Happy Belated 104th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!

December 10, 2012

My internet connection was down over the weekend so this is a delayed post.

Leslie Newbigin (1909-1998) is the premier contemporary missiologist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Newbigin’s passionate reflection upon the Gospel and Christian mission remain unparalleled in our time. His writings have yet to be fathomed; his preaching, lectures, and publications are regularly read by pastors, missionaries, and routinely challenge theologians and missiologists. Newbigin served 40 years in missionary service in India, and in service to the worldwide church; his subtle influence upon Vatican II is only now becoming public. Upon retirement, Newbigin began serving as a pastor in London to an inner-city church. In honor of what would have been Newbigin’s 104th birthday, I post the following:

“When we speak of finding in Jesus the clue to the meaning of the whole human story, we are not speaking of a mere cognitive exercise. We’re speaking of that act of atonement wrought in Jesus through which we are brought into a loving obedience to the will of God as it is exercised through all human and cosmic history. It is not merely a matter of illumination, of new understanding; it is a matter of reconciliation, of rescue from alienation, of obedient response to the divine initiative of love. It is illumination and new understanding only because it is first a divine action of reconciliation through which we are brought to that state in which we can say and know that God works all things together for good to those who love him. It is only through this act of atonement that Jesus becomes for us a clue to history.” (Truth and Authority in Modernity, 1996:39-40.)

Ethnic Diversity: Reality for Growth or Choice of Zip Code?

August 17, 2012

I had an interesting meeting with a vendor regarding service for the home we just moved into. This vendor, an Anglo, mentioned that his family raised him in a community adjacent to the one we just moved from. He remained in that community through marriage and child-raising, and once he and his wife became an empty-nest, they moved several miles away, because of “the changing demographic, with so many Orientals moving into [the community].” He said this with a straight face, no sense of malice, not seeking some kind of social solidarity with me: even though he had just been introduced to my wife not 5 minutes earlier.

I must admit to you that I felt very, very sad for this man. In the past, I might have felt some slight or anger. But, in his case, as far as I can discern from his story, assuming the complexity of all life narratives, part of his decision to relocate was motivated by increasing ethnic diversity, i.e., people were moving into his neighborhood who were different from him and his family. And, this vignette evoked sadness for me.

Now, in part, this sadness is also related to the neighborhood we’ve moved into! We are the Asians of the block! As yet, I’ve not seen any African-Americans living on our street, but it’s a long one, and we’ve not been here a month. We have a few Spanish-speaking people, but I’m not sure what their cultural heritage is. So, that present reality may be part of my sadness in response to the vendor’s story.

It’s a big deal for the Christian community to take stock of its ethnic identity. That Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week is a shameful blight that the NA church can faithfully arrest and reverse. That we rarely or fail to vigorously reflect theologically about ethnicity as it relates to our mission in the communities where we live, serve, work, and worship is not merely a blind spot, but a gaping black hole about which our good intentions and “we’ll-get-to-it-later” slogans are vacuumed in while the diverse people around us wonder “what’s in it for me” as we tacitly describe ourselves as Christians.

When we shopped for a home, I recall looking around in every neighborhood, wondering who lives here? I mentioned this to my wife, and she always humored me by listening. For now, as we still get our boxes unpacked and set up, it’s not an issue. Of the neighbors we’ve met, they are the kindest and friendliest people one could ask for to be living adjacent to you: they are the real deal. But, it’s not lost on me: we’re the ethnic minorities of the street, as far as I can tell.

One of my favorite readings in the Gospel of Mark regards the invitation of Jesus to his followers in 4:35-41: “Let’s go over to the other side.” He just concluded some remarkable discourse on the Reign of God, all of which held the attention of the presumably Jewish crowd: and he invites them to head over to…the Gentile side of lake. In other words, as one of my earliest mentors paraphrased Jesus, “Let’s see if this stuff on the Kingdom makes any sense among people unlike ourselves.”
Here, Jesus welcomes his followers into an ambiguous, uncertain, short-term mission, while embedding his teaching, authority, and person within the missio Dei, and joining the two for testing and demonstrating the possibilities for God to reconcile Jew and Gentile in his reign.

Next week, my friends and colleagues from The Fellowship of Presbyterians will gather in Colorado Springs and Atlanta. I observed with some encouragement and some amusement that the pre-conference gathering will be about mission and…missions. Yet, the bulk of the ethos and philosophy of the FoP continues to be about being “missional.” Let me both cheer and chastise this posture.

Yes: the recovery of mission, even the adjective “missional”, is to be welcomed and encouraged: such a retrieval suggests not success, but an approaching day of fruitfulness. No: there cannot be any fruitful horizon for the FoP that fails to theologically account for biblical data that so explicitly directs the people of God into mission among those who are ethnically diverse and different from themselves. The “Focus on Church Planting” element of the August Gathering suggests an important corrective and development in the need for theological reflection on ethnic diversity; it’s a real bonus that it is embedded within the conversation on planting new churches.

Some of the sharpest minds and hearts among Presbyterians are within the FoP. Indeed, in private conversations, some of these people have admitted to me their desire for ethnic diversity within their own congregation. Often, they don’t know how to begin the journey of developing an ethnically-diverse congregation. But, the starting line is right in front of them daily: and I would want to reassure them that they may not get any real guidance straight away: there is no error-free instruction on beginning.

Given the history of NA and its churches, surely some of the FoP elders, both ruling and teaching, can provide leadership that fallibly and imperfectly relies upon the Word and Spirit to give witness to the Gospel among people unlike themselves: even within their own zip code.