Sojourners

We have a tendency to get bogged down and distracted by the great amount of negativity surrounding the biblical texts in our culture and society. Maybe it’s the way Christians use the Bible to devalue women or to promote hate, or maybe you’ve been sucked into the scientific debate that focuses our attention on peripheral concerns instead of the beauty of our text.

One biblical concept that restores my faith in the glory of the bible is the sojourner, or the alien, the person dwelling in a foreign land. The cultural chasm between the biblical world and ours is sometimes difficult to cross, but we are keenly aware of what it means to be a in a foreign land.

The life of the sojourner is challenging, isolating and long-suffering. Last week, Canada declared Mexico a safe place to live. That will cause alarm for any who are aware of the growing violence and organized crime making many cities extremely dangerous places to live.

Canada’s designation is not about the living conditions in Mexico or the safety of travel; it is a statement determining how we are going to treat Mexican immigrants. The statement makes certain immigration possibilities unavailable, most notably the refugee status.

We are keenly aware of our borders and cultural surroundings. We feel out of place when we are unfamiliar with language, cultural practices and the unspoken societal rules. We become vulnerable.

Addressing this vulnerability in the sojourner, Leviticus sets an ethical standard far above the societal standards of the time, and even challenges us today.

“You are to not oppress the alien…you are to consider the sojourner a citizen among you…love the alien as yourself…For you were once an alien in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Law codes do two things. First they determine a minimum ethical standard and dictate appropriate actions. Second, every law code contains a motivation. We are most familiar with punitive measures as the motivation, and the Leviticus law code often includes punitive motivation.

When addressing the treatment of sojourners and aliens, however, Leviticus calls for the highest ethical standards: love them as yourself.

The motivation behind the law also changes its impact considerably. Instead of simply dictating actions, the law continues, “for you were once aliens,” and calls the reader to identify with the alien, to identify with the ‘other.’

Found right in the middle of a strict religious law code is this magnificent concept of the sojourner and a call to empathy.

The practice presses beyond any rule that could be put in place. The practice is to identify with the ‘other.’ The practice is empathy.

When you identify with the ‘other,’ the world changes…first in your own eyes…then through your actions.

A version of this article was published in the Maple Ridge News, February 22nd, 2013.

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Down Syndrome Day & Christian Community

Today was the 7th annual World Down Syndrome Day, and a post from Amy Julia Becker has me thinking about the relationship between our faith communities and those affected by Down syndrome. Several incidences have brought it the forefront of my thinking lately, which has caused me to realize that I’m very conflicted about the tough decisions parents-to-be are required to make.

Since the late 1960’s, in utero testing has been used to determine chromosomal abnormalities like trisomy 21 (a third copy of chromosome 21 – the most common cause of Down syndrome). With that testing comes an enormous ethical decision for parents who learn that their child will face extreme difficulties throughout their life. Most are probably aware of the developmental challenges and physical abnormalities, but the health risks for those with Down Syndrome also include thyroid disorders, hearing loss, gastrointestinal diseases, and a 50% rate of both congenital heart disease and epilepsy.

The question then presented to potential parents are questions of quality of life, the capacity for a parent to care for their child with Down syndrome (physically, financially and emotionally), and the inevitable burden on others. For these reasons and more, studies show that the abortion rate after parents learn of chromosomal abnormalities may be as high as 90% in the US, and similar numbers can be found across the globe in developed countries.

Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum have made the choice of the ten percenters. The decision is a testament to their faith, and unfortunately, they have each made that clear by politicizing their decision, Santorum even going as far as making it a platform to end paid-for prenatal testing if elected. Even though this is a terrible idea (here’s why), their commitment to their faith in the face of exceptional adversity is what the conscientious objective is all about.

On the other side of the spectrum, Christian Post reported last week that a jury in Portland, Oregon awarded a couple $2.9 million for a wrongful birth case. Prenatal tests showed no chromosomal abnormalities, yet their baby was born with Down Syndrome. They essentially sued their doctor for improperly admitting the tests (keep in mind that no current prenatal testing is 100% accurate) which resulted in faulty test readings, and claiming that they would have aborted the fetus, they won. I’m at a loss for words with the amount of brokenness of our society to allow this situation.

These examples bring to our attention the ethical decisions and complications that arise with Down syndrome testing, but as most of us our outsiders, it doesn’t give us a sense for how we are to respond to those in need.

Capacity of our Christian Community

It is important that we understand the need for our involvement in the lives of those affected by Down syndrome. Two obvious ideas come to mind when thinking about the potential for offering radical community to those facing considerable struggles.

For a variety of reasons, I love living in a townhouse, and not only because I don’t have to do yard work (although that is nice). It actually boils down to one word: community. I run into neighbors everyday walking, taking Khai to the playground, getting the mail, or simply coming and going.

