Opening Up the Church so Wide…

There are now nearly 70 million people living in our world who have been forced from their homes for a whole assortment of reasons.[1]

I have been thinking and writing about refugees quite a bit recently.   November 11, 2018 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I.  The end of that war brought peace to some, but the refugee crisis it spawned and the ensuing famine in Russia that affected millions made life a nightmare for years after the trench warfare ceased.  I wrote an article about this that comes out in the International Bulletin of Mission Research in a couple of months.  Specifically, I wrote about the European Student Relief – the first aid organization to be truly international and ecumenical. It was organized by Christian students around the world to come to the aid of refugee students.

Our refugee crisis today was again brought to my attention this past week at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies with a sermon given by Rev. Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa.  I met him several days earlier when I spotted his name tag as I trickled into a lecture hall with 150 other attendees for the conference’s first plenary lecture.  I was surprised to see him.  He is not the young man that he was when he bravely fought against the apartheid regime for decades beginning in the 1960s.

As part of his resistance to that regime he would sometimes hold a sign that read,

All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of the city, and who were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Father forgive us.

This so-called “Plaque of Shame” was erected on the outside wall of the local Methodist church in District 6 as well.  I’m told it is still there.  In his sermon this past Sunday, Rev. Storey also described another time in the history of that church – long after he had departed as its pastor – when the building provided a place of refuge for people fleeing the ruthless regime of Robert Mugabe in the neighboring state of Zimbabwe.

A few days ago, on the last day of the Oxford Institute, Peter preached on the story of four friends who dug a hole in the roof of a home where Jesus was teaching and asked (demanded?) that Jesus heal their paralyzed friend.  The church, he said, has to be broken in order to actually be the church.  By serving refugees from Zimbabwe, the church he loved – including the building itself – was literally broken down from the stress of housing dozens of people who lived, cooked, and slept in the sanctuary.

I am reminded of how rarely I have seen this kind of ministry happen in the churches that I have attended and served in for the past several decades.  To be clear, I have been a part of churches – urban ones especially – that did prioritize ministry to their neighbors over keeping the church building in shape.  I am grateful for their witness, but I have not seen this enough.

When Rev. Storey finished preaching I felt compelled to thank him for his sermon. It had moved me to tears.  (Sermons don’t typically do that for me.)  But I knew that kind words and a handshake wouldn’t be enough.  I wanted to hug this man who understood that the Christian life is not primarily about finely nuanced talks or academic papers but about ministering to people where they are at in their fullness as people truly created in God’s image and who reflect that image even in the brokenness of their bodies.  “Too often,” he noted, “we are more concerned about being right than doing good!”

Rev. Storey paraphrased Mother Teresa in his closing words that Sunday morning in Oxford.  I can’t think of a better was to close this blog than to follow his example:

“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”  Reflecting on this quotation with respect to the story of the paralytic and his four friends, Peter went on, “Only if the church gets broken open does the world get mended… Open up the Church so wide that the whole world falls in.”

[1] See the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/data.html. This number would be higher if an even broader definition of refugee and internally displaced person were utilized.

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On Really Getting Things Wrong

This summer I am once again in the archives researching world Christian leaders in the early part of the twentieth century: John R. Mott, T. Z. Koo, J. H. Oldham, to name a few.  A more limited project has me reading early Methodist missionary letters who are living among Native Americans in Oregon in the 1830s and 1840s.

In the course of this archival research I occasionally come across letters where the writers are so very blind to the big events that are beginning to happen around them or will shortly happen.  They are sometimes astonishing to read.  Sometimes they are astonishingly boring in light of what – in historical hindsight – we know was about to happen in their world (like World War 1)! But for the most part my reaction to these astonishing letters is not one of self-righteous incredulity where I wonder, “How could s/he think or say that?”  Quite the contrary.  When I come across these letters they frequently give me pause as I wonder to myself, “What am I missing in my own context?”  Am I equally blind to critical matters happening in my world where I am doing very little in response?

It seems important to be especially prayerful along these lines during the summer of 2018 which seems particularly disturbing in the world news events that are swirling about us.  The growth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, the rise of right-wing nationalist leaders, the separation of immigrant families, the effusive praise of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un by President Trump… The list goes on.  What will happen next?  What is happening now in other parts of the world that I am not noticing because these events I just mentioned are either closer to home or are more active in the press I am paying attention to?

