Friday, August 26, 2016

Compassion in The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

The Good Samaritan is a parable about the other. It is one of the most common stories in scripture. Most non-Christians know the gist of the story. In some ways, the story is the essence of the Christian message. We, who follow Christ, are to have compassion on the other. The challenge can be identifying the other and understanding what compassion looks like in a world that bites back. Stopping to help someone can just as easily expose our vulnerability to being robbed and becoming the victim. With such suspicion, we greet the other and go through our world afraid, even though God says, “Fear not” numerous times, and Jesus’s final words in the Gospel of Matthew are, “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Too often, we hear this parable as a banal appeal to celebrate or welcome strangers. When we sanitize the story, we miss the shock or scandalous overtones present in Jesus’ words. What does ‘Samaritan’ mean to us today? Not much, outside of this parable. For Jesus’ listeners, saying ‘Samaritan’ would jolt their attention. People might have been listening in on this exchange between Jesus and a lawyer. When they hear Samaritan, they jump. What did he just say? Before that, though, there is conflict from the start. The lawyer who questions Jesus uses the Greek word ekpeirazo, which means test thoroughly or tempt. It is only used four times, and each one has rather severe connotations. The lawyer’s question is not academic. He is setting up this un-credentialed Galilean.
Jesus never disappoints. The lawyer accepts Jesus’ response from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” His answer works until the lawyer presents a follow-up question (lawyers are clever), Yeah. Okay, Jesus, but ‘who is my neighbor?’
Does anyone admit to being pious? Do we pin our faith on lists of dos and don’ts? Not consciously. We have seen how Jesus responds to Pharisees and others who just want a rule. As a matter of fact, we have one such exchange going on right now. The lawyer wants a definition. Cynthia Jarvis writes about people who make the gospel into law. She writes, “To caricature us all, the many for whom the law is the gospel seek refuge in rules, glorify boundaries, enumerate norms, and codify discipleship.”[1]
Have you ever seen someone codify discipleship? Spotting such Pharisaic activity can be tricky because it looks holy. To an untrained eye, people who make the gospel into a law appear to be a good Christians. When the gospel becomes our law, it moves from the gut or heart to the head and lacks conviction. Juan Luis Segundo writes,

Contrary to all the previsions of those who possessed divine revelation, God’s judgment is based not on the law promulgated, studied, and elaborated over centuries, but on the help offered ‘the least’… Perceived human needs thus become the key to interpreting what revelation is trying to say to human beings.[2]

All of the rules are nice. They give us guidelines for faith, but when we replace God with a list of rules, we miss the point. We are to be animated by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us to go beyond the boundaries, to reach, to exercise radical hospitality.
We are praying for and honoring police officers today. There are countless stories of police officers going beyond the boundaries and working tirelessly to build community. Last week was another bloody week. Two horrible deaths monopolized the news cycle. We may not know the details behind the deaths of Philando Castile (Minnesota) or Alton Sterling (Louisiana). We do know that a group of people gathered on Thursday night to peacefully protest. Police officers were present for the protesters’ safety. There were stories of officers taking selfies with protesters; activities like taking selfies together and talking build community.
Suddenly, the officers were like the traveler in Jesus’ story. They were under attack. The traveler fell into the hands of robbers. The officers fell into the hands of a lunatic with a gun. No one deserves that.
Jesus jolts his listeners with this story. He does not provide an excuse for the priest and Levite for passing by the injured traveler, but when he utters Samaritan, why would Jesus’ listeners jump? Samaritans are not just the other; they are enemies. In Ernesto Cardenal’s Gospel of Solentiname, a woman named Olivia comments: “[Jesus] gave [the lawyer] as an example of [a neighbor] a person of another race and another religion so we can know that everybody is a neighbor. He gave as an example one who wasn’t a neighbor but just the opposite, an enemy.”[3] The historical roots of this conflict between Jews and Samaritans goes back centuries to 2 Kings 17:24-31, when the King of Assyria brought people into Samaria to settle and displace the Israelites. The bad blood goes way back, but what does it mean to us?
Amy-Jill Levine answers this question for us. She writes:

We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us?

