Friday, July 22, 2016

The problem with religion

Recently a friend mentioned that she was not a religious person, but liked our ministry. I replied by saying I'm not very religious myself. I was trying to be sarcastic and witty, making a cheap, shallow statement to set myself apart from what I assume most people think of when they think “religious”. Mostly negative things.  I did not want to be perceived as negative.  It was immature.  And probably self-righteous.

I shared this story with a fellow missionary, and he essentially rebuked me, saying that I was in fact religious, according to God.

God made everything. He designed it. He designed us to live a certain way. If anyone deserves to define things, it is Him. Mankind will try their best to make their own definitions. This leads to the creation of man-made systems, traditions,, essentially. Games with rules that should be followed.

In stating that I was “not religious”, I was validating a human definition. I was essentially submitting to the game's rules by saying I didn't want to play.

God defines “religion” simply and clearly. “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [James 1:27 NASB]

Pure and undefiled. In other words, the real meaning, the authentic version. God's religion is involved in caring for the helpless and being unstained by the world. With that said, I am not nearly as religious as I'd like to be.

This “religion” is described elsewhere in scripture. Isaiah 58 is a great example. It paints a picture of a people living out their own religion, prideful and oppressive, and making demands before God. God defies that by declaring the fasting (or religious work) He requires is destroying yokes, caring for the needy, letting oppressed go free, speaking goodness. Jesus declares that to be His follower, we have to lay down our life and take up our cross (crosses kill, you know). That love is an endless act of self-sacrifice.

Instead of accepting man's definition and foolishly exclaiming, “That's not me!”, I should have rejected it, and insisted on recognizing the definition established by the only Person worthy of doing so.

The problem with religion is that it takes your life. It demands it. And yet the act of giving up our life gives us a life much better. A life eternal. And it lifts up those around us.

The problem with religion is that it cannot be self-serving, but only self-sacrificing. It can never exalt our selves, but only ever bring us low. Religion puts us last, in a culture that wants to put us first.

The problem with religion is that it doesn't have a system of weights and measures to balance our actions so we can remain “right” or “favored”. It doesn't have many laws, yet leads us into a perfectly crafted design.

The problem with religion is that it can only be truly defined by its living. It cannot be something that acts from a distance, hoping to control or alleviate. It can only function closely, intimately, in being near to those in distress. It only really works amongst those in need.

The problem with religion is that it becomes claustrophobic in a world where we all want our own space. It takes our things and gives them away. It takes our time and uses it for others. It takes our emotional currency and spends it on those with deeper wounds than ours. It takes our hands and sets them to work that is too big for even our eyes to behold.

The problem with religion is that it snatches away the things we love to hold on to. It constantly turns our eyes away from things we desire. It constantly shows itself worthier than the things we trust. It destroys little rooms that feel safe and known.

The problem with religion is that it becomes confusing in its simplicity. Complicated things are easier to study, to grasp, to wrestle with. Simple things are harder to debate, harder to reject. Religion is stubborn in its bluntness. It is the immovable object opposing the unstoppable force of our pride.

Religion does not provide a lot of options, but presents endlessly inconceivable opportunities of being lived. It is a narrow way, and a straight way, one that starts in death but ends in life.

The problem with religion is that it is so rarely “pure and undefiled.”

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Interviews with Volunteers

Earlier this year, Sun Ministries hosted three groups of volunteers, consisting of individuals and student groups from Georgia, Indiana, Texas, and as close as East St. Louis. They came through a ministry called CityLights, which hosts groups from all over the country, teaching them and sending them to churches, ministries, and individuals throughout the city of St. Louis. They sent us groups three weeks in a row.

We have several ways of engaging volunteers – from scheduled work days open to anyone, to hosting groups in our Leadership center for a week or longer. But regardless of the nature of their time with us, we very much want volunteers and visitors to understand the motivation behind the labor they're engaging in. It is borne out of the Gospel of the Kingdom, the Gospel Jesus preached. Lay down your life, take up your cross, give up your possessions, share your resources, care for those in need, live obediently. We feel that God is doing a unique work here to reform His church and renew the inner cities of America. We've spoken much of the model of pastoring your community, and we are convinced it is the thing God has led us in to. It is also a model whose principles could be taken to other contexts. We do a lot of “contextualizing” for volunteers in order to communicate the idea of pastoring your community. We generally start the time off with a tour of our neighborhood, properties, and businesses, explaining to them the motivations behind our work and the history of the area. For longer projects, we break up teaching into strategic points in our work, using the work to contextualize the teaching, and vice versa. We want volunteers to know why the work exists, but also to go home knowing that they participated in the work God is doing here and helped us care for this neighborhood.

If you are interested in volunteering with us, we have two work days scheduled.  Check our facebook for more info.