It is with all of this in mind that I share an excerpt from a two-page, typewritten letter written by an early twentieth century evangelist named Sherwood Eddy.  He was very popular as an evangelist in student circles, and by the late 1920s was getting increasingly intrigued by what was happening in the still-new Soviet Union.  He sent an almost syrupy sweet letter to Josef Stalin in 1932.  What was happening in 1932 that he was clueless about?  Well, here’s a bit of a taste…

In 1932 the first “five-year plan” was wrapping up.  Collectivization of Soviet agriculture was moving forward at a break-neck pace and a devastating famine was setting in causing the deaths of millions of people in the Ukraine and elsewhere.  Some scholars see this as deliberate and thus worthy of the “genocide” label committed by Stalin.

Now read the letter that Sherwood Eddy wrote to Stalin that I came across in my research at the Yale Divinity School archives.  One of the most striking examples of really getting things wrong.

This is my ninth visit to this country in twenty years – twice in Czarist Russia, seven times to the Soviet Union, which has made such astonishing progress especially during the Five Year Plan.  I am counted a friend of this country and have been working for a decade with my friends… for the recognition of the Soviet Union by the reactionary Government of the United States, so much so that in America it is foolishly said I must be supported by “Moscow gold.”  I am not a Communist nor a capitalist, but a Socialist; but I want to see this daring undertaking of a classless society under a new social order succeed, and it is succeeding.

I know you are occupied with much more important questions in collectivization, heavy and light industry, etc.  I do not ask an interview nor an answer to this letter, which may not even reach you, but I have confidence in you as the one man that can bring victory and success in the face of all these difficulties.

Speaking as a friend of the Soviet Union, not by way of criticism but in kindly suggestion, I may say that your tourist business for foreigners is very badly run. I know the difficulties and I do not expect perfection, busy as you are with more important internal problems, but things are worse this year in many respects than in previous years.  Thousands of dollars have been wasted abroad in advertising which was unpsychological and not adapted to foreigners, promising things which could not be fulfilled, and have not been fulfilled.  A few thousand dollars spent in making these hotels suitable for foreigners would have brought better results than tens of thousands in unwise advertising which has not been fulfilled…[1]

Yes, that’s right.  In the midst of a genocidal famine, caused, in large part, by Josef Stalin we have this letter giving Comrade Stalin advice on his country’s hospitality industry!  Astonishing?  Yes.  There are lots of important historical questions that could be posed about this letter and Eddy’s context and worldview that helps us to understand this letter.  But in this blog my question is more personal.  What are we missing?

May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is happening in our world that is at least somewhat better than Sherwood Eddy was able to see in his own day.  That is my humble prayer – for all of us.

 

 

[1] Letter from Sherwood Eddy to Josef Stalin, July 29, 1932.  Sherwood Eddy papers, Yale Divinity School archives, New Haven, CT

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My hope for United Methodism

I was asked some months ago to write a blog as part of a series entitled “My hope for United Methodism.”  It first appeared on UM & Global’s site, but UM Insight picked it up as well.  

“Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem… They looked for Jesus and said to one another as they were in the temple area, “What do you think?  That he will not come to the feast?”  John 11:55-57

The Scripture text above for the day before Palm Sunday ends with a question: Will Jesus show up?  It is a question many people in the United Methodist Church are asking – sometimes with anguish in their hearts, yearning for renewal.  At our best, I think we ask this question not with anxious handwringing but with what Cornel West calls a “blues sensibility” sort of faith.  Our eyes are wide open to the problems in our church and world, but we have faith that Jesus will always show up.  It is the faith and love of Jesus working out in our lives that moves us with hope and a persistent unconditional love for others.  At our best we sing with the pathos of a famous African American spiritual as our model, yearning for the “City Called Heaven.”  It is that ultimate hope expressed with the grit of a blues artist that I pray will animate our life together as United Methodists in the years to come.

Where do I see this happening?  What gives me this kind of gritty hope for the UMC?  I have two stories.

Just before Holy Week I gathered with fourteen people in Portland, Oregon in order to encourage one another in our experiments of living in intentional Christian communities.  Most were folks from Portland, but I drove an hour with my housemate and Romanian missionary friend, David, to see what this might be.  I knew some friends would be there who went through Missional Wisdom training and prayerful retreats with me, but the circle was wider than that with people who have been experimenting for less than a year to one man who had lived in an intentional Christian community for 33 years.  I went to this gathering because I’ll be serving as a faculty mentor next year for two residential houses of university students who want to explore in practical ways what it means to live a deeper life of Christian fellowship that they have been reading about in the “great books” honors program I also teach in.  I need help to dream what those houses could be so that my prayers would not be too small.  Small prayers are a problem for many of us.  On my drive home with David last night we spoke about what we experienced in that Portland living room with other disciples of Jesus.  There were deep wells of wisdom there, experiences of desert wandering, and also a spirit of holy experimentation.  It is the willingness to experiment and yearning to keep re-envisioning church that gives me hope for United Methodism.

My second story is a tad less contemporary.  I’m a historian of the missionary movement, and one of my current projects is to examine one of the earliest and exuberantly hopeful missionary endeavors of American Methodists.  No other missionary venture of early American Methodists more fired the imagination than the mission to share the Gospel of Jesus with Native Americans in Oregon.  Big dreams of mass conversions of thousands of eager Native Americans (whom Methodist missionaries barely knew anything about) were quickly met with discouragement in the years after missionary arrival in Oregon in 1834.  Instead of thousands yearning to become Christians they instead encountered thousands of people being decimated by diseases that had had been transmitted to the region earlier via trading ships.

The Methodist missionaries persisted in Oregon but perhaps the best missionary of the bunch, Henry Kirk White Perkins, has barely been recognized in Methodist mission histories.  His journals reveal that he was probably the leading missionary linguist in the denomination at the time; he translated a good chunk of the New Testament into Sahaptin, a language of eastern Washington.  He was also a man with a heart full of love for others and a belief that the Gospel truly can transform lives.

In a letter to his friend, Daniel Lee, he relays stories of a revival that took place at the Willamette Mission – a few miles south of where I now live – during a few days surrounding a Watch Night service in January of 1839.  Perkins tells stories of the conversion of a half dozen Native Americans.  Most were older children in the school the Methodists were running along with some adults and children of white settlers.  He was especially moved by the emotional conversion of two Native American women – both named Mary.  Mary Sargent had been converted the day before.  She was friends with Mary Hauxhurst who was married to a white settler.  As Perkins tells the story, “Mary S. arose and with joy beaming in her countenance, went and threw her arms around the neck of her friend, [Mary Hauxhurst] and they wept, and prayed together…O, thought I, this, this is religion, and religion is love. God beheld the sight, and he wiped their tears away, and in a few moments they were praising God together.”

At first glance this is not a particularly unusual conversion story.  What makes it noteworthy to me is that it is the first conversion story in Oregon where – at least in the way Perkins tells it – the missionary seems to be more of an observer to one Native American woman introducing another to the saving love of Jesus.  Perkins, it seems, trusted that what was happening to these two women was of God even though so much of their history and culture was unknown to him.  It would still be over a year before he could preach in any language other than a rudimentary trade language the local people used.

This story that Perkins tells illustrates a hope I have for United Methodism in that we too will learn to trust one another across cultural and linguistic barriers.  Perkins made plenty of mistakes in his work, to be sure, but as I have read his journals I am struck by his openness toward Native American cultural practices that were foreign to him.  As he painstakingly translated Scripture day after day he was also willing to question his assumptions about how he interpreted the Bible.  He even wrote back home to ask a friend for help in thinking through some passages.  That letter home embodies another hope and gritty prayer I have for United Methodism – namely, that we would learn to be better friends and vulnerably ask for the help we need – from God and one another.  For where two or three are gathered… Jesus will most assuredly show up.

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Friendship as Incarnational Mission Practice

I wrote this blog a few months ago originally for the American Society of Missiology, a professional society of missiologists for whom I serve as chairperson of the Board of Publications.  I might as well put it here too!  

January 24, 2018

In less than six months we will gather for our ASM annual meeting to consider “interfaith friendship as incarnational mission practice.”  The past two Sundays three serendipitous events occurred which resonate for me with our ASM theme and make me anticipate our gathering even more!   To be clear, the stories I relate here are not about interfaith friendships, but they are about friendship in the midst of difference and thus illustrate the generative nature of the theme ASM President Dr. Bonnie Sue Lewis has chosen.

First, this past Sunday I preached at two congregations near my home.  This is not particularly unusual in itself.  It is something I do every month or two.  I preached on Mark 1:14-20; a few months ago I had written a short commentary on this text for the ASM “missional preacher” website.  But the day before I was to preach, I saw something new in the text that I hadn’t even mentioned in that commentary.  In Mark’s account of Jesus calling disciples by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls for three actions on the part of his disciples / eventual friends: Repent, believe, and follow.  I closed my message by lingering with my congregations on the priority Jesus placed on repentance.  Repentance is how our believing and following begins.  Perhaps that is especially the case in our interfaith friendships.  But surely not only there.

With my congregations I also spoke about another event that had occurred the previous week.  I had visited a Coptic Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon (the only Coptic church in Oregon) with my class of undergraduate students studying the history of African Christianity.  In their ancient liturgy we heard the simple prayer, “Lord have mercy,” well over a dozen times.  I was reminded of the multiple layers of that simple prayer that simultaneously reminds us of our need to repent and the abundant grace and mercy that is poured out for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. While worshiping with these Coptic Christians I was also reminded of how little I pray for Christian sisters and brothers facing persecution in Egypt and elsewhere.  Lord have mercy, indeed!

My third serendipitous event occurred the evening after I had preached on the Gospel of Mark.  I went with a new friend to an evening service at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in a nearby town.  I am still somewhat new to the American West, so I decided several months ago that I needed to better understand the Mormon tradition in my new home.  As I climbed into my friend’s car that rainy evening, I asked again what this service was going to be about.  He said that he thought it was going to be “A kind of revival service.” He is always generous to find words within my own Protestant and Methodist tradition that make sense.  At the end of the service which was indeed “A kind of revival service,” one of the priests from the regional ministry area or “stake” came up to me and asked, with tears in his eyes, if he could give me a hug.  We had met just once before, but we had a meaningful conversation.  As we embraced he said, “Thank you for being so kind to us.”  I recall that I mumbled something along the lines of “But, of course, we’re supposed to love one another.”  He had previously told me of some hurtful encounters he had with evangelical Christians many years ago in our area.  I don’t yet know the history or current reality of Latter Day Saints – evangelical relations in my new home, but I know I need to learn.  I also don’t know what repentance would look like in this case, but if I am to follow Jesus more closely in my new home I need to open my heart in prayer about this. My friend’s tears and words of gratitude, it seems to me, can serve as a kind of icon for my prayers in the months to come.[1]

“Repent, believe, follow.” “Lord have mercy.”  “Thank you for being so kind to us.”  May these phrases resonate for you too in the days to come as we all look forward to our ASM meeting on “interfaith friendships” at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

[1] To be clear, I don’t see my relationships with LDS friends as an interfaith friendship.  The evangelical – LDS dialogue that has taken place for the past 20 years seems to mostly use the language of “heterodox Christian sect” as a descriptor of the Mormon tradition that LDS Christians themselves are comfortable with.  For now, so am I.

 

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Response to “Wonder, Love, and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church”

This post was originally written for the UM & Global website earlier in January of 2017.  Several other blogs responding to the draft form of this new proposed statement on United Methodist ecclesiology will be forthcoming as well on that blog.  

 

The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order was established at the 2008 General Conference.  Shortly thereafter the Committee was asked to craft a study document on United Methodist ecclesiology.  The document, Wonder, Love, and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church (henceforth, WLP) was the result.  My blog post here is intended to promote reflection on this document in preparation for a revised version being brought before General Conference in 2020.

From the start WLP strikes a strongly ecumenical tone in its theological reflection on the mission and nature of the church.  It does so in a much more explicit way than the parallel studies on the Lord’s Supper and Baptism that the UMC has undertaken in recent years. This embrace of ecumenism finds its strongest expression in WLP in its use of the World Council of Churches document, The Church: Towards a Common Vision, (henceforth, Towards a Common Vision) as a key point of reference throughout.

I think, however, that the Committee on Faith and Order’s decision to work so closely with Towards a Common Vision was a mistake. This is not easy for me to say.  I participate in two national ecumenical consultations, and am currently working with others on a response paper to another WCC document for the National Council of Churches.  I am committed to this work.  And yet, I see two problems with WLP’s use of Towards a Common Vision.

First, by working so closely with Towards a Common Vision I believe that the Committee has unwittingly hurt the chances that this document, in its current form, will be received by the United Methodist Church in as deep and pervasive way as By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery.  To be clear, I think that any study of ecclesiology would probably have a hard time being as well received as those documents on baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Those studies focus on discrete Christian practices; a study on the mission and nature of the church is more abstract.

