BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE

It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips.  After raising a serious amount of  money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something.  They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.

Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry.  From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church.  Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.

There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point.  I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church:  the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically.  I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain.  Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.  I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results:  the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.

On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding.  We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation.  We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events).  Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.

I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is.  But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us.  We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools.  And that makes sense:  feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.

Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on.  It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid.  It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited.  It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both.  And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.

But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in.  I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa.  I am somewhat in favour of mission trips.  And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building.  For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry.  And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference.  The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NEW BEGINNING

            A few years ago, I was involved with some theology students who were connected with a large established urban congregation.  The congregation inhabited an older building that had originally been located in the thriving downtown core of the city.  It was an influential congregation in the city and the denomination for many years.  It was so important that students from the theological school I attended were regularly invited to seminars to help us better understand how to do ministry in an urban setting.  It was so important in the city that the chief of police was willing to come to talk to us theology students–and quite willing to suspend local no parking ordinances for the theology students.

But as with all things, the neighbourhood and church underwent serious changes.  The church membership got older; the building began to fall apart; the neighbourhood became less desirable.  Parking became both more and less of a problem–less of a problem because there were more and more empty spaces and more of a problem because cars parked near the building were probably going to be vandalized.  The building doors were locked and alarmed and visitors were carefully scrutinized.

Eventually, the congregation made a decision.  They would have to move.  The downtown location was no longer desirable and with safety becoming a significant issue for the increasingly older congregation, the future of the congregation was at stake if they stayed where they were.  They bought land in a much safer suburban location and began planning the relocation process that was vital to the future of their church.  The downtown core just wasn’t safe anymore.  How can you worship God when some street person is going to break into your car looking for anything that will help them buy drugs, alcohol or food?

The new location would allow the congregation to flourish again.  They could do real ministry, rather than hide behind locked doors.  They could invite friends to special events without warning them to bring the old car and make sure there was nothing of value in it.  They could have a new building from which to really affect their community.  They could get back to the serious business of ministry without having to worry about pan-handlers, street people, vagrants and prostitution.

Of course, this is a preacher story–this has never happened.  No church would ever think of ignoring the needs of people just outside their doors.  All churches want to do ministry.  All believers see every individual as a person loved by God and in need of a tangible expression of the love of God through the efforts of the faithful.  After all, we are called by God to be servants to God and to people.

Except that we don’t always do a good job of being servants in the messiness of life.  I think we sometimes see mission and ministry as involving only those people who would fit well in a 50s TV sitcom–hard-working, wise father; stay-at-home mother always dressed like a fashion model; 2.5 mischievous but high achieving kids and one slightly less than perfect friend who says “darn” a bit too much.  We can do serious ministry in that context–why, the work is pretty much done anyway.  Even that “darn” kid will dress up as a shepherd for the Christmas concert and will likely become a pastor.

Jesus, of course, wants these people to know about his love.  But what we forget too often is that Jesus also wants to street person breaking into a worshipper’s car to know about the love of God as well.   He wants the model family to become part of the faith–but he also wants the teen run-away who is into drugs and prostitution to be a part of the faith as well.  And his plan for reaching the model family and the street person and the teen addict is the same–he wants to use the ministry of the faithful expressed through the church.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Real ministry is messy”.  And whether our church is located in a deteriorating downtown core, an up and coming affluent suburb or a dying fishing village, we need to open ourselves to the Spirit who will lead us into the best way to ministry and serve those around us.  Moving the building to get a better class of sinners doesn’t quite seem to follow the pattern that Jesus gave us.

May the peace of God be with you.

SERVANT OR SERVED?

Kenya, like most of Africa, was taken over by European powers in the late 19th century as the various nations in Europe scrambled to exert their power over the world.  The reality that the lands in question were already occupied and governed by other people was simply ignored–the prevailing opinion at the time was that since those peoples were obviously inferior, there could be nothing but benefit for them to be under European rule.  Eventually, most of Africa decided that they preferred to be independent and made it happen.

One of the lasting legacies of colonialism in Kenya is a well developed sense of entitlement and privilege.  Social stratification is a deep seated addition to Kenyan culture, with everyone seeking an important place in the pecking order.  Money, tribe, geography, education, connections, special skills–everything has a place in determining who gets what privileges and who gets to serve who.  Nobody wants to be doing the serving–everyone wants to be served.

It may be that this culture of entitlement and privilege seeking will come to be seen as one of the worst of the long term effects of colonialism because of the way it encouraged so many of the current underlying problems African countries struggle with.  Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, instability–all owe something to the colonial example.  African countries may have thrown out the colonizers but they often kept the colonial mentality.

But this problem of entitlement and privilege seeking affects more than just post-colonial countries.  Unfortunately, it affects the church–and the consequences of these attitudes is causing no end of harm to the mission of the church.

Recently, I saw a news item while I was washing the dishes.  A man got a parking ticket while he was in worship on Easter Sunday.  He openly admitted that he was parked in a no parking zone.  The church parking lot was full–the Christmas and Easter crowd were out in full force.  He and many other worshippers parked on the street, ignoring the no parking signs.  Some enterprising traffic officer saw an opportunity to improve the municipal finances and gave all the illegal cars tickets.

The man on the news was upset.  One of his comments was that he was parked there because he was in worship on one of the holiest days of the Christian year and so the police should have shown some leniency.  And while that might sound good to other worshippers and to those struggling with the lessening influence of the Christian faith in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is really only a thinly veiled call for special privileges.  Our faith should be allowed to break the rules when our parking lot is full.

As Christians in North America, we want our culture to serve us.  We picture ourselves as being special–our western culture is built on Christian foundations.  We have made a significant contribution to our culture–and now, we want to collect the interest on that contribution.  We  deserve a break on the parking ticket; we deserve to be given exemptions from rules that we don’t like; we deserve a better place in the culture than other groups.

But aren’t we called to be servants?  Somewhere along the line, it seems that we have lost sight of what it really means to be a servant.  We have continued to call ourselves servants but have redefined the word servant to mean that we are the ones who get served.  The privileges and special treatment we want and even demand amount to us as believers thinking that our culture needs to pay us back for all that we have done for our culture over the years.  Whether it is being allowed to break parking laws on Easter Sunday or trying to stop multicultural realities, we are really not being all that much different from the colonial powers in Africa or their independent successors.

We seem to have turned our understanding of a basic part of our faith on its head.  We talk of being servants but really want to be served.  We talk of serving others but really want others to serve us.  We call for justice but really want free parking in illegal parking zones when the church parking lot is full.  And maybe this reversal in our understanding of servant-hood is at the root of the serious decline of the church in the west.  Maybe our culture needs servants more than it needs one more entitled group demanding privilege.

May the peace of God be with you.

VISITOR, FRIEND OR BROTHER

            I can sum up my journey through the difficulties of inter-cultural relationships in Kenya in three words.  Each word is accompanied by a specific set of actions and assumptions.  And since I seem to have an urge to play with my Kiswahili, I will use words from that language.

When we first arrived in Kenya we were introduced to the church as “wageni”, a Kiswahili word that means visitor or guest, although it can sometimes be stretched to cover tourists.  As wageni, we were given special treatment:  guest food, a place to sit on a real chair in the shade, someone to make sure that we were shown to the right place and served our food.  There was always someone close to translate, answer questions and make sure we weren’t ignored, embarrassed or made to feel uncomfortable.  For me, this got old really fast–the food was good but I really didn’t care for much of the rest that went with being “mgeni” (singular of “wageni”.

