On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.

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On Inquiries and Rejections

I was talking a while ago with my friend back in the States about my time here in East Africa. We had been to this part of the world together on multiple occasions, so it is nice being able to talk to someone with whom you share experiences. In the course of our conversation, he was asking about how I was doing and mentioned that he was jealous that I have this awesome opportunity. But, I admitted something to him that I have found true during my time here: It is really difficult living here.

I do not say “difficult” as a slant against the people I work with. The people here are wonderful, and there is a lot to be admired from the way East Africans live. I say “difficult” because you have to almost completely change you way of life in order to function here.

For one, you have to completely alter your standard of living. Unlike how that expression is normally used, I am not implying that one has to move from a higher to a lower standard of living (or vice versa). What I mean is that you have to completely change how you operate from day-to-day. You have to pay attention to things you aren’t using to paying attention to. You have to forego any familiarities with life ‘back home’ such as food, fashion, driving style, road manners, and interpersonal communication among basically everything else.

It is true that on a short-term mission trip you are exposed to all these, you really only interact with them on a superficial level; you are an outside observer performing some interactions with the local culture. At the end of the two weeks, however, you return home having only tasted life abroad. But, as is the case for me, the changes in lifestyle are not applied only on the surface. You have to take them on yourself entirely.

The way people here think, which can be quite different than the way people think in the States, has to become the way you think. There are expectations that are placed on you that you are not use to, and you have to learn how to adapt in order to meet those expectations (and it’s another thing entirely to know which expectations you should and should not adapt to). Overall, there are many challenges to living – rather than visiting – a culture that is foreign to your own. If I can be honest, there is one main challenge I have been struggling with ever since I arrived here.

It’s the way I am treated simply because I’m white. I would say “because I’m American” but a friend of mine who is also American lives here and is black, and he is treated like a normal everyday African even though he is still trying to learn some basic Swahili.

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Sometimes it’s not that big of a deal, and I even find it flattering in some cases the amount of attention I get because of my skin color. When attending a soccer game I may be the only white person in a crowd of hundreds or thousands (besides the team coaches), so I like being called out and recognized as special because I am cheering for the same team as everyone else. What I struggle with, however, is when people assume that simply because I have a United States visa I have personal connections with people in high places who can supply jobs, money, and transport to the U.S.

At first I let it slide off my back whenever a random stranger would come up to me and ask for employment, or money, or what have you. But not too long ago I suppose you could say I reached my tipping point.

I was at church, a place I like to think of as one where I can let my defenses down a little and just enjoy being with my Spiritual Family, where there is neither African nor American, rich nor poor. A man was there, and talking casually with other people present. Then he saw me, and came up to engage in conversation. I’m not averse to meeting new people, so I obliged. After sharing about some of his life’s difficulties, I could tell where the conversation was going. When he got around to asking if I could supply him with a job, I politely told him I’m not in a place to do so. He became a bit frustrated and then asked me for money. Again, I politely told him I could not and made up a reason why. Then, he kept looping his requests until I just stopped responding. I think that was the moment when it became too much for me, and I couldn’t handle being treated like a stereotypical rich, connected, all-around better citizen of the world because I’m white.

I remember lying in bed that night, still frustrated by the whole experience, and deciding not to fight those ideas anymore:

“Fine, I have more money than you do because I’m American.”

“Okay, I have personal connection with the president of the United States and the owner of British Airways.”

“Yes, my life will always be better than yours in every conceivable way.”

“Of course, you can’t do anything right on your own and need us ‘white saviors’ to come and do everything for you.”

Although I completely disagree with the above statements (and their presuppositions), when you frequently receive these messages in some form or another throughout your stay and some people even outright say these things to you, it can be tedious.

That is just one example of what I have been learning about myself (and long-term missions) while I have been here. I could talk about more, like how I always have to be careful about what I say regarding Kenya’s politics, leaders, international affairs, lifestyle, etc. whenever I am around other people because I do not know what will offend and what will not; or how the rate at which life flows is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating; or how difficult it is to suppress my ‘Americanisms’ almost all the time. But, hopefully this should suffice to get my point across: life in a foreign place is difficult.

