Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Whose name is on the cup?

There are times when people who are in vocational ministry get weary of Jesus. Maybe I'm the only one, but I doubt it. He seems, at times, so hard to pin down, as everything from libertarianism to communism is carried out in His name. He seems to be the source of divisions in the world as people carrying His name have often carried a sword as well, leaving carnage in their wake. And He's a bit mystical, speaking in parables, paradox, and even contradiction, as tells his disciples to carry no sword here, and here to arm themselves. What's up?

It's tempting at times to skip Jesus altogether and simply focus on being about the things Jesus was about. He loved enemeis - let's love enemies. He hugged lepers - let's hug lepers. He feed hungry people - let's feed hungry people. If we go this route, not only will we have more tangible goals (after all, how do you measure, "being filled with all the fullness of God"?). Yes, let's be His hands and feet and skip all the doctrinal ambiguity, division, pondering and messiness that comes from talking about the life of Jesus and what it means to be filled with Him.

But then, along comes an article like this one, where a confirmed atheist declares that Africa needs Christianity. Here's part of what he says:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But In the city (where we lived) we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

There you have it. We can tell ourselves that we don't need all the messiness of Christ, or even begin to believe that if we simply feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we're doing the work of God. But Jesus tells us that ministry is more than just giving a cup of cold water; it's giving a cup of cold water in Jesus name.

The article has two profound implications:

1 - The author speaks of how spacious, engaging, and enlivening followers of Christ are in Africa. I often ponder why I meet so many Christians in these North American parts for whom the opposite is true - they've become anxious, guilt-ridden, closed minded - so much so that I know people who are walking away from the faith because of neuroses of the faithful, afraid that it's contagious.

I can only conclude that a gospel (good news) that fails to change our persona, fails to open us up to the world, fails to impart joy, is not the gospel of Christ. We who lead had better make sure we're not inviting people to rituals, clubs, and systems, because the real deal entails an invitation to transformation by virtue of a person indwelling a person. I know it sounds mystical, but it's true - and it works, as evidenced by the article above. Put simply, if our lives are filled with fear, hate, and whining, we're probably following a different Jesus.

2 - I know many people who are open, spacious, and enlivening, but who are afraid to mention the name of Jesus. They're mantra is a destructive mutation of St. Francis' words: "Preach always - use words when necessary." This is tragically interpreted to mean that words aren't necessary at all, that the cup of cold water needn't have a name attached to it, or that the name doesn't matter - Humanitarian NGO is just as good is Risen Christ.

Kudos to Matthew Perry for having the courage to say what too many faithful are afraid to say: Christ makes all the difference. Do we believe that? Let's begin living it then, and making sure the name is on the next cup of cold water.


At 7/1/09 10:05, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Wonderful thoughts. Although I haven't attended BCC for a month or so now, due to some of these exact reasons, I continue to read your blog.

The subjectivity of a Christian experience varies soooo greatly, that Jesus' work gets lost in the shuffle more often than not.

I spoke with a wonderful pastor, who I bumped into on a ferry trip to Canada. A "random" event that needed to happen for the both of us. He left me with a renewed energy surrounding Jesus, and spoke of Jesus in a way that resonated with me, yet did not take any other religions or faiths out at the knees. He actually embraced them, and showed me a way how we can all live in harmony.

He had an amazing explanation on how we can bring Jesus to tribes and people anywhere in the world, and still embrace their traditions with verse from the bible...which also explains how Christianity can be so accepted in Africa and other parts of the world. Bringing the peace everyone deserves.

He also mentioned that politics and religion should NEVER mix, and anyone who does so is asking for trouble...but he wasn't from the U.S.

Anyways, thanks...and I hope to be attending again soon.

At 7/1/09 13:56, Blogger Patrick said...

Richard, I think it is Matthew Parris who wrote this article, not Matthew Perry. Matthew Perry plays Chandler Bing on Friends . . .

However, whoever wrote this was very honest in a very positive way, and it brings me joy. Have you read "Jesus Wants To Save Christians" by Rob Bell? I'm reading it right now.

At 12/1/09 01:40, Blogger Jaclyn said...

Thank you Richard, your blog was passed on to me by a friend and I'm grateful for how you have put words to what I have been seeing around me as I've been living in a small town in northern Uganda for the past year.

What an incredible article to read from Matthew whoever... what a powerful and beautiful God we serve whose light is seen by all even, and especially in the darkest of places.

Thank you!
-Jaclyn Konczal

At 13/1/09 22:46, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After you brought this up in your message on Sunday I noticed the "God for Goodness?" question gets a lot of attention. When I stumbled across spark notes this week one of the main blog threads is called "Why Believe in God?"

Although the post does not seem to take much academic or scientific backbone it did make me think of your reference to Matthew Paris' article.

At 24/1/09 19:23, Blogger Nicole & James said...

Richard - I'm glad to see you making this important distinction. Living in the midst of main-line Liberal Protestants, I often feel as though Christianity is nothing more than an ethical society for many. Following Jesus, so they claim, equals social work. While this may be an indispensable component to Christianity, it is an incredible reduction that will not stand the test of time. People with this view of Christianity will soon lose the “Christ,” and will just have the “ity.” I pray that with the new found wave of excitement amongst evangelical Christians regarding social justice (which I think is a wonderful thing), we do not lose the incredible mystery of the cross-and that we be emboldened to proclaim it.


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