Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Justice in the Burbs: Working Together

I don't need you to worry for me cause I'm alright
I don't want you to tell me it's time to come home
I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life
Go ahead with your own life, and leave me alone
~ Billy Joel

We U.S. Americans can be fiercely independent people. If something needs to be done, we do it ourselves… and we don’t ask for help. Call it our immigrant heritage, our pioneer spirit, or our entrepreneurial drive… or just call it plain stubbornness. Granted, there are pockets where a sense of communal responsibility still exists, where our interconnectedness is obvious and essential: in our families, in our individual congregations, and even in some of our wider networked relationships. However, as one of our pastors reminded us on Sunday, these are still individuality writ large: our individual families, our individual congregations, our individual networks.

(p.74) Americans are entrepreneurial. We have a can-do spirit, which might be better described as an I-can-do spirit. We like to start new stuff. Nowhere is this spirit more alive than in the church.
What is closest to us, what is most familiar, is what we can trust. We can trust it not only because we understand it better, but because proximity offers a greater degree of control. Relinquishing decision making power to (or even sharing power with) a source that is unfamiliar, not to mention a bit peculiar, requires a great deal of trust in something more reliable than either party involved.

(p.75) For many of us, the notion of launching out in some bold new initiative is seen as part of our evangelistic zeal, as part and parcel of doing the work of God. But what if God would have us join work already in progress?
It is easy enough to see these distinctions within the Church among diverse denominations and even between congregations in the same tradition. They don’t do it the way we do. It’s glaringly obvious when you begin talking about churches partnering with “secular” organizations.

Consider this conversation between characters in Justice in the Burbs:

“Well, first Matt does Habitat, fine. And I think it’s great that you’re doing the Big Sister thing. Lord knows we need more of that sort of ministry going on these days. But I’m worried about Matt. He’s associating with all sorts of people who don’t really even believe in the gospel… Should he really be associating with those people?”

“But they’re the ones building houses. I couldn’t get anybody but you and Matt, Jenna, to even think about starting the hot breakfast ministry.”

“I’m just concerned. You don’t think he’s going to fall into error or anything, do you?”

“Of course not! Matt’s stronger spiritually than he’s ever been. This winter has been a real time of revival for him. They’ve built three more houses, you know.”

“Well, doing good works and being right with the Lord are two different things.”

Okay. “How so?”

“It’s all about a personal relationship with Christ, Chris. You know that.”

“All about that?”

“Of course. If we add anything to it, it becomes a gospel of works.”

If you have never encountered a similar conversation, count your lucky stars. We have cultivated a great deal of apprehension in the Church toward the motives of anyone who may not think exactly the way we do, whether those Episcopalians downtown who let the homeless wander through their building, or those crazy Vegans who gather monthly to cook and share meals using locally grown produce, or the university that provides a neighborhood tutoring program, or (Lord forbid) those stuffy Baptists who are opening up their youth gym for a community basketball league.

(p.76-77) God is already at work. This is what the parable of the field presupposes. We don’t create the field; we join as workers. Whether you’re coming in at nine or noon, the harvest is burgeoning… If we saw our stuff – our money, our time, our families, everything we have – as being given for use in the work of God, we might be more careful with what we acquire and how we use it…. We are learning that some people are already doing great things, and the best way for us to invest in the kingdom is to join with them.
OK. Maybe we can suck it up and buy into this whole “join God where he is working” thing with those smells-and-bells cathedral types, or even venture to partner with those our-resources-are-greater-than-your-resources megachurch folks, but you can’t seriously expect us to work alongside people in our community who may not even believe in God (or worse, who disdain Christians)?

(p.78) God is at work when people act like Jesus. You want to join in the work of God? Look for signs of Jesus. Look for people who are bringing “good news to the poor,” proclaiming “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” those who are helping “to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18 NIV). Equally important to knowing we are working for the kingdom, that we are – to quote our friend Shane Claiborne – being the “hands and feet of Jesus,” is knowing that we are using God’s resources well.
I’ve worked with enough non-profits (including churches) to see the waste that can come with overlapping services, and even the gaps that can occur when we are all busy trying to do our own thing. What if we trusted God to be big enough to work through even the most uncomfortable of relationships? And what if, in the process, we came to learn that those tree-huggers aren’t so bad? And what if they were given the opportunity to realize us Christians aren’t so bad, either?

(p.80) It’s not as daunting as you might think. Nobody expects you to be the next Mother Teresa. We recommend that you start small. Don’t think that you need to invent the ultimate justice ministry. Join with those who are already doing the work. But start. Your journey toward justice begins with your next step. Perhaps Jesus lives right next door or down the street. He might even be in your own home.
Justice in the Burbs: Introduction
Justice in the Burbs: Breathing Room

No comments: