Kingdom

Deported: A View From the “Other” Side

GilbertoI was recently sitting in a Tijuana shelter that houses men for 12 days after they have been deported from the United States. I was guiding a group of pastors and leaders from around California and Arizona who wanted to learn the human story of immigration first hand. With that goal in mind, we simply sat with Gilberto, the director of the shelter, and asked him to tell some of his story and the story of those he has given his life to over the past 30 years.  

Unimpressed by our glowing resumes, large church attendance or broad vocabulary, Gilberto humbly shared about the path Jesus led him on toward caring for society’s leftovers. With a glowing resume of his own, Gilberto intentionally chose to step off the path of comfort and “success” to step deeper into the reality of his brothers who needed his support. 

He shared about the man who had been deported at 51 years old after living in the US for 50 years. Because this man’s parents came to the US when he was 6 months old, he knew no other home than that of the US. When he landed in Tijuana, it not only felt like a foreign land, but he didn’t even know Spanish. 

He shared about the US military veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan but after serving his time in war zones, was deported to Mexico. 

He shared about the man who had recently been deported and was now desperately trying to return to his wife and young children in the US.  

With each story, the layers of isolation, dehumanization and misunderstanding began to be peeled back. We had all heard the stories of deportation in the headlines, but none of us had come face to face with the humans behind the story. 

Mesmerized by this sage who cast such a strong aroma of Jesus, we asked, “What would you encourage us to say to our congregations regarding the plight of the immigrant?”

He quickly responded with words I’ll never forget: 

“Tell them to read their Bibles. Jesus told us to care for three types of people; the orphan, the widow and the stranger. It’s been 2000 years and we’re still doing a pretty bad job.”

We were frozen in our seats. 

How could a group of pastors who have given their lives to following Jesus and to the work of encouraging others to do the same argue such a profound statement?

It was one of those strange, other-worldly moments when conviction and inspiration seem to collide.  

Now, we could argue this politically and enter into the endless rhetoric, partisan mud slinging and various interpretations of United States immigration history, but that’s not the point. The point is taking seriously Jesus’ mandate to care for the orphans, the widows and the strangers (“refugee” in some translations) among us. 

In his 30 years, Gilberto has cared for 220,00 “strangers” who have come to his door. They aren’t a problem to fix, but a blessing to receive.

Maybe, just maybe, after we begin to care for and love the people Jesus asked us to, we will discover that we need their love as much as they need ours. 

Maybe, just maybe, after we begin to care for and love the people Jesus asked us to, we will have the relational credibility to legislate their well being.

We might not care for 220,000, but we can start with one.

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NOTE: If you and/or your community want to experience this reality first hand, consider joining one of our Immigrant’s Journey Learning Labs. More info HERE on The Global Immersion Project website. 

Left Behind, Failed Peace and the Human Implications of (bad) Theology

LordJimFlickrCreativeCommonsThrough my work with The Global Immersion Project, I have spent a significant amount of time over the years cultivating relationships among both Israelis and Palestinians as we partner together in cultivating a narrative of reconciliation. As is often the case when we approach a people or place with the hopes of being/bringing the needed change, I have been the one most changed by my friends and colleagues who reside in the Middle East. Behind so many of the subconscious stereotypes and prejudices I had acquired earlier in my life I began to experience the richness of friendship and brotherhood among people I had previously “known” only through the latest sound bite.

Something I have learned in the classroom of real life relationships with Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land is that our theology in the West has direct implications for the everyday lives of those in the Middle East. Often ignoring the remarkable movements of peacemaking, reconciliation and collaboration that are sprouting like mustard seeds of hope across the Holy Land, we often choose only to amplify of the violence, discord and disintegration of the region.

Why is that and what theology might we be allowing to consciously (or often subconsciously) own our perspective on the events in the Holy Land? In the wake of yet another failed peace negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and in front of the latest Left Behind movie about to hit theaters, this question is especially relevant. 

One Christian leader recently shared on Twitter: “Watching events in #Israel . All those hellbent on destroying Israel playing directly into Biblical prophecy. #almostcomical

There are few perspectives that have done more harm for the cause of Christ over centuries of Church history than the one expressed above. We could get into why this has significant theological holes that lead to a fatalistic mentality by discussing the role of Apocalyptic literature found in the second half of Daniel, Mark 13 and much of Revelation, but that is for another time and place (see notes for further resources).

Here is the question we must ask: As followers of Jesus, how does speculating about the eschaton (Final Things or “End Times”) help us live into our vocation as active participants in the restorative Mission of God? We are to be a people who are marked by our love of God and neighbor. Choosing to view violence apathetically (or worse, with excitement of what it may mean for the future!) is anti-Jesus and anti the mission he invites us to extend on his behalf.

If we look at the Middle East, specifically the Holy Land, primarily through the lens of “prophecy fulfillment” then we are unable to first and foremost look at its inhabitants as humans loved by Jesus. We reduce Image Bearers into pawns within a divine drama. Within Church history you will see “this is the end times!” being proclaimed dozens of times. These pronouncements are nothing new; at one point Napoleon Bonaparte was thought to be the anti-Christ. In the end, this theology fosters a loss of humanity both in those we condemn and in ourselves. We become less that human. 

What if instead of adhering to this fatalistic eschatology we choose to live into a realized eschatology? In other words, what if we understand the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as eschatological events? In the Christ-event the end becomes now. In Jesus’ inauguration as King of the Kingdom, he sits enthroned as one who seeks to bring about restoration and reunion between God and the cosmos not through violent overthrow, but through suffering and self-sacrifice. When Jesus announces the in-breaking of the Kingdom in Mark 1, the end collides with today.

No, this doesn’t mean that everything is going to be bright and rosy, but it does mean that our future is one of hope that was already fully realized in Jesus. Our job isn’t to project how our world with decay before finally being restored, but to participate in the restoration God continues to bring about even (if not especially!) in the places we least expect.

Notes:

Fatalistic Theology -- Humans have no roll to play in God’s Mission other than to save disembodied souls for an otherworldly heaven. Things will get progressively worse and violent until Christ returns to save us from a fallen world. This is rooted in a rather new theology (late 1800’s, early 1900’s) propagated by John Nelson Darby, called dispensationalism.

Eschatology -- The study of the “End Times” or “Final Things.”

Realized Eschatology -- The view that the End Times aren’t only a distant event in the future, but that, in Jesus, the end becomes now. In other words, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were decisive and his announcement of the Kingdom of God was actually a proclamation of God’s redemption unfolding in real time and space. With that said, I think it more accurate to say, “Partially Realized Eschatology” in that we clearly don’t live in a perfect world…only Christ’s return will make the redemption project fully realized.

Further Theological & Historical Resources -- My friend, Kurt Willems posted a recent blog with a list of great resources to consider as we move deeper into this. Many on his list have deeply informed my perspective as well.

This piece was first posted here on my friend, Tony Jones, blog.

Owning Our Role in Gentrification & the Bible

IMG_7340What is the role of a community of faith in a gentrified or gentrifying neighborhood? Is what we see as good actually good for the whole population of a neighborhood? How do we become aware of those issues? How do we promote a common good of both the haves and have not’s?

In developing a biblical framework for the reality of gentrification, there are two themes that we see helpful in highlighting.  First, how we enter a place is as significant as how we end up living in it.  In other words, we can move into a neighborhood or city in the posture of the colonizing hero or we can enter it with humility and a willingness to embrace the already established ethos.  Second, and requiring we hold the first theme in radical tension, we are to live in neighborhoods as advocates of the Kingdom of God and with the hope of God’s reign being made manifest in this place.  

So how do we enter a place with humility as a learner, while still advocating for a hope found in the reality of the Kingdom of God that was inaugurated in Jesus?  

As the physical place where all three monotheistic religions share a common history, Hebron is one of the most volatile cities in the Middle East today.  Home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Jews, Christians and Muslims are able to trace their roots back to their father, Abraham.  Today, there is a daily struggle for the acquisition of more land and better access to the cities’ religious sites to the point that land is being stolen from one another.  Rather than working with one another in common respect for the land, there is a posture of domination and acquisition that trumps their ability to celebrate a common bloodline.  

