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.

1 comment: