10.1.09

Whose Name is on the Cup?

There are times when people who are in vocational ministry get weary of Jesus. Maybe I'm the only one, but I doubt it. He seems, at times, so hard to pin down, as everything from libertarianism to communism is carried out in His name. He seems to be the source of divisions in the world as people carrying His name have often carried a sword as well, leaving carnage in their wake. And He's a bit mystical, speaking in parables, paradox, and even contradiction, as he tells his disciples to carry no sword here, and here to arm themselves. What's up?

It's tempting at times to skip Jesus altogether and simply focus on being about the things Jesus was about. He loved enemies - let's love enemies. He hugged lepers - let's hug lepers. He fed hungry people - let's feed hungry people. If we go this route, not only will we have more tangible goals (after all, how do you measure, "being filled with all the fullness of God"?). Yes, let's be His hands and feet and skip all the doctrinal ambiguity, division, pondering and messiness that comes from talking about the actual life of Jesus and what it means to be in relationship with Him.

But then, along comes an article like this one, where a confirmed atheist declares that Africa needs Christianity. Here's part of what he says:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But In the city (where we lived) we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

There you have it. We can tell ourselves that we don't need all the messiness of Christ, or even begin to believe that if we simply feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we're doing the work of God. But Jesus tells us that ministry is more than just giving a cup of cold water; it's giving a cup of cold water in Jesus name.

The article has two profound implications:

1 - The author speaks of how spacious, engaging, and enlivening followers of Christ are in Africa. I often ponder why I meet so many Christians in these North American parts for whom the opposite is true - they've become anxious, guilt-ridden, closed minded - so much so that I know people who are walking away from the faith because of neuroses of the faithful, afraid that it's contagious.

I can only conclude that a gospel (good news) that fails to change our persona, fails to open us up to the world, fails to impart joy, is not the gospel of Christ. We who lead had better make sure we're not inviting people to rituals, clubs, and systems, because the real deal entails an invitation to transformation by virtue of a person indwelling a person. I know it sounds mystical, but it's true - and it works, as evidenced by the article above. Put simply, if our lives are filled with fear, hate, and whining, we're probably following a different Jesus.

2 - I know many people who are open, spacious, and enlivening, but who are afraid to mention the name of Jesus. They're mantra is a destructive mutation of St. Francis' words: "Preach always - use words when necessary." This is tragically interpreted to mean that words aren't necessary at all, that the cup of cold water needn't have a name attached to it, or that the name doesn't matter - Humanitarian NGO is just as good is Risen Christ.

Kudos to Matthew Parris for having the courage to say what too many faithful are afraid to say: Christ makes the difference. Do we believe that? Let's begin living it then, and making sure that Jesus' name is on the next cup of cold water.

10 comments:

  1. Amen.
    Christ is the difference

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  3. I just got back from church where we heard such a similar message. My pastor shared this story with us as well: that Jane Fonda recently became a Christian. She was interviewed last year by Rolling Stones magazine and the last question they asked her was about her radical conversation.

    Her words about Jesus are beautiful. You can find them here: http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2007/05/08/talking-with-jane-fonda-for-rolling-stones-40th-anniversary/

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  4. This is a good and thoughtful article. Thanks for sharing it here.

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  5. Christianity is one of the largest problems in Africa. You have tens of thousands of Africans dying every year from AIDS and other STDs because of the crusade against condoms. Also, Christians in Africa support laws against gays and support their imprisonment (or worse).

    When Western Christians start backing African Christians who do more harm then good, we have a problem. For example, Rick Warren has close ties to a pastor in Uganda whose "stunts have included burning condoms in the name of Jesus and arranging the publication of names of homosexuals in cooperative local newspapers while lobbying for criminal penalties to imprison them." http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-01-07/the-truth-about-rick-warren-in-africa/full/

    Sarah Palin was prayed over by an African (it's a continent not a country) whose claim to fame is hunting down and exposing women as witches. http://timesonline.typepad.com/uselections/2008/09/palin-linked-el.html

    Africa is still suffering under the fist of imperialism - only the masters have changed from governmental to economic and religious. While it is hard to deny that some good has been done in Africa by Christians, looking at the scores who die every year and the many more who are imprisoned or persecuted by Christians, it is a hard to argue that the religion does more good than harm.

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  6. Richard, this article is so profound and leaves me feeling inspired to continue to use my words for Jesus. Thank you.

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  7. just left a conversation about living the gospel vs. speaking it...only to read this post.
    good stuff.

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  8. Richard,
    That is an interesting article about an atheist who thinks religion will help in Africa. Unfortunately, it is religion that is a large part of the AIDS epidemic in Africa(http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/justice-diakonia-and-responsibility-for-creation/ehaia/declarations-and-policy-statements-on-hivaids-by-churches-and-faith-based-organisations-2001-2005/african-lutherans.html). It is a good thing that the churches are recognizing their involvement in the spread of AIDS (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/irene-monroe/this-era-of-black-women-a_b_147882.html). Here in the US, the churches also recognize that they are at fault for the spread of AIDS, especially among black woman.
    I hope that one day the Church in general will see it has a role in the world, not of controlling the mind of the masses, but of helping the poor, the sick, and the down-trodden!
    Man I wish you could embed links on this server!

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  9. Thank you for sharing that article and your thoughts, Richard. I work for an NGO that partners with East Africans who are doing grassroots, community-initiative work to care for the vulnerable in the name of Christ.

    In response to James' comment, he is absolutely right that part of the Christian community has had a tragically short-sighted approach the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and it saddens and angers me. However I have found hope in the relationships I've been privileged to build with Christians, both Western and African, who break that stereotype, and I'm praying to see the church fully recognize its potential in fighting HIV.

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