Snow Shovels and Evangelical Social Justice

(an irritatingly general perspective on evangelical social justice)

Snow Shovel

Four inches of snow showed up today. The HOA (Home Owner’s Association) didn’t. Normally, my neighbors and I can count on them to faithfully plow our driveways before we head out for work in the morning. Not today.

So I made the trip to the local hardware store, shelled out the $15, and bought a snow shovel. By the time I got home, I had the words “Do for others what you would have them do for you (Mt. 7:12)” in my head.

Lovely.

It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t have them do to you.” In other words: “Just avoid hurting people. Hold back. Restrain yourself.” That’s too passive for Jesus. For Jesus – and therefore, for the Christian – love is necessarily active.

It isn’t God’s design that the church merely hold back hate – but that we actively help, serve, and love a hurting world – that we do. I’m pretty sure that’s what God means when he says “faith without works is dead (Jms. 2:26).”

So I shoveled my neighbor’s driveway too. Incidentally, I don’t mean to sound noble. According to Jesus, loving your neighbors is probably just supposed to be normal.

Honestly, I had a hard time just wanting to. After all – it’s cold out there.

A huge part of my 9-5 job is developing strategies and thinking strategically. Strategy is great. Strategy ensures that we don’t waste time and effort with needless mechanisms. But here’s the question: When we see a need in the world – when governments fail and other social institutions prove their impotence – are our churches agile enough to respond?

Christians are supposed to be the people entrusted with the power to love honestly and unconditionally.

But maybe we spend too much time waiting on the HOA (“isn’t that someone else’s responsibility?”). Maybe we spend too much time thinking about what snow shovel to buy (“I’m not sure we’re ready to partner with those types of Christians…”). Maybe we’re simply scared of what active love might mean (“after all, it’s pretty cold out there“).

In the mean time the snow keeps piling up and our neighbors find us shockingly un-shocking.

Things Boring Christians Say

I’ve been plowing through David Platt‘s book Radical this week.  Holy Cow.  Somewhere in chapter 6, entitled “American Wealth and a World of Poverty,” it struck me that I’m a pretty boring Christian.  And I’m beginning to think that what keeps me boring just might be sinful.

Those attitudes usually surface when I’m alone.  They’re the quiet under-the-breath asides that are meant for only one audience.  In reading through Platt’s thoughts, another possibility has surfaced: What if these asides aren’t merely inner monologue, but divine dialogueWhat if God is bringing things to light in my life that I want to keep hidden?  And what if those things (“blindspots” as Platt calls them) are the tools that God will use to sanctify me?  Sad thing is – for most of us, a God that wants us to be uncomfortable is probably a major paradigm shift.

Sad.  Boring.  And bored.

If you think about where to drawn the line between conservative, boring, and sinful, here’s some things that boring Christians (like me) often find themselves saying:

I can’t do everything, so I won’t do anything.

I’m just waiting for God to call me to ______ .

If I do ______, then I’ll lose ______ .

It’s just easier to stay where I am.

I’m not ready to ______ – but someday I hope that I will be. 

But I can’t relate to those people.

I’m not sure what will happen. (or its cousin) What if it doesn’t work out?

What’ll happen to my (insert stability idol here) if I ______ .

I think it was Anne Lamott (always a good source for slightly controversial quotes) who said, “Grace will take you as you are, but will refuse to leave you that way.”  And then there’s that nagging Brennan Manning reminder: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians – who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbeliveable.”

It’s likely you’re too boring.  What keeps you that way?  Does it really all just boil down to fear?  How has God made you aware of (and then hopefully worked with you to remove) your blindspots?  P.S.  If you haven’t bought this book yet, I think you should.  It would be good.

The Tragedy of Paint-by-Number

(…more apologies by Seth Godin and “Graceful”)

Paint-by-number is a curse from our early childhood.  It’s that horrible tool that taught us that if we stayed within the lines and follow the numbers, the correct picture will emerge.  At the end of the day, our kindergarten teacher hung all 20 pictures up on the wall and we marveled at our talents.

But we were duped.  Those never showed our talents.

Paint-by number involves no risk.  Your talent and success are measured in terms of how well you stay within the lines.  That’s all that’s expected of you.  The teacher overseeing your work would be shocked (and probably a little concerned) if you neglected the numbered pattern (let’s say a pattern that produced a turtle) and chose to create a picture of a majestic lion instead.  Because paint-by-number painters don’t think. They follow orders.  Didn’t it annoy you how you could always tell what the picture would be even before you began?

In church-world, we’re at no shortage of paint-by-number options.  Church planting.  Discipleship.  Evangelism.  “If you do _____, you will enjoy ______ as a result.  Just do what we tell you, and your ministry will grow – your marriage will heal – your church will learn to love again.”   Predictable.  Boring.  And false-advertising.  It just doesn’t work.

How about a different option: What about just setting someone loose with a blank canvas, a few oils, and a brush?  How is that different than paint-by-number?  That’s a crucial question for me.  Real art presupposes that the artist has something to offer: himself.  He sees something no ones sees.  At least not in the way he does.  His creation then is a genuine result of honest craftsmanship.  It is him.  The reason Van Gogh, Picasso, and Degas succeeded is because they threw out the numbers.

