Tag Archives: Service

3 Goals for the New Year

I know that New Year’s was last week, but if you’re like me, you might be little late setting goals for 2015. Many people commit to losing weight or being more active at the start of a New Year, but I think there is also a great opportunity to reflect on our lives as Christians and set goals for walking more closely with God.

Here are three goals from scripture that I hope to follow in the New Year:

1)    Do not put the LORD your God to the test (Matt 4:7)

When we set specific expectations for God to help us in particular ways, or bring us new opportunities, or make something better in our lives, we are testing God and setting ourselves up for disappointment. As Christians, we know that Jesus did not abandon us in his death on the cross, but rose to new life so that we might also share in the promises of the Kingdom of Heaven. We celebrated God’s coming into the world on Christmas and we know that God continues to be with us in all moments and in all aspects of our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet we often test the presence and work of God by praying for specific outcomes or solutions–I know I do. And testing God in this way can make us blind to the unexpected and remarkable ways God works in the world.

As a seminary student, I can sometimes feel confused or conflicted about the things I learn and the conversations I have with my classmates. For a long time this semester I was praying for God to move in my courses and to help me find ways to feel more connected to my classmates. I didn’t feel like God was responding to my prayers and I felt frustrated. It wasn’t until I had a long phone conversation with a Jewish friend of mine from college. She and I vented together about our struggles in graduate school and laughed out loud about some of the ridiculous (and frustrating) experiences we were having. For whatever reason, that conversation lifted something in me that allowed me to go back to school with renewed energy and fresh insight. Nothing actually changed in my school life, but I realized later that God had answered my prayers in an unexpected way. I wonder how many times God has worked in my life and I have missed it because I have been testing, or waiting for God to respond my way.

2)    Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven (Matt 5:16)

As a student it is easy for me to theorize and theologize, but it is much harder to put my thoughts and beliefs into action. The question I want to ask myself this year is: how will I share my Christian faith with others? If it is only by the cross around my neck, or my attendance at church, or what I know about Christian thought and practice, then I have missed a big part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We should be able to show our faith through our actions and how we treat others. I think about the story of the Good Samaritan and I wonder how often I have passed by opportunities to help others because of racial, religious, or cultural differences. I wonder what opportunities I have missed to receive help from others because of those same differences.

Jesus seems to imply that when we do good, the people around us will recognize the power and grace of God. This year I want to commit to letting my actions speak louder than my thoughts and words. Whether it is standing in solidarity with people of color who are targets of police brutality, or smiling at a Muslim woman wearing a hijab on the subway who is receiving skeptical stares from other passengers, or listening with care and sincerity to the stories of people who are radically different than myself–I want to strive to do good for the sake of bringing greater glory to God.

3)    Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt 11:28)

Life is tiring and sometimes school work, regular work, friends, family, and all of the challenges of life can feel overwhelming. Sometimes I have so many questions and concerns that it is hard to fall asleep at night. This year, I want to commit to giving my questions and my burdens to God. You might be thinking: easier said than done. I feel like that a lot. But God promises us to give us rest from our hardships. Jesus offers himself to us and allows us to rest in the knowledge that he can handle even our most difficult situations. Jesus invites us to fall into his arms and rest. I want to commit to accepting God’s grace and resisting the pride that makes me feel as if I can handle everything on my own. For many around the globe, 2014 was a year of tragedy, loss, and frustration. What to do in the face of unexplainable, or insurmountable struggle is not easy to figure out on one’s own.

At my school last semester, students strived to figure out how to respond to the threats of police brutality in black and brown communities in our city, New York. As I watched students pray and cry and ask God for guidance, I realized how little I am sometimes willing to do this in my own life. Eventually what was born on our campus was a thoughtful and coordinated response of peaceful organizing, bold action, and open dialogue. Students did not just give their problems to God and pray for peace of mind; they offered their sadness and anger to God and received insight and renewed energy for action.

I wonder how I can seek rest and refuge in the knowledge of God’s grace and how God might take my burdens and offer me opportunities or new perspectives and new action in 2015.

So these are some of my goals for the New Year. What are your goals? How do you hope to strengthen your relationship to God this year? How will you commit to embracing God’s creation, striving for God’s justice on earth, and seeking the personal strength to let the light of Christ shine in you in all that you do? This year, 2015, will be different for each of us, but the mission of knowing God, serving God, and striving for God’s Kingdom is the same for all of us–sometimes setting goals can make our path a little clear.

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When Hunger Action is Interfaith Collaboration

A friend once told me that religious institutions outnumber hospitals one thousand to one in some developing countries. While I don’t know where I’d begin to find verification of this statement, I don’t have a hard time believing it. And as an MD/PhD student interested in global health, it has me thinking.

Religious institutions can bring structure, leadership, and accountability to people and communities. They can also have a tremendous influence on congregants or followers. For a negative example, consider the Texas megachurch which appears to be at the center of a recent measles outbreak, and the role of the congregation’s culture may have played in discouraging immunization. One might imagine the potential impact on health if the cultures promoted by religious institutions worldwide encouraged healthy lifestyles or even provided the infrastructure for prevention, screening, diagnosis or treatment of certain diseases.

