Wednesday, September 11, 2013

#WhereWereYou?

Postmodernism has a bad rap.

At least in the evangelical church, people think "postmodernism" means "having no moral standards." Not true. Postmodernism is far more complex than that, and there is value (as well as danger) in it. The value lies in how postmodernism expresses truth: Whereas earlier philosophies expressed truth as a series of propositional statements and rational claims, postmodernism expressed truth as a story. It traded the "grand narrative" (a single, all-defining understanding of the world) for the "individual narrative" (the way one person sees the world), and then it asked individuals to start talking.

Incidentally, there is something deeply biblical about this: When Christ the Word came, He did not come as a series of propositional statements; He came as a human being and lived here, creating as he lived (as we do) a series of stories, a Story that shows God to us. In the story as well as in the propositional statement there is Truth.

Perhaps this is why, every year in early September, people tell their stories again. All day I've listened as people remember where they were on 9/11. My father can remember where he was when JFK was assassinated, and we remember where we were when the Towers fell. This, more than anything else, is the story that defines who we are as people, the world as we understand it now, and this understanding comes in a series of stories.

Like my father with JFK, I have my own story with 9/11:

I was sixteen, and since I was homeschooled, I was at home, working through my Bible curriculum with my mother. The phone rang, and my mother took the call. I heard her say, "Oh, it's worse than Oklahoma City, then?" She came back, told us of the attack, and said that we'd finish our schoolwork before we turned on the television.

So we did. By the time we turned on the television, both towers had fallen. We watched television for the rest of the morning - my mother, my younger sister, and I - even though the television is never on in our house. When my mother and sister left that afternoon to run an errand, I tried to do work, but I kept going back to the TV, kept turning it back on, kept watching until late that afternoon when everyone came home again.

I could leave you with something very philosophical, urge you to pay attention to people's stories because these define us. All I want to leave you with for tonight, though, is a poem.

This is a found poem - in other words, a poem in which many of the words and phrases are drawn from outside texts. The point of a found poem is to discover poetry in straightforward literatures, to turn something simply factual into something thought-provoking. I have taken my found poem from the stories that have been cropping up all day on Facebook under #wherewereyou and across the web. interwebs on the National Journal and the People Press.

I hope the poem makes you think. (As you read, keep in mind that I wrote this rather quickly this evening, so - be gracious.)

Liturgy

Psychologists babble about our
Public collective consciousness, but
All I know is, every year we
Tell our stories, tell them
Again –

Tell that we were in a 9 a.m. class, that
We were driving to work, driving to
School, we were getting a haircut, we were
Trapped – in a chair at the orthodontist’s.

Again we tell, we were in fourth grade, or
Tenth, we were starting our workday,
We were at our desk, we were
Exercising – in front of the TV.

Then someone called.

Father, sister, co-worker –
Someone called, someone said,
‘Turn the news on, we’re under attack.”
“It’s worse,” – “ worse than Oklahoma City.”

So we turned the news on, and now

We tell how we watched TV that
Beautiful fall day, watched all day saying
Nothing to nobody, and when someone
Turned the TV off, we turned it back on –
Again.

So we tell that we saw the South
Tower as it started to fall, saw
Rivers of people walking north,
Terrified business people – so many –

And we tell of doctors and nurses and
Gurneys lined up not moving, not talking –
Waiting. We tell of the sign on I-95, reading
“Avoid Lower Manhattan.”

So we were undone and

So we tell our stories – these
Broken cries, catechisms for
Those who come after, repeating
That we may pray, that we may


Pray in peace.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Argentina: Post 2

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton argues that Christianity is a faith of paradoxes, a faith (for instance) in which we both hate the world and yet love it enough to work for its salvation; in which we love the good things of this world and yet abstain out of gratitude for their existence.

I would like to add one more paradox: We who are Christians are to reach out to the needy with both physical aid and spiritual comfort; soul and body are equally important. 

This, in my experience, is not particularly well understood in the church today. Some (usually more politically liberal) believers emphasize the spiritual at the expense of the physical, putting great effort into helping people find food and clothing and housing but less into helping them walk with Christ. Other believers (a la Bob Jones University) are so terrified of slipping into the social gospel that they put all their effort into spiritual aid, none into physical aid.

(Incidentally, emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical becomes an even greater problem when spiritual aid takes the form it did at Bob Jones: tracts and street evangelism and witnessing-to-random-strangers-or-the-hapless-priest-beside-you-on-the-airplane, as opposed to regular personal discipleship, encouragement, and care.)

I, in traveling through the Argentine Interior, went from ministry to ministry, from evangelists who concentrated on spiritual encouragement, to teachers who concentrated on physical aid. To see the various ministries, especially how one was different from the next, was to see how God cares for both the soul and body of his people.