But Van Gogh was weird.  And Thomas Kinkade sells a painting that ends up in someone’s office as a $3000 collectible testament to paint-by-number’s final triumph.  Why?  The fact is – we long for something inexplicable.  But before that longing can be born in us, we abort it in favor of quantitative self-justification.  Why?  Because we’ve learned to value comfortable, predictable, and consistent faux-creations more than honest, naked, and gutsy risk.  Like weak-willed parents who give into their kids at the toy store, we’ve been trained to give people what they want – at the expense of their spiritual development.

Van Gogh starved most of his creative life.

What are the areas where you’re most easily tempted to paint-by-number?  Why do you do it?  I’d love to hear some thoughts on this – it’s been on my mind a while.

Stewards of Momentum

(Warning – this is a long one – originally meant for use in Awana International.  Get comfy if you intend on unpacking this ditty.)

He lifted his brush.  With a passion that was at once delicate and frenzied, the artist made the final strokes in the landscape that would become his masterpiece. Each house in town was given a stroke of yellow and orange paint, signifying warmth and comfort shining through their windows.  The lights were on.  The small town was safe.  The only structure in town that wasn’t given a light was the church.   Black.  Vacant.  Functionally absent.

The world knows Vincent Van Gogh for his somber-yet-beautiful work we’ve dubbed “Starry Night.”  But the world has forgotten something about Van Gogh: Throughout his early twenties, Van Gogh lived and worked among the poor in Belguim as an itinerant pastor.  Moved by their poverty, he reached out in strikingly out-of-the-box ways: giving most of his clothes away to coal miners, struggling alongside of laborers in their work, giving much his modest income to their families.

Though a series of altercations with the state church (which was frighteningly detached from the culture at that time), Van Gogh was advised that his ideas were too radical to serve the purposes of the church, eventually persuading him to give up the ministry he loved.  So the brush became his pulpit – the canvas became his sermon – and millions of art viewers became his congregation.

I’m a huge Van Gogh fan.  But there’s something hauntingly sad about that.  For what it’s worth, I’m thankful Van Gogh became an artist.  But I feel a sense of sadness about the circumstances surrounding his decision.  Was he not understood?  Was he not heard?  Was there really no space for the kind of thinking in the church culture at that time?

The fact is – it’s frighteningly easy to forget the next generation.

As someone who’s concerned about this kind of stuff, I’d like to explore what it looks like for those of us already in ministry to prepare the way for those coming next:

  1. Creating opportunities for involvement.  When talking with a group of unpaid summer interns recently (ages 18-22), I asked them what we can do to keep them engaged.  Their resounding answer was: “Continue to give us a seat at the table – give us something to do.”  As stewards of momentum, it’s simply not enough for us to merely promote awareness anymore – saying, “Here’s what’s important to know.”  We must actively create opportunities for their mobilization – saying, “Here’s where you can go and here’s what you can do.”  And if we’re really on top of things, we’ll be able to say, “Here’s what I’m prepared to do to help you get there.”
  2. Allowing spaces for becoming. Most of us measure our identity by what we accomplish: how much money we’ve brought in, how many people have been touched by our ministry, how many organizations we’re connected with.  Hence, the programs we create (whether they’re internships, ground-level ministry positions, or missionary appointments) usually employ quantitative measurement tools and look more like report cards than personal development strategies.  In seeking to create spaces for becoming, we need to remember that doing is not the most critical piece of the puzzle.  Doing is a simply a means to an end. We need to realize that in the process of doing, young adults forge their becoming.  From a management perspective, this looks like crafting intentionally open-ended job descriptions, self-directed projects, and explorative learning experiences.  Through the process of becoming, the next generation of the church will discover new (and likely uncomfortable) ways to expand the kingdom the God.  They will blow the task-list out of the water, becoming people who are capable of re-thinking and re-imagining the accepted structure.  In so doing, they will likely exceed the expectations placed on them.
  3. Advocating intentionally adaptable paradigms. If young adults do so they can become, they become so that they can create and shape. It is the responsibility of those who control the structure (both financially and organizationally) to be intentionally adaptable.  This kind of management looks more like listening than talking.  It is characterized by constant re-evaluation rather than entrenched tradition.  The coming generation will measure an organization’s success (whether it’s a local church, para-church ministry, or business) not by how long it’s been around, but how agile it is – how quickly it can shift to meet the needs of a rapidly changing culture.  The scary part (the exciting part, depending on where you sit) is that they are all too eager to help play a part in the reshaping of accepted processes and paradigms.  The more we advocate for open ears and adaptable, agile paradigms the more we will attract and retain those who will shape our future.

The real value of programs like internships, field experience, or mentoring isn’t that we can ramp up productivity.  That’s easy.  Monkeys can do that.  The eternal value is that we can play a part in directly enabling the next generation to expand and shape the kingdom of God.  If we take a more selfless and open approach, we then cease to be managers, directors, or executives.  Instead, we become stewards of momentum.

When Jesus looked at the church in first-century Ephesus, He said: “…repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5).  Jesus’ words show that it doesn’t take long for something strikingly beautiful to become something obviously absent.  Looking across my office to the Starry Night print that hangs near my doorway, I think it’s likely Van Gogh saw the same thing in his church.

A dark church.  An unreached town.  A cold kingdom.

Van Gogh took his life when he was 35 – detached and alone.  All we have to do is nothing.