As activists on my campus turn to emphasize a related issue this month – food insecurity – the same thought experiment applies. September has been deemed Hunger Action Month by Feeding America in order to promote awareness and action around hunger issues in the United States, and it has me thinking about how religious institutions have been engaging this problem in my own community.

For example, Sola Gratia Farm is a community-supported agriculture initiative of the St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, IL which donates at least ten percent of its crops to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and promotes healthy lifestyles through community programs. Or take for example the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign, IL, which is opening a food pantry this fall to address largely overlooked food insecurity among college students. Or the Wesley Evening Food Pantry, operating out of the Wesley United Methodist Church and Foundation on my campus, which engages people from all walks of life, including the Unitarian Universalist Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to serve more than 1,000 individuals who are struggling to make ends meet at the end of each month when SNAP benefits are running low.

Perhaps the most compelling are these examples of the way that religious institutions have turned to interfaith collaboration to address food insecurity in our community. The First Mennonite Church and Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, situated on opposite sides of one of Urbana’s busiest streets, took advantage of their proximity to collaborate on a community garden, donating produce to a local women’s shelter. Meanwhile, student organizations like the Muslim Students Association, Jain Students Association, Dharma (a Hindu students organization), Interfaith in Action, and others across campus have collaborated to hold fundraising fast-a-thons or to package food to send to local food banks and pantries.

I won’t pretend that I know the solution to hunger in any context. But I do believe that religious institutions and interfaith collaborations in Champaign-Urbana are demonstrating an approach worth considering. And as a Christian, I view this less as an opportunity and more as a responsibility. Yet I fear that there are still too many churches sitting on the sidelines and watching.

What if religious institutions like the First Mennonite Church or the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center were the norm instead of the exception? What if hunger action was something that religious communities saw as a necessary part of their role in the broader community? What if we all expected our institutions to invest in efforts with both religious and non-religious collaborators? What if all Jesus followers fully embraced the Christian call to feed the hungry and were willing to do it alongside people of other traditions?

I believe religious institutions possess the capacity to make a difference in our society, and that interfaith collaborations can motivate fundamental change. I also believe we can all agree that no one should go hungry. So what will you do this month to help realize this potential we collectively bear?

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/foodbankcenc/ available under Creative Commons.
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Listen to Barbara Brown Taylor on the Good Samaritan

If you’re looking for a mid-week sermon fix, check out this powerful message delivered by Barbara Brown Taylor at Riverside Church in New York City last Sunday.

Here’s a preview:  “I became a Christian in my twenties and I was always told to get my beliefs in order before I did things…but based on the story of the Good Samaritan, I wonder if things don’t work the other way around.  Maybe our lives are designed to upset our beliefs, not to reinforce them.”  Click on the link to hear the whole sermon: “The Right Answer”

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5 Types of Christians: Philanthropists (part 5 of 6)

This article is part 5 in a series inspired by Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians. As I read this book, I felt like Lyons’ insight was particularly relevant to our discussion of evangelical involvement in the interfaith movement. Be sure to check out The Next Christians and check back here for part 6 of this series!

The philanthropists (as Gabe Lyons calls them in Next Christians) may be the most compelled toward interfaith work while still lacking a strong call to be evangelical in the interfaith space. After all, the interfaith movement is built on shared values like feeding the hungry, ending oppression, and fighting poverty – activities that are deeply motivated by the Christian tradition.

But while I perhaps identify the most with a philanthropist of any of Gabe Lyons’ categories discussed thus far (by the way, we’re referring to the Christian who is driven to help others, not necessarily the excessively wealthy who make noble donations), the philanthropist lacks the urgency of sharing and spreading the gospel.

Here is how Gabe Lyons describes them:

“Putting an emphasis on doing good works is their defining mark. They serve in soup kitchens, clean garbage off the side of the highway, and help lead Boy Scout troops. One of their highest values is to make the world a better place. Some admit to enjoying a sense of earning God’s approval through their efforts.”

The problem, however, is that the philanthropists risk losing sight of the message that should motivate this work. Many philanthropists seem to be doing good works because Jesus did, not because of who Jesus is. Lyons explains: “what’s missing is the compelling narrative of the Gospel from which all their good works emanate.”

So what does the philanthropist offer to our interest in communicating the gospel in the context of the interfaith movement? They’re good people to know, of course, and perhaps their lifestyle of kindness can do something positive in breaking down stereotypes held by those who have had sour experiences with Christians. What I have realized through being involved in interfaith work, however, is that doing service is only part of the goal – it is just as necessary to be able to tell the story that motivates the service. The inspiring thing to me is that, while many can tell a story of how one example of good deeds motivated another, only a Christian can say that their service is motivated by God becoming man, making the ultimate sacrifice in death and rising from the dead, in part symbolizing the restoration that he offers to all of humankind.

When this message of restoration is communicated from Christian to non-Christian through interfaith cooperation, then we have discovered how to be evangelicals in a religiously diverse world. Should we as Christians lose sight of this good news, then we have lost sight also of the reason why we serve.

