Category Archives: Kingdom

Involving Evangelicals in the Interfaith Movement

I am an evangelical Christian. If you’re a regular reader here, you already know that.

We can argue about what being an evangelical Christian means, or even if it means anything at all (a professor of religion recently told me that it doesn’t mean anything at all, as you can imagine I really loved that — insert eye roll here). The long and short of it for me is that I want everyone to be in relationship with Jesus, know the love and grace of God, and that I believe when it’s all said and done, some will enter the Kingdom of God, and some will not. It also means I take the scriptures to be the true Word of God (yes Word with a capital “W”) and I also really dig contemporary Christian worship.

It confounds Christians and non-Christians alike why I – an evangelical Christian – would even bother with interfaith cooperation. For those new to the interfaith conversation, one of the guidelines of interfaith events and dialogue is that we will not proselytize. In other words, to be a participant in a formal interfaith project or dialogue there is an agreement that those participating will not try to convert each other. It has to be a space for people to learn, gain insight, and build relationships. If you’re trying to convert someone, you’re usually not trying to hear their story, learn about their worldview and you’re definitely into promoting whatever truth you hold dear.

Proselytism (or to use Christian lingo – evangelism) is important to my spiritual practice. It’s important to a lot of other peoples’ practice as well (those who belong to ISKON, certain Muslim communities, heck – even to some atheists!). The Interfaith Movement is not about watering down identity or praxis. It is into “pluralism”positive engagement between people of different religious and non-religious identities. So difference is key here, and authenticity is important as well. So to agree to this guideline of no proselytism at an interfaith event, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily agreeing to it in every aspect of your life.

I don’t mean to make this sound simple or easy. It is complex and challenging to be a person who understands evangelism to be important and who understands interfaith cooperation and dialogue to be important. But for me, nothing worth doing is easy – I love nuance and mystery and complexity – all of these things are ingredients to a great adventure, and interfaith cooperation and dialogue are nothing short of an adventure.

All of that being said – I think there are some things that the interfaith movement can do to be more open to those of us for whom evangelism (or proselytism) is central to our praxis – (Note: these don’t apply only to Christian evangelicals):

1 – Create a Safe Space: Most interfaith dialogue I have been a part of sets up a “safe space” before engaging in dialogue. I know we do at just about every event we do at the UNF Interfaith Center. As I mentioned before, there is a guideline within the movement that participants will not try to convert others. I think that’s great for these types of events, however when you are explaining this guideline to your group, be sure to use positive language when talking about proselytism. Evangelicals are not ignorant of the negative connotation evangelism has for many people. In order to keep the evangelicals (or other faith groups who might also proselytize) from feeling defensive be sure to affirm evangelism as something that is positive for many people and that you’re not asking them to give up evangelism altogether, but to simply suspend it for your time together.

2 – Make sure everyone in the room knows it’s okay to disagree. Often time outsiders think interfaith cooperation is all about how “we’re all the same.” While I do think talking about our similarities is important, particularly for creating common ground and building relationships, sometimes evangelicals can be made to feel like the “bad guy” because they’re not willing to say “all beliefs are created equal.” For evangelicals (and many other faith identities) it is important for them to feel okay about the fact that they believe Jesus is the one and only savior, and the only way to the Kingdom is through him. If pluralism really is about engaging people of different religious and non-religious identities – it has to be okay for us to disagree. I am not saying you should let people be disrespectful during your dialogue – this is why “I-statements” and other Safe Space Guidelines are important. (You can go here for more information on Safe Space guidelines.

 

3 – Give evangelicals opportunities to talk about their faith. If you haven’t noticed, evangelicals LOVE to talk about their faith and of course, about Jesus. Yes, it is very important for evangelicals to hear about the faith and beliefs of others. Arguably, evangelicals don’t do this enough (does anyone do it enough??). That being said, evangelicals are going to feel a lot better about what your interfaith group is doing if they’re being given equal opportunity to share. It seems like it should go without saying, but it doesn’t. Because evangelicals are viewed to be the “religious majority” in our country, in my experience, it is often the case that evangelicals are expected to take a backseat in interfaith dialogue. The truth is, just like any religious/non-religious identity, there is a lot of misunderstanding about evangelicals – particularly around their views of salvation. Evangelicalism is incredibly diverse, and it is becoming a more and more complicated identity every day. So why not give an evangelical Christian an opportunity to dissect some of those misunderstandings? At the interfaith center where I work we have an event called Coffee and Conversation where we give students, faculty, staff and community members an opportunity to talk about their identity. We set up Safe Space Guidelines, the speaker talks for about 15 minutes, and then we open up for questions for the remainder of the hour. I have found them to be an incredibly meaningful experience for the speakers and a great opportunity for the participants to deconstruct stereotypes and misunderstanding while building relationships with people of different religious and non-religious identities.