I took some time to interview three of the most engaged students from the first of the three groups. Most of our visiting volunteers ask questions, but the questions asked by these groups were incredibly wide ranging, and some were deeper and harder than most. Here is just a sampling of what we were asked over the course of the three weeks:

How do you guard against gentrification?
With all your physical responsibilities, how do you address spiritual development amongst yourselves?
How will you raise up managers for your businesses?
What do you miss most about your former life?
What is true justice, and how do we actively engage in that?
How do you stand against internal pride?
What does recreation look like for you?
Isn't some of this work meaningless?
How do you reconcile things like voting and engaging politics?
Where are your black ministry partners? (and this question we'll return to later)

The questions showed us that some volunteers were yearning and struggling to understand the nature of our ministry and the lifestyle it requires, but furthermore, in my opinion, they were longing to understand their faith and discover how to live that out in the world today, how to resolve Christ's teaching with their concerns and passions.

I interviewed three of the most engaged students to get their thoughts on their time with us. The common, and most prominent, concern of the three students was a lack of African-American leadership in the ministries they witnessed in St. Louis. Racism is no throw-away issue. Besides being a centuries-old problem in the US, it has gained more prominence lately, especially in the St. Louis area.

Josh's Interview

This photo was obviously not taken with an iPhone.  I forgot to get a shot of Josh.

The first volunteer I will introduce to you is Josh Fort. He was the one who asked where our black ministry partners were. Being a young black man himself, I responded with, “Well, you're here.” He was not satisfied with that answer, and likely with good reason. We spent about an hour or so over lunch discussing that question with the whole group, and you will hear that concern mentioned in the other two interviews.

Josh had much boldness, asking us within the first few minutes of meeting us how we avoided becoming prideful and controlling. His boldness, and desire to understand himself, his faith, and what he was observing, led him to ask many solid, probing questions throughout the week.

Josh said, "I appreciate you all's holistic vision for pastoring the community and seeking to develop the community through programs that don't just care for the spiritual needs of the community but also care for the physical needs in tangible and dignifying ways."

Josh explained how the lack of black leadership caused him to question his own ability to become that leader in ministry and elsewhere, dispite a long list of accomplishments and leadership positions. When asked if there was anything that could or should be done to address this lack of diversity, he said yes. “Churches and ministries should seek out leaders in communities and find other minority leaders in other organizations and find ways to work together and serve each other. That racial reconciliation shouldn't look like trying to get other people to become like you, but to move forward in the unity we both have in Christ and serve each other.”

Finally, I asked Josh if he's learned anything. “I've learned that God can work, and accomplish His work in unlikely ways with unlikely people.”

Bria's Interview

Bria had a lot to say, in my opinion, because she had a lot of passion.  When I asked her about her thoughts on her time with us, she said, “Context is really important to me. So, the first day may have seemed really boring to everyone else, but I absolutely needed that, because we had no context coming in before. And so I didn't want to come to a place and feel like I was saving something, you know what I mean? Even though it did take all day, I needed that.”

She said it was very helpful to see not just the buildings we own, but the neighborhood as a whole. She expressed that at other ministries she's been to, there's an assumption that volunteers haven't experienced poverty, or lived in neighborhoods like Hyde Park. However, Bria grew up poor, in Chicago, and has experienced racism. She felt like the expected audience with many ministries were people who had not experienced poverty, racism, and hardship. Because of this, there is the risk on the part of inner-city ministries to assume their audience is ignorant of the realities of race and poverty, and Bria feels like she doesn't have a place in what is being presented. I asked her if there was a way to address this without being belittling or awkward. At first she said she didn't know, but that some preparation with groups to find where they're coming from might be helpful. She also admitted that it might just always be awkward, but it's worth asking. In our discussion of how God is undoing racism through calling people to His design, Bria asked how people respond whenever we discuss topics such as white privilege, noting that the members of her group were not discussing it.

Throughout our time with Bria, she was continuously introducing herself to our employees, shaking their hands, thanking them, asking them questions. This is because she cares for people and truly wanted to connect with and hear from them.

When I asked if she had learned anything, her response revealed even more about her passions, stating that it's okay when you're 100% sure you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, but people don't like you.

Overall, Bria was probably the most vocal and interactive student, and her passion reminded me that I have to be careful to listen to those who have come alongside me to help in the labor.

Tuesday's interview

Finally, I'd like to introduce you to Tuesday Whittington. Though Tuesday was quiet and observant throughout most of the trip, she asked one of the hardest to answer questions, “What is true justice, and how do we live that out in an active way?” Her question was in response to Zechariah 7:9-10, and certainly carried the weight of the pain caused by racism and related issues that have been coming to light recently.

There seems to have been a recurring theme, at least with these three volunteers, of a desire to understand context: to know the motivations behind our work, the way we approach different problems, and really, the root causes and hidden effects of the problems themselves. They all seemed to share a concern for humanity and how best to care for people in the context of the Gospel. Tuesday felt that causes and effects of poverty are generally disconnected from how the church ministers to the poor.

