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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Hole in Our Gospel: Inching Toward a Life of Sacrificial Love.

"There is much at stake. The world we live in is under siege - three billion are desperately poor, one billion hungry, millions are trafficked in human slavery, ten million children die needlessly each year, wars and conflicts are wreaking havoc, pandemic diseases are spreading, ethnic hatred is flaming, and terrorism is growing. Most of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the developing world live in grinding poverty. And in the midst of this stands the Church of Jesus Christ in America, with resources, knowledge, and tools unequaled in the history of Christendom. I believe we stand on the brink of a defining moment. We have a choice to make.

When historians look back in one hundred years, what will they write about this nation of 340,000 churches? What will they say of the Church's response to the great challenges of our time - AIDS, poverty, hunger, terrorism, war? Will they say that these authentic Christians rose up courageously and responded to the tide of human suffering, that they rushed to the front lines to comfort the afflicted and douse the flames of hatred?

Or will they look back and see a Church too comfortable, insulated from the pain of the rest of the world , empty of compassion, and devoid of deeds? Will they write about a people who stood by and watched while a hundred million died of AIDS and 50 million children were orphaned, of Christians who live in luxury and self-indulgence while millions died of food and water? Will schoolchildren read in disgust about a Church that had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build schools, hospitals, and clinics? In short, will we be remembered as a the Church with a gaping hole in the Gospel." (p. 238)

 "The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion . . . it would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to the lift the poorest one billion people in the world out of extreme poverty . . . American Christians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control about half the global wealth." (p.216)

I'm just about finished with Richard Stearns' (CEO of World Vision) book The Hole in Our Gospel. I  highlighted portions of the excerpts because they capture for me the seeming blindness of the American Church to the widespread pain and suffering of people's all over the world who for a wildly complex tangle of reasons don't have their basic needs met, and are chronic victims of war, disease, entrenched poverty and corruption. Adding insult to injury,  the American Church is the wealthiest in the history of the world, meaning we have the collective resources to alleviate much of the world's suffering. Another sad reality is we use most of it first for our own concerns. Ugh!

If Stearns is right, this sad state of affairs is a travesty and should "haunt" us all with the glaring need to pick up our crosses and change our lives to more "enflesh" the abundant generosity and love of God for the "least of these," his brethren. Take a moment to read the following passages in Isaiah and Matthew to refresh your memory of how serious God is about the issue: Is. 58:1-12; Matthew 25:31-46.

Reading the book falls at a time when God is challenging me consistently to a more earnest following of Jesus, one in which much of my time, talent, and resources are spent helping alleviate suffering and providing the ways and means for people to fight their way back into a life full of real living as God defines it. My heart is being pricked often these days to further leave my well-kept safety nets and comfort zones, the old paths of sheltered Christianity I spent decades diligently practicing.

All he's asking me to do is live authentically as his follower not merely as a believer. I can believe in him and still withhold my heart enough leaving ample room to pursue the comforts, pleasures, privileges, and powers of the world. I can be dedicated to going to services, giving, reading a gazillion Christian books, doing hours of Bible study, listening to Christian music, attending Christian conferences, serving on committees, leading retreats, preaching and teaching, playing on the Worship Team, and even planting a church, but if don't love Jesus enough to surrender all of my life to follow him sacrificially as my prime directive, I'm missing much of what he taught about truly being his disciple.

In short, I end up being a fan with benefits, a perpetual volunteer, a member of the booster club, but not a player in the game where blood, sweat, and tears requires my all.

The reality is, he's moving on me from more than one direction these days. First, he's deepening the urgency and vehemence of my prayer life. It's not that I'm praying for longer time, it's more that when I pray there is an earnest longing for the Kingdom to come to people through me and imagine. I want more of him, more faith, courage, and more resources to make a difference in Northampton and other parts of the world. I strain into God with passion, calling on him to open ways where there appear to be no ways. I want to see the power of the Kingdom manifested to the degree lives really are changed, especially for the marginalized, voiceless and oppressed.

I want him to punch a hole in the fabric of darkness enshrouding parts of this broken world so the light of love, peace, healing and truth can prevail.

He's also creating in me a persisting desire to give away what I don't need or use. I'm not real good at this yet because it tales a substantial mental shift, but I continue to be taken back my how many duplicates I have of things. Drawers and closets are crammed. The phrase I use is being materially bloated.We've moved 3 times in the last 2 3/4 years, tag-selling and giving away a substantial amount of stuff with each move. With each move we downsized our living quarters. We can give still more and have all we need to live. When I think of people all over the world who have just the clothes on their backs, have to walk miles more than once a day to get their daily water, or live in huts with dirt floors, eking out a bare existence, keeping stuff I don't need or use is a start at radical re-orientation.

I think radical re-orientation is a must for following hard after Jesus.

Of late as well, God is bringing situations and people into our lives far different from what we've encountered frequently before. We've been in ministry a long time. We've experienced people in deep trouble with serious needs. In Northampton, however, the level of brokenness seems more complex: long-term addiction, generational poverty, mental illness, chronic problems with the law, and a pervasive counter-culture ethos all combine to make it tough to connect with the Gospel. God is bringing them to our door and we have opportunities to show his love asking nothing in return.

It feels to me as if God is offering imagine/Northampton the opportunity to head into the heart of what it means to deny myself, take up my cross daily and follow him. (Luke 9:24-6). the implication of that Scriptures and others in the New Testament have always scared me, because I want to control the degree of sacrifice I want to make. I like the freedom to do what I want to do, when and how. These it feels God is giving me grace to move toward him in this regard. It's if he's bringing me opportunities which blow me out of my comfort zones, and he says, "Will you do this for me?" Accompanying the question is "And do it now, not hesitate or balk?"

I'm learning to say "yes" and act then and there. As I do, he makes it happen. He blesses my obeying and stepping out by letting me give something which leaves a redemptive mark on someone. Jesus is laying groundwork and testing my resolve. He's teaching me a new level of trust and a willingness to sacrifice my introverted affection for spiritual monkdom. He wants me out there connecting and doing. He wants me where he is every day.

I can feel a shift both in me and our work in Northampton. It's subtle like a fleeting hint of things to come, but it's unmistakably there. While nothing looks much different outwardly something substantial has loosened or opened - a crack in the door, a tear in the fabric. I feel anticipation different from anything else since I moved here.

At the end of Stearns' book he includes a Franciscan benediction. He encourages is readers to pray and reflect on it, particularly regarding the hope it embodies. I encourage you to do the same:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

 May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all they cherish. so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator, Jesus Christ the incarnate Word Who is our Brother and Savior, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore. Amen.
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