Because I have chosen to live in Kenya and work with the church during this time, some people have assumed that I am planning on being an international missionary. While I have seriously thought about it, I have also learned that I am not gifted or graced to perform such a task. I do not know how the missionaries here do what they do, and handle with such grace and humility the situations in which they find themselves.

I thank God for the people he has called to build his kingdom overseas, because it’s certainly not something I can handle.

On Missions and Selfishness

A few days ago, I was talking with one of the missionaries at the compound here in Kenya. The topic of missions came up, and we began to discuss the frustrations faced by missionaries when mission teams come and give almost no thought to how their presence, words, and activities affect the local people. In fact, we concluded, many times the mission teams leave the field more damaged than how they found it (wrongfully assuming that their purpose was to ‘fix’ anything in the first place).

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This conversation reminded me of something that took place many months ago at a Missions in Action chapel service at Olivet. During this particular service, members of mission teams from the previous year were on the stage and some shared their experiences with the collected student body. As it turns out, Twitter can be quite a menacing mistress, as dozens of tweets started flying around talking about how ‘full of themselves’ these mission-trip members were, or how ‘holier than thou’ they seemed. Not only that, but many of the tweets were downright ridiculing international missions…

“What’s the point of going overseas when there are so many needs in our own area?”

“Missions trips do more harm than good.”

“They’re talking about this just to make us feel guilty.”

Etc. etc. etc.

While there were certainly tweets that were more pointed than that, and cause quite a stir between some people who were quite argumentative, there was one tweet that still sticks in my mind: “The only thing these people are talking about is what they experienced. Mission trips aren’t about you!”

It was a tweet meant to bash the people on stage who were sharing their thoughts, but it struck a chord with me that resonated with the conversation I had with the missionary a few days ago. It has me wondering if we sell missions and ministry on a faulty platform.
I think we tend to view mission trip experiences as an exercise of our holiness, or at least an event that facilitates our sanctification. We see them as avenues towards building a better tomorrow for us and the rest of the world. But what if the purpose of missions isn’t for us at all? What if the purpose of mission trip experiences was to sacrifice any benefit toward ourselves for the sake of helping those to whom we are going to minister?

I think we have bought so much into the mindset that missions is about making an investment – which out to provide a reasonable rate of return! – that we forget that the whole point of mission (and, by extension, ministry) is to give ourselves away, to forego any expectation of a reasonable rate of spiritual return, and to simply offer ourselves as servants (not workers, who at least get paid) for the Kingdom.

It irks me to no end to see members of mission teams come in and neglect even the basics of doing cross-cultural work. Sure, some mistakes can be understandable, but when ‘veteran’ workers come and even the locals become annoyed with attitudes and insulted by words and actions, it makes me wonder why on earth such people do missions work in the first place.
Taking this more to heart, I have begun to wonder if I have taken the same approach to ministry. Do I administer my ministerial duties for the sake of building my reputation? Will I commit to certain programs and themes in my future church in order to rake in more potential members, or make people feel more comfortable in my church? Will my style of pastoring be based on who I am and what I need? Or will I be the pastor who offers himself to his people regardless of any amount of personal benefit?

Before I came to Kenya, I was asked by a few people the following question: “How will going to Kenya help you be a better pastor in the States?”

I think I have the answer to that question: I am not here in Kenya to be a better pastor in the States. I am here in Kenya to be a minister in Kenya. The purpose of my time here is to love the people here, and to be obedient to what God desires of me here. I am not here for the purpose of becoming a better pastor, or to become more spiritual. Will I learn a lot that can help me as I pastor in the States? Sure! But that’s not the reason I’m here.

I am wondering, what is the reason we do what we do in the lives of others? Is it to generate a ‘God-moment’? Do we treat people like stocks, where we keep depositing our time and energy just so we can get a nice return on our investment? Or do we invest ourselves in the lives of others for the sake of others, and letting that be enough?