By using a WCC document as a primary reference point throughout the text it also causes its ecclesiological insights to be less accessible for United Methodist readers.  That is not to say that WLP is not Wesleyan in many of the good things it has to say.  I think, for example, that the three convictions of a UM ecclesiology outlined in the first section of the document, “Our Approach to an Understanding of the Church,” are excellent.  I also think that “communion ecclesiology” as it has taken shape over the past few decades in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist theological circles – and now in WLP – can be fruitful for United Methodist theological reflection.

My second reason for disagreeing with the Committee’s decision to work closely with Towards a Common Vision is because, in doing so, they actually engaged in too limited of an ecumenical conversation.  The WCC document Towards a Common Vision too frequently frames theological issues to be in line with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions.  A quick scan of the footnotes in Towards a Common Vision reveals this pretty clearly as does its attention to the issues of “apostolic succession” and a “ministry of primacy.”  These ecclesial communities are important, to be sure, but their vision of what Christian unity might be is different from my own and that of many other Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and United Methodists.  We are not in an “ecumenical winter” as the WLP and other commentators on “official ecumenism” have stated.[1]  Conversations across Christian traditions around the world are as robust now as they ever have been; the shape and goals of ecumenism, however, are surely changing.

I believe that at this point in our history as United Methodists it is better to pay more close attention to other Wesleyan denominations rather than those church traditions whose perspectives were most strongly represented in Towards a Common Vision.  This belief, at least in part, stems from a sense that for too many years we have too often downplayed (if not completely avoided) ecumenical conversations with our closest ecclesial relatives.  This should not come as much a surprise.  As in personal relationships, we sometimes avoid having deep conversations with folks to whom we are most closely related.

For the past four years I have been sent by the Council of Bishops to an annual meeting of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection Steering Committee.  It is comprised – in addition to the UMC –  of fifteen, mostly U.S.-based, Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations, almost all of which are not formally a part of the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches. I wonder how those fifteen Wesleyan denominations (Church of the Nazarene, Salvation Army, Free Methodists, etc.) would respond to WLP. Surely they would desire that WLP be more explicit in thinking through the ways a Wesleyan vision of holiness is germane to our missional and ecclesiological self-understanding.  To be clear, attention to this theme of holiness is present in WLP, but it could be a lot stronger.

The authors of WLP rightly praised the insight of a teacher of mine, Professor Andrew F. Walls, who noted that the major challenge of the 21st century will be an ecumenical challenge – an ecumenism that is not so focused on denominational diversity but on the tremendous cultural diversity inherent in a Christian movement that has shifted dramatically to the global South over the past several decades.  What do United Methodists from outside the United States have to contribute to our understanding of the mission and nature of the church?  The Committee on Faith and Order doubtless worked hard to include these perspectives, but it is difficult to see in the document as it currently stands.  One way this might be expanded is by further exploring United Methodist images of the church noted in line 454 and following.  Some of those images might just surprise us!

Finally, and at the risk of drawing undue attention to my own work, I would encourage the Committee on Faith and Order to consider the work of Roman Catholic biblical scholar John N. Collins.  Over the past couple decades I have tried – without much success – to promote his pioneering research on the biblical term diakonia as a resource for United Methodist ecclesiological reflection.  His research was surprisingly overlooked in Towards a Common Vision as well.  In brief, Collins argues for a view of ministry where accountability and relational connection are highlighted far more than the “servant leadership” rhetoric of an earlier era.[2]

I agree with the WLP that the United Methodist Church needs a new vision for what it means to be church – to love as Jesus loved, to live as Jesus lived, and to walk as Jesus walked.  I feel this need deep in my bones. We have a story of “love divine all loves excelling” and we need our imaginations about the church to be as bold as that story of love.  I believe the Committee on Faith and Order agrees with me on this. It is not by accident that they entitled their study “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”  Let’s keep working on WLP to make it better.

[1] For a contrary view on the alleged “ecumenical winter” see, for example, the work of Dale T. Irvin including, most recently, his chapter in World Christianity: Perspectives and Insights: Essays in Honor of Peter C. Phan edited by Jonathan Y. Tan and Anh Q. Tran. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016.

[2] See, for example, John N. Collins, “Ordained and Other Ministries: Making a Difference,” Ecclesiology 3, no. 1 (2006); Paula Gooder, “Diakonia in the New Testament: A Dialogue with John N. Collins,” Ecclesiology 3, no. 1 (2006).

 

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Trials of Ecumenism

This piece is also posted on the UM & Global blog.

