Missional: To die and to live

“The crucifixion was the consequence of the incarnation.”

And so it can also be said that the resurrection was the consequence of the crucifixion (thank you, Patrick), and that too is a necessary theme of “missional” we do well to explore.

Moving from death to life: when I considered how to describe the ways that this has been true for me and for my family, a flood of stories raced through my mind, many of which have been told here before. Stories of how my children have been shaped to consider hospitality and generosity in terms of our home, our money and our food; stories of how my kids understand culture, language and race (in ways that simply could never have been taught from a distance); and story after story of how God is at work removing what is dead and hard inside of me and replacing it with something living.

And when I think of my community at large, I recall the stories of a community bound by fear coming together to stand up against a criminal liquor store owner and battle all the way to City Hall to see prostitution, drug sales and shootings removed from their street corner. I think of homeless, addicted friends walking the slow road to rehabilitation with a community and a God who refuse to let them turn and go back. I remember a black woman who spent the final years of her life with our church and in the process received God’s heart for racial reconciliation and gave all of us an example of what it looks like to be a person of grace.

I recall the story of a first-generation Spanish-speaking mom walking the aisles of our Ralph’s grocery store at ten o’clock at night desperate for someone who could interpret her daughter’s homework assignment (written in English) and help her understand what her daughter needed to do. And I think of how our tutoring program at the end of our street has served so many moms like her. I think of the many, many kids who have been given every help with homework assignments; the parents who have been equipped to better partner with their kids; and the flood of reading buddies who take time off from work and studies to sit and read with little bodies with growing minds, and help inspire a love for learning in them.

As I write this, our pediatrician (who is first and foremost a very dear friend) and two of her four kids are down the street at our tutoring center painting and roofing and helping prepare the place physically for our summer program that begins next week. This is the fourth year that this family has taken a week of “vacation” to live with us and labor at our side, doing morning work projects and afternoon camps for our neighborhood kids. The very fact that these friends from San Marino are here sleeping on our futon and floor, sharing cramped space with three early-rising small ones, and giving every ounce of energy to loving us and our neighbors is a story of that move from death to life.

In fact, I remember the first year this family and the rest of the team from Pasadena Covenant Church came to “dwell among us”, and I will let this story conclude my reflection today.

The first day of the afternoon camps, we were disappointed by the vary small number of kids who showed up and so decided to hit the streets in hope of recruiting more kids to come. The week before the group from Pasadena had arrived, there had been a gang murder that had taken the life of a very prominent gang member in our community. Large red shrines still stood boldly on Adams, nearby to where he had fallen, and we had warned our visiting friends about not wearing red that week, walking away from anyone who was wearing gang colors, and having in general a heightened sense of awareness for their safety. And a few weeks before that, a young girl had been shot in the face while playing basketball, in the same park that we were using to host our sports camp.

As we walked the streets and talked with kids and families, we could feel the fear and tension that our neighbors were living with, and we could understand why many of the parents were afraid to send their kids outside, and especially anywhere near the park.

In spite of these obstacles, we were able to make contact with a whole crew of kids and it wasn’t long before the camps were full and moving at full speed. As I walked down the street with Jamie, a San Marino physician who had come to Vacation to L.A. with her husband and three young children, still looking for any last kids to invite, she suddenly interrupted me and began to pull me toward the other side of the street. I looked up and saw what she had seen: a group of fifteen or twenty men approaching, all dressed entirely in red.

We crossed the street without making eye contact, and moved quickly back toward the park. As we got closer, we saw that, in addition to the volunteers and the kids enjoying their sports camps, large groups of gang members were gathering. The adults present promptly sent the kids and most of the volunteers back to the church, while a few stayed at the park, trying to tear down the equipment we had been using. The park staff, however, having also sighted the gang members, locked the doors of the rec center and refused to open them and let them in.

Over the next few minutes, more than seventy men, dressed literally head to toe in the color red, descended on the park. It turned out the murdered gang member’s funeral had been held that day, and as is custom, the guys needed a place to gather after the funereal.

