Friday, September 23, 2016

City Notes 26: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith Part 1 of 3


City Notes 26: Books in 30 minutes or less


City Notes are more than a book review. They are meant to provide you with direct quotes from some books I've read in the last year, so you can get a taste of the overall theme of the book and then begin to chew on what your life might look like if you applied what you read.

Here are links to the previous City Notes books:

2014 | A Meal with Jesus; Gospel-Centered DiscipleshipThe Art of NeighboringA Praying LifeBuilding a Healthy Multi-Ethnic ChurchFamily on Mission; The Hole in Our HolinessEncounters with JesusOne Thousand Gifts

Being Humbled and Turning Hopeful by D.L. Mayfield's Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith


It's been a while since I've posted a City Notes, but I have more on the horizon to finish up 2016 featuring three or four of my top books from this year. We'll see how far I get.

For now, the first is for D.L. Mayfield's Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. I won't be able to do this book justice with small excerpts here and there because there are entire pages worth excerpting to share with you from her vulnerable and story-focused prose. This is a book to spend time with like a friend who can bring out your joys and sorrows. And the stories. Oh the stories. D.L. Mayfield's recollections are raw and revealing like life feels. The names and faces, people and places  she learns from each of them as she learns how to love all of them.

To preview, I'm simply going to include a few long reflection quotes from a few of my favorite connection points with her to whet the palette for you. Many times these surgeon-like sentences are from the end of a chapter as her concluding thoughts cut and peel back where the infection of sin and selfishness and self-pity are infecting my life. But please, go buy this book if you are a neighbor, or a wanderer, or beginning to join a missional community (or City Group with Emmaus City), or you are an immature pastor like me wondering how Jesus is inviting you to join Him in seeking His Kingdom first for His glory, for the love of others, and for the life of the world. 


More often than I would like, I discover again how privileged* and naive a young man I am, and how I still have so much to be apprenticed in by Jesus. That's one more reason I'm thankful for this book that has helped reveal more assumptions and blind spots I have. I continue to learn that maybe Jesus is planning to reveal His Kingdom to me through others as much if not more than I hope to reveal to them.

*In our heated political climate, I understand that the word "privileged" creates a visceral response in many. But culturally and structurally, I have had advantages and been the been the beneficiary of generations of inequitable, social, legal, and economic practices due to my skin color and class. I have never had to break through the structural inequality created by slavery, then Jim Crow, then Red Lining, then Stop & Frisk policing, etc.

City Notes 26: Notes from a Failed Missionary Part 1 of 3


The Kingdom of Heaven: When reading Jesus's words it becomes apparent that the kingdom is very much about the here and now, changing the world to reflect what God desires: the oppressed would have justice, the poor would be fed, and the stateless wanderers would be taken care of. When taken literally, that "kingdom" Jesus was always talking about becomes very inconvenient indeed, primarily because we are supposed to be the ones bringing it.

Once this sinks in, you can't just live with your eyes to the sky anymore. At least, this was my experience. It becomes hard to sing about the love of Jesus while children starve to death halfway across the world. It becomes difficult to claim the blessings of God amid an economic system that benefits you but not your neighbor. And a country that claims to love the poor and huddled masses, but fiercely hoards her wealth and opportunities, starts to look increasingly sinful in the light of a longed-for kingdom where a loving God is in charge.

Early on I realized the people I most mirrored in the Bible were those blasted Pharisees, the ones who tried so hard their entire lives to be good, to work hard, to correct the thinking of others. They too were probably grimly proud of the way they memorized passages of scripture, how they could out-argue anyone, how they kept their society neat and clean of any moral gray. And so when I was in Bible college, when I read and read and read the words of Jesus, when I saw how his life was a continuous announcement of some mysterious amorphous thing called the kingdom of God, I became very scared indeed  because I didn't understand what the good news of the kingdom was, or how to bring it to earth, or how to be a Christian in a world that doesn't value taking care of others. + pgs. 24-25


Refugeed: There are apartments like the ones I knew so well all over America, I've learned. The poor, crammed into apartment buildings and high-rises, dilapidated houses in neglected urban centers: huge concentrations of them placed where they can easily be avoided by those already on the upward mobility path. Managed by a bureaucracy with an ideology of containment, the poor are not so much helped by our government and our charities as they are hidden away. Keep them alive, keep them fed, keep some sort of roof over their head. And keep them away from everyone else.
If I hadn't been driven there by the nice volunteer-mobilizer lady, I would never have known that beyond the asphalt and concrete jungles there were entire tribes of people struggling to make a life. There were people, like Jamila and her family, who had experienced more trauma, more displacement, and more tragedy than I could ever dream of. And they were starting to realize that perhaps America was not the land that was so promised to them. They had made the long and arduous journey over, and now the hard part had begun.
Because of my new friends, I experienced other worlds as well: hallways of social service organizations, the tangled phone lines of predatory lenders, the endless paperwork of the resettlement agencies. I experienced the ways that people looked at my friends out in public, how their eyes traveled up and down the head scarves, how they squinted their eyes, and how they wondered aloud if the Somalis were speaking Arabic. I was there when some of the girls came home from school, tears in their eyes, the first time someone told them to go back to their country. The cruelty of children, burning like fire. If only they knew how much that was wished for and how it would never be a reality. If only, if only, if only they could go back+ pgs. 34-35 

