Saturday, June 21, 2008

UmoHo, "People Against the Current"

I've now been back in Lincoln for a week since spending seven days in Walthill, NE. I've had a little time to process my week with the people of the Omaha tribe, but overall I know there is much debriefing to be done before we get a sense of what Grace Chapel's involvement will look like in Walthill. Let me begin by describing much of the week:

The drive to Walthill took about 2.5 hours. We drove in on Hwy 77- basically Walthill is straight north of Lincoln. Walthill is a town of about 900 people, predominantly American Indians of the Omaha tribe. Not too long ago, the town was inhabited by predominantly Anglo people, but when the Omaha people began to migrate out of Macy, Walthill became the place of destination. So imagine a small town in Lincoln with houses (not teepees), now inhabited by predominantly Native peoples. As mentioned in my last blogpost, poverty among Native Americans across Nebraska is around 46%. However, it would not surprise me if in Walthill poverty levels are twice that (above 90%). There is hardly an economy in Walthill and children roam the streets at all hours. Gangs are present as well. Our team leader Dave Krueger described Walthill, while in small-town Nebraska, as being similar to an "inner-city" situation. Many of the houses are boarded up, others burned out by bored kids who find ways to entertain themselves by destroying things. Alcoholism has killed/impacted much of the population through liver disease and diabetes. Some of my wife's relatives who live a few miles away in another town simply refer to the people of Walthill as "troublemakers."

What did we do? We ran Vacation Bible School (VBS) and told Native children about how much Jesus loves them. On MWF we had over twenty kids. For some reason on TTh we had around eight. On most days, a local law enforcement vehicle parked outside our VBS because some of the boys participating were suspected of stealing. This was never established, but it was quite the site (or sight), a group of people running VBS with the local sheriff "supervising." In some of the older boys who came, ate cheese and crackers, did crafts, sat (for the most part) hearing Bible stories, I was captured with how tough they were on the one hand with their street-smarts, knowledge of the ways (curse) of the world, broad range and knowledge of profane words and profane acts that no child should know . . . yet at the same time how they were simply scared kids needing to be loved and know about the love of God for them. To be frank, after the first day of VBS I suggested perhaps kicking out some of the older boys because of how distracting they were to the other kids who seemed very sincere and wanting to learn and listen, . . . yet was humbled to see many of those same older boys as some of the few returning on Tuesday when only eight kids showed up! and even saying when I saw them out and about that "VBS was fun and not boring like we thought it would be."

In addition to VBS, we participated in six different restoration projects including painting two houses owned by native women and doing yard work for another native woman. It felt good to beautify some houses that were in some pretty serious need of paint- the women were so grateful. Some significant highlights of the week: 1) Mary and Orville who came to Christ last year, spent almost the entire week with us on our work sites, with their kids in VBS and sharing meals together (their son Callen is pictured at the top); 2) ministering with the men on our trip to a native man Duane who was broken due to the cancer that had turned his wife into a shell of the woman she used to be and 3) spending the week with Ben Loos, Kelly Russell, Jake Meador and seeing Greg Baker, Linn Erickson, my family as well as the Guthrie family come up for a day during the week.

Practical implications: 1) the trip is quite cost effective ($350 for seven days- compare to $1350 for Haiti for seven days). I think our partnership with Haiti will always remain strong, but what Walthill provides us is the opportunity for others who might have a heart for ministry with more nearby peoples; 2) people who are good with working with children and have skills in painting, construction and housing projects are great on this trip, though admittedly myself being somewhat weak in these areas had a great week too; 3) if some are unable to take a week off or are simply uncomfortable living on air-mattresses, in close quarters and showering in the local high school, the option remains to come down for the afternoon or for just a couple two-three days; 4) the Native peoples who spoke to us were very receptive to our intentions to be there, which to me was a bit surprising given the uneven history between "Christian missionaries" and Native Americans. Duane remembers thinking during his childhood that if he was going to set foot in a Christian church that he would need to cut his sacred hair to do so, so he found other ways to learn about God (outside the church). I am a Christian. In the annuls of church history, Eusebius records of the teenage slave girl Blandina who was put to death for her faith. Upon being asked one last time if she wanted to save her life by recanting her faith, Blandina responded, "I am a Christian. We do nothing of which to be ashamed." I am a Christian. I speak for my own- shame on us for dishonoring the memory of our sister Blandina by keeping the Native peoples from seeing the Gospel clearly and knowing the love of Jesus. Short hair as an essential of the faith? Gimme a break.