As the Interfaith Movement grows it will be increasingly important for us to find new ways to communicate with each other. As the movement becomes more diverse, we’ll also have to find new ways to be as inclusive as possible. If you’re struggling to get evangelicals involved in your interfaith programming – feel free to peruse our blog or contact us!

Share Button

Ripples of Peace: Confess, Repent, Learn, Speak Up

Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace…-Romans 14:19

 

Real talk – it’s not looking good

In fact, it’s looking pretty damn bleak.

The headlines these last few weeks have gone from bad, to worse, to downright depressing.

Particularly distressing for Christians around the world, and specifically Christians of my Facebook newsfeed, is the violent persecution of Christians in Iraq. I’m sure you’ve noticed a particular Arabic letter acting as your friends’ profile pictures, or the use of the hashtag #WeAreN. This comes from reports that ISIS militants were marking the homes of Iraqi Christians with the arabic letter “N,” meaning “Nazarene” or “Christian,” in order for those homes to be targeted. Apparently, Christians are being told to convert, or die, and many have been killed (there is an informative interview with the creator of the #WeAreN hashtag which you can read here and can offer you some more context).

I think it’s important for Christians to remember the universal church community of which they are a part. Often times our own American nationalism, and our Protestant denominationalism, can keep us from remembering our role in the greater body of Christ. That being said, I also think it’s very important for us to remember that Christians aren’t the only religious minority being driven from their homes, and killed.

When we peer out from behind the safety blanket of our first amendment into the lives of others and see such ruthless, meaningless violence against people simply because of their religious beliefs, it’s natural for us to want to do something. But we don’t know what the heck to do. So we resort to things like changing our profile picture, or using social media to spread awareness. these things (like changing our profile picture) can be helpful, and they can help us feel like we’re doing something to create a ripple of peace in this world – and I think that’s okay.

However, I wanted to make a few suggestions for simple ways (simple- not always easy) you can begin to make ripples, and hopefully eventually a tide, of peace.

1.  Confess:

Admit what your prejudices are – say them aloud to a friend, to yourself, to God. When we name our prejudices aloud, we realize so many of those prejudices are based on fear and misunderstanding. When we confess our prejudices aloud, we have an opportunity to learn how we ourselves perpetuate a culture of intolerance through our own ignorance, misunderstanding and fear. When we confess our prejudices aloud to God, we are opening our hearts to see others the way God sees them.

2.  Repent:

Once you have acknowledged your prejudices – repent. Repentance humbles us before God and others, reminding us that we are often in the wrong. Not only must we feel regret for the prejudice we’ve felt and believed, we must turn away from them completely. As Christians in a religiously diverse world, it is easy for us to believe we are always in the right, but history has shown us that that is definitely not true (think Spanish Inquisition, theologically defended slavery in the U.S., etc.). Pride is a dangerous road which often leads to violence. Pride and peace are like oil and water and pride is an oily slippery slope. Turn away from pride; instead, humble yourselves in service to others.

3.  Learn

Once you’ve confessed your prejudices and repented, you can humble yourself before others by learning. There are two ways in which I believe learning can help us create more peace in the world. First, learn about the believe systems of others. I’ve noticed that “open-mindedness” is often confused with wishy-washy political correctness (I actually believe political correctness can be very important for inclusion – but that’s a different topic). I believe, on the other hand, that open-mindedness is actually a willingness to check our presumptions at the door in order to listen and learn about others. We don’t have to not believe what we believe in order to be open-minded. Learning about others, particularly the belief system of those from different worldviews (religious or non-religious), can lead to more positive attitudes about others, thus leading to positive relationships with others (see more at www.ifyc.org/about). What’s the worst that could happen if you decide to learn more about another person – you make a new friend? Being willing to learn more about others helps us understand more fully that we are all created in God’s image and we might have more in common than you might expect. What better way to create more peace in the world than through new friendships and relationships?