After that memorable first day, the camps continued to grow and more than seventy kids were ministered to that week in the name of Jesus. That Friday, we sponsored a barbecue in the park for all of the kids who had participated and for their families and we had a blast. I bet there were two hundred of us gathered there in the park that Friday night. And it was strange, but people would be driving by the park in their cars and they would slow down or even stop to stare at this strange group of black folk, white folk, and brown folk, all laughing and eating and talking together.

That night, families who had stayed locked up in their houses came outside and enjoyed dinner with their neighbors. That night, kids who had been scared to step onto the basketball court shot hoops with their new Pasadena friends. That night, relationships were started that have resulted in whole families coming to know Christ and joining our church. That night, the same park that, days before, had been a symbol of death, violence, fear and division became a place of life and light.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

When I grow weary from sharing or welcoming or forsaking something for the sake of the kingdom here; when I consider how much safer or easier a church full of people like me would be; when I look around sometimes and all I see are dry bones, I hear Simon Peter ask this and I know that, as much as he failed to see and grasp and follow his Lord through the valley of the shadow of death, he had eyes to see what was ultimately true about his master: in him was life, and life “to the full”.

And so, though he faltered and failed, he followed. And so must we.

5 thoughts on “Missional: To die and to live”

  1. I especially liked your concluding comments. Having had many years experience of mission in contexts like yours, seems to me the ‘resurrection’ is really more about a new creation of hope and faith in God in the midst of a difficult crucible that makes hope and faith hard, and not necessarily remaining hopeful about particular strategies or organizations or even–at times–about the practical ability of specific Christian communities to bring about lots of tangible change in an urban poor neighborhood at a particular time.

    If strategies work and organizations are successful and Christian communities bring about dramatic change in a neighborhood, so much the better. But that often doesn’t happen, even over years. In one sense, changing a poor urban community significantly takes changes in many factors, many of which are actually outside of that community and out of the ‘control’ of a group of Christians trying to be faithful in that context.

    So I guess my experience is that while tangible changes to a neighborhood are certainly a part of God’s resurrection work, they’re secondary to the stripping away of illusions we have about the change we can make or the effect our strategies will have–or more basically–about our own real commitment to the people around us (crucifixion?)and a miraculous building up a new kind of faith less attached to what may be vain hopes about what ‘cutting edge’ missional people can do with our strategies and approaches and energy and commitments.

    Like a lot of folks who do that kind of mission, I struggled with a crisis of faith and a dark night of the soul in the midst of it including depression and questioning what it meant to believe. Something about justice /service of the poor missional work has particular power to begin stripping away the illusions I mentioned and also challenging false and easy conceptions about God.

    Looking back on that time in the inner city, and also on many years of starting and helping build ‘urban poor missions,’ I’m not sure we accomplished a whole lot of dramatic change in entire poor communities. And I’m again struggling to make sense of all that–was the effort worth it? Were we just not faithful enough? Was it the wrong people, the wrong strategies?

    As a result of that reflection on those years of urban poor work, I feel like God is going even deeper now than He did once before in stripping me of my ‘missional’ and personal illusions. Honestly, right now it’s getting so stripped down I’m beginning to wonder what’s left :^) And I’m feeling about a dozen different emotions. But I think that’s all part of the process. I’m sure at least some of you understand what I’m talking about.

    In any case, I’m believing and hoping that ‘the resurrection,’ at least in my case, will have more to do with a new kind of faith that may be more skeptical about things I once put more faith in than I should have but more confident that God is working, even if not in the ways I’d hoped or through the channels I thought.

  2. Tom,

    Thank you for that honest response. I really appreciate what you share here and think it is a crucial message that many (myself included) need to hear. Again, thanks.

  3. That was the finest piece of writing I’ve read in quite awhile…and I read A Lot. You live what other people sitting in church pews wish they could, in living out Christ among and with people. Wow.

  4. Thanks for this needed reminder to follow hard after Christ, which means getting involved in the lives (messy though they may be) of others.

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