If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then we can understand Jesus’ listeners’ response to ‘Samaritan’. Perhaps we should replace ‘Samaritan’ with member of Isis or Al-Qaeda.
I remember, as a young person, during the Cold War talking with an adult about our enemy, The Soviets. Since it was a ‘Cold War’, most of the fighting was ideological. In my naiveté, I said, “Couldn’t we talk to them? Couldn’t Reagan and Gorbachev sit down and discuss their differences?”
“No,” he replied, “The Soviets are monsters.”
At that time, they were our culture’s Samaritans. Now, we have new Samaritans. Each one of you has a Samaritan. What does Jesus say to the lawyer? The Soviets are not monsters. They are human beings, and just like you, they are made in the image of God.
The good news of Jesus Christ is tough sometimes. But, it is a message of love.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
Who is my neighbor? Open your eyes. Look around. See as God sees. Sisters and brothers, that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 240.
[2] Juan Luis Segundo, The Historical Jesus of the Synoptics, trans. John Drury, vol. II, Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985), 129.
[3] Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, Volume 3, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 97.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Politics Distract Us from Jesus

In this political season, there is endless news coverage of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Media covers every embarrassing nuance of their campaigns, every step forward, backward, and sideways and delivers it to a salivating public. Very bright people have written insightful pieces about both candidates. Yet, around the world, friends ask, “What is happening in America?” Or, “Who will you vote for?”

To the latter question, I decline every attempt to extract my political tendency. The Christian calling is to minister to all people, not just Democrats or Republicans, but every human being. Bonhoeffer declined an invitation to wait out World War II in New York, famously writing to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

In a much reduced sense compared to 1930s Germany, we the people of the U.S.A. face a national trial. The trial is not whether to choose Trump, Clinton, or another candidate. The trial, for Christians, is to keep focused on God when everything in our culture calls us to focus our attention on politics. Specifically, twenty-first-century American culture tries to convince people that they should be afraid, that they the can solve their own problems, or some other humanist response to life’s problems. Many people weigh the pros and cons of various policies. If I vote for this person, they think to themselves, he (or she) will do such-and-such.

Does humanity have the answer? Often, we do not even know the right question to ask. Therefore, politicians certainly do not have the answers for human problems. The year 2016 has devolved into a political quagmire. Is the answer to turn the nation to Jesus? Not necessarily. Conversion by force is rarely transformational, even when God uses something evil for good (Genesis 50:20).

Thankfully, and due to diligence from Baptist figures like Roger Williams, the U.S. separates church and state. This belief is a basic tenet of Baptist theology. Whether a person votes or Clinton or Trump matters less than whether the person is truly seeking God. Like watching trashy television shows, the current political season is difficult to tune out. Admittedly, this season is entertaining. Comedians, like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, add to the entertainment by highlighting the zanier aspects of the democratic process. However, voting is serious business.

By participating in the democratic process, Christians can continue to be part of the separation of church and state, and the American Dream continues. Each person exercises another Baptist tenet—the priesthood of all believers. They do not wait to see who their priest or minister tells them to support. Instead, each person makes a conscious choice, and in the privacy of the voting booth, votes for the person he or she chooses.

When candidates appropriate faith (i.e. Vote for me, if you’re a real Christian), they misrepresent what it means to be a Christians. Being a Christian is about following Jesus. During this election season, well-meaning Christians tout candidates using logical fallacies, like Voting for that person leads to a slippery slope. Much of the rhetoric candidates espouse is unachievable, at best. Instead of binging on news and hanging on every ridiculous statement politicians make, Christians will be more edified by focusing on Christ.

Avoiding distractions in the Christian journey is one of the greatest challenges. C.S. Lewis noted the ease of tripping up the faith walk in The Screwtape Letters. He writes, “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.” Politics would be one of Screwtape’s contemporary tools. By getting people arguing about, not discussing or dialoguing, but arguing, people undo God’s good work.