Second, learn about the hardships of other people groups (whether those are religious groups, ethnic groups, etc.). Believe it or not, one of the things that all religious/non-religious groups in the United States have in common is that every group has experienced some kind of religious intolerance. Religious intolerance is understood broadly; it takes many different forms. Vandalism of religious buildings, stereotypes, misrepresentation in the media, discrimination, violence – these are ways that people experience religious intolerance. Feeling persecuted because your biology professor scoffs at your Christian view of creation? Learn about the experiences of Muslim girls getting their hijabs torn off in their school hallways. Or read about the persecution the Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, minority Muslim groups and others in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State currently. You’ll soon find out that you’re not the only one experiencing religious intolerance. Perhaps your experience will help you feel empathy for others – even those you would not normally identify with. Perhaps this empathy will inspire you to act on behalf of others as well – whether it’s through prayer, writing, community organizing, raising aid funds, etc.

4.  Speak Up for Others

I’ve heard a lot of fellow Christians get really offended by the lack of coverage about the persecution of Christians in Iraq (heck – I know I have). Thankfully it seems the media has finally taken notice. However, I’ve noticed Christians are very quick to spread the news about the persecution of their brothers and sisters in Christ, yet I rarely see a fellow Christian talk about the Yezidis or other Muslim minority groups also experiencing violence and even death because of their religious identity in Iraq (not to mention religious violence experienced by Muslims in Mynmar, or Muslims and Christians in India, etc.). I’m not blaming them – I get it. As I listened to NPR yesterday morning they talked for several minutes about the persecution experienced by Yezidis in Iraq, and there wasn’t a single word about Christians in Iraq. Now, I have heard NPR cover the persecution of Christians in the last few weeks, but in that moment I immediately felt alienated.

But why should I feel alienated?

It’s important people know what’s happening to Yezidis, just as it is important for people to know what’s happening to religious groups all over the world who are experiencing extreme persecution.

All that to say – I think it would say a lot more about what it means to follow Christ if we as Christians were just as quick to stand up and speak up for all groups who experience violence, discrimination, and displacement on account of what they believe. It’s important for us to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are being killed and displaced because they believe in the same gospel we do; it’s important that we spread the news of what’s happening to them. I think it’s just as important, however, to speak up for others, even those we would not normally identify with.

Proverbs 31:8 tells us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” With social media a mobile device away – it’s easier to speak up for others now more than it ever has been.

Let’s stand against violence by speaking on behalf of others in the name of peace, and in the name of the coming Kingdom we so fervently are hoping for. Let’s drop all defensiveness, pride, and prejudice, tear down the wall of division and build a bridge of peace, remembering that it is our duty as Christians not only to stand up and speak out on behalf of each other, but also for others.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the violence and hatred in this world. It’s easy to feel bogged down by the enormity of it all and simply sit, paralyzed to do anything. But I believe if we confess, repent, learn and speak up on behalf of others – then we can create small ripples of peace in our own lives. Who knows – maybe this way we can create ripples of peace in other lives too.

photo credit: ecstaticist via photopin cc

Share Button

Lord Bring your Kingdom: A Holy Week Reflection on Overland Park

Palm Sunday inaugurates Christian Holy Week each year. It commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem the week before his death and subsequent resurrection. I love Palm Sunday because it is not only the beginning of my favorite time in the Christian liturgical calendar, but because it celebrates peace. It celebrates that Jesus was not only the incarnation of eternal Love, but that he was the full embodiment of peace. Palm Sunday not only initiates the events of Holy Week, but foreshadows the eternal Kingdom – a Kingdom of peace, where redemption, mercy, justice, and of course love, are ever-present in the world, and darkness is cast away. As Christians, we believe it is Jesus, the Christ – our messiah – who initiated this Kingdom into being with his resurrection, and will eventually bring the Kingdom to its fullness when he returns in his Second Coming. So, on Palm Sunday, we wave our palm branches and shout, “Hosanna, blessed is the One who comes in the name of The Lord,” in recognition that Christ is our King who shall one day reign forever in the name of peace.

This past Sunday, as in every Palm Sunday that I can remember prior, I did just that: I celebrated the peace that is present, and fullness of peace that is coming. I waved my palm branch and sang Hosanna alongside my husband and brothers and sisters in Christ at First United Methodist Church in St. Augustine. On the walk home in the warm Florida sun I felt optimistic and hopeful, and full of love.