Ecumenism is tough.  For people who have been involved in ecumenical conversations over many years this is an obvious insight.  Many Christians though have the impression that ecumenical dialogue or ecumenical cooperation is something that is easy – or at least should be.  The impatience some people and institutions exhibit with regard to building ecumenical relationships is partly based on this mistaken impression.

For the past five years I have served as one of the United Methodist delegates to the Faith and Order conversations of the National Council of Churches of Christ.  I have come to deeply value these conversations as I have also grown in my appreciation of ecumenism’s close tie to God’s mission in our world today.  That may be especially true for the people called Methodist.  The depth of Christian fellowship exhibited in early class and band meetings was not incidental to the missionary zeal Methodists felt in their bones. Those early class and band meetings drew people from a wide array of Christian backgrounds – from Quaker to Catholic – and you can be sure that this diversity of background in the Methodist movement caused plenty of challenges, both then and now.  (For a good reflection on this in light of United Methodism’s current challenges see Glen Alton Messer’s recent blog.)  Diversity of outlook and practices can also promote excellence in mission even if, in the process, working through our differences can also bring tremendous strain.

At our last National Council of Churches meeting in May I came to a new appreciation of that strain even as I hope it will eventually serve to strengthen our witness together going into the future.  The incident I bring up here certainly can help promote reflection about the interrelationship of mission and ecumenism, and it is for that purpose that I share it here.

Toward the end of our three-day May 2016 “Christian Unity Gathering” in Baltimore, Maryland an invitation was extended over a lunch meeting for people at this meeting to pose for a photograph around a banner that read “We stand by our Muslim neighbors.”  This photo invitation was born out of a desire of many (likely all) in our group to oppose the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in American society.  The vast majority of Muslims around the world are, of course, not terrorists, so sure, let’s have a picture in front of a banner.  Sound simple?  It wasn’t.

An Eastern Orthodox representative at this gathering voiced strong opposition to the idea of posing by a banner that expressed solidarity with Muslim neighbors.  He did not deny the reality of dangerous anti-Muslim sentiment in America, but he was also all too aware that in other parts of the world Muslim neighbors were killing Christian neighbors.  So many of these Christian neighbors are Eastern Orthodox. He would not be standing by any banner that afternoon.

In this moment of ecumenical conflict over lunch all of us in the room realized in a new way that to stand by a banner that read, “We support our Muslim neighbors” raised difficult questions we needed to work through.  Around my little table of eight I spoke out loud a question I was repeating in my mind: “Who is my neighbor?”  It was something I practically murmured under my breath, but a chance lull in the conversation was such that it was heard by everyone.  In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, the question is posed by a young lawyer in order to “score points” in a debate against Jesus.  My question, I hoped, was more genuine.

The questions kept emerging in my mind and those of my friends around the table as we contemplated what we would do when picture-taking time came later in the afternoon.  “What does it mean to ‘stand by’ a neighbor when another neighbor of like religious faith in a different place is killing other neighbors?”  “Can I so simply make a distinction between American Muslim neighbors and Muslims and Christian neighbors in Syria or Pakistan?”  “Should I instead stand by my Eastern Orthodox neighbors who were refusing to be in this photograph?  If so, why would I do that?”  Was the decision to have this picture be taken made in the right way?  If not, why not?  How will the picture be used?  How will it be interpreted by others?

Again, ecumenism is tough.  What would you do?  As for me, I chose to join the dozen or so people who refused to be in the picture.  I did so for several reasons but mostly because I believed my most immediate neighbor at that gathering whom I needed to build a stronger relationship with were my Eastern Orthodox brothers in Christ.  Indeed, I had a meaningful conversation with a fellow deacon (from the Orthodox Church of America) during the picture-taking session as we chatted in the hallway outside the hotel banquet room.  Most of the people gathered at this event posed with the banner for a photograph.  I look forward to further conversations with them at our next meeting about why their no less prayerful decision was different from mine.

There will be plenty of opportunity for those conversations in the next two years.  I am a co-facilitator for a group in the NCC that is tasked with the responsibility of responding to two related World Council of Churches documents – one short (7 pages), one long (45 pages) – about Christian identity in a multi-religious world.  The short version was jointly approved by the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as well.  I look forward to talking about these documents with my students this semester too in a course intended to teach doctoral students in psychology about world religions.  I invite readers of this blog into the conversation as well.  Feel free to e mail me or to respond to this blog right here.  Ecumenical conversations may be tough sometimes, but “so the world may believe” (John 17:21) it is vital that we give it the attention it deserves.

