Struggle with Evangelism

This weekend I encountered a serious question over mission. One of the foremost duties of a Christian is to tell others about the faith. It’s all part of the Great Commission, go and make disciples of all nations, city on a hill, salt of the earth, etc. It doesn’t have to be an incredibly active thing, and I’ve learned in the past few years that being a little less “in your face” about faith is often a more welcomed approach. The t-shirts and rhetoric of my high school days didn’t meet with a lot of success, though it did meet with some. (I also find the word “success” to be inappropriate in this conversation–it isn’t applied to spiritual matters very well) It seems a better approach to be a little more laid back. People will notice there’s something different about you and ask when they’re ready. Forcing the issue often turns them away.

That’s all well and good, but it gets complicated when you apply it to a profession, like writing for example. How overt am I supposed to be in my writing? Because most people who need Jesus really don’t care to read about him. They don’t just wander into their local Christian bookstore and pick up a book about Jesus. And it’s not too likely they’ll see a blatantly Christian book displayed prominently in their mainstream bookstore. You have to be covert. You can’t be pathetically obvious. And I don’t mean you have to hide the fact that you’re a Christian and you’re talking about Jesus. You just need to be sensitive. Your work should be worth reading whether someone cares about Jesus or not. It should be hopeful and inspiring, it should change people. But it can’t scare them off with triteness or Christian jargon.

But is pushing people along one step toward God enough? Is convincing them the value of a spiritual faith, no matter the faith, good enough? Aren’t you leaving them outside the gates? How far do you have to go. I suppose everyone has to find their own answer to this question. For every writer there is a different answer, and that’s just one field. Billy Graham certainly found his answer, and look at the people who’ve come to Christ through the ministry of Billy Graham. Certainly successful. But I wonder how many of those people were spiritually curious before they even heard of Billy Graham. I’ve never understood what would bring someone to a Crusade. You have to be ready to come and know what you’re getting into. Something has to make someone willing to come hear that blatant Gospel message. What is that something? Is it a co-worker? A parent? A friend? Or maybe something not quite as obvious, like an article, a movie, or a book. Again, the “success” is virtually immeasurable. But you can’t deny the effect. How many have considered the spiritual because of novels like the Chronicles of Narnia or the music of U2?

I have to think that’s a step in the process of conversion that is worth effort. Someone has to open the eyes of the disinterested. Something has to change within them so that they would even consider God. The Holy Spirit plays into all of this as well, and we really can’t hope to know all the answers. What if in my spiritually awakening someone turns to Islam? I suppose you have to trust the Holy Spirit. And what if someone hears Billy Graham’s blatant message and walks away disgusted? I suppose you also have to trust the Holy Spirit.

I think I’ve always known this struggle, and I’ve always known the non-answer that comes with it. Sometimes you just have to re-hash it.

Remembering Sept. 11

Tomorrow is September 11. As if you need a reminder. Anniversary fatigue set in a few days ago, and I’ve hardly paid attention to the articles, books, TV shows, commercials and other assorted patriotic memorials. It’s not a day I’m looking forward to, and not for the reason most people dread the anniversary. Most people dread the reminder of the horror of that day. I find horror in the event as well, but I’m just as troubled by the results of that September morning.

Since last year our country has swung into action to protect the American way of life. But what are we protecting? Our right to be completely insensitive to world affairs? Our right to profile and abuse people based on their skin color? Our right to sell 9/11 greeting cards? Our inalienable right to put out memorial cans of pop? What’s so great that we’re trying to protect?

There’s all kinds of freedoms and rights we have in this country that are worth rallying behind. But instead we’ve made a poor show to the world. We’ve sought revenge. We’ve pummeled some of our own, ripping them from taxis and beating them, firing shots in the night at any passing turban, assuming a darker skin tone is proof of terrorist tendencies. We’ve been the bully in world affairs, dropping bombs where we want to drop bombs and threatening to drop more bombs where we want to drop more bombs. A pregnant Afghan woman lost her baby and is lucky to be alive today after shrapnel from an American bomb was lodged in her throat. We wave our big, mighty stick of justice at Iraq, pointing to all their misdeeds, all the while forgetting that we were the ones who gave them the chemical weapons we accuse them of using.