The irony of today’s struggle is that their father, Abraham, gives us one of the most important insights into how we are to enter into a neighborhood that is already inhabited.  After his wife Sarah died at the beginning of Genesis 23, Abraham enters a time of mourning and preparation for her burial in Hebron, which at the time was inhabited by the Hittites.  Having a significant reputation among the people, Abraham could have easily taken land for Sarah’s burial or assumed that it would be given to him.  Instead, he says, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead” (23:4). Over the course of the narrative, he is offered the land multiple times for free, but Abraham insists on honoring the inhabitants by paying a fair price for the land.  

At a later point in Israel’s story, God’s people find themselves in exile under the heavy hand of Babylon.  They no longer inhabit their neighborhood and their understanding of a rightly ordered world is a distant dream.  Yet, despite it all, the prophet Jeremiah shares the word of Yahweh to his people in exile;

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” -- Jeremiah 29:5-7

It is here that we get a picture affirming our second theme that we are to be advocates and participants in the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in the places we inhabit.  No matter how we land in our neighborhood, city or suburb, we are to seek the good of our place.  We are to embody and advocate for the reality of God’s reign because the good of our place will equal the good of our family.   

After hundreds of years, exile had become Israel’s primary reality when Jesus, their deliverer, finally arrives.   For Israel, the Messiah was to bring about three realities: 1. Restoration of the Davidic throne through military conquest, 2. Rebuilding of the Temple and 3. Reoccupation of the Holy Land.  While Jesus comes bringing a message of hope in announcing the reality of the Kingdom of God, such hope wasn’t always realized in the way they would have anticipated.  In fact, because Jesus didn’t bring about any of these three realities in the way Israel expected, the majority of God’s people considered Jesus a failed Messiah.  He had moved into the neighborhood of humanity with the hope of the Kingdom of God, but rather than establishing God’s reign through military conquest, he established it through suffering and selfless sacrifice.  For Jesus, the common good of the human neighborhood required that he make himself last in order for others to be first.  

While Jesus was viewed as a failed Messiah by the standards of the Jewish community of his day, we know that his upside down approach was actually the means through which the Kingdom was made manifest.  Jesus did have some “short term” wins throughout his ministry, but there was a longer-term impact he came to bring about that wasn’t as easy to see or measure. 

As we faithfully inhabit our neighborhoods with the hope of the Kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus, maybe our goal isn’t to fix everything right now, but to seek a longer-term good.  In fact, what might look like failure in the short term could be the sowing of seeds that lead toward a long term good.  Maybe just being with the people in a neighborhood can offer a long-term good that transcends some of the short-term realities of gentrification.  Maybe moving towards a common good with our neighbors out of the tangible hope of God’s Kingdom reign will redeem some of our apparent short term “failures.”

If there is anything we have learned, it is that transformation is slow and often comes about in ways we would never have expected.  Such is the life of Jesus and such is life as a follower of Jesus.  While committing to find our hope in Jesus’ enthronement as King of the Kingdom, we live, love and lead in our neighborhoods with curiosity, humility and a listening ear that leads us towards a common heart and life with our neighbors. 

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NOTE: This is an excerpt from a chapter I contributed to a book published by The Urban Loft called Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting. 

Jesus’ Name is Alecia. Really??

Ruby and I were going for a long stroll as Janny put in one of her last long days of work before going on maternity leave.  Because I know that our time as a family of three is quickly coming to a close, I walked hand in hand with my little gal with a bit more sacredness.  

She stopped regularly to smell flowers, sang songs and was convinced it was Janny’s birthday, so she made sure to pick the perfect bouquet of flowers (most of which were just pretty weeds) to surprise her mom with when we got home. 
 
As we yet again stood on the sidewalk stalled by another “distraction” -- this time it was the plants growing out of the dirt in the cracks of the concrete -- I saw an older woman walking towards us with two shopping carts full of all sorts of useful contents.  Getting closer to us, I noticed that she had to push one about 20 yards and then walk all the way back to the other and pull it up even with the first.  This happened over and over and over.  It was her reality.  There was nothing strange about it to her, it was just one of life’s necessities.  
 
With Ruby still captivated by these mini-gardens sprouting from the concrete road, I said hello and we shared a smile.  Ruby then looked up and said hello as well.  Ruby and I were in no rush (clearly!!), so I asked if I could pull one of her carts for her as she slowly trod to her next destination.  She didn’t hesitate for a second as she nodded her head smiling. 
 