Tuesday also returned to the concern with a lack of black leadership in the ministries she had seen here in St. Louis. All three volunteers seemed to see black leadership as vital to ministering in these areas and preaching the Gospel. I explained to Tuesday how God is using racial tension to bring humility to us, and to those we work with, and to bring to light the things that hide behind racism: pain, fear, doubt, pride, protection, poverty, systemic injustice...and even how cultures affect the gospel and how it is perceived and communicated. These things are present, but seldom explicitly expressed.

Tuesday shared how racial division is close to home for her, as she comes from a racially mixed family. She has seen that the only way to overcome this obstacle is to come together.

My thoughts
In the end, I was extremely grateful for these three young people and their desire to press deeper into obstacles and motivations of ministry, and of simply living with God here on earth. At the end of each groups trip, I asked them a couple questions:

First, What will you do when the honeymoon is over?
By this I mean that there is prevalent in America today a romanticized view of ministry, focusing on our fulfillment, our purpose, our sense of meaning. There is a way to be put on a pedestal, to be admired, to become a celebrity for making good sermons, or writing good books, or doing cool things. There is the even bigger danger of looking to do the thing you really like to do. That may not be the path God has for you for ministry. So what happens after the initial excitement of ministry fades, and it become a daily reality to lay down your life for the sake of others? What happens when it's you and Jesus sitting across the kitchen table from each other trying to make sense of this new life together?

The second question is related: If your church, school, or ministry organization ceased to exist tomorrow, what would your faith life look like?
Are you reliant upon an outside source to give you ministry activity, or even a relationship with God?

Why did you come on this trip?
I'm interested in their motivations, and hope they're aware of them. Perhaps the best answer to that question I've heard is one student who said that the previous year, God had told him to go on a mission trip, and he went to myrtle beach instead. He didn't want to repeat that mistake.

If all you had was the Bible to inform you, what would you desire in church?
We ask this because our motivations for ministry are the same the guide and encourage us in our daily walk with our Lord and fellow Christians. We are looking for God's design, for His working through the Body of Christ to minister here on the earth. If your relationship with God and other believers isn't on a good foundation, then your won't be as effective when you go out into the world to minister.

The interviews were recorded on March 10, 2016.

This recording contains the songs:
“Satellite Kite” and “A Bridge Between” by Beautiful Eulogy, from their album, Satellite Kite, available at Used by permission.
“With Your Eyes” by Enter the Worship Circle. Used by permission of Ben Pasley of Enter the Worship Circle.

“Testimony Song” by Reformation Sound. Used by permission

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Property Maintenance and Lawn Care - Social entrepreneurship, pt 4

In order to pastor a community, you need perspective. A very broad perspective. You have to be aware of what is happening in your neighborhood, city, region. What has happened historically? What are the challenges and opportunities that characterize your community? And most importantly, what do you see God doing?

We have long held the philosophy that, as long as things line up with vision, we walk through whatever doors open before us. God is capable of guiding, correcting, and certainly protecting us. This gives us endless opportunities for learning.

A while back we were approached with an opportunity. ND Consulting, the local developer, was behind in what are called “make-readies”. A “make-ready” refers to doing whatever maintenance is necessary to a vacated apartment, etc. before a new tenant moves in. They wanted to know if we wanted the work. We were already partnering with them on several projects, so they were aware of the nature of our ministry and that we had the necessary skill sets.

We started by touring one of their developments that was a overhauled elementary school, now turned into apartments. Most of their developments are low-income, rent-controlled apartments.

Like our other businesses, we started by doing all the work ourselves. We had to break down bidding, maintenance, painting, and cleaning. Soon, though, we were able to integrate employees. We discovered that this was a perfect working environment for our ministry. It is relatively safe. No big machines or spinning blades. It has a broad skill set, with a fairly low bar initially. This means someone with few skills can come in and be trained on a wide variety of tasks and responsibilities. This can lead to several different career paths. Also, it is a contained environment, which means supervision is easy and efficient.

There are complications though. The work is dependent on the ebb and flow of vacancies. Emergency jobs pop up. Bidding can be time consuming, and difficult when it comes to work we've never done.

This business has led to other great opportunities. We started masonry and roofing soon afterwards. The same developer later asked us to provide lawn maintenance. Again, this has proven to be a good match for us. There is a good range of skill sets (pushing a mower, maintaining equipment, managing crews and supplies). It is local. It puts eyes all over the neighborhood. It keeps the place looking nice. We even took on a few vacant lots along the main thoroughfare to keep the place looking nice.

All of these skills cross over easily into the rest of our ministry. Employees end up trained to work in property rehab. Our own lawns get maintained. We have tools and skills to do community clean-ups, and to beautify the neighborhood.

Property maintenance and lawn care were two opportunities that came to us, and are creative ways to solve problems. They have given us new ways to create employment and pastor our community.