Four planes were hijacked last year and obliterated because around the world the U.S. is seen as the oppressor. In the year since we’ve done nothing but bring truth to that caricature. If we’re such a Christian nation, as so many religious leaders and politicians up for reelection would have us believe, then where is the Christian love and forgiveness? Where is the grace? We seem to have plenty of it for our fellow Americans, but we can’t spare a dime for our brothers around the world. We suspect our Arab American brothers. What happened to Christ’s command to love our neighbor? What happened to the Good Samaritan? An Arab man, complete with dark skin and turban, is the modern equivalent of the Good Samaritan. The rich man passing by on the other side is you. The Levite who refused to help is me.

As all the patriotism swells tomorrow night, we’re very good at loving ourselves. We’re very good at making heroes out of everyone, whether they’re deserving or not. But we haven’t changed as a nation. We’re more defensive, more vindictive, less trusting, and less loving. We’re willing to shed a tear for our stars and stripes, say the pledge and say it loud, pin a ribbon and puff up with pride. But we’re not willing to show the world the love of God we claim this country was founded on.

The one thing I truly hate to see is those images. The events of last year replayed again and again, captured on film and regurgitated for all to see, engineered to pull at your heart and squeeze a tear from your eye. Superimposed with flags and statues of liberty and excuse me while I vomit. I watched with voyeuristic shock as a 747 disappeared inside one of the towers of the World Trade Center, only to be replaced with belching flames. I don’t want to see that image ever again. But tomorrow it will reply again and again. Four-year-olds will see it and look to the sky every time they hear a plane, tugging on their teacher’s clothes and asking if the plane is going to crash, going to come down on them.

Our media-driven culture wants to bring healing, but a montage of patriotic death will only fuel zealous actions of bitter selfishness. Hug your children tomorrow. Buy a homeless guy a burger. Be kind to an immigrant. Smile. But don’t bury your head in a memorial edition of the paper. Don’t buy the book. Screw the DVD. And whatever you do, unplug the TV.

The Summer of ’99

It was the summer of ’99. I was halfway through college, and living on my own for the first time. A lot of people are looking out for you in college, so it really doesn’t count as being on your own. But that summer there was really no one responsible for me, but me. And I really felt that responsibility. I breathed it in and cherished the opportunity.

It became a summer of questions, a summer of growth, a summer of new opportunities. I landed an internship in my field that summer. For the first time in my life I wouldn’t be doing a mindless job stocking frozen peas or something inane like that. I’d be doing what I went to school to do. Of course I wasn’t yet paid for it that summer, but that kind of goes along with the field. Poverty and writer go hand in hand, so that summer was really preparing me for a lot of things at once.

That was also my first summer away from home. I haven’t spent a summer at home since. Friendships that were already strained by 9 months of college were pushed even farther, and it didn’t help that my church began to fall apart. It was complicated and downright confusing, but some people had been slighted, they left the church, it caused a big uproar, some more people left the church. When the smoke cleared a few years later there was a new pastor, and a revolving door of church members. Some left for good, some left for a while but later returned, some left and came back and left again. I never had the option because I never lived at home again.

That summer my parents separated. It’s the battle scar of a generation, a rite of passage. They tried to work on things, ended up divorcing a few years later, and then in a bizarre twist re-marrying about a year and a half after the divorce. That was last month. But that summer it was a bombshell. When I went home to visit, I found it wasn’t home anymore. I helped my mom move the stuff out of the house and into an apartment in a daze, with awkward silences and laughter, jokes that didn’t quite land and probably shouldn’t have taken off.

That summer I also had a new girlfriend. We’d been dating for a month when I moved down to Chicago, but we’d been good friends for a few years before that. She lived in Green Bay, and we spent more weekends than I care to admit meeting halfway in Milwaukee. I later married that girl.

