Monday, January 30, 2023

Surge Story | Generous Cross-Shaped Peacemaking Presence

"Christ The Redeemer" Lit Up With Flags Of Countries

We called on the Prince of Peace for the welfare of the city and He showed up. + Jim Mullins, The Symphony of Mission: Playing Your Part in God's Work in the World 

When we finished our series on Baptism (Who We Are) this summer, our final message was entitled, "Rooted in Being Baptized as Jesus' Servants (For the Life of the World)." To help close the message, I shared a recent story about how Jesus' Church in the city of Phoenix, including three Surge Network churches, embodied this baptismal identity tangibly among their Muslim neighbors. This story is also included in Quarter 3 of Surge School readings in The Symphony of Mission, which we are currently immersing in right now. The story provides an embodied fulfillment of these words:

How can the world come to know the love of Christ by experience? What's the best apologetic for proclaiming the cross to a cynical world? The best commentaries about the cross are not written in books; they are written on the scars of Christians throughout the world. The primary way the self-giving love of Christ is displayed to the world is through the sacrificial service of God's people. As we pour our lives out on behalf of our neighbors, we dramatize what Christ has done on the cross.

+ The Symphony of Mission, pg. 56

"If (Christians) Really Believed Jesus, It Would Change the World"  

(When I lived in Turkey) Hamid said something I will never forget – a clue to the very question I had been pondering. He said, "Do you remember when we read Luke 6, where Jesus commands people to sacrificially love their enemies? That was my favorite part!" He continued, "How many Christians have read these words? Because if so many Christians view Muslims as their enemy, wouldn't they be obligated to do good things for them? If they really believed these words, they would be building schools in Afghanistan, welcoming Muslim refugees at the airport, and inviting every Muslim they know to join them for dinner." 

And then with seriousness in his voice (Hamid) looked at me and said, "Jim, you should go back to America and teach Christians about this. If they really believed Jesus, it would change the world!" That was the day a Muslim commissioned me to preach the gospel to Christians. Amid the irony, I sensed that there was something profound about what he was saying, a connection between the sacrificial love of Christians and the perceived credibility of the cross. However, I wouldn't make that connection until some five years later when I was staring at the business end of a semiautomatic rifle.

The Cross and a Peacemaking Presence Prayed For in the Face of Violence

(Now back in the United States) A group of armed bikers was organizing an event outside of a local mosque where they would bring weapons, burn copies of the Qur'an, draw lewd pictures of Muhammad, and scream obscenities at people as they entered to pray. The particular mosque they had chosen was in a neighborhood with the largest percentages of refugees in the state. These people had been displaced from their homes and families and were trying their best to navigate the challenges of living in a new culture. All of them had experienced some form of suffering and danger: torture, natural disasters, ethnic cleansing, war. When I looked at the Facebook event for this rally, I saw that hundreds of people had already signed up to tell these globally homeless people to go back home. 

I remembered the words of Hamid and how he had challenged me to call Christians to obey the words of Christ. So in an act of overstated slacktivism, I expressed my disgust on Facebook. It was a well-worded mini-rant that made me feel better about myself. Then I closed my computer to pray, not the bold prayers of faith but the deflated prayers of a disheartened disciple. I had a sense that Jesus's name was about to get dragged through the mud once again and that violence was imminent. I was especially concerned because I had friends who attended that mosque and I didn't want them hurt. I also imagined how horrible it would make Christians feel if someone surrounded our church with guns, ripped up the Bible, and slandered Jesus. The thought was awful. I felt helpless.

After logging back onto Facebook a few hours later, I saw that several people had commented on my post, and I was struck by one comment in particular. Erin, a woman from my church (Redemption Tempe), thought we should do something about the rally, that it wasn't enough to make a Facebook post. Since this was happening in our city, we were implicated. We needed to respond.

Honestly, I was reluctant and afraid, but I knew she was right. Her post prompted me to reach out to Adam Estle, the executive director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, and our mutual friend, the president of the mosque. We met for dinner and dreamed up a little plan. With only about twenty-four hours notice, Adam and I invited followers of Christ from around the city to join us at the mosque to be a prayerful presence in a place of hostility.

We didn't go there to protest or even counterprotest (as the media suggested). Our aim was to create a physical barrier of protection with our bodies and a spiritual wall of protection through our prayers. We committed to being a calming, quiet, friendly, peaceful, and prayerful presence. We wanted our response to be marked with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

Our strategy was to arