Category Archives: Missional

Welcome

A few days ago I wrote about how it feels to negotiate travel with two small children, and how I can feel like a nuisance or even an offense to those around me. Like the women seated in the row directly behind us on the plane. As soon as my body turned to begin the task of de-sherpa-ing myself so as to get Aaron situated into his carseat, their commentary began. “Oh great, we are surrounded by babies…”, “So much for my five hours of sleep…” , etc. I did not even look up to make eye contact, but I marveled at their need to make sure I heard how inconvenienced they were because my family existed. I especially marveled at this in light of the fact that the flight was TOTALLY EMPTY and it was more than obvious that we would all have our choice of just about any seat we could wish for once we were in the air.Contrast this with the gentleman who, before I could get to it, had my stroller completely assembled in the jet way and was standing ready to assist me in placing my kids inside. Oh, and did I mention he was THE PILOT? Or the young lady employed by the airport who literally chased us all the way to baggage to give me the earring I lost on the plane.

I just got back from visiting Jeremy and Amy’s church. They are a delightful group of people, very genuinely seeking after God in their lives and in their community, and I could not have felt more welcomed. People were generous with their smiles, with introductions and conversation; they were quick to hold doors and help corral babies; they communicated, verbally and non-verbally, that my being there among them was a very good thing. They were like the pilot and the airport employee, going out of their way to serve and to see.

Now I realize that I am the dream demographic for growing churches. Young families are almost always given center-stage in church-planting strategies. My sister is the coordinator for the children’s ministries at our church and we talk often about how important quality ministry to children is in its own right, but also to our ability as a church to attract and retain families. So while I hold little appeal to frequent fliers on Delta, I am popular with “the church”.

What struck me in thinking about all this is that I wonder who it is that comes to our church and feels, even in a small way, the way I felt boarding that airplane. I know it’s not the parents of toddlers, but what about the elderly woman with physical limitations and the beginning of mental ones? What about the sullen youth who likes to wander around when the service goes long? Or the man who smells like booze who stands way too close to you when he talks?

When we started our church, a young woman named Jen challenged us to be “fringe-centric”; to have those who are odd and difficult to welcome and integrate; those who are physically and socially weak; those whose needs are worn like garments; to place THEM, those on the fringes, at the center of who we are and what we do. It has not been an easy challenge. It is a choice that must be made every day and every hour. And we don’t always make it. One of the shameful moments in our history was our decision to move our worship gathering to a meeting space that was not accessible to wheelchairs. We did this right after God brought two gifted, faithful, and wheelchair-bound women into our fellowship. We told ourselves that we would figure out a solution and we gave it great effort, but the reality is that for four months we excluded exactly those individuals God was sending us to help build our church. The memory of Jennie, sitting outside the open door of our meeting space in the California heat, having the scripture told to her over the phone by Agnes (whose chair could be lifted up the stairs and so sat inside), still brings tears to my eyes. And it should.

It is not always that glaring, of course. But is it not the case that churches can communicate to people, those who are undesirable for a host of reasons, physical, social, theological, that they are somehow a nuisance or a “challenge” or even an offence? That their being there is a hardship and not a blessing? Or maybe those people remain just simply and obviously unseen.

And instead of being like the pilot or the airport employee we become, in some small way, those women on the plane who make sure that it is clear who are the preferable companions and who are not.

Mystery

I have always regretted the impact that gambling and the lottery have had on poor communities. It seems, in my experience, that suffering, disappointment and hopelessness breed a susceptibility to “get rich quick” dreams and schemes, and I want to slash the tires on the big casino buses that park in front of the Food For Less on Jefferson at the beginning of every month. But this week I confess that I am glad that someone out there chose to play the lottery in my neighborhood. Our good friend, David, who is homeless was rummaging through the trash and found a lottery ticket worth $1,000. He saw it as a sign from God that he was being given a second chance, and he told Doug that he was going to get back in touch with the Christian ministers he used to work with at a local shelter.

I remember sitting in an evangelism class at Fuller when the professor asked us all to share examples of evangelism done badly. Hands shot up as we mocked the uninformed, unenlightened, absurd strategies and schemes we have all witnessed. We were laughing until one student threw out: “those John 3:16 signs in the end zones at football games” and another student across the room raised his hand: “that’s how I was saved.”

Doug and I have invited David to our worship services for close to three years. He has never once set foot inside any of our meeting spaces. We have ministered to him regularly on the streets: we share our faith with him; we offer him food, money and encouragement; we sit and talk with him and listen to how he is doing. But the seed grows in secret and a landfill-bound lottery ticket can be the means God chooses to speak and reveal and redeem. It is humbling, really.