Being engaged with politics and being distracted from Christ by them are two different notions. People can follow the news, read issues, and make an informed decision, while remaining engaged in the Christian journey. When watching one more gaff on YouTube takes the place of daily devotions and prayers, we have become unnecessarily distracted from Christ. “Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2a).

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Coming Down From a Missional High

Just as Peter, James, and John had to come down from the mountain, short term mission trips end. After the Transfiguration, Peter wanted to stay on the mountain. Many people on short term mission trips want to stay. Others are ready to get back to their lives. Familiar food, the comforts of home, friends, etc., all beckon the short term missionary. Going home can make the spiritual high of the mission trip start to fade. So, how can we transition from the Missional high to normal life?

The process begins before departure. Reading, praying, getting to know the teammates, and learning about the project are important. These essential tasks set the foundation for a successful short term mission trip. They include participation by the church. Sometimes, participation takes the form of help in planning, suggestions for projects, fundraising, a special commissioning service, and prayers during the trip. Participation continues after the trip when the congregation invites participants to share a testimony of God's work on the mission field. Knowing this testimony awaits provides an incentive for participants to process the events and experiences of the mission trip. 

One of the reasons participants in short term mission projects consistently have good experiences is the spiritual and mental preparation. They have a good experience because they expect to have a good experience. Setbacks, delays, illness, and other adversities are part of the experience. Participants expect them. When they arrive, the participants can feel like they are, to put it crassly, suffering for Jesus. When adversities do not read their ugly heads, participants thank God for providing such a rich experience. 

Putting so much explanation into expectations is not a mind game or, to borrow from Bultmann, demythologization of the spirituality. However, it helps explain how a well-planned short term mission project can go so well. Now, the difficult part is putting that level of effort into making everyday go so well. What if, instead of looking at a week as a call to show God's love, Christians looked at each day as a similar opportunity? 

In his novel Nausea, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes adventures in the normal activities of life. He writes, "This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it." Simply recounting the events, telling the story, sharing the experience of the mission, means that it becomes an adventure--even if everything went well. Likewise, if the daily events of life become a story worth telling, the adventure continues. 

What if, instead of getting hyped up for a short term mission project, the project became part of the tapestry of every adventurous day? What if each day became a transformative experience? Personally, I love life, and I love for my life to be an adventure. And, the adventures surround us all the time. The challenge is, like short term mission trips, making each day an opportunity to share God's love. 

What does making each day a missional opportunity look like? Regular devotions, growing through discipleship and reading, seeking spiritual mentors, as well as accepting opportunities to be a spiritual mentor. It means using ones gifts, practicing self-care to avoid burnout, and being more patient, kind, and loving. 

The greatest challenge of coming down from a missional high is not coming down at all. It is all about coming back from a mission trip a changed person and letting other people see the change in you. Do not look for them to notice. Look for God to notice. When impressing God is the leading motivator, Christians more fully live into our calling. Too often, people seek accolades for their spiritual endeavors. For example, people like to hear compliments after singing in church or doing something particularly self-sacrificing. Have you ever noticed how many plaques exist in churches? 

Can one stay on the spiritual mountaintop forever? Certainly not. Coming off the mount of Transfiguration, Peter would go on to deny Christ, even though he swore that he would not. Likewise, we are not perfect after a mission trip, but the adrenaline shot to our faith journey can help give us strength along the path. Strength drawn from experience lasts longer than an intellectual faith or one formed through inertia. 

Is every short term mission strip a life-changing experience? Not necessarily. There are many factors involved in one's faith journey, and not two paths are alike. The walk with Christ differs from one day to the next, just as different people struggle with different aspects of remaining committed to Christ. For example, some people cannot stop gossiping and others have trouble with commitment. Some devolve to pietism, whereas others become so worldly that their faith journey no longer resembles anything Christian. Each person struggles with different parts of living in the world. The struggles are real and draw humanity away from Christ. Thus, a mission trip is not a perfect antidote to human sinfulness. 

