Mehmet and Me

Much of my story has been shaped by the circumstances of birth.  Factors that form my story – health, religion, schooling, language, and environment – are due in large measure to where I was born and to whom I was born.  Freedom, prosperity, diet, education, parents, and religious environment are contingencies that I did not choose but came to me.  Yes, I made decisions along the way and these have determined the direction of life.  And yet, the boundaries of my story have been set by birth.  It is as if I was placed in a moving car, and my task has been to keep it out of the ditch and on the road.

On the other side of the globe, a male child is born into completely different possibilities and constraints, and thus, Mehmet lives into a story of another kind.  Kinship, scarcity of food, agrarian labor, a polygamous household, and mosque are contingencies he did not choose but came to him.  The decisions he makes are framed in a unique way by these factors and thus produce a particular storyline.  It is as if he was placed in a raging river, and his task is to navigate the rocks and trees hidden beneath its current.

Given the well-defined contingencies of our births and the contexts in which we grew up, should Mehmet and I expect there to be coherence or shared purpose in our stories? Continue reading

As a Teacher

Vocation and work are part of God’s design and thus have the potential of serving divine purpose.

While this sounds right, I have to admit that I cannot vouch for its rightness for every vocation and everyone’s work.  Because I am not an engineer, farmer, salesperson, or mechanic, I cannot say with personal knowledge or absolute certainty that this statement is true for engineers, farmers, salespersons, and mechanics.  I am a teacher, and thus, can only speak as a teacher.  And even as a teacher, I cannot speak for high school geography teachers or teachers of children in Montessori schools.  I can only speak as a teacher of adults in a seminary.  But as such a teacher, I believe my vocation and work are part of God’s design and serve divine purpose.

I say this not because of my specific vocation or my particular place of work but because of aim and intention.  As a teacher my aim is for each class session to be a sacred space and a holy time in which I invite others by way of questions and discussion to partake in the sacraments of learning and friendship so that together we move toward transformation and witness.  As you read these words, you may think – ‘Well, that it is super easy for you to say, since your job is about preparing people for ministry.’  And yet, it isn’t that easy or a given.  I have the same temptation that others face in their work and vocation.  I can easily default to seeing what I do as mundane, common, or just neutral work.  In fact, the temptation is to assume the sacred, holy, and sacramental because of the subject matter I teach and its connection to the church’s mission.  And such an assumption would be fatal.  For my work as a teacher to be sacred, holy, and sacramental, I must work with intention and purpose toward ends that are sacred and holy.  Without such intentionality, I will surely veer into actions and attitudes that cause me to view my vocation merely as job and my work as empty routine or drudgery.

Even though I lack personal knowledge and thus cannot speak concerning the vocations of others, I can hope for them.  My hope is that a Christ-following farmer who tills, plants, waters, and harvests would be able to speak of his life and work in the same manner that I do – sacred, holy, and sacramental.  Or that a Christ-following mechanic diagnosing problems and repairing engines in a competent, timely, and fair manner would speak of her vocation and work as sacred, holy, and sacramental.  My hope for the farmer and the mechanic emerges from my belief about God and his mission.  If mission is God’s mission and all the bits of life have a place in God’s created order, then every vocation has mission potential.

I do not live in Burma.  Nor do I have the vocational title of missionary.  My salary does not come from a mission agency.  And yet, I intend to participate in God’s mission as a teacher, and my aim is to teach in ways that give witness to God’s transformational work.  Likewise, I encourage you, as clerks, police, dentists, nurses, or whoever you are, to make your vocational aim a sacred intention – to make your work no less than the mission of God.