Little ones to him belong

Two days ago, Mercy surprised me with a new song: she sang Jesus Loves Me in its entirety! I have sung this song to her more times than I can count but she never once has sung along. But she is at this very fun stage right now where all the things she has been decoding for twenty-three months, she is suddenly capable of encoding. One day it was the ABC’s. Another day it was counting to ten in Spanish. Two days ago it was Jesus Loves Me.

I can’t really think of any other song that is so simple, so universal, so known. I also can’t think of any other truth I could be more excited for her to absorb and proclaim.

There are two other songs I try to sing whenever I sing Jesus Loves Me. The first is Jesus Loves the Little Children and the second is He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. I want Mercy to grow up rooted in the love her Creator and Savior has for her. But I also want her to grow up knowing that that same love extends to the children of Guatemala and the Congo. I want her to know herself as the daughter of a heavenly Father whose children cover the globe, not as a single child who is her father’s solo agenda.

Doug and I watched The Constant Gardener on Saturday night. It is truly a spectacular movie that I am still recovering from seeing. Only I don’t want to recover which is what makes seeing it so very hard. Many years ago, my best friend Julie told me that once I had kids there would be things that I simply would not be able to watch. She said that there would be things that, to even hear of them, would break me. Julie, I know now what you were talking about.

It was the two little boys, mostly naked, walking slowly past the place where people lay dying. It was the little girl left running, alone on foot to flee the men on horses come to rape and kill. I have been to the townships of South Africa, and I have seen extreme poverty in many places, but this time it was different: the little boys were Aaron. The girl was Mercy. And it was more than I could bear.

Mercy needs to know that yes, Jesus loves her. And she does belong to him. But she needs to know, just as much, that Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.

What would Disney do?

We spent the day today in Anaheim visiting Doug’s dad and his wife. They have rented a condo for part of the week and the last two days we have been enjoying their wonderful company, some nice air conditioning, and the great swimming pool at their resort. They are located on the edge of the strip of hotels and resorts that border Disneyland, and for most of these properties on the strip it is all about glitz and decoration and over-the-top-ness.

As we drove down the road toward Grandpa and Nana’s condo this morning, I noticed this funny little sign posted on the fence of a vacant property that sits, absurd, in the midst of Disney-Vegas. The sign reads “Fugishige Farm”, and on the other side of the fence there is another sign that says “Fresh fruit and vegetables for sale”. It turns out that from the porch at Doug’s parents’ condo, we sit overlooking this exact property. It is a large plot of land that only looks partially used by the rows of growing green, and later in the day we saw people harvesting things by hand.

We commented on how much this piece of property must be worth (it could easily hold yet another chalet-styled hotel) and how strange it was to see it used for such a humble, and clearly non-profitable purpose.

Yesterday, Doug’s great-aunt, who knows I am a minister, gave me an article to read from the Orange County Register. Their newspaper is doing a twenty-week series on Rick Warren, the Saddleback Church, and the global P.E.A.C.E. initiative he is launching and she thought I might find it of interest. I did. I found it of interest that the article used language like “evangelical superstar” and “spiritual salesman”. I found it of interest that they described a church gathering as “an event big enough to justify the rental of a stadium, the succession of Christian rock bands, the big-screen video tributes, the synchronized placard-waving worthy of the Olympic Games.” I found it of interest that the article was steeped in language of celebrity, fame, and fun.

As I sipped my latte today overlooking an earthy, awkward plot of land in the midst of the shiny, happy facades, I wondered about the church. I wondered what it means for us to be a theme park, a destination resort, a brand? What does it mean for us to be popular and attractive and feel-good like Disneyland? And what does it mean for us to be awkward, out of place, inexplicable to what surrounds us? What does it mean to be the thing that gets your attention because of what it does not look like?

The helicopters can talk

You know how police cars have the ability to broadcast their instructions? Well, last night we learned that the helicopters do too. We had just gone to bed after watching King Kong, and we were already a little tense with thoughts of giant bugs eating our heads, when we starting hearing some really crazy noises outside. The helicopters were soon hovering close, and at one point a round of gunfire went off. In the midst of all of this, we could hear that the helicopter was broadcasting something–something about a white car? Something about staying in our houses? (It was 1am so not a problem there).

The worst part about the helicopters coming is that when they are so close overhead, you know you have reason to be nervous and you want to be vigilant in listening to what is going on around you. But of course the noise from the helicopters is truly deafening and you honestly cannot hear if the back door did indeed just open (how many trips my poor husband has made to verify this one in the middle of the night…).

I checked the LAPD website this morning–sure enough, a white car was involved in a drive-by shooting where a pregnant woman, an eight year old boy, and an eighteen year old man were all shot. It happened earlier in the evening so my best guess is that maybe what we heard was them finding the car/people involved and there was likely a chase, which would explain why there was such a commotion for so long.

Yesterday I read this on Mark Galli’s blog in response to a NYT piece on the plight of Black Americans:

This is a blog about costly discipleship, so the question I ponder is: Is there something Jesus wants me–a white, suburban Christian–to do about this situation besides pray? Or is this the responsibility of the black church to wade into?

I can tell you that living under the shout and shadow of hovering helicopters makes me long for more white, suburban Christians (those who could invest time, money, political capital, whatever for the sake of the underserved and under-represented) to hear a call from Jesus to do something.

At the Gate

I’ll call him Frankie.

Frankie was a boy growing up in the West Central neighborhood of Spokane, Washington when my husband lived at the Westminster House, an incarnational urban ministry connected with Whitworth College. Doug invested a lot of time, love, and prayer in Frankie, as he did with many of the boys in that neighborhood.

Frankie is now a young man in his early twenties. He is in the Spokane County Jail, serving time for possession of Meth and for property damage and theft.

Through a series of contacts, Frankie was able to get his hands on our home phone number and address here in L.A. And boy does he use both. Often. The letters from this kid come regularly, and throughout the week the phone will ring with an automated voice informing me that “an inmate at the Spokane County Jail” is calling. Doug has written Frankie, talked with him at length on the phone, and lifted this young man up in his prayers.

I don’t know Frankie personally. But I know Frankie through the crew of kids I worked with and loved in my old neighborhood of Chicago. I know Frankie through the kids we persist in loving through our after-school tutoring ministry here. And I know Frankie through the troubled young lives that gather on 30th street behind our house.

We used to answer Frankie’s calls, until we got the first phone bill–it’s $5.00 every time just to accept the call! And the pile of letters continues to accumulate here next to my computer. Frankie reminds me how vast the ocean of need is, how consistent the evils are that plague him and so many other young boys desperately trying to become men (whether it is crack in South Central L.A. or Meth in Spokane) and how impotent I can feel in the midst of it.

He also reminds me that poverty has a name and a face, and that hope best comes in the form of a relationship. Like festering Lazarus at the gate of a wealthy man, is it not the case that God brings to each one of us someone, somewhere, who we dare not ignore?

Deus Absconditus

While studying for a course final at Fuller Seminary, I stumbled across a great devotional nugget in a surprising place: my lecture notes from a class in Medieval and Reformation Theology! Our professor was discussing how Martin Luther saw the hiddenness of God within revelation, as well as outside of it. Luther argued that, quite plainly, revelation does not often look like revelation: a fragile baby does not look like an all-powerful God, and the violence of the cross certainly looks nothing like glory! These “festivals of humiliation”, the incarnation and the crucifixion, demonstrate how concealed or shrouded God’s revelation can truly be for us and for our world.

Our professor then illustrated the point with this provocative statement: What if, instead of “majesty”, we sung these words in our worship services: “Poverty, worship His poverty…” How would doing this transform the way we think about our churches, our Christian witness, our own discipleship?

I am reminded anew of the surprising ways we encounter God as God enters our world in hiddenness. I confess that too often I am in danger of missing the glory of God precisely because I do not want to admit that my God is a God of soiled diapers and bloody trees. Whether it is my own suffering or that of my neighbors, I find myself quietly yearning for heresy: for a God who is a stranger to pain; for good news of “health and wealth” rather than that of a crucified Lord.

I am reminded here of one of my husband’s favorite quotations by Nicholas Wolterstorff:

“It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it means that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is his splendor.”

I am also reminded of a line from one of my favorite songs:

“And the earth trembled beneath the weight
of a father whose only son
hung ragged and royal on the throne
of his kingdom.”

This past week, I have found myself walking the streets of my neighborhood with the opening lines of Psalm 22 on my lips:

”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

As I have prayed these words for myself and for the sisters and brothers I call neighbor, the words of the psalmist have emboldened me to consider how welcome is our suffering in the throne room of heaven. As I have the opportunity to invite those who are struggling with very real physical needs to draw near to Jesus, I can be confident that the ways that they are socially and physically lost do not place them at a distance from our Lord. Rather, in the very despair of their lives, they become even more his sisters and brothers for the psalmist’s words of anguish were Jesus’ own liturgy as he wrestled the forsakenness of his death.

It is my hope for my church that we would truly experience something of Martin Luther’s “hidden God.” It is my prayer that as we engage the unique needs of a little corner of South L.A. with the good news of a crucified Lord we would become a people who could sing, with hearts that are glad: Poverty. Worship His poverty.