It was a normal, peaceful Sunday until a Twitter notification told me that several people I follow tweeted the same news story – the headline read “Shootings reported at two Jewish Centers in Overland Park, Kansas.” As I continued reading I learned that 3 people had been killed, and that the shootings were being investigated as a hate crime. Reports say the man yelled “heil, Hitler” as he was arrested, and that he has a long history of bigoted hatred.

When I guest teach college courses on religious pluralism, I often start by talking about religious intolerance. I define religious intolerance very generally. It could be stereotyping, discrimination, verbal abuse, or even violence of a person or people because of their religious or non-religious identity. I often do an exercise to illustrate all the ways different groups experience religious intolerance. I explain that in 6 different states Atheists are prohibited from running for public office; Christians experience misrepresentation in the media; Muslims often have to show up at the airport earlier than other folks because the know they’re going to be extra screening at “random,” while many a Muslim girl has had her hijab ripped off her head in a high school hallway; more than one Sikh has been killed or brutally beaten in the United States because they were wearing a turban after 9/11; Jews are ridiculed for being greedy and often experience vandalism of their synagogues and temples. I could go on and on and on. Students are often shocked to hear about the level of religious intolerance that exists in the United States. Many of them have experienced religious intolerance themselves, but believed that it was only their group that experienced hatred, fear or misunderstanding because of what they believed. Religious intolerance in the United States, believe it or not, is actually a common thread among all of our religi
ous/non-religious identities.

While I do full-time interfaith work, and religious intolerance is something I’m keenly aware of, it is still a shock when I see such ruthless violence because of religious hatred; particularly on a day when peace is to be celebrated. It reminds me that there is a long history of Holy Week related violence. In the Middle Ages in Europe, on Good Friday Christians would go out and beat or kill Jews after becoming impassioned by a Good Friday sermon, which taught them that Jews were responsible for Christ’s death (they were never reminded that Jesus himself was Jewish). While religious violence and hatred are nothings new, there are new ways to prevent and correct such hatred. The new Interfaith Movement can move us in the direction of religious peace and understanding in our country, and even world.

I am reminded this Palm Sunday about the WHY of Interfaith. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation is about promoting religious literacy; meaning, creating a world where we seek understanding about our religious and non-religious neighbors, rather that perpetuating assumption which often leads to fear, misunderstanding, and ultimately hatred. Scripture teaches us that what lives in our heart is just as important as what we act out in our lives (“Anyone who hates his brothers or sister is a murderer,” I John 3:15).

Maybe you’ve never pulled a trigger on someone because they were a different religion than you, but any time you have felt a hint of hatred, or judgment, or distaste about someone because of what they believed – you have sinned and sin is the Great Enemy of peace.

As Christians, it is our role to reflect the Kingdom we so eagerly look forward to. It is our duty to be embodiments of peace. I believe that Interfaith dialogue, relationships and cooperation is one avenue through which we can reflect God’s Kingdom of Peace.

Ask your Muslim or Jewish neighbor to coffee this week as an act of love and get to know them. Ask them what they believe – what is their religion all about? And not as a way to gather intel for conversion ammunition later on, but as a way to truly know them, and to truly love them. This is how we can make this a world where people don’t get shot because they’re Jewish, or Christian or Atheist, etc.

Let us meditate this Holy Week on Christ’s triumphal entry, which was an action sermon that preached peace. While we mourn the loss of life in Overland Park, and mourn the horrifying hatred demonstrated there, let us pray, “Lord bring you Kingdom.” And until that Kingdom comes in its fullness, let us act peace mediators by actively loving our diverse religious and non-religious neighbors.

Share Button

Advent, Apocalypse, and Interfaith Cooperation?

As a seminary student, I have spent a lot of time in the classroom learning about the Bible. But this past Sunday I just preached for the first time at the main service of my Episcopal church in New York City, standing on a high-rise lectern in front of 150+ churchgoers. It didn’t make it any easier that this week was a pretty important one in the liturgical calendar—Sunday was the first day of the entire church year, and the first Sunday of Advent (the season that leads up to Christmas). The fascinating thing about the lectionary texts that kick off the New Year is that they are apocalyptic—they’re not about fresh starts or new beginnings; instead, they warn believers to prepare for judgment at the end of the world.