All that to say, I was excited and pleased that the Omaha people we came across were very receptive to Christian people coming to their town, if only we might come in love with the only agenda being to serve. Given the rocky history between Christians and Native peoples, before going to Walthill my primary goal for our team was that for Jesus' sake we would leave the week having done more good than harm. For the most part, I think we accomplished our goal- would that goal multiply into the future as we pray about loving these dear, beautiful and Beloved people who have always lived "against the current."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Good News Far as the Curse is Found

I remember a few years ago leading a Sunday School class and making the case for how while inclusive of the salvation of souls, that the Gospel was even bigger than the salvation of souls, that Jesus came to restore everything in all of creation that was broken, indeed that He had come "to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found." One of the primary ways I established this was by asking the class, "precisely what is the 'good news' announcement that Jesus comes to bring?" and a number of answers from the class began to describe the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, His substitutionary atonement for sinners and the gift of eternal life to all who embrace the Cross by faith.

Now, . . . let me pause for a second because all that I just said is amazing stuff. How can we ever get over the precious message about God who demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us?!!!

Yet, . . . the answers given in class were incomplete. The good news announcement that Jesus brought was . . . Luke 4:43 . . . "But he (Jesus) said, 'I must preach the GOOD NEWS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.'” Jesus comes to bring good news about the restoration of all things through the reversal of sin's curse on ALL of creation, human beings included, but also everything else included as well.

The alienation of souls from God is a spiritual problem. The Cross addresses fully our spiritual problem through the forgiveness of sins. The alienation of people from one another is a social problem. The Cross addresses fully our social problem through the restoration and re-establishment of true human community. Poverty is an economic problem. The Cross addresses fully our economic problem through the re-distribution of wealth and alleviation of financial pressure points (see the early church in Acts 2:42ff. as one example of this). Low self-esteem is a psychological problem. The Cross addresses fully our psychological problem by re-orienting our thoughts to our value as: 1) those who bear the likeness of our Creator (Gen. 1:26 and Psalm 8) and 2) those who have been adopted into His family as dearly loved children, precious in His eyes (Col. 3:12). Everything that is wrong, unjust and broken in this world can be traced back to sin's curse upon it. And everything that is wrong, unjust and broken in this world can find the promise of restoration through the "good news" that Jesus has come to bring.

You see, the Gospel is the "good news announcement of the presence of the Kingdom of God in His Son." In other words, the Gospel is the announcement about the rule and reign of God present among us to restore all that was lost due to the devastating effects of sin's curse on the world. Think about the Lord's Prayer for a second, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The prayer is about the completion of the work that Jesus began while here on earth as all of human history awaits consummation. But every time the "Lord's Prayer" is answered, we have "good news"! We have the reversal of sin's curse through the establishment of the rule and reign of God through His Son, present among us!

Whenever you do what is right, sin's curse is reversed. Whenever you live sacrificially instead of selfishly, sin's curse is reversed. Whenever you advocate for the defenseless, needy and oppressed, sin's curse is reversed. Whenever you proclaim Christ in love, sin's curse is reversed. Whenever you speak truthfully and graciously to someone, sin's curse is reversed. Whenever wives feel cherished by their husbands, sin's curse is reversed. Whenever husbands feel respected by their wives, sin's curse is reversed. Whenever the orderliness and loveliness of the likeness and character of our Creator shines in and through His people, extending and overflowing to others, sin's curse is reversed.

So I was in Sunday School and after making what I thought was a fairly clear and compelling case, I continued "The Gospel addresses not just poverty of spirit but poverty of any kind, period." One young man unable to contain himself any longer blurted out, "But, where's that in the Bible?!" Admittedly, exasperated after my long (and thorough so I thought) intro. (Lord help us all!), I blurted back, "EVERYWHERE!" and went on to rattle off about 785 Scripture passages starting with Luke 4:18, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor."

Oh, that the desirable fruit of the Spirit (peace, joy, patience, kindness, self-control, etc.) would overcome my impetuosity more often than currently seems to be the case! In further reflection, I realized that this young man was simply expressing that which he had always been taught and that so much of the American Evangelical heritage has been to: 1) preach the Gospel in the context of the salvation of souls only and 2) be very suspicious of those who emphasize issues of social justice and poverty relief as being a "social" rather than “true” gospel.

One of the things I learned in seminary was that theological beliefs are never formed in a historical vacuum, rather are always conditioned by historical and cultural circumstances. One of the movements in theological liberalism (what was once called modernism) was the willingness to "let go" of some the core pieces to historical and orthodox belief that had accompanied the Church since the time of the apostles. Some key examples: 1) belief in the Virgin Birth; 2) belief in the historical nature of the resurrection; 3) belief in the substitutionary nature of the atonement of Christ; 4) belief in the full authority of the Bible and 5) belief in the imminence of Christ's 2nd coming. Originally, the motivation behind movements in theological liberalism was to preserve a kind of Christian credibility within the halls of academia following in the wake of Darwin's 1859 work, "Origin of the Species." Basically, what modernism/liberalism attempted was to "gut" from the Christian belief structure the role of the miraculous. Yet as J. Gresham Machen handsomely argued in his classic work, "Christianity and Liberalism," to gut Christian belief structure of the role of the miraculous is to gut it of its essence, of being Christian at all! All that to say, through the 20th century just about every church group in this country was impacted in one way or another by the influence of "modernism" into our churches and this explains in part why there continue to be "mainline" verses "evangelical" churches and why the mainliners look at the evangelicals as preachy hypocrites who do nothing to alleviate societal ills and why the evangelicals look at the mainliners as those who make people more comfortable as they go to hell, without the benefit of the message of life eternal offered to us in the Son.