The challenge is to take experience and grow from it. Whether the experience is the adventure of a short term mission trip, an engaging and thought-provoking Christian book, or, even, an inspiring sermon--take each experience and let it inform the faith journey.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

In Haiti Again

We arrived on Monday and visited the children in the orphanage. Tuesday, we followed our normal mission trip routine: breakfast, individual devotions, walk 300 meters to the orphanage, play with and visit the children, lead them in music/story time/recreation, walk back to the guest house for lunch, go back to the orphanage to practice English with the children, walk back and have dinner, have a group devotion and discussion, and then relax. This routine has marked each trip for the last three years. 

Each trip has evolved based on experience and our readings. This year, in preparation for the trip, we read Toxic Charity by Robert Lipton. We work to do ministry with, instead of ministry to, but we still fall short. We still bring our North American prejudices with us. Even the fundamental question, "Should we go?" remains. 

After multiple trips, getting to know the children, and experiencing the spiritual growth of traveling on a mission trip, suspending the ongoing trips and relationships would be tantamount to heresy for the ardent participants. However, unpacking this question about whether or not to go seems legitimate. Each trip costs over $1,000 per person. For a dozen people, churches and individuals raise over $12,000. Thus, the question, "How much good could that money do?" makes sense. 

Since last coming to Haiti, the orphanage has purchased a 15-passenger minibus for $24,000. The entire cost of the minibus was possible with a gift from one church. The cost of the minibus is equivalent to two groups visiting and singing songs with the children. The harsh reality is many people will donate to support people they know who go on a short term mission trip, but they would not give money to buy a desperately needed minibus for people who they do not know and who live far away. 

In Jonathan Katz's book The Big Truck That Went By, he presents an insightful look at post-earthquake Haiti. The subtitle is How the world came to save Haiti and left behind a disaster. There is a reason Haiti is poor. John Collier presents a clear summary of some of these reasons in The Bottom Billion. Katz's book illustrates how Collier's economic theory plays out after a horrific natural disaster. 

Sending $12,000 instead of going to Haiti might do some real good. However, it misses the human contact. Those who do not go miss experiencing personal transformation. Likewise, the recipients of short term mission projects do not see people coming to their land and showing affection, if no one comes. Can there not be a balance between sending money and going? 

The answer to this question might be in modern trends in technology. Video conferencing is ubiquitous. Haiti, especially Port-au-Prince, as 4G and LTE data coverage, even though few people have consistent electricity throughout the day. Crowd funding websites allow grassroots participation in new technologies and projects. Perhaps, the children in the orphanage could develop relationships with people in North American churches, without the North Americans spending thousands of dollars to come to Haiti. Small groups could still come, but with more money, the orphanage could employ more workers to better prepare the children for good jobs in Haiti. 

The net effect of using technology to build relationships could free more resources for the orphans and a richer mutual experience for everyone. Church groups could plan regular gatherings with international counterparts. Over time both groups could get to know one another better; over time, they could grow more comfortable with the technology on both sides of the geospatial divide. Elderly women in North American churches who meet to pray for missionaries could video conference with the children in, for example, a Haitian orphanage. 

What is the downside? First, paternalism remains difficult to avoid. The North Americans often ask questions that betray a belief in the superiority of their way of approaching questions and issues. Over time, and by getting to know one another, they could avoid some of these cultural snafus. Some people on the other side of the video might find it inconvenient to chat when the North Americans want to chat. The meetings must be mutual in time and length.

Second, technology replacing short term missions misses human contact. There is something metaphysical about a hug. Seeing people in real life is different than seeing them on a screen. Technology would reduce the physical exchange, but more contact over a longer period of time could reduce paternalism and deepen the connection. Thus, when a group travels (either north or south), both groups would know one another better when they meet. 

Third, new technologies are not free. Even existing technologies carry a cost. Internet access has a monthly or ongoing cost. When someone is paying an ongoing cost, there is an implicit assumption that the one paying will have a voice in how the recipient uses the technology. Currently, the advantage to a tech-based short term mission project is the technology does exist and the cost is not exorbitant.

Fourth, the time involved might be a challenge for people on both sides of the geospatial divide. Both groups would need to be committed in order for the program to work. This might be the greatest challenge. Why allow North Americans open access to video-chat at regular intervals? Why not send people from North America to places like Haiti? In many churches, the answer would be: we have always done it this way; we have always taken up a collection, sent a group off, and heard their testimony when they returned. 

Being open to God means being open to new ways to follow God, especially as we enter firmly into a new millennium. 

Above: Some of the teens relaxing. Notice the technology they have. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

God's Activity

In a recent article, I wrote about God's activity in the world. Asserting that God is active in the world implies some level of God's intervention in the world. Does God act or intervene in the world? If so, how does God choose when and where to intervene? What are God's criterion for involvement?

Throughout scripture, God intervenes or plays a part in human activity. In Genesis, the Lord chooses Abram, renames him Abraham, and makes a covenant to create a nation from his offspring. The divine promises rarely pause throughout the rest of scripture. God frees the Hebrew people from captivity, working through Moses, starting in Exodus. God spares Elijah when he is starving in 1 Kings 19. Again and again, God intervenes in human affairs. 

Does God still intervene today? If so, again, the legitimate question is when and where. How does God choose? Does a loved one succumb to illness because those of us who care did not pray hard enough? What about degenerative diseases? In the Review and Expositor, Tom Graves writes about struggling with Christian discomfort with disability. Graves suffers from multiple sclerosis and mentioned his frustration with the hymn, "It is Well."

Hymns provide comfort and reflect the gamut of Christian theology. Personally, Horatio Spafford's testimony after suffering inconceivable tragedy is inspiring. After losing his son, then later losing his four daughters in a shipwreck, he penned the words: 
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

For people, like Graves, who is in the midst of suffering, hearing the testimony of someone who found God's peace after the shock of loss faded does not speak to their situation. They still suffer. They still pray for an end to the suffering, but it does not end. Their prayers feel as if they bounce off the ceiling and land like empty shells around them. Taking comfort in Spafford's testimony is insensitive to those who still suffer. Where is God in the suffering?

Sovereign God beliefs, Calvinism, and reformed traditions ascribe suffering and everything else, both good and bad, to the will of God. Does this mean that God desires to see some of humanity suffer? What is the role of human freedom in good and bad events in the world? When people cause others to suffer (i.e. the Holocaust), seeing people as the cause of suffering is easier than finding the reason for suffering when the cause is a disease, nature, or a random act. Does God cause lightening to strike in the exact spot where it kills a person? Or, are events like lightening strikes attributable to nature and laws of probability? 

Paul Fiddes writes about God suffering in The Creative Suffering of God (1986). Being includes suffering. Buddha's first Noble Truth is about suffering. This was paraphrased by the fictional character Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride (1987), "Life is pain, highness; anyone who says otherwise is selling something." So, where is God?

For me, I always return to the notion that God is there; God is present in suffering but not controlling it or causing it. Lightening strikes and other natural phenomena are the result of living in an imperfect world. Anthropogenic suffering is, as the name suggests, caused by people. Thus, we return to the question, does God intervene? People want God to intervene; they want to know that God hears their prayers and might grant their wish. Some religious practices are built on this hope.

In Haiti, many people practice voodoo. There is a saying, The country is 95% Christian and 100% voodoo. Voodoo is a religion about manipulating fate, the future, another person, or any other outcome. Instead of praying or waiting for God to intervene, voodoo practitioners engage in activities to cause their desired outcome. Practitioners are proactive, just as are Christians at a prayer vigil for a sick friend. 

Perhaps one of the ways people join God's activity is to find another Christian who is involved in following God and join that person. In this way, God is not intervening, but the Holy Spirit is leading. Local people follow the leading of the spirit, and when others join them, they are joining God's activity through committed Christians. 

Parsing God's activity in the world is complicated business. I fear that this will be my activity for a long time to come. As I seek to find what God is doing, I pray that God and anyone who reads what I write will be patient with the process. Like everyone, I am still a work in progress.