There Goes the Neighborhood

Today I saw something that confirmed what I’ve been suspecting for a while… my neighborhood is changing.

I’ve been seeing the signs here and there, but bravely have tried to ignore them in hopes that perhaps I was wrong. You know how it is; just little things: A white woman walking her dog, a young Asian guy driving a late model Honda down the street, a Volvo parked inconspicuously in a driveway while the young, vaguely hippie looking homeowners enjoyed a drink on the front porch. All of these things were signs that I’ve been trying valiantly to ignore.

But what I saw today was something I could not ignore nor misinterpret, despite all my efforts. There he was in all his trendy splendor – a young white guy, casually dressed in the kind of clothes that look like they’re from Wal-Mart but you know are really from Banana Republic… sitting at the edge of his walkway, innocently, unobtrusively, and completely naturally – playing a guitar. There he sat, in front of an appropriately trendy Craftsman style home, barefoot, and playing his guitar in the calm of a late afternoon as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

My neighborhood is officially trendy.

White folks drinking wine on the front porch I could ignore; the White woman walking her dog was harder to rationalize, but still I made the effort. But this, this cannot be denied or explained away. It is only in trendy urban neighborhoods that White guys play guitars while sitting out in front of their houses I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it so quickly.

Before I know it, there will be coffee shops with bearded baristas and black rimmed glasses wearing Mac users. The ubiquitous loud young Black girls with too much saunter and not quite enough jeans to cover their shape will be replaced by svelte looking people who ::gasp:: jog!!

I’m not quite sure what to make of it all. There goes the neighborhood.

Missions & Mission

I am attending a missions conference for one of the churches that supports my work with students. The conference is quite the “deal” with the entire congregation mobilized to welcome, support, care for, and encourage their “partners” in ministry. This morning I heard a wonderful sermon on John 3:16 about how we are all sent, and that wherever we are is the ends of the earth to someone else.

It is such a great gift to be in a place and among people who see that what missionaries, both here and throughout the world, is a valuable and critical component of the mission of God. I am thrilled that this congregation takes so seriously the work of caring for missionaries beyond simply sending a check every month, although that too is important.

This stands in sharp contrast to the many conversations I’ve had through the years with potential donors and supporters of ministry, some of whom are not quite sure what we do, or if what we do is valuable, or even worse, view us as competitors to the ministry of the “church” what ever that means. I sure people don’t mean anything by the sometimes harsh comments they make to or about missionaries, but as someone who depends on the provision of God through the generosity of his people, it isn’t easy to hear from someone that they “cannot afford to give” when I supervise college educated people who make less than $20,000 a year. Even harder to hear is the critiques often lodged against missionaries or pastors for their “extravagant lifestyles” when the lifestyles of the average church member is not allowed to ever be evaluated for its closeness to Biblical norms.

Nevertheless, I am not writing this primarily as a rant against the some time stinginess of the church, but rather to raise the question of how “missions” and the “mission” of the church go together. Most of the financial resources of the church go mainly to creating programs designed to care for the needs of the congregation with missions and outreach receiving whatever might happen to be left over. In some ways this would be fine if members were mobilized towards active mission, whether on their jobs or in their neighborhood, or wherever. However, in most cases, mission giving ends up being nothing more than a salve to the conscience of believers who know that they are to be generous, yet cannot bring themselves to sacrifice the comfort of padded pews and the latest high tech multimedia to give to some missionary somewhere. Besides, aren’t missionaries and pastors supposed to be poor?

What is the mission of the church and how is it connected to “missions?” Are they separate things, united only by their common name? Is the mission of the church accomplished through writing the monthly check or by doing the occasional inner city (read poor people that don’t look like us) service project? What about all those people hell bound and dying who look to all appearances that the don’t need the Lord? Are they not an appropriate target for missions? What do you guys think?