The social gospel . . . historically, cuss words to the typical evangelical. "Where is feeding the poor in the Bible?" Now myself being an evangelical, this is where we need to step back and reflect more deeply on the way in which American Evangelical culture has influenced the way we come to the Bible and see certain themes in Scripture, yet miss others. Remember, the young man asking the question was always taught to believe the Bible and live by it. Yet he couldn't so much as see God's heart for the poor inside that same Bible he had read from his youth, "So he replied to the messengers, 'Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor'" (Luke 7:22). Why was this so? Because his/our Christianity is conditioned in a historical context with much pushing and pulling informing our reading of the Bible. And while we can never get away from that reality entirely, we can become more aware of it, reflecting more deeply upon it so as to grow in our understanding.

So how has this truth about "good news to the poor" been interfacing with my sabbatical as of late? Really in two ways. First of all, I've had the opportunity to spend two hours on Fridays for the last three weeks at the Peoples City Mission (PCM) here in Lincoln. PCM Executive Director Tom Barber tells me that 91% of Lincoln's homeless population will come through the PCM at some point through the year. The PCM runs an annual budget of around 13 million dollars and employs 72 staffers. It's quite an organization. Also, the remarkable thing about the PCM is that despite all the evangelical history stuff I talked/rambled about, remarkably the PCM has been decidedly evangelical for the duration of its 100+ years of existence. It is a group, while welcoming of all people, groups, denominations, religions and faith orientations, at the end of the day is motivated and staffed by people who embrace and lift up the name of the risen Lord! Each week while on sight, I "process" a little bit more on the possibility of a more tangible and viable partnership between the people of Grace Chapel and the PCM, and each week I become exposed to another facet of this rather large and exciting ministry.

Secondly, I am preparing to take a seven- day trip from June 7-14th up to Walthill, NE where I, along with a few other Grace Chapel people, will be spending the week to serve the Native American people of the Omaha tribe. Mainly we will be working on restoration projects, driving hammers and nails and then running Vacation Bible School for Native American children in the afternoons. We will sleep in one of the local churches and shower out of the local high school. A few years ago, the Nebraska Office of Minority Heath and Human Services, documented that 46.2% of Native Americans living in Nebraska were living in poverty, the highest of all ethnic groups in Nebraska. What is more, while I don't have any particular statistics, the Omaha people seem to be "worse off" than some of the other Native American groups. There is something in me that says Jesus would be on the reservation if He were walking bodily among us today.

Now, admittedly, engagement with Native American peoples is tricky business given the long history of uneven and unjust treatment such people have received at the hands of "Christian missionaries."

Jeff Warner, Lutheran missionary to the Omaha people, writes:

"I am quite often personally, poignantly reminded of late that it was not the Muslim extremist who came to this place, took the lives of these people, destroyed the homes of these villages and left violence, poverty, disease and generations of grief in their wake. It was the Christian missionaries, pastors and people who spoke and acted wrongfully in the precious Name of Jesus- and often in cooperation with their civil and federal officials. Tribal members who watched their relatives get beaten by Christians, those who saw their property stolen by Christians, and those who stood helpless while many died from diseases formerly unknown among them- these people remind me of those things to my face. And missionaries who come here with another gospel remind the people often enough of those things too."

How do a group of people pray for and work for "Thy Kingdom Come" when their own history is littered with people who have come in Jesus' name to compound the curse "far as the curse is found," rather than relieve it and portray the goodness of God in His Son? I guess only humbly, on our knees, with hearts filled with grief and repentance for the "sins done and left undone" to these people. When I was younger and a new Christian, I wanted to “change the world for Jesus.” Almost twenty years later, I still want the world to be changed for Jesus, but I don’t want to be the one doing the changing. It seems whenever I take things into my own hands, I tend to do more damage to people than good. But I know if I pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” that the hope of real change is possible, if only we might listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice and direction showing us how best to love a people who need to know how precious they are in His sight.

So we explore some ministry possibilities with the Omaha people this next week. Pray for the week, for wisdom, insight, direction and mainly that blessing rather than curse might flow from us to the people of Walthill.