Articles in this series:
Part 1: The insiders
Part 2: The culture warriors
Part 3: The evangelizers
Part 4: The blenders
Part 5: The philanthropists
Part 6: Restorers

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On the Air: An interview on Keepin’ the Faith

A few weeks ago I was privileged to interview as a guest on the WILL AM 580 (local public radio) show Keepin’ the Faith about interfaith work on the University of Illinois campus with my friend Ish Umer. Don Nolen, who guest-hosted that evening, led us into a discussion of evangelicals and interfaith work that I thought you might enjoy. You can download the podcast from will.illinois.edu at the following link: http://will.illinois.edu/keepinthefaith/show/ktf110807/

I’ve listed a few landmarks so you don’t have to listen to the whole program if your schedule doesn’t allow the time:

0:00 – About the Illinois Interfaith Service Challenge

20:18 – Ish’s description of his religious background and his experience around 9/11

25:48 – Greg’s description of his religious background

29:10 – Addressing sensitive issues in interfaith dialogue

36:50 – Evangelism and interfaith dialogue

47:36 – Guest caller with question for Ish

50:00 – Interfaith work on campus: One Million Meals for Haiti, and continued discussion of the Interfaith Service Challenge.

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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.

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Serving Together

This piece was originally published by the Interfaith Youth Core at http://www.ifyc.org/content/serving-together.  While I always intended to re-post it on this site eventually, I think that it is a particularly timely piece given current events.

Whether we are facing the voices of intolerance or problems with health care accessibility, interfaith work has taught me that relationships are the solution to the problems our world faces.

When offensive images depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad appeared on my campus late last spring as part of one group’s protest of censorship and religious extremism, I started to think about the relationships I had with Muslims in my community. After considering those relationships, I understood these images’ significance with a distinctly different perspective than I would have just a few years ago. I realized that the images were not offensive to a faceless and distant religious community, but to my friends.

This empathy is possible because of interfaith relationships. One of those relationships is my friendship with Irfan. Three years ago I started volunteering with the Champaign County Christian Health Center (which we call the “Christian clinic”), providing free medical care to uninsured people in Champaign County. As I soon learned, even the well-run operation at the Christian clinic couldn’t keep up with the needs of our community, and a group from the nearby mosque led by Irfan Ahmad stepped up to help.

As Irfan grew the Avicenna Community Health Center – which is staffed by volunteer medical professionals and students – into a functional weekend clinic, he also built a bridge with the Christian clinic, and the two organizations have since been sharing a facility and together pursuing a goal of seven-days-a-week free healthcare for uninsured people.

Irfan inspires me. In a conversation last spring while shooting a video about the clinics (including a third clinic at the same site, which has recently closed), he explained that all healing is from God, and that the physician is the conduit through which God provides healing.

As a Christian who believes that God inspires and empowers his people to help others, Irfan’s insight reminds me why I am a medical student working on a doctorate in biomedical engineering and pursuing a career fighting global health challenges. He also reminds me that interfaith collaboration can often accomplish more than a single religious community can on its own.

This is what interfaith work means to me: relationships based on common action for the good of others, relationships that easily destroy the barriers built by ignorance and bigotry, and relationships that inspire me as an evangelical Christian to demonstrate the compassion of Christ in response to the needs of the world around me.

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Communicating Christ: Reflections from Northwestern University

Last Thursday, I had the great privilege of sharing my passion for interfaith cooperation with a group of evangelical students at Northwestern University’s Multi-Ethnic InterVarsity.

As I described the need for interfaith relationships to combat religious violence and tension, the barriers that keep evangelicals from engaging in interfaith work, and the ways in which interfaith cooperation allows us as Christians to communicate Christ with others, I was met with an encouraging response.

Afterwards, I chatted with one student who desires to build a sustainable project to serve the homeless in Northwestern’s surrounding community of Evanston, IL.  We talked about the great opportunity to grow the impact of one campus fellowship’s efforts by reaching out to student organizations of other faith traditions and creating an interfaith project to serve the homeless.

Another student reminded me of Jesus’ words in the New Testament: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,” reflecting the notion in my faith tradition that, because I am a Christian, my life reflects a quality that no other’s does, and that simply living a life motivated by the example of Christ, I am providing a witness to the core values of my faith.  How exciting, then, to follow the example of Christ by serving others in an interfaith context?

These conversations are the first steps in changing the broader evangelical perspective on a religiously diverse world.  We must tell the stories of positive interaction between faith communities, cast the vision for a world where inter-religious conflict is overcome by enriching relationships, and encourage opportunities to show Christ to the world through our actions.

This gets me thinking.  How would the global church be different if our youth groups organized service projects in their communities with groups from the nearby mosque or temple?  What if our campus fellowships coordinated social events with religious student organizations from other faith traditions?  What if our churches were more hospitable to their neighboring congregations?  What if religious leaders, clergy, and secular leaders alike were getting together to talk about how we can better meet the needs of our communities?

Would we, as Christians, be seen differently?  Would we spend less time quarreling about church budgets and communion practices and more time living, serving, and loving?  Would we be communicating the love of Jesus in a clearer, more effective way?

I think so.  What do you think?

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