As you know, our first stop was Tucuman, and there the evangelists emphasized - obviously - ministry to the soul. We spent an entire day in Tucuman, traveling for six hours from tiny village to tiny village to tiny village in northern Argentina, tucked away six miles along dirt roads so dusty we couldn't see more than five feet behind us, through the dust cloud the car kicked up. There, the evangelist Juan led the children in song and catechized them; he asked the adults about their walk with the Lord, made sure they were reading their Bible, made sure they had no images in their houses, stopped so we could hear their testimony - and then away we went to the next village, to repeat the process.

Juan and his family were themselves poor, wholly financially reliant on God (Indeed, Juan left a stable job thirty years ago to work as an itinerant evangelist). So there was no money to be offered, no physical assistance that could be provided. Yet the spiritual communion was enough. These people, who cooked over a wood fire, who lived a full day from the nearest village, whose cows wandered around with their ribs sticking out, were content with the spiritual comfort of the body of Christ.

This is the first half of the paradox, and (like all paradoxes), the first truth seems obvious enough that stating it is ridiculous: Our faith is a spiritual one, untouched by physical circumstances.  Whether we have great wealth or great poverty, Christ and His body the Church are the heart of our faith, and therefore, belong at the heart of ministry.

Yet Juan's ministry was very different from that in Brea Pozo. Where Juan has seen hundreds come to Christ over his thirty-year ministry, the school in Brea Pozo estimates that perhaps only one out of every five graduates from the school devotes their life to following the Lord.

Unfortunately, some believers would consider this a low success rate; they would wonder (to themselves, of course!) whether perhaps the ministry wasn't really worth it. When I was at Bob Jones, some chapel speakers would count with pride the many people they had witnessed to and seen converted over the years; the implication was clearly that those who were not responsible for so many conversions, or who were responsible for perhaps one or two only, were falling behind in their walk with the Lord.

Thankfully, this is not the attitude of the Brea Pozo school. There, they have no interest in counting up conversions like badges on their chest or medals on the wall. Do they wish more students would follow Christ? Absolutely. Do they consider their ministry worthwhile, even if many students are not saved? Absolutely. As we talked with the leaders over loose-leaf mat'e tea and the hard iced cookies popular as an afternoon snack, they reminded us that physical compassion, no less than tracts and preaching and singing, is a revelation of Christ to the world. It was Christ who loved us first, they explained, and so when they gave the children an education, a place to live, friends and strong adult role models, they were giving them the love of Christ.

This is the second part of the paradox: Regardless of "conversion rate" (how hideously mathematical to even think of it like that!), we as Christians are responsible to love the world as Christ loved us - and, since He did not bid people to "be warm and well-fed" without actually feeding them, to actually care for the physical needs of those around us.

True, Christ-centered care for others, whether they be in our church or not, believers or not, is equally concerned with soul and body; we are to rejoice in the sufficiency of our faith and spiritual encouragement even as we supply each other's physical needs, without attention to the spiritual realm.

Most of us, including me, are not currently missionaries, and so the temptation is to think that this paradox is of limited application. Not so. I can think of two possible applications:

First (and of the two, this was the one I most needed to learn): Do not despise those who minister to the soul and not the body. Perhaps because of listening to those braggart chapel speakers at Bob Jones, I am overcautious of ministries focused entirely on the spiritual. I imagine them sending people away to "be warm and well-fed", loading their arms with tracts but not a blanket or granola bar among them. This is what Tucuman symbolizes to me, then: While we as believers should not be insensitive to physical needs, we must also remember that our faith is pinned on another world, that this world, and all its suffering, pale to the treasures we have in Christ, that - most importantly - ministry is about exploring those treasures together.

Second, and equally important: Physical aid, in itself, is a legitimate ministry.  I found, this summer in my parents' house, a church magazine reminding conservative Christians that the social gospel is strictly replacing the Gospel with social aid; fear of slipping into the social gospel, he argued, should absolutely not prevent us from helping people. That this article was written and published tells me what I already knew: In conservative circles there is a distrust of ministries that can't tally up big numbers, or at least consistent numbers, of people saved. This should not be. Regardless of whether there are tracts involved, regardless of the numbers of people saved, any time spent helping people who need help is time spent being Christ who a world desperately in need of Him.

Ultimately, this is the paradox of Incarnation: Christ was and is and will be both God and man, having both a human body and spiritual power. In what can only be a faint echo of that we too are called to be invested in ministry that reaches body and soul, that finds sufficiency in spiritual encouragement but continually, generously assists with physical needs.