I noticed that after a while, people began to use a different word when I was around.  Since the change coincided with my increasing facility in Kiswahili, I knew what they were saying.  I became a “rafiki”–not the shaman/advisor in Lion King but a friend.  Being a “rafiki” meant that I didn’t get quite as much pampering.  Mostly, we still had wageni food but I had to serve myself and got to sit where I wanted, within limits.  I also got to talk with people more and didn’t have to answer as many questions about all things “wazungu”–I could talk intelligently about crops, politics and the potential for a good rainy season.  Being a rafiki was much better than being a mgeni.

The more I hung around, the better my language got and the more I clued into the local culture and customs, the better rafiki I think I became.  But one day, I began to notice a different word being used.  Someone would refer to me as “ndugu”, which means brother.  At first, I thought that this was simply the traditional Christian family of God stuff–and it was that at times.

But other times, the context convinced me that some people at least were using the word in another way.  They were including me in their family.  I belonged.  I got normal food–because brothers don’t need the expensive mgeni food.  I sat where I sat with my brothers and sisters.  I didn’t need a baby sitter or translator–I was a brother and knew when people were teasing me and could tease them back.  As a brother, I not only belonged but was expected to be a responsible brother–doing things like welcoming wageni and helping the family and being available for family emergencies or to share a cup of coffee and some good conversation.  I liked being a brother a whole lot more than being a mgeni and even more than being a rafiki.

Now, the thing is I didn’t get to decide what people called me.  I had no control over when the transitions came.  Even if I didn’t like being a mgeni, I didn’t get to tell people I was a rafiki or ndugu.  I could and did spend my time learning and appreciating and practising and understanding the culture.  I could and did work hard to learn and use Kiswahili and a bit of Kikamba.  I could and did work hard at loving people and showing it the best way possible.

For me, this journey through language and relationships serves as a parable for the church in North America.  I think that the church here wants to be a mgeni in our culture–we want the special treatment and the best seats and the company food.  But our culture really isn’t there–they don’t see a need for us as guests or visitors.  Sometimes, we are appreciated as friends, as when we provide a service like grief support or emergency help of some kind.

But in the end, our culture needs the church and its members to be brothers and sisters.  We need to be willing to understand and appreciate and be a part of the culture in a way that allows us to speak as family.  We don’t need to give up our faith or compromise it–but we do need to love people so much that they call us family.  Then, maybe, we can help them become part of our family, the family of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE EXECUTIVE DINING ROOM

The last time we lived and worked in Kenya, we weren’t living on the school compound as we had at other times.  That meant a daily half hour or so commute from our home to the school.  It also meant that instead of going home to work between classes, I ended up working in the school staff room with all the other faculty.  It also meant that my wife and I were included in the tea and lunch that were part of the faculty employment package.  Since I enjoy Kenyan food (except for the tea) and they wanted me to take part, I joined in, although I did bring my thermos of decaf coffee so I wouldn’t have to drink the tea.

The first official day we were there, our lunch was served in what would be called the executive dining room with the deans of the schools and several other important school officials.  The rest of the faculty ate in the staff room as always.  The next day, a similar process.  The next day, I was summoned to the executive dining room (really, it was an empty office that like most things Kenyan, did double duty.) and told that the dean of the school would be along later.  He never showed up and after eating my lunch alone, I wandered back to the staff room to work before going to class.

After this happened a couple more times, I scheduled an appointment with the dean–which meant I managed to hear him in his office and asked if I could see him.  I was tired of being treated as a special visitor and ending up eating by myself while the rest of the faculty ate in the staff room.  Since the executive dining room shared a very thin wall with the staff room, I could head them talking and laughing and having a good time while I or Elizabeth and I ate by ourselves.  I asked the dean if I could stop being a guest and become a regular faculty member, able have my lunch with the rest of the faculty.

He was actually quite happy with that–I think the extra effort to put on lunch on the executive dining room for one or two people was an annoyance for him and the kitchen as well.  So, why do it in the first place?  Well, Elizabeth and I were Wazungu–and based on past experience, the dean and others were sure that we needed special treatment.  We were just too important to eat with the rest of the faculty.  My request to eat in the staff room challenged their preconceptions of my minority group and made life easier for the dean and kitchen staff.