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“They Never Resolved the Chord”: On Using Art to Teach about Mission

This blog of mine will also be posted to the UM & Global blog.  

A recent experience at the movies with my musician son, Luke, provides a good – albeit humbling – example of a challenge all professors of mission face.  At the end of the film Interstellar, as we watched the credits roll on the screen, my seventeen-year-old son exclaimed – rather loudly – “they never resolved the chord!”  “What chord?” I asked.  “The one that has been playing for the last ten minutes,” my son remarked somewhat incredulously.  I was dumbfounded.  I had not heard it.  As I walked out of the theatre into the light I had the sneaking suspicion that I was still “in the dark” on at least some dimensions of that film.  Luke’s musical awareness and training had given him a different framework or set of interpretive lenses from which to evaluate this movie. They are lenses I don’t share.  My musical awareness has never been what his is, and what little I possessed in the past has atrophied from lack of musical muscle-building.

I think all professors of mission struggle to get students to think differently and more deeply about God’s mission.  We try to help students to see things which are clearly there, but which are obscured from our students’ view just as the unresolved chord was “hidden” from me in that movie theatre.  We use cross-cultural simulation exercises – my favorite is Heelotia – to help reveal the cultural differences in our world and the power of ethnocentrism to unconsciously shape our feelings and behaviors toward others.  We tell stories about amazing missionaries in the colonial period to displace attitudes about “missionary villains” which have been formed by less than helpful fictional caricatures of missionaries in a Barbara Kingsolver or James Michener novel.  (Graham Greene, Shusako Endo, or Robert Stone provide good alternatives in fiction.)

For a number of years I have been using artwork by Christian artists from outside the West to help me displace some “images of mission” which remain too firmly ensconced in my students’ minds.  I do this also to give them new images from which to draw as they craft a theology of mission that works.

My favorite image that my students and I reflect upon at the start of every semester is entitled simply “The Great Commission” by Nalini Jayasuriya, an artist from Sri Lanka who was an artist in residence at the Overseas Ministries Study Center some years ago.  She passed away precisely one year ago on September 5, 2014.

We not only begin our Christian World Mission course together reflecting on this painting but my students see it every week on my “course banner” in the learning management software my university uses.  I ask my students two simple questions about this image (which has been cropped below even though it is also the banner for this whole website).

Jayasuriya Great Commission

What is the artist trying to say here about the so-called “Great Commission” Scripture text in Matthew?  What do you think the artist is trying to say about mission in general?  We have never failed to have at least a fifteen minute conversation about this work of art, and almost every year a student will see something in the painting which I have not seen.  (Because I’m ready for it this usually results in less embarrassment than my experience in the theatre with my son.)  Sometimes I disagree with an interpretation, but that, in itself, is generative for further conversation in class.

Little fireworks of insight emerge in the class like this:  “The disciples seem to respond to the “Great Commission” differently. What does this suggest about the church’s different responses to God’s mission?”  “People are praying in this painting. How are mission and prayer related to one another?  Is there something distinctive about a mission spirituality?”  “The Jesus figure – who looks like a woman by the way– is not really looking at the crowd of disciples.  Who is Jesus looking at?”  Here, in a burst of Trinitarian enthusiasm, I sometimes suggest that Jesus is looking to God the Father and then switch excitedly to Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity for a moment. (My Pentecostal students always easily identify the dove with the Holy Spirit.)

Most of my students are Baptists, nondenominational Pentecostals, and Methodists so rublev iconteaching with icons like this requires some work, but when the icon is viewed and discussed in light of Jayasuriya’s painting it is a bit easier to understand.  Questions about the role of the Holy Spirit in mission and the Eucharist also come up as students ponder the dove and chalice in the painting.  The vivid red, orange, and yellow colors in this painting provides the opportune moment for us to also interrogate Emil Brunner’s famous quotation: “The church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning.”

Discussing Nalini Jayasuriya’s painting is a beautiful introductory exercise in my class.  By the time my class takes a break during our first class session together most students have a sense that mission is far more than strategic decision-making for their local congregation. They also recognize that mission is not so neatly defined as the line-item on their church’s budget spreadsheet labeled “mission” might otherwise suggest.  I have Nalini Jayasuriya’s artwork to thank for that, and on this first anniversary of her death I celebrate her life for the life she has helped me to infuse in my teaching.

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