As I worked on my sermon, it struck me that the Second Coming of Christ is probably not a topic of many interfaith discussions. But why isn’t it? I started to realize that Christian anticipation of the Second Coming actually has a lot to do with building a future of interfaith cooperation.

The Second (or final) Coming is the idea that Jesus will return to earth at some unknown time to the finish the work he began over 2,000 years ago. While most mainline Christian denominations agree that Jesus will return, the exact nature of that return is heavily debated. Some churches emphasize their belief in the idea of a rapture in which the people of the world will be divided. These traditions hold that there will be war, fire, and severe suffering until Jesus arrives to establish the Kingdom of God with those who have remained faithful.

Other Christians envision a broken world that is miraculously revived through the return of Jesus, who is able to establish his Kingdom of love, peace, and justice for all people on earth.

In both cases, and in all the many beliefs not cited here, Christians are asked to bear witness to the possibility that the end of world, as we know it, is drawing near. This means that Christians are called to live in a way that continuously prepares for the return of Jesus. We have to ask ourselves, to what world do we want Jesus to return? What do we want the world to be like when our Savior arrives?

If you are part of a Christian tradition that observes the liturgical calendar, then you know that Advent is our main season for preparation—but Christians are called to prepare for the Coming of the Lord at all times, not just at appointed seasons. I want to prepare a world for Jesus in which Christians are kind neighbors to those of other religious traditions. I want to prepare a world in which there is an end to poverty, an end to bullying, and an end to greed. I want to prepare my own heart for Jesus by striving to spend more time in prayer than I do on social media, more time building community than I do complaining about how my communities aren’t strong enough.

How will you prepare for the Coming of Christ? In what kind of world do you want to meet Jesus?

Share Button

Interfaith Work is Child’s Play

I have heard Jesus’ famous statement in Matthew 18 about becoming like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven many times, but this verse has taken on special meaning for me over the last few months. Unlike many other seminary students who use their long summer break to take extra classes, work for a local parish, or even complete their Clinical Pastoral Education–I decided to take another route.  I have spent the entire summer babysitting.

I work for a few families each week and, with some other odd jobs here and there, have managed to make it a more than full-time gig. To be honest, babysitting has been more challenging than any other job I’ve held. Of course it is fun and enriching in many ways, but it can also be draining, frustrating, and confusing. When Jesus instructed us to become like little children did he mean that we should throw temper tantrums when our caretakers refuse to buy us ice cream (after we already had an ice cream earlier in the day!)? Did Jesus mean that we should refuse to go to bed until someone has read us every single book we own, sung us all of our favorite songs, and made several trips to the kitchen to get us water and snacks even after we’ve brushed our teeth? Did Jesus mean we should refuse to share our toys with other kids at the park, or say mean things to our siblings? Okay, enough complaining. I know that Jesus meant he wanted us to become trusting, open-hearted, and earnest in that way that is difficult for even the most thoughtful adults, but seems to come to kids so naturally. Jesus wanted us to have the kind of awe for God’s creation that is part of each child’s journey through the world. But maybe Jesus also knew that children don’t always fit the angelic trope that many readers of Matthew 18 would like them to.  Children fight, lie, cheat, and do mean things, just like the rest of us.

Matthew 18:4 continues: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus actually instructs us to become “humble” or “lowly” like children, to become small. Despite their eccentricities, children are undeniably humble. They ask tons of questions and they aren’t afraid to say so when they don’t understand. They let their curiosity and their imaginations lead them into new relationships and new experiences, regardless of difference. One of the girls I babysit makes friends everywhere we go by approaching a child and asking: “How old are you?” After the child answers, she says: “Oh, I’m four. Not four and a half, just four. Do you want to play with me?” She is bold and confident, but so completely childlike in her direct approach to friendship.

I think we Christians can learn from children as we explore interfaith cooperation. As we strive to become like children, let us learn to take a couple steps back. Let’s ask questions, let’s seek out new friendships without letting our judgments and intellects get in the way; let’s figure out how to play and work together.

 

Share Button

Interfaith Dialogue and Youth Ministry

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Growing up an Evangelical Christian I understood evangelism as a spiritual practice central and essential to my Christian identity. My experience with people of different religions was limited and in my few choice encounters with religious non-Christians, I am ashamed to say I saw them only as souls to save.

Though as a student at Flagler College I was a Religion major, minoring in youth ministry, it was not until my junior year of college that I was introduced to interfaith dialogue and to theologians such as Jacques Dupuis and Thomas Merton. I liked the idea, but wrestled with interfaith dialogue, questioning its relevance to Christian practice when the goal of such interactions was not conversion of the other.

Then I met Rabbi Mark.

Rabbi Mark Goldman, a Reform Rabbi and adjunct professor at Flagler, challenged his students to better understand their own faith by engaging in relationships with people of other faiths. To this day I admire his love of God and passion for people. His great ability to articulate his own faith and what it means for his life challenged me to better articulate my own.

Yet even in light of my relationship with Rabbi Mark, I continuously compartmentalized my two areas of study, rarely understanding one to be relevant to the other.

Then I took a class here at Princeton Theological Seminary called “Engaging Youth in Interfaith Leadership.” The class, co-led by IFYC’s Cassie Meyer and Eboo Patel and Seminary professor Kenda Dean, gave my fellow graduate students and me an opportunity to explore concepts of interfaith dialogue and how they are relevant for youth ministry.

Our class wrestled to understand how interfaith work is relevant for Christian faith and ministry. Many of us expressed that we understood interfaith work and dialogue as important but were unable to theologically articulate why. Instead we danced around the idea of interfaith dialogue with reasons having seemingly nothing to do with our Christian faith. Some in the class, including myself, had come to realize interfaith dialogue as fruitful and important, but had compartmentalized our interfaith relationships from our Christian faith and practice.

It was at this point that Eboo asked us, “What is it about Jesus that makes you want to do interfaith work?”

I then realized that for me Jesus had been the missing link between interfaith dialogue, Christian practice and youth ministry. Jesus tells us in Mark 2 that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. The kind of love to which Jesus calls me is a relational love. Christ’s love in the Gospels exemplifies love in God’s Kingdom. As Christians we are called to love as Christ loved.

The love of God accepts all people, embraces all people, and hopes for all people, including those of other faiths. Interfaith dialogue is essential to Christian practice because love and relationship is essential to Christian practice. When I made this connection, it was not difficult to make the next connection to youth ministry.

In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” Interfaith work gives young people an opportunity to be peacemakers in a very real and very practical way. Isn’t the role of Christian youth ministry to equip young people to understand their role as Children of God in the Kingdom of God?

I have come to understand that interfaith work in youth ministry enables young people to be paradigms of peace in a violent world while equipping them to be examples of God’s love and a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

This post was originally published on Interfaith Youth Core’s Blog on June 1, 2011

Share Button

From Ghana to West Virginia: Lessons about the Kingdom

I wrote this piece during a recent visit to Cape Coast, Ghana as part of an observational experience with the Global Health Initiative at the University of Illinois.

It’s a 10 hour flight between Washington D.C. and Accra, Ghana, giving me ample time to notice the group of twenty on the plane in front of me wearing matching t-shirts. The group displayed alternating colors of light blue and lime green and a logo that read “Kingdom Expansion” across their left breast.

They were from somewhere in West Virginia. And they got me thinking.

My first reaction was cynical. I was about to embark on an academic journey relevant to my graduate research, medical training, and interest in global health. As such, I initially felt some sort of self-righteous superiority, thinking back to my own “matching t-shirt” experience (ours were bright blue) —a “Go & Serve” mission trip to Jamaica when I was a freshman in high school—and feeling as though the current context of my travel was more sophisticated this time around.

To be honest, I assumed this “Kingdom Expansion” group was out to convert the people of Ghana to Christianity. And though that’s not something I believe to be a bad thing, the way in which I imagined them implementing their evangelism strategy left me feeling a combination of embarrassment and anxiety.

Keep in mind: this is all going on in my head. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions.

So what was this group of brightly-clothed Christians who, for some reason, I didn’t trust to communicate the gospel effectively and respectfully, really out do to? Many of them were rough, middle-aged guys who had donned work boots and jeans with their uniform t-shirts for the 10 hours of backache-producing absence of legroom. So in reality, all clues pointed to a crew ready to build a house or fix a school – not the insensitive street-corner evangelicals I was afraid of, always ready to talk but never willing to listen.

Several days later I’m flipping through my pocket-sized Bible by the light of the single light bulb in my hotel room, the West Virginia group on my mind. I asked myself: Why was I so bitter about a group of Christians set out to “expand the kingdom?” And, more importantly, what does expanding the kingdom really mean?

First I’ll address the bitterness, which comes with a confession. I struggle sometimes to trust other Christians with communicating the gospel because of the prevalence of poorly-directed messages about sin and repentance which present Christ-followers as judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical instead of compassionate, humble and authentic. But I realize that I lacked any real knowledge about their intentions, and had based everything only on their matching t-shirts and rugged footwear. Needless to say, I realized that my concerns were irrational.

Meditating on the reality of that irrationality brought me quickly to reflection on the kingdom.

You see, I’m convinced that God calls me to a career in academia. The university best positions me with my strengths and gifts to serve the least of these and to work for the expansion of the kingdom of God. But it’s not an infrequent temptation to accept the irrational sense that other callings are less significant or Christ-centered than my own. And while my passion for God’s calling has me convinced that God’s plan for me is the most incredible thing in the world, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that the central concept defining kingdom-expansion is broader than my own past, present, or future experience. In short, it’s bigger than me.

So somewhere in the process of thumbing through New Testament parables and puzzling over their meaning, I realized that the understanding for which I had been searching was hiding in plain sight.

But the answer is not about where you look; it’s about how you look at it. I learned that the answer can be seen in Ghana on the shack-lined dirt roads through which open sewers run, and in the clinics where medical supplies are scarce and good doctors even scarcer. And it can be seen in the eyes of children – some malnourished, sick or barely clothed – who respond with a mix of curiosity and excitement to the appearance of a foreign face.

In Ghana, there are so many opportunities to love. It’s a concept so plain that it could fit in a text message:

“Love one another,” he said. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34).

Interfaith work has taught me that loving others involves getting to know people personally – learning each person’s story and the philosophy that has both driven that story and been formed by it.

I think I was afraid that my fellow passengers from West Virginia weren’t aware of that lesson, and that their efforts at expanding the kingdom would suffer as a result. But something has reminded me that I shouldn’t assume they haven’t realized that Jesus valued relationships.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and the West Virginia crew will be on my flight home as well. Then I can ask them what they were doing to expand the kingdom in Ghana, and I’ll be careful this time not to make assumptions. Because although we’re provided with a rather ubiquitous model for love in the character of Christ, implementing that concept probably looks different for a second-year MD/PhD student from Illinois than it does for rugged guy from West Virginia.

Share Button

When the Interfaith Movement and the Kingdom Intersect

Appearing Monday in the online edition of USA Today was an opinion article titled “Can cause of social justice tame our culture wars?” which carries certain significance in our discussion here at Faith Line Protestants regarding being an evangelical in a religiously diverse world.

The article, which highlights Scott Todd’s “58:” project and mentions Q Ideasa forum for Christian leaders to explore the call to create a better world – and Q founder Gabe Lyons (author of “The Next Christians”) who describes a new generation of Christians who have found the Bible’s call to serve others to hold significant relevance in their lives today.

“These are, after all, the people who accept responsibility to right seemingly every global wrong you can name while restoring the credibility of publicly expressed Christianity in the process. But the workload is exhausting only when they lose connection with their ultimate power source…”

So we’re not talking the Saturday afternoon all-church workday sort of service at which most congregations seem to excel.  We’re talking about defending the oppressed, fighting poverty, and addressing other global problems.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

Isaiah 58:6-7

What’s more –as Lyons says – this is the activation of a network of “restorers who will work with anyone to see goodness go forward in the world and evil pressed back.”  That’s right: anyone.  After all, where is the commandment in our faith to only feed the hungry or defend the helpless if we’re only doing it with other Christians?  It reminds me of the essence of the interfaith movement.

It seems that Lyons has captured the realization that, for practical purposes, we must be willing – even eager – to work with both the nonreligious as well as people of other faith traditions.  Perhaps he has also realized that serving together has even greater potential than just maximizing the impact of our physical work (as we’ve discussed many times here on Faith Line Protestants).

Working together for common goals fosters relationships, promotes conversation, and provides us as evangelicals with the opportunity to communicate the message that Jesus was preaching – the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  If that’s going to tame our culture wars… well, I can live with that.

 

Look for more discussion of Gabe Lyons’ book “Next Christians” here in the coming months and an understanding of how Lyons’ discussion of being Christian in a post-Christian world intersects with our discussion here at FLP.

Share Button