It also changed the nature of my relationship with the rest of the faculty.  I went from being a curious but somewhat unapproachable Mzungu to being a regular faculty member, standing in line for my food, taking part in the multi-lingual the joking, answering questions about Canada, seeking advice on school issues and generally being part of the staff.  I became aware of a major change the day we had a new staff member, who was amazed that a Mzungu would be able to eat the day’s lunch of corn and beans.  His surprise was matched by the assurances from the rest of the faculty that I wasn’t really a Mzungu–I was one of them and had no problem with the food or anything else.

So, we are now back in Canada, part of another visible minority, relating to people who don’t really understand me or my minority.  One temptation my minority in Canada faces is to find the equivalent of the executive dining room and spend all our time there, except for those times when we must interact with the majority, like funerals and weddings.  We worship together but we also coffee together, vacation together and meet together.

But we need to get out of the executive dining room.  We need to eat the food that everyone else eats where they eat it and when they eat it.  We are a visible minority–but when we emphasise our minority status, we create distance between us and the very people we are called to serve.  We are called to be salt and light in the world, not a visible minority eating in  the executive dining room.

May the peace of God be with you.

A VISIBLE MINORITY

            When I worked in Kenya, I was part of a visible minority.  Because we lived and worked well outside the cosmopolitan city of Nairobi, we were among the few white people around.  Many times, I was the only white person in the area.  Whether it was teaching at the school, preaching in a bush church somewhere, getting groceries or just talking a walk, it was obvious that I was different from everyone else.

I got used to being watched–and I am pretty sure that whatever I did was reported to some peer group of those watching.  A Kenyan friend joked with me one day about his kids and other village kids observing my behaviour on my daily walk.  Walking for exercise was something that obviously only the strange white person did.

Being part of a visible minority meant that I was the focus of a lot of attention–and as people got to know me, I became the source of information about all things relating to my group.  I was the representative white person, except that in Kenya, I was a “mzungu”, a Kiswahili word that supposedly was coined to describe these bizarre new people who appeared in Kenya.  We travelled around a lot, and so the descriptive word for our minority group was developed from the Kiswahili verb describing that behaviour.

No detail of my life and behaviour was beyond the scope of the majority group curiosity.  Are all Wazungu (plural of mzungu) left handed?  Do all Wazungu have beards?  What do Wazungu eat?  How come some Wazungu don’t like Kenyans?  Do you know that Mzungu from (naming a place thousands of kilometers from where I live)?  How do Wazungu tell their children apart?

Because I like Kenya and really enjoyed my interactions with people there, being a part of a visible minority wasn’t all that difficult for me.  Certainly, there were a few occasions when I had to bear the burden of the stupidity and prejudice of other members of my minority group–but I soon found that openly addressing such issues in fluent Kiswahili helped both me and the other person(s) deal with the issues.  I did sometimes get tired of the assumption that because I was a Mzungu, I had to be filthy rich and so could put any and all kids through school, as well as give someone money for a meal, a car, a house, a doctoral program or whatever.

In Canada, I fit in as part of the majority.  My colour, language, customs and all the rest are pretty much the same as everyone else–well, I drive a Jeep rather than a Ford but those are relatively minor things.  Even my walking isn’t all that strange, although I do need a hiking stick these days because of my bad knees–but even hiking sticks are getting fairly common on the streets of our small town.

But I am still part of a visible minority in Canada.  Yesterday, I and less than 20% of Canadians attended a Christian worship service.  That makes me a part of a visible minority–people see me leave home and go into a place of worship.  Granted, given that Sunday morning has become a sleep in, start slow day for many Canadians these days, not many actually see me go into a place of worship but I also go to an afternoon worship service and I know people see me go there because friends who don’t go to worship have commented on seeing me there.

There are a lot of similarities between my minority experience in Kenya and my minority experience in Canada.  In both places, I become a representative of my minority group.  In both contexts, people outside the minority group are watching the minority group.  In both settings, there is curiosity about the minority group.  In both places, there are questions and misconceptions about the minority group.

As I think about the Christian faith in North America, I think we need to spend some serious time looking at our position as a minority group.  Statistically, the vast majority of North Americans claim belief in God–but fewer and fewer express that belief in traditional Christian patterns, making those of us who do a smaller and smaller visible minority.  How we represent our minority becomes a matter of significance for us, our minority group and those outside our group.  The next few posts will look at some of the implications of being a visible minority.

The peace of God be with you.

“GOOD” FRIDAY?

I like movies that deal with a relatively innocent individual who ends up being attacked unjustly by some other individual, group or shadowy organization.  Such stories are predictable:  a peaceful life is disrupted, the protagonist turns out to be a retired expert at martial arts, guerilla warfare, improvised weapons manufacturing who has access to unlimited funds, fast cars and airplanes (along with the occasional tank and ballistic missile) and who knows people who freely and quickly fill him (generally it is a “he” in these movies) in on all sorts of top secret details that he needs to know.

Armed with his skills, money, resources and intel,  he sets out to destroy the villains, rescue the lady and get his life back.  We expect that he will be beaten several times, trapped in an inescapable trap, shot and be involved in at least one car chase. At some point, he will appear to be defeated, maybe even killed. But at some point, he will make a comeback–and he will win.  The bad guys will be destroyed in appropriately violent ways and the hero and his new found (or returned) love will settle back down in their peaceful life, at least until the sequel.

I like the movies and the stories because they are predictable, they have car chases, they have improbable feats of “skill”, and because the good guy wins no matter what the odds are.  No matter how evil the antagonist; no matter how powerful the opposition group; no matter how high in the government the shadowy organization reaches, the hero wins.  And it may be that this appreciation of that particular media genre comes from my faith.

I don’t think it comes because I see myself as the faith equivalent of the movie hero–far from it.  If I were in the movie, I would likely be the innocent, uninvolved driver whose car is the first one run off the road in the car chase–and I wouldn’t even be the one that gets to take flight and land in a tree or someone’s dining room.  No, I think the reason my faith gets tied up in this sort of movies is that my faith is based on the biggest version of this story.

Jesus’ story has it all, except for the car chase.  A quiet hero minding his own business who attracts the attention of a powerful organization who sets out to destroy him; some serious injustice and conspiracy; a betrayal; a beating–and in the end, an execution.  But where this story parts company with the movies is that this is a real execution, not something thrown together with special effects, top secret medications and covert assistants in the conspiracy.  Jesus dies and the bad guys sit around congratulating themselves on their power and ability to deal with issues.

All this in less than a week–by Friday, the conspirators are ready for a break and settle down to enjoy the holiday.  Jesus is dead; the story is over–roll the credits.  This is not a good movie–or a good day.

Of course, we know the end of the story.  Jesus is the ultimate hero who defeats even death.  The whole story gets turned around because everything that the bad guys did was part of the plan from the beginning.  Jesus dies–but for the story to end the way it is supposed to end, he has to die.  The conspiracy really only does what Jesus knows they are going to do–he uses their free choices to bring about his end.

And that is why a day filled with hatred, injustice, evil conspiracies, betrayals, denials, torture and anything else that our all too human bent towards evil can come up with becomes “Good Friday”.  It isn’t good because of what happens that day–it becomes good because of the way God transforms the evil of the day into the ultimate good.  Good Friday is only good because of Easter Sunday, the day when the ultimate hero stages the ultimate comeback for the ultimate good.

Good Friday shows us how God takes on the absolute worst that we human beings have to offer and overcome it with the absolute best that he can offer–the power of his unlimited love and grace.  Even though there isn’t a car chase, it is still without question the best hero story of all time.

May the peace of God be with you.