Cockroaches: Back then, I was naive and enthusiastic and excited about the life that was ahead of me. It would not always be this way, and I'd experience deep lows that would shock my younger, self-assured self. But even now, a full decade later, as I clean and scour and search for signs of bugs in yet another low-income apartment, listening to the sounds of my neighbors cooking and cleaning and laughing and yelling at their children, I am astonished that this is where I live. That I get to experience the complexity of living in relationship with people at the margins of society, people who have to be resilient in so many ways. That I get to experience so much of the hospitality, the community, the blessings of living cheek-to-cheek with refugees and those who grew up in generational poverty is not lost on me.

The kingdom of God is like a pearl, a mustard seed, a lost coin that you will turn your entire life upside down to find. I had heard all of these metaphors, and more, since the time I was a small child. When I went off into the world to find these seemingly small and insignificant signs of a very good God at work in the world, I was surprised by what I found. The kingdom of God was so small, like a nest of cockroaches, a workbook full of scribbles and scratches, shared laughter over the absurdities of the world. It was everywhere I looked; in the end, I just needed the eyes to see it. + pg. 44


Conversion: Moving in somewhere doesn't make you a neighbor. The idealism underpinning our desire to live in solidarity with the poor would end up taking so much time and energy that at night we found ourselves unable to do anything else but lock our doors and collapse in front of the TV. We moved in and discovered our neighbors were not simply good-hearted people who had been dealt a bad hand. Instead, they were complicated: they were exhausted single mothers who screamed at their children and smoked at the playground; they were the addicts, shut-ins, and the mentally ill; they were refugees who used us up and then asked us for more. 
We were slowly shocked by the cost of human relationships. We didn't yet understand what it means to stick around long enough to experience the fullness of how messy life is on the margins. How much it hurts to teach little second-grade boys to read, and then watch them grow up and pretend that they don't know you in the elevator, laughing and joking with their friends, dressed head-to-toe in gang colors. Or to see the refugee girls I poured my life into let their dreams float away, never finishing high school and instead getting married at younger and younger ages, breaking my heart with each wedding. Or to be friends with the sick and watch them die, to witness relapses and abuses, to stand around and suffer with people you love. We didn't know the cost, and in a way I am so grateful. 
Like all new converts, in the beginning we had it all figured out: stop buying new shoes. Move into the neighborhood. Eat kale until you want to die. Start an after-school program. Plant a community garden. Annoy all of your friends with your constant pleas to come help out. Start a community library. Never stop trying because you have got to do something, anything, to make the world a better place, a more equitable kingdom. We would gain a better world, even if it meant we might lose our souls. 
If you had asked me in the midst of all of those years of learning and unlearning if it was worth it, I would have told you, yes. I would have looked you in the eye and told you the truth as straight as I could see it: It is hard, but I am trying to convert to this way of living all the time; I expect I will be to the end of my days. And please forgive me, but I am trying to convert you along with me. + pg. 58-59

Otherness: I once heard about a nun in the south side of Chicago who was the principal of the local Catholic school. In the 1970s, this particular school had experienced the changes in the neighborhood as more African-American families started moving in and "white flight" happened as a result. Eventually, the population at this Catholic school was almost entirely made up of black students. One day this nun went from classroom to classroom, and she changed the crucifixes hanging on the walls. In front of the students, this nun stood on a chair and took down the white-Jesus-dying-on-the-cross and replaced it with a black-Jesus-dying-on-the cross. The students couldn't bear it. They had to ask their questions: "Sister, why are you doing that? Why are you changing the crucifixes?" Her answer was simple. "Well, we don't know exactly what Jesus looked like, but I am sure he looked more like you than he looked like me." I heard that story, and it caught my breath. I think about the kids in that classroom and what it meant to look up at a Jesus that looked like them. Because they were children, it must have burrowed deep into their spirits. Jesus was black, or at least not white in the way we define "white" in the United States. Jesus was an outsider. Jesus knew what it meant to never be at home in your own place. + pg. 65

Otherness: I looked back on that night with sadness, as well as awe. Hali, Saida, and Khadija were so brave, so willing to be vulnerable, to extend a relationship to me and my church. Their lives in America consisted of these kinds of interactions over and over again. The stares, the whispers, the confusion. Their bodies never belonged; they always seemed to take up too much space. And yet, when I asked them to come, to enter into my world  filled with people who looked just like me  they did. They came with me to church, but they were the ones who taught me about hospitality, about the courage of opening up your life to the unknown and the foreign, day after day after day. 
They were the ones who had no place to be at home in the world, so in the end it is no surprise to me that they are the ones who taught me the most about God and his ways in the world. I would have to leave the churches and Bible colleges, the buildings and institutions I had planned my life around, in order to find that mysterious kingdom. I would have to go to the places Jesus always said he would be. Because I didn't know exactly where Jesus was or what he looked like, but I was starting to get some ideas. 
I would find him in the faces that looked so unlike mine. + pg. 70



Next post: City Notes 26: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith Part 2 of 3

 Sully

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