When we treat people like shares, and the Kingdom like the stock market, all we do is make a fool of ourselves.

Would it be okay for us if we never see the results of all of our time, energy, and resources? I think the answer to that question would reveal to us quite a lot about ourselves.

On Chapel and MIA

Our missions program here at Olivet Nazarene University is called MIA, which stands for Missions In Action. Once a year, we have a send-off service for the mission teams that are going out during the summer. Since I am a graduate student, I do not have to attend the morning chapel services which take place twice a week, and so I don’t attend at all. But, since I am a part of one of the mission teams with summer, I decided to attend this service and be a part of the greater Olivet mission-minded community.

During the service, there were several mission teams on the stage who traveled during Spring Break and some of the individuals shared their stories. There were also various videos that were played which showcased the experiences of those mission teams. My friend Davey and I sat in the transept and were enjoying the service. We were also occasionally checking the #ONUchapel tags on Twitter.

See, during the chapel services students often make tweets about various things that happen. If there was a funny video, something weird happened during a song, or the speaker said something really inspirational, students will tweet about it with the hashtag #ONUchapel. Like I said, I have not attended chapel in some time, and I had not realized how the atmosphere among the students had become much more negative.

During the Missions service, I was reading over tweet after tweet talking about how the ONU staff were trying to guilt-trip everyone into doing mission trips, or posts ridiculing the mission trip participants, or even bashing the concept of short-term missions. To be fair, there were a lot of people who were loving the chapel service and made very positive tweets, and those positive definitely outweighed the negative. But I was reminded of something very simple: no matter where we go in life, there will always be controversy.

Agree to Disagree

This might sound like a dumb, or at least childish, statement. Even for me, this is not a new idea. I grew up knowing that not everyone is going to see things the way I do. But, Olivet is this place where everyone is homogenous, exactly alike, and on the same page on every topic. At least, that’s the atmosphere that exists there. It’s not explicitly taught, but most people who come to Olivet do so thinking that everyone else is a Christian, believes the same things, and takes the same stance on every topic. This is simply not the case. There are many people who are not Christian who go to Olivet, we do not all believe the same things, and almost all sides of every issue has people who are for or against it.

I think it struck me to witness this diversity of thought at play because I realized that we often approach church in this way. We think that people at church are all Christian, think the same, act the same, and have the same value system as we do. It may come as quite a shock to many of us to realize that this is simply not true. Even among pastors this isn’t true. During my travels as a Preaching Ambassador, I rarely met a pastor who I could say I agreed with theologically. Many of the pastors I met had views on things that I simply do not agree with. And since I am about to enter into a pastoral position in ministry, I have been thinking more and more about how much frustration I have caused myself over the years by carrying the belief that all Christians are the same.

The truth is, we are not all the same. Some believe in predestination, some are dispensational, some are open theists, and some just don’t care. I am beginning to wonder how much simpler our Christian walks would be if we accepted that others do not believe the same as we do, but that is okay. I am not saying that theology and eschatology (the study of last things/end times) don’t matter – they absolutely do! But can we be okay with disagreeing with one another? Is it alright if the Church carried different perspectives? Surely there are certain things that we cannot give up, such as the proclamation of Jesus as the way, truth, and life; the authority of the Scriptures; and the Apostle’s Creed. Beyond that, do we have to perfectly match up on our politics, economic practices, or views on homosexuality in order to call each other “Brother” or “sister”?

Can Galatians 3:28, which says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” hold true for us? Is unity with Christ enough to be called a Christian? Or do we need to add on “Republican,” “pro-life,” “opponent to homosexuality,” and “Dave Ramsey supporter” to the list as well? (The opposite can be true here; must we add that we are “democrat,” “pro-choice,” “LGBT approver,” and “Dave Ramsey opponent” to the list?)

Engaging in discussion with one another is fine, and some issues carry more weight than others. But, at the end of the day, are we able to see one another as Christ-lovers? Or will we allow our Twitter feeds to set the standard?