Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cleaning Up Baltimore, Portland, New York, or LA

A friend of mine, who lives near Baltimore, posted on Facebook yesterday that news stations are not reporting on the coming together of people in the city of Baltimore to help clean it up.

Another friend posted a link to ten images you're not likely to see on television.  And, most powerful of all, a video of hundreds of faith leaders, led by a man in a wheelchair, risking their lives to bring a sense of calm and collaboration in the midst of the chaos.

This dramatic scenario reminded me of my recent interview with Kevin Palau (president of the Luis Palau Association, LPA). I also read Kevin's soon-to-be released book Unlikely: What Happens When We Set Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel. The details of what happened in Portland, Oregon when churches got beyond the barriers of denomination, age, gender, race--and became the Church serving the city--were more than intriguing; they were inspiring. The movement began when a team from LPA went to the gay mayor and asked: "How can we serve the city?" The result has brought about tremendous change, not only in the city but in the perception of Christians. By pouring out their love on the school system, foster care system, in gang-infested neighborhoods, with the homeless, in health and wellness and human trafficking, they've become known for their servant hearts. Instead of being critical and judgmental, these Christ-followers learned to love their neighbors.

The Body of Christ faces the challenges of poverty, orphans, human rights, ideology, and broken relationships on a global scale--along with the challenges of evangelism and the celebration of who God is and LPA is addressing those, too, at its NY City Fest. Currently the LPA's City Serve and City Fest efforts are focused in the New York Metropolitan area. and after two years, they are already making a noticeable difference.

People have begun noticing a different in Los Angeles, too. And, surprisingly it was reported in yesterday's local newspaper, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. While reporting on why LA is not experiencing riots like Baltimore, reporter Sarah Favot said that:
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell stood Monday evening with county and faith leaders and called for continued peace while warning against similar outbreaks here.
"Los Angeles is calm for a reason," McDonnell said at a news conference outside the Hall of Justice downtown. . . . "The L.A. Sheriff's Department has worked side by side with our police partners, faith leaders and the community as a whole to ensure that we know the pulse of  the community [emphasis mine]."
This collaborative effort involving Christian leaders in the community has been building in L.A. over time. A couple of months ago, I attended Together LA at West Angeles Church of God in Christ. (That's where Stevie Wonder and Denzel Washington worship.) Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Asians Christian leaders came together to find out more about getting past our differences and working toward the betterment of our communities. Like the LPA's effort in Portland or the current effort in Baltimore, L.A. government leaders have recognized that Christians offer a message of hope and light in the midst of injustice. Part of that recognition may have come about because of the powerful effort of Christians serving their communities by fighting human trafficking in a multitude of ways--after-school programs, working with foster care kids, supporting survivors, assisting the poor and on and on.

CARE 18's been leading this collaborative effort in L.A., and this past weekend, I spoke on a panel about how churches can join the fight against modern-day slavery. Christians from various walks of life came together at that event to learn best practices from each other. When we stop judging each other and start loving one another to work together in unity, so much more can be accomplished. Then we become known--not for what we're against--but for our love. And, the good news is that everyone can and should participate.

That gives us something worth celebrating--God's love is the source of our joy. For me this was the best part of the Together LA conference. Worshiping and praising our great God in unity was a little taste of heaven. That's the good news and there's nothing better than sharing it--both by our actions and by presenting the Gospel.If you're not already involved in your community--try it, you'll like it. If you are, I'd love to know about your efforts. Please click on "No Comments" to post a comment telling us what you're doing.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Justice: Picking Up Our Cross

Speaking of today's massacre of at least 147 Christians at Garissa University in Kenya, the student union vice president Collins Wetangula said: "If you were a Christian, you were shot on the spot," he said. "With each blast of the gun, I thought I was going to die."

So how did the gunmen know which students were Christ's followers? In some way they must have stood out from the Muslims. Evidently they were easily identifiable. Perhaps the more courageous said: "I am a Christian" even knowing they'd be shot on the spot.

I can't help but wonder what America's Christians would do. Hopefully they, too, would be easily recognizable. I hope I'd be brave. Scripture tells Christ's followers to expect persecution like what we saw today in Kenya. There will be people who hate us because of our beliefs.

 In Matthew 7:13 Jesus challenges us to:
enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.
Not everyone in the world believes in the Bible. To be a Christ follower means understanding the concept of sin and being humble enough to ask Jesus to save us, even from ourselves. That's why he came. That's why he died. And best of all, that's why he rose again and ascended into heaven. Now, he's our mediator, our high priest, the King of all kings. He came and died to usher those who believe in his atonement for their sins into his kingdom. God's justice required that sacrifice. His mercy and grace gave it for those willing to accept it. Yet today, as in the time of Christ, God's kingdom still looks different from what many people might expect.

Sometimes I wonder if the "justice" movement has forgotten what John 8:36 so clearly states:
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place [emphasis mine].
I wonder--do those fighting human trafficking think we can usher in God's kingdom the way people did during the time of Christ? That the Messiah will ride in and take his earthly throne, eliminating all of society's problems, bringing together people of all religions and uniting them in peace.

Unfortunately that's what often gets communicated by justice leaders and yet that doesn't jive with what we see in the Easter story. Sadly what we can expect is hatred that lashes out and kills like it did those Kenyan students. Without the personal transformation that Christ alone offers through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can expect sin to disregard human life and rights while cultivating the greed and arrogance that triumph over the weak and vulnerable.

In the midst of this reality, communication by some (perhaps many) Christians can still come across so hateful and condemning that some (perhaps many) believers don't even want to call themselves by that name.

I got challenged on this a few days ago by someone I greatly admire. When I started speaking about the "ideology" behind abortion and how that relates to human trafficking, I was challenged with questions that brought me up short: Why was I lumped in with those willing to "cast the first stones," though I'm all too aware that I am a sinner desperately in need of mercy and grace? How could I have been perceived as less than empathetic to those who have suffered, when I, too, have suffered some of life's deepest wounds?

These questions grieved my heart and made me think. Though I certainly hadn't intended it to, my comment about abortion must have sounded calloused because my colleague was thinking about the pressures on the women who have them. However, at that moment I was talking about ideas--ideas that have oppressed many women and held them in bondage to shame and guilt for many years. (See my article, p. 7, about Marcela Garcia and the effects of this ideology on Hispanic women.)

The reality of our disconnect makes me sad. Frequently Christians don't communicate well, even with one another. That makes identifying Christ's true followers extremely difficult. Rather than engage each other in fruitful dialogue, far too often we make assumptions. Or, maybe worse, we start off, as I did, in the wrong place or with gaps in thinking that easily lead people to jump to conclusions. With quick assessments, we open fire without giving each other a chance.

Maybe the cross we in the West most need to pick up is to believe the best about one another. To listen, ask questions, and learn more than we know. Thankfully my relationship with my colleague continues and hopefully we're both inclined to do that. To find God's justice (and he alone is just), maybe we need to spend more time at the foot of the cross in unity confessing our own short-comings. Then when we consider the resurrection (which those young Kenyan believers who died today are now experiencing), we'll get a glimpse of God's kingdom as it really is.