It was a time of nearly violent change in my life. And I loved it.

Christianity and Patriotism

I feel so conflicted when American Christians act like they are citizens of the United States before they are citizens of the Kingdom of God. The Bible calls us to give to our government what belongs to our government, but give to God what is God’s. It seems to me that God requires much more of us than our government, yet we continue to give our loyalty, our passion, and our commitment to our country.

The United States is a great country. I don’t ever want to deny that. The freedoms we have in this country are to be valued and cherished. But with those freedoms come responsibilities and abuse. We are the most materialistic society in the world thanks to our freedom. It’s astounding.

Again and again American Christians make the claim that this country is God’s favored nation. Somehow God has shined his light upon us and us alone, and allowed us to become the world’s superpower. What do we base that right upon? This country was founded by God fearing men. God fearing men who owned slaves. God fearing men who believed in a detached, clock-maker God. Many of them were deists. God fearing men who decided not to give to Caesar what was Caesar, but decided to claim it for themselves and declared their independence. And time and time again Christian leaders turn to the passage in Chronicles where God cries out to the Israelites, saying that if his people would humble themselves and pray, he would rise up their nation. That promise is claimed for countries that are not Israel, and I wonder how that makes sense. We claim God’s blessing and we claim God’s favor, based upon what?

The motto of this country is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jesus Christ calls us to take up our cross, an instrument of execution, and follow him. Jesus was asking us to die to ourselves. To take up our lethal injection, to sit in the electric chair–to give up our lives so that we can serve him. That doesn’t sound like the pursuit of happiness. We are called to be slaves to righteousness. That doesn’t sound like liberty. The American ideal is based on the oft-quoted, but not scriptural idea that “God helps those who helps themselves.” Lie. The opposite is found in scripture–God can only help us when we realize that we can’t possibly help ourselves.

That’s the whole foundation of salvation. We can’t pay the price for our sins on our own. It can’t be done. No amount of good deeds will wipe our slate clean. Only the blood of Jesus makes us clean. We can’t help ourselves.

So while patriotism swells around me, I find it choking. When patriotism sweeps in, logic and free thinking often pour out. We think our God-favored status gives us special rights, gives us permission to act in the world, to do what we think is right. The result has been abuses across the globe. Smart bombs that fall on wedding parties, the support of dictators and the repression of others, based simply on what effects our pocketbooks. Our country as a whole pays lip service to God, yet Christians cling to that like it’s something that matters. God doesn’t care if we give homage to him our money. He doesn’t need our money. God doesn’t care if we admit that our nation is under his watchful eye in our pledge. God doesn’t care if our judges and congressman and even the president spend a moment in rehearsed prayer. God doesn’t care about any of that. What really matters is if God is our god, any thing less is showmanship. Anything less is lip service. Any thing less is a slap in the face. So why pretend? Why insult God on high? He deserves better than that.

When we say God bless America, what are we really asking? Are we asking God to bless us above every other nation on earth? Are we asking God to bless our pocket books and our bank accounts and our stock options? Or are we asking God to convict us of the sin so prevalent in every wrung of our society. Are we asking God to help us kill those terrorists? Or are we asking God to make himself known to unbelievers? Are we asking God to let his people proclaim his name on the streets? Or we asking God to open hearts of the unsaved on the streets, so that lives are changed, not just callused by our faithful proclamation?

Occupied, oppressed, persecuted and closed nations are often places where you find the true Christians. Their family Bible, hidden in a slit in the mattress, is their prized possession. Not the brand new SUV in the driveway. The American Christian has become fat and lazy, drowned in a sea of possessions, paying lip service to God on Sunday morning, and then falling asleep to football Sunday afternoon while an unbelieving world goes to hell, all while we sing ‘God Bless America’ and think we live in the greatest nation on earth. Every empire that has ever existed and has ever fallen has swallowed the same lie.