I’m not alone. A couple of weeks ago, we ran into a neighbor whose son has Down syndrome. In the course of the conversation, we discovered that their 18mo old was having his third open heart surgery the following week. When Jenna offered to help out in different ways, the support was greatly appreciated. In fact the family had specifically moved into a townhouse for the potential for community support—not help—simply community.

The emotional and physical strains of caring for a child with Down syndrome had this family seek out a place to live that could offer more community support than a traditional neighborhood. Is this necessary? If so, Christians are not living out their calling.

The implications are, of course, that my neighbors, and yours, are in desperate need of what we have to offer and what Christ calls us to—community. We don’t need to wait for others to literally move searching for community. Offering this community can be as simple as reaching out to someone we already know in our church, community, or neighborhood.

It is necessary to remember that we effect change in the culture around us. Our culture has the tendency to diminish the value of those with disabilities. Offering radical community means changing the culture around us by finding places in our congregations and communities to engage those who are overlooked and allow them to give back to the community in new and impactful ways.

Asset-based Ministry…A Fresh Approach to Engaging Community

On Saturday, I joined a few others from Open Door in attending a Jim Diers workshop, Neighborhood Power. I was first introduced to Asset-Based Community Development at Emory, and it has greatly influenced my view of community, my approach to ministry and even my understanding of Jesus’ work and revelation. So I was excited to attend this with some of our members to help gain a shared vision for “asset-based ministry.” Here I’d like to share some of what makes this vision unique and how ABCD can be utilized in faith communities.

Asset-based community development, as indicated by its name, is designed around the skills, resources and associations of a community.[1] Community development takes place when the community itself is impassioned and motivated by hope for improvement and change. These community resources can be found in gifts of individuals, community groups and associations, and local institutions. This sounds like common sense, and it is, but the vast majority of non-profits, churches and aid organizations operate under the antithetical principles of “needs-based” change and growth. Rather than being internally focused and relationally driven, the traditional “needs-based” approach is setup by an outside agency assessing the needs of a community, coming to external solutions to those needs, and finally supplying those needs with outside resources. The resulting actions, however genuine in their efforts, send the overwhelming message that the community is not capable of resolving issues on their own, reinforcing the lack of empowerment already experienced. Asset-based community development requires more work, more innovation, creativity, and collaboration, but the results are sustainable change, restored dignity and an empowered community.

Churches and other faith communities have found value in these basic principles by identifying individual capacities of its members to mobilize the church and by acting as yet another resource of the community in collaborative development.[2] Multiplying a faith community’s impact by focusing on both internal and external mobilization is obviously preferred, and I believe mutually beneficial to the church and the broader community. The easy part of this discussion is to acknowledge and take advantage of the abilities and capacities of individual members of a faith community. To call on someone for the musical talent to support or lead a worship team is a no brainer, and to use a business connection to save the church money is simply good business sense.

Asset-based strategies, however, are more about engagement than about business sense (although it has that added benefit). Engaging people in the life of the church requires discovering unique gifts of individuals and then allowing their passions to deepen community and to shape the outreach of the church. At Open Door Church, we’re exploring a new warehouse communal space for our gathering grounds that would serve the community and the church in endless ways. While the idea developed over leadership meetings, it took life when we began asking for congregational input. Excitement grew as each individual shared their own ideas and passions about how to engage the community with our new space. Can we offer bike repair, or teach others? Can we invite local bands for shows and talent nights? Table tennis? Mechanic work? Their gifts and vision for growth in our community will shape the outreach of Open Door as we continue, and if we fail to foster this engagement, we will ultimately fail in engaging our community as well.

Read here about how these concepts are supported and understood biblically.


[1] J. P. Kretzmann and J. L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, ACTA Publications: 1993.

[2] S. Rans and H. Altman, Asset-Based Strategies for Faith Communities, ACTA Publications: 2002.

Protecting Faith in Egypt

Egyptian Coptic Christians and Muslims raise a cross and Koran

Egyptian Christians and Muslims Protesting Together (source: NYDailyNews - Abed/Getty)

One of the most uplifting stories I have ever read:
The NY Daily News reports that Egyptian Christian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square joined hands to encircle and to protect praying Muslims on Friday, the holy day of Islam. When Sunday came, Muslim protesters returned the gesture to Coptic Christians so that they could observe Mass.

You may have to read that again to allow it to sink in. Muslims put their physical bodies between danger and Christians in an act to protect their commitment to faith. Christians stood between danger and Muslims to protect their fellow protesters’ time with God.

Given the less than cordial history between Islam and Christianity, the mutual respect shown this week is a testament to the promise and love that each of our religions calls us to. Always thinking in terms of ‘the other,’ Jesus called us to redefine our neighbor to include also the stranger, and we are to love, care for, protect and respect everyone…regardless.

Community plays a significant role in my theology. As I read and understand the Bible, God’s acts in creation and salvation and the relationship with humanity throughout the scriptures illustrate God’s passion and longing for community. As a relational God, and we being made in the likeness of God, I understand community to be the call of humanity, that is both a community with God and community with God’s creation. In fulfilling our call to community, we are to “love our neighbor as ourself.” When that plays out in the real world around us, our community (local and worldwide) is enhanced with every act of faith as we lift up, help out, encourage, liberate, offer mutual respect and discover ‘the other.’ Not to be lost in that process is our commitment and call to be in community with God. Without doubt when we offer our servitude and humility to all we come in contact with, we also serve and come closer to God.

The events this past weekend provide the epitome of illustrations in living out humanity’s call to community. As Christians on Friday protected the faith and prayer time of ‘the other,’ they extended an unprecedented bridge to community between Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, they were able to provide for that group time to deepen their community with God. Their actions worked in sort of a threefold manner by deepening their relationship with God’s creation, their own relationship with God and allowing others the opportunity to do the same. When Sunday came, the Muslims present were given the opportunity to reciprocate the act of community, and likewise their actions worked threefold in creating and extending unprecedented community. This all of course is without even mentioning their shining example to the world, as this is a story we need to tell again and again as examples of true faith in a world void of the radical respect for one another that we are called to.

It is easy for those of us in the U.S. and other Western countries to dehumanize all Muslims, to strip them of their faith and theology because of our experiences with fundamentalist terrorist groups. It is easy for us to abuse those experiences for political, social and religious gains. It is difficult and trying to “love our neighbor as ourself” and to see the faith and commitment of devoted Muslims. It is difficult to hear and answer God’s call to community through radical respect and love.

Few and far between are the stories of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, but these faithful followers who understand the theology of community and neighbor give us hope for a more peaceful tomorrow. These Christians and Muslims remind us that we are capable of this respect and community, and our influence can be immediate and far-reaching. How can you display this faith in your community? What would our community or our church look like if we could muster the courage to have this faith daily?

A Story on Hospitality

After a recent sermon on radical hospitality, I made a new friend, Jim. He’s an older gentleman and a little rough around the edges. He shared a story he recalled from his childhood, the perfectly kept memory of radical hospitality…Christ-like hospitality.

Jim met Alfred as a kid, and they quickly became good friends, playing together after school almost every day. It donned on Jim one day that they always went to play at his house, and he realized that he had never even seen Alfred’s house. The next day, he asked Alfred, “Hey, we always go to my house, can we go to your house today.”
“No,” Alfred said, “we can’t play at my house.”
Jim asked, “Why not?” But he was never given an answer. He didn’t mind playing at his house, he just thought it was odd. Jim knew Alfred didn’t have a lot of money, but he didn’t know what that meant.
One day, Alfred broke down and told Jim why they can’t ever play at his house. “Every time somebody comes over to my house,” he said, “they stop being my friend, because we’re poor.”
Jim said, “Dude, I don’t care. You’re my friend.”
Later that summer, before heading out on a camping trip, the boys stopped by Alfred’s house to pick up his gear. Supper was almost done cooking, and Alfred’s family was ready to eat. When they arrived, Jim realized what poor really was. Alfred’s house…was made out of cardboard. From Jim’s telling, I got the sense that this wasn’t a cardboard box, but literally more like the structure of a house built out of cardboard with a sheet metal roof. Instead of just running in, Alfred’s mother wasn’t going to let them leave without having a proper dinner. With everyone standing around, she had Jim sit down first as the celebrated guest. Though he was an unexpected guest, she made sure he knew he was special and welcomed. She took a small amount from each of the servings from the family until Jim had the largest and the first portion. Jim was beside himself.
After they left, Alfred said, “Well, I guess your gonna stop being my friend now.”
“Are you kidding me Alfred? Your family is great. Dude, I’m gonna have to go get baptized for all the love in that house. Dude, my family doesn’t show love like that. Both my parents are alcoholics, and we don’t show love like that, and I’m gonna have to go get baptized before I can go back to your house for all the love in there.”

Young Jim’s response showed the maturity of his current age, and the hospitality he felt might have been equally felt by Alfred, given Alfred’s history of “friends.” When Jesus redefine’s neighbor to include the stranger, and even the enemy, we see our radical call to hospitality. When Jim’s mother redistributes the already small portions of her family to treat Jim as one of her own, we see what it means to live out that radical hospitality today.