Political writer’s block & uncomfortable questions

It has been quite some time since I’ve put the metaphorical pen to paper and written anything on this blog. In fact, I haven’t done much writing at all in any arena. I have felt busy and overwhelmed and the creative juices have not been flowing very well. That is at least the line that I’m holding to.

In actual fact, in addition to my so-called writer’s block, I have been radically reluctant to write anything because I’ve been thinking mostly about politics, and haven’t wanted to put my thoughts out for the world to see in the midst of campaign season. It is not that I believe anything I say influences anyone in any particular way. I just don’t want to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. I also am tremendously picky about my word choice. I won’t say much today either, but here are some things that I’ve been thinking about. Maybe I’ll blog about these things at some point

Black people supporting Barack Obama largely because he’s considered “Black” but really he’s biracial and his background is really pretty “White” by some measurements

Racism in politics is bad, but sexism is ok, as long as you disguise it well

Candidates or political messiahs; why democracy is deceitful

Why whoever is elected won’t really change my life that much

There are so many other thoughts rolling around in my head that I cannot articulate. It is not an easy thing to put into words political thoughts because people hold their politics more seriously than their religion.

Miscellaneous thoughts about travel and assorted other things

I traveled today and yesterday and noticed people in the airport who seemed to be entirely extraneous. By this I mean that they were carrying no bags, and were walking with apparently no purpose whatsoever. In addition, they did not seem to be workers. They were just… randomly in the airport, seemingly purposelessly. I wonder why they were there.

Have you ever met someone with the gift of holding a conversation entirely by themselves, with or without your participation? I sat next to such a person on my flight to Florida. In addition, she had less than minty fresh breath, if you get my drift. I certainly got hers.

I’ve noticed that security people at airports are much more “vigilant” if the airport is really small. I think it makes them feel important and as if they are contributing mightily to our nation’s security. They serve an important function I’m sure, but it is rather interesting.

Even though I’m a “pastor” and work in full time Christian ministry, sometimes I don’t feel particularly spiritual. I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

I really like preaching. I got to preach yesterday night and it was great to share what I’d seen in scripture. I was a little surprised because people laughed and responded verbally. I wish I could preach more often so I could get better. Is that vanity?

You ever notice how the phrase “a bad neighborhood” is really just shorthand for any place with a lot of poor people or Black or both?

Ok… back to traveling. I’m a big boy Ms. Flight Attendant. I can drink a full can of juice.

I don’t care if it is in the airport; $2.75 is too much to pay for a 20oz. soda.

That is all for now

A Cool Church?

Yesterday I had the chance to meet with a local pastor in my community. He leads a PCA church plant in what is arguably one of the “hipper” parts of what is, I think, a fairly “hip” city, Nashville. We drank coffee, we chatted sophisticatedly in the coffee house in the heart of this hip neighborhood whilst all around us other “hip” looking people surfed the internet and drank decaf mocha’s.

His church is “hip.” They are an eclectic bunch, and meet on Sunday afternoon rather than Sunday night, all the better for those “hip” types who sleep in. They have community groups (not cell groups) and are doing their level best to be a part of the diverse, economic mish-mash, and culturally relevant place that is East Nashville. I told him that I grew up in East Nashville, long before it was considered a “hip” place to be and that even now I live in the “pre-trendy” part, i.e. the part where there are no corner cafes or cool looking White people with black rimmed glasses ordering scones while surfing the internet on their Mac. People in my part of East Nashville are more likely to be running from police than out for a morning jog.

We talked about the pros and cons of gentrification, that delightfully complex process whereby a community goes from being a “hood” to actually having a name and a Starbucks.

He informed me that he doesn’t want his church to be “cool” and that that is not the point of church or ministry anyway.

I agree.

As much as I admire and appreciate the way folks are trying to present the gospel in a relevant way, I can’t help but notice that many of the folks paying attention, like the clientèle at my pastor friend’s church, are “hip.” I don’t mean to suggest that they aren’t sincere, or that they don’t need the gospel or anything else detrimental. It’s just that, well… I’m not sure what I mean. It just seems to me that we put a lot of effort into being relevant, and in practice it turns out that we’re just trying to be “cool.” And if you didn’t know, Blessed are the Uncool (great book by the way; the author is a personal friend).

