their home in tragic fashion and are now back in the States. (I encourage you to read on their blog here about what happened.) Last I heard they are still waiting to find out if it is possible to head back “home.” I can only imagine how difficult this time is for them.

I am not doing justice to their story and the way in which they serve the people of North Africa. But, I write all this to say this particular point. What fascinates me about Bryan and Libby is the genuine humility in which they radically go about following the way of Jesus. We saw them briefly while we were on furlough, and I approached them feeling like they were rock stars. However, they carry themselves in a way that portrays a feeling of “we are just following Jesus like everyone else.” I wanted to hear all the stories of their adventures, but they just view those stories as life. I wanted to ask them question after question, but all they wanted was to hear from us. They are that kind of people.

Thus, I hesitate posting this entry because they spend their lives pointing away from themselves and pointing toward others and Christ. They would never ask for recognition. They are just following Christ. But that is exactly why they should be lifted up. Because we can follow them as they follow Christ.

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Why Life Here is Good–Part 2

04/05/2012

“Daddy, I want to go pick up trash with you. Can I?”

At least I’m fairly certain that is what Brynn said. After all, it was early on a Saturday morning, and I was still trying to figure out if my dream about forgetting to go to a class for the entire semester was true or not. Yep, sure enough, that is exactly what she was asking me. It took me a second to be sure that I was not having another dream. I mean, what 5 year-old begins her Saturday morning by waking up her dad because she is eager to spend the morning rummaging through other people’s garbage? Someone turn on Saturday morning cartoons, please.

That was not the first time Brynn has talked about picking up trash. She is always asking about what we are doing during “trash duty” and why people don’t care for creation when they litter. She notices trash on the side of the road more than I do. She has been intrigued by this practice for quite some time, so I was eager to take her along. She has since picked up trash with us three times. I love looking over and seeing her fill up garbage bags, huge gloves and all, because she wants to take care of God’s creation.

Without a doubt, one of the greatest blessings of living here is the unique opportunity our kids have to join in our ministry efforts. While I really enjoy kicking the soccer ball around with the girls or teaching them to swim, my heart is full when my kids are with me as we serve our neighbors. I remember a while back, when our team went out to a village to help fix up a house for a girl in a tough spot, how excited Brynn was to help. She was the first one with a broom in her hand. She was on a mission to get that house spotless.

The exciting part about my kids joining me in serving others is that I get to tell them the good news of Jesus Christ. While reading Bible stories and saying prayers are special times for us, there is something extraordinary about your children serving alongside you and asking, “Daddy, why are we picking old diapers on the side of the road?”

“Because this is what loving God and loving your neighbor looks like.”

I love my job.

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Taking On a Sacred Cow

04/02/2012

I wrote most of this awhile back but wasn’t sure if I would post it. But, as March Madness comes to an end, and I have yet to watch a single game, I thought I’d put it out there.

During our furlough, one of my friends asked what stood out to me about the surrounding culture, in particular the church culture, now that I was somewhat of an outsider. He was especially interested in the areas of life that seem to often go unnoticed but need to be rethought. This was my response.

What caught my attention during our time in the States was an ever-present obsession permeating the culture. It never struck me as I lived in Texas. And I didn’t really notice its place of reverence after we moved here. But, upon stepping back into the North American culture, its powerful presence smacked me in the face everywhere I went. I’d call it an idol. It is not the biggest or most threatening idol in our lives, but it is the most unnoticed, yet pervasive idol of which I can think. And I think it is time to call it out.

The idol is Sports.

As I write this, there is part of me that cringes and can’t believe I would make such a claim. I love sports. I’ve always loved sports. How dare I? But, it is that very sentiment that confirms my feeling about our idolatry. Sports is our sacred cow. (And I am not writing about this just because UConn lost in the first round. I’m not that upset. Really. Seriously. Believe me.)

Let me explain myself. How might we describe something that has become an idol in our lives? We might ask the following questions. How much of my time is devoted to it? How much money do I spend on it? How invested emotionally am I in it? How much do I stress its importance to my kids and train them in this area? How easily do I justify or whitewash the negative features of it? In regard to Sports, my take is that we would answer “very,” “a lot,” or “extremely” to each of these.

In order to be more concrete, here are some specific ways in which I see Sports as an idol in our lives.

First, next time “our team” loses a big game, check out how distraught people are on facebook and twitter. It seems odd that we can be so affected emotionally by something that happens to people we don’t know and an organization we have no real connection to other than we might live near it.

Second, compare the amount of time we watch and/or play sports with the amount of time we read, spend time with family, serve the needy, pray, etc.

Third, think about how easily we overlook the immoral behavior and injustices connected to sports. The most recent strike in the NBA is a good example. Both sides of the conflict are essentially greedy. And people voiced their frustrations about the strike as it cut into the season. But, as soon as the season began, all of that was pushed under the rug. We stay upset at Wall Street and the government for similar behavior, but we happily throw our money and support behind this industry as soon as they give us a little of what we want.

Fourth, in the lives our kids, we treat Sports as the ultimate good. We stress ourselves out trying to get our kids to play every sport, and play it the best. We go to practices and games nonstop. We go in debt buying the newest equipment for our kids. Is it any wonder why Sports is an idol? We train our kids this way.

Fifth, parents who get in fights at their kids games. Enough said.

Sixth, back in the day, the only time you could justify cancelling Sunday night worship was Super Bowl Sunday. (I know most of you know what I am a talking about.) Not that canceling was a bad thing, but it does seem odd to cancel in support of one of the most consumerist events around. (If we were going to cancel, I would personally liked to have missed worship for the final round of the Masters as well. I missed Freddy’s green jacket because I was at church. I still haven’t forgiven myself.)

Finally, the amount of money spent on sports (or the other word for it—games) is astronomical. On a personal level, we spend an unhealthy amount of money on our kids’ sports, going to games, buying memorabilia, and gambling. And as a people, if we are honest, we spend a shamefully exorbitant amount of money on sports. We build structures like the Cowboy Stadium and we pay athletes millions of dollars, all the while we do not have enough money to fund education or treat preventable diseases throughout the world. And I say “we” because the fans are the patrons.

With all that said, I am not saying playing and watching sports are bad things. There is a lot of good that can come from sports. But, like money, it can be a blessing to others if viewed correctly or it can become an idol if we are unreflective. This is why I said it is the unexamined idol. The idols of money and nationalism are far more dangerous. But, I’ve heard sermons and read books about those issues. I’ve never heard anyone prophetically speak about the dangers of Sports. Maybe it is time.

(This post is as much for myself as anyone else. I am that guy who used to watch the same episode of Sportscenter 3 times each night and scream at any ref who made a call different than the way I saw it. I used to obsess about being the best (though I failed miserably). But, that is exactly why I want to bring attention to this. I don’t want my kids to think sports have anything to do with their value nor God’s purpose for them in the world. I don’t want that for anyone else’s kids. I just want them to enjoy sports like any other hobby.)