When the Ground Shakes

On April 5, 2009, Giampaolo Giuliani, a researcher attached to Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics, announced that an earthquake was imminent.  Emissions of higher than usual amounts of radon gas detected at four meters he had placed around his hometown of L’Aquila convinced him that an earthquake of at least a 4.0 magnitude would occur within 48 hours.  Naturally he began warning the people of L’Aquila through the Internet.  Authorities decided he was a contentious crackpot causing unnecessary panic, so they placed him under an injunction that prevented him from issuing public alerts.  Authorities even removed notices he posted on the Internet and threatened him with imprisonment if he reposted or made public announcements.  Restricted in what he could do, Giuliani went house-to-house warning neighbors, friends and family.  Once night came, he, with his immediate family, went to bed fully dressed, prepared to escape the anticipated earthquake and to help those who would survive.  Just before daylight he awoke to a series of violent quakes that were not a 4.0 magnitude but 7.0.  By the end of the day, a total of 308 people had died and 80,000 were left without shelter.[i]

To the inhabitants of L’Aquila, life had appeared stable and safe, calm and certain, and yet forces in the depths of the earth were shifting in opposing directions and tension that had been building for some time suddenly erupted into a massive earthquake.  Surely they thought, ‘How could such a cataclysmic event happen in our town?’ Continue reading

Reimagining Existence

Conversations concerning the church seem to be increasing, especially when they are about her nature or essence.  This growing discussion, centered on what the church is in herself and what constitutes her nature, evidences an awareness that how the church imagines herself determines most everything else about her – how she acts and reacts, spends her money, organizes her corporate life, interfaces with the wider culture, etc.  So, whether the church defines herself as house, organic, emergent, or aqua does makes a difference. Continue reading

Which Mission? Whose Mission?

The world as we know it is rapidly changing.  Current economic, demographic, technological, and political changes can cause our heads to spin.  Yet, one change that may not be as obvious is that the American context is becoming less and less Christian, especially in the way Christianity has been traditionally understood and followed.  People are asking such questions as “Why bother with church?”  “What has the Christian faith to do with the real problems of life?”  In some quarters, the questions are not as benign.  These people aggressively ask, “Why are Christians so bigoted, narrow-minded, and anti-everything?”  Studies show that while there is a growing interest in matters spiritual, Christianity and the church are increasingly viewed as irrelevant or passé, especially when it comes to our collective lives as Americans.

So, how are Christians to respond to this new reality?  Continue reading

Love Rules

The aim for any of us, especially those of us who are religious professionals, should be love.  A paraphrase of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 for the world in which I live and the life I am meant to live reads as follows …

If I preach with great style, technique and passion, but do not have love, I have become a rattling can or honking horn. If I have knowledge of all methods and have the skill to do them all with great effect, but do not have love, I have lost my way.  And if I am able to start hundreds of churches, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

Love does not rush by people; love does not become jealous of the success of a colleague. Love does not brag about deeds or speak in a superior tone, does not act haughty or seek its own way, is not easily offended, keep a record of offenses or failures, nor is it OK with evil stuff and lies but is thrilled with justice and truth.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Love never fails; but if there are methods, and strategies, they will be done away with; if there are five and ten-year plans, they will one day come to an end; if there are teachers and missiologists, they will be unemployed.

For we really know only a fraction of what is going on around us, but when Jesus’ reign is established, our temporal methods and strategies will pale in comparison to what he is doing.  When I was a young religious professional, I spoke like a minister, thought like a missionary, reasoned like a theologian; when I started loving, I moved beyond such speaking, thinking and reasoning.

For now we see in part what God is doing, but one day we will see everything exactly as it is.  But for the time, all we have are faith, hope and love.  Of these, love rules.

If love is the aim, then preaching, strategizing, and teaching should move me closer to people, not increase my distance from them.  These activities should add dignity and humanity to the person in front of me, not objectify them.  And yet, the truth is – for love to rule these activities, I must be radically seized by the God who is love.

Globalized Answers

As moderns, we have the tendency to globalize when it comes answers.  We want to find the one method, the one strategy, or the single solution that will answer every situation, for every location.  We want to find the ‘silver bullet’ or discover the ‘mega-strategy’ that will work whether we are in Los Angeles, Munich, Nairobi or Hong Kong. Continue reading