Ruby pushing her stroller, the women pushing a cart and I the other, we slowly moved down the streets of our shared neighborhood.  She didn’t speak English, but quickly asked if I spoke Spanish.  I knew enough tell her that I didn’t know it well, but would love to give it a shot.  As we walked, we stumbled through a conversation that ranged from what I do for work to how old her six kids are and where they live.  Ruby never seemed to flinch at the surprise interaction and remained focused on her newly important responsibility of pushing her stroller.  
 
Pulling in front of one our neighborhood coffee shops, I told the woman that Ruby and I were going to head in and I asked if she’d like a drink.  Extending a beautiful, almost transcendent smile, she shook her head and we began to part ways.  Mustering up my best Spanish skills, I asked her name and formerly introduced myself and Ruby.  Her name is Alecia. 
 
Alecia, Ruby and I all share a neighborhood.  In many ways, we share life together even if we don’t often realize it.  As Ruby and I sat in the coffee shop, I realized the significance of knowing our neighbors names.  For some, it is act of being known.  For others, it is an act of assigning dignity to one that may otherwise not have much offered to them based on their race or socio-economic reality.  It is what it means to see all people through a shared humanity.  A humanity illumined by the image of God resting within each one of us. 
 
It is sacred ground.  It is Kingdom ground.  It is learning the many names of Jesus that we choose to engage or ignore in our everyday coming and going.  
 
I started a note in my phone called “Names to Remember” after our interaction.  Because next time Jesus walks up to me with a one too many carts to push on his own, I want to be able to call him by name and celebrate our time together. 

Empire, Jewish Renewal and Jesus’ Invitation

I recently stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near where Jesus is thought to have spent much of his adult life in Capernaum. The village is right on the water, and the view of the sea is breathtakingly serene. When standing on the shore looking south, the rolling hills of the ancient Decapolis wrap around the east side of the Galilee, and the city of Tiberias highlights the low hills on the West that lead toward Nazareth. Directly below my feet were the pebbles that led toward the water’s edge.

Overlooking North Galilee

In Jesus’s day, the Decapolis would have been a place that represented the gentile Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire and Tiberias, a place largely espousing Jewish values and tradition. To the north of both, and where I stood on the shores of Galilee, I could picture Jesus making his way along the pebbles while looking out at the fishermen faithfully practicing their trade. In one breath this first-century rabbi invites the fishermen to follow him, and in the next they are walking right beside him into a story that would upend their lives.

Jesus’s invitation was to something as ancient as it was new. He was not inaugurating a new faith: he was fulfilling an ancient faith, but it wasn’t going to purely look like either the Hellenistic culture of the Decapolis or the Jewish culture of Tiberias. It was something that transcended culture and tradition and required full immersion into a way of life that reflected the rabbi. Jesus’s way countered the values of the Empire and the espoused traditions of the overly religious. In this sense, it didn’t require only physically turning toward the way of Jesus, but re-orienting and re-defining truth and faithfulness. For those of the Empire, Jesus’s way was confusing in the sense that he promoted selflessness and non-violence in contrast to a culture of self-promotion and violent dominance. For the religious, Jesus called into question some of the holiness codes they held most true as a means to remain faithful to the Torah and the coming Messiah.

Further, Jesus’s invitation was as complex as it was simple. In this light we can see why so many didn’t understand and act upon his invitation. At the same time, in his simple offers to “follow me” and “come and see,” the viral invitation of this all-of-life Jewish renewal movement was under way. It was not an invitation involving only a prayer, but an invitation that would call all of life into submission to the values of the renewed kingdom.

As a people who seek to listen and submerge into the relationships of our local contexts, we hope to invite others into our homes, life, and way of Jesus, but we also hope to be invited into the lives of others.We follow the model of Jesus, who, after living for thirty years alongside those in the Galilee region, began to invite others toward his new way of life, but was also invited into the homes and around the tables of others. In Luke 5 Jesus is the guest of honor at the home of a former tax collector. Jesus was so embedded in deep relationships that others were willingly extending invitations to him.

How might our lives and communities more faithfully reflect the all of life nature of Jesus’ invitation to this Third Way that rejected the lure of Empire and renewed/transformed the call of the religious?  Have we bought into a faith “invitation” that is anything less?  Are we inviting and being invited in the homes of our neighbors, co-workers and schoolmates?

Much of this content is from my book Thin Places published by The House Studio

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