I just don’t know if the church is supposed to be relevant in that sense of the word. Are we really supposed to be cool, hip, or trendy?

As a missionary on the front lines of “cool” i.e. the college campus, I find that most non-believers really aren’t drawn to or repelled by Christianity on the basis of the “cool factor” of our groups. To be honest, many of our groups are thoroughly “un-cool.” We play cheesy games, go to cheesy conferences, and do all kinds of things that aren’t especially appealing to those aspiring to “hipness.” Ironically, the couple of weeks we showed cool videos to talk about the gospel (including a Nooma video) the non Christians complained about it. What draws people to our groups is the same things that always have: the power of the Spirit.

Of course we should speak with intelligibility and relevance to the culture around us. I cannot but be in favor of contextualization and relevance in the articulation of the gospel. People still need to hear, “in (their) own language” the “declaration of the wondrous works of God.”

But I think we also should remember that the church is really not meant to relevant. Church is, to me, like a big slightly dysfunctional family. And families aren’t relevant; they are decidedly “un-cool.” In fact, families are somewhat embarrassing, and all the more so when you invite friends over. There are the relatives that say too much, or are too critical; the nosy aunt, the overbearing uncle. There are kids who always wait until company comes to act out, and then embarrass their parents and everyone else by having to be punished. There’s just the general weirdness that each family has that you don’t really know how to explain to an outsider, but you want to anyway, lest they think you’re too strange.

But what makes family “family” is just that strangeness. It isn’t cool, it isn’t hip and it isn’t relevant. Its home: the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in. I suspect that people are looking for a relief from being “cool.” They want a place where they can come from behind the trendy eye wear, disaffection and cynicism; a place where laughter is untainted with sarcasm, and emotions don’t have to be explored, but can simply be felt.

Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up being the church in exchange for being cool.

Ethnic & Inclusive

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to share at the Emerge 2007 Asian American student conference. Despite my discomfort as a Black American teaching in a context designed to challenge and affirm Asian American leadership, I was drafted to serve and teach a seminar on reaching out beyond our own ethnic community to serve others. Here is a link: ethnic-inclusive.ppt

My hope in the seminar was to highlight that care for others begins with a sense of our own self hood and value to God as ethnic persons made in the image of God.

And here is the original link..

Reading List: The Analects by Confucius

As part of my ongoing desire to learn and testimony to my thoroughgoing nerdiness, I have put together a list of almost 20 books that I hope to read this academic year. Here is the list so far, which is certainly open to change:

City of God
by Augustine
Monologium & Proslogium by Anselm
The Cloud of Unknowing
The Divine Comedy by Dante
Institutes of the Christian Religion by Jean Calvin
Pensees by Pascal
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevskii
Orthodoxy by CK Chesterton
Dr Zhivago by Pasternak
Christian Letters to a Post Christian World by Dorothy Sayers
Madame Bovary
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Analects by Confucius
The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor
Does God Exist by Kung

So I ventured yesterday to the bookstore to end the procrastination based on the notion that I would simply order the books online, and splurged to by some books new. This is just as well. My first read is Analects by Confucius.

As a philosopher, he has arguably had the largest single impact of any person in the world except Jesus. Without ever being schooled officially in Confucian thought, many East and Southeast Asian people are influenced by his principles. I hear people regularly refer to the legacy of Confucius and wonder how many have actually read what he said. And so I am taking the plunge to read him. So far as I have read, I myself may yet embrace his philosophy, insofar of course, as it does not conflict with my covenant with the Lord Jesus Christ.

I leave you with this, “If a man is correct in his own person, then there will be obedience without orders being given, but if he is not correct in his own person, there will not be obedience even though orders are given.” (XIII.6)