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Monthly Archives: January 2010

How would you define success? A friend asked me this question the other day, and after pausing for a moment, I gave an answer with which I’m now only half-satisfied. 

I started by think of the way the world normally measures “success”.  Worldly measures of success are generally related to finances or security. For a follower of Jesus, those can’t be the ultimate measures of success, but we shouldn’t avoid them all together – even in the church, worldly measures may still be necessary factors to consider. For example, Upper Room will have to become financially self-sustainable by 2014 to be “successful” in our goal of establishing a new congregation in Squirrel Hill.  But that example begs the question of why plant a new church? And why in Squirrel Hill?  In order to call new people to participation in the mission of Jesus, joining Christ in the work of reconciling, healing, and transforming the world.  The ultimate goal is not the establishment of a church, but the transformation of lives according to the mission of God.

So, I think I’d define success as life-transformation.  The reason I’m only half-satisfied with the answer I gave my friend is that it described inward-focused transformation.  I’ve been reading a lot of eastern Christian monks recently for whom success would be articulated in terms like “dispassion”, “theosis” or “divinization”.  So, I articulated success as “becoming more like Jesus.”  The problem is, I didn’t articulate the whole of what that means.  It’s more than just “becoming the best me I can be” – despite the popularity of that teaching.  It’s also more than just cultivating personal disciplines of prayer and breaking sinful habits.  If success for a Christian is being conformed to the image of Christ, then success means going to the cross. Success is death to self.  It’s not measured by upward-mobility, but by downward-mobility, service, and giving.  True success isn’t just self-transformation, it’s inward transformation that leads to world-transformation

And yet, transformation of the self is still necessary to effect world-transformation: I can’t join Jesus in opposing systems of injustice and strongholds of evil if I refuse to repent of my complicity with such systems. Personal transformation is necessary for world-transformation to take place.  That requires confession, repentance, and the help of a community of other Jesus-followers.  But those practices are not ends in themselves.  They shape us through our own reconciliation with God to become ministers of reconciliation in the whole world: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

So, measures of success are both inward and outward – reconciliation in one’s own life and participating in the ministry of reconciliation in others lives.  Applied to the situation of a church, successful participation in the mission of God results in transformation of lives both within and outside the church.  And because transformation can’t always be quantified, we can measure success by stories of transformation, both inward and outward.  The narrative of a person’s life reveals the trajectory of transformation and includes the failures, mistakes and wounds, as well as the times of healing and restoration.  

Whenever my life and ministry come to an end, I pray that whatever success (if any) is attributed to me would be reflected in stories of transformation, both in my own life and in the lives of others.  And I pray that those stories would ultimately reflect a life lived as Christ’s ambassador, letting transformation in my own life lead to greater participation the ministry of reconciliation.

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I recently came across this article about human trafficking after massive disasters.  As perverse and evil as it may sound, people actually prey upon young children and vulnerable women in the days and weeks following major natural disasters.  Rather than led to shelter and provision, they are lured into domestic, agricultural, and sexual slavery.  Pray that children would be protected, law-enforcement and security personnel (to the extent that they’re present) would be vigilant, and that traffickers would not prey upon the victims of this disaster.

Human trafficking may seem undefeatable, but there is reason to have hope.  This Friday, January 29th, at 7:30pm Upper Room will be hosting a screening of the documentary At The End of Slavery.  The film, produced by IJM (where the author of the article linked-above previously worked), exposes the reality of human trafficking, but also the hope of shutting down the trafficking business.  If you’re in Pittsburgh, especially around Squirrel Hill, come join us.

I sent an email to a friend saying “I’m elated about this,” after reading this story.  Jin Kim, the pastor of Church of All Nations in Minneapolis is running for moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly this summer.  I remember hearing Kim preach at the 2004 General Assembly in Richmond, VA, when I was there as a youth delegate.  As in his work at Church of All Nations, his sermon at GA addressed America’s “original sin” of racism and critiqued the church’s complicity with it.   Having heard Kim speak at other conferences since then, I have a deep respect for him and am confident in his ability to lead the PC(USA) in the coming years.  I don’t know who else will show up in the running for Moderator, but I don’t hesitate in saying that I think Jin Kim is a great candidate.

I also can’t help but think that it’s perfect timing for Kim to run: Like Bruce Reyes-Chow who was the home-town favorite in San Jose two years ago, Kim will be running for moderator at the GA in Minneapolis, where he currently ministers.  More importantly, this is the year the Assembly will consider adding the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.  Belhar was written by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) in South Africa – the church that was founded by the Dutch Reformed Church for the purpose of segregation.   The DRMC was created for “coloureds”, or people of mixed-race who wouldn’t fit into the legal categories of Black and White in South Africa.  Similarly, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) was founded for Black South Africans.  Belhar, with its explicit call for reconciliation across race and class lines, was useful in uniting the DRMC and the DRCA, but the white Dutch Reformed Church refuses to adopt it.  For the PC(USA) to adopt it as one of our confessions this year would (1) be a powerful sign addressing the racial division still present in America, and (2) potentially shame the Dutch Reformed Church into taking the call to reconciliation more seriously.  A pastor who’s dedicated his life in ministry to racial reconciliation and multicultural ministry would be ideal to lead the PC(USA) through adoption of Belhar.

Tomorrow night Mike and I are going to lead an evangelism seminar for Upper Room folks down at 5828.  Yes, I just used the “E-word”.  Evangelism seems to have scary connotations for a lot of people.  It inspires fear in those who are afraid of being the targets of evangelism – wary of manipulation and distrustful of Christians who don’t look anything like the Jesus they claim to follow.  And it inspires fear in Christians themselves, who for a plethora of reasons have trouble speaking honestly about Jesus and what it means to follow him. 

At the evangelism seminar tomorrow, we’re going to include a video which I think demonstrates a way of honestly sharing what it means to follow Jesus, without manipulation of the person to whom the story is told, and without unfair pressure to “prove” anything on the part of the person telling the story.  The video is called “The Big Story” and it was made by James Choung.  Take a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCVcSiUUMhY

I like this video for a few reasons: (1) It sets Christianity in the context of the story of the world.  It’s not about proving a system of doctrine; it’s about the ongoing story of the world, and our place in it.   (2) The portrait of “salvation” that’s given is communal, not an individualistic reduction of the Gospel:  “Jesus is starting a revolution and he’s asking us to be healed ourselves in Jesus’ name, to be in each other, and to go out and heal the planet.  And our mission is to be sent together to heal.” (3)  It speaks to a generation that’s eager to participate in healing work in the world.  I know a lot of people who want to work for justice, peace, equality, and care for the environment, but who aren’t Christian.  Often, they outdo Christians at the very works we’re called to.  This presentation of mission bridges that gap. (4) It’s concise.  I truly believe that genuine sharing about Jesus happens best organically through natural relationships, over time.  (To use a phrase from Adam McHugh again, “exploring mystery together” is how I work.)  But, a Christian should be able to share concisely what they believe and why they believe it.  Choung does that here in a way that’s inviting and without coercion.  (5)  The visual-aids which are drawn in the video don’t rely on individualistic reductions of the Gospel, unlike so many other examples that I’ve seen.  (Think canyon with “you” on one side, “God” on the other, and a cross forming the bridge.)

Now look at how Choung continues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4V60n6KiB8

Attributing all the good things in the world to followers of Jesus is obviously an exaggeration; we’ve screwed up lots and lots and lots of times.  But, there is much hope in following Jesus, legitimate hope for the transformation of the world.  And we can only truly love through Jesus: “Through Jesus we can become the greatest lovers on the planet.”  His description of response to Jesus includes repentance and forgiveness, but not in an individualistic way.  This avoids the consumer-evangelical mindset and presents committment to following Jesus as a committment to his mission of redeeming the world.  Great.  

What are the other strengths or weaknesses of this telling of the Christian story?

In 2010 I’m setting a goal of reading books outside my cultural comfort zone, so I’ve compiled this reading list to help me accomplish this.  Because I’m a pastor, some of the books are theology books (Cone, Villafañe).  Others are fiction or narrative which relate immigrant or international life experience.  Some of the recommendations listed below were gleaned from the recommended reading list at the end of Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism.  Other selections are books that have been sitting on my shelves unread or uncompleted for too long.  I’ve whittled the list down to 14 because I’ll still be reading other books during this time, and I think that finishing at least one of these books per month and blogging about it is an ambitious enough goal.  That said, I’m open to more suggestions, so please pass along any recommendations for similar books.

Fiction/Narrative:

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

Native Speaker – Chang Rae Lee

Church/Theology Related:

Divided By Faith – Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith

United by Faith  – Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim

The Liberating Spirit – Eldin Villafañe

Living in Color – Randy Woodley

The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective – Pinchas Lapide 

The New Global Mission–  Samuel Escobar

The Spirituals and The Blues – James Cone

The Heavenly Man – Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway

Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity – Edward Gilbreath

Sociology:

The Color of Wealth by Meizhu Lui, Barbara Robles, and Betsy Leondar-Wright

Race Matters – Cornel West

One of my New Years Resolutions is to read outside my cultural comfort zone.  I was convicted of the need for this last month when I read Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism and realized that 90% of the books I read in 2009 were by white men.  So, in 2010 I’m going to deliberately seek out books that expand my horizons.

The first such book was Miriam Adeney’s Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global ChristianityStory is the key word, too.  Adeney presents true stories collected from both research and first-hand experience of Christians from all around the globe: the Philippines, Iran, China, Peru, Rwanda are just a small sample of the countries from which the stories come.  Kingdom Without Borders does through ground-level stories what Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom does through statistical overviews: present the lively face of the growing Church in the global South and East.   Adeney is a storyteller at heart – I remember her speaking on the subject of storytelling at my seminary a couple years ago and can still hear her voice in some of the stories in the book – but the value of the book lies in more than the medium.  The sources of the stories themselves are the real-life experiences of people whose voices are too rarely heard in America. 

From the stories I learned of people like Narayan Aman Tilak – an Indian Christian from the Brahmin caste whose worked to contextualize the Gospel to Indian culture – and of dalit Christians who’ve experienced terrible persecution.  A chapter on China contained stories of martyrs, imprisoned pastors, and leaders in the underground church there.  The second-to-last chapter – “Way of the Cross” – is a powerful reminder of the place of martyrdom and suffering in global Christian experience.  For pastors reading the book, the stories provide excellent sermon illustrations.  (I already used the story of Simin, a young woman from Iran who comes to faith in Jesus through a series of visions as one this Sunday.)  More importantly, though, the book helps develop a greater sense of what God’s doing in the world: sending missionaries Brazil to Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, from China to the Congo, from Guatemala to Kurdistan.  Filipino Christians working in the Middle East as maids and construction workers building developments like the Burj Kalifa – and carrying their faith with them.

As Rah says in The Next Evangelicalism, “the real emerging church is the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America that continues to grow by leaps and bounds . . .” (p. 124).  I’m grateful to Adeney for providing a glimpse into that church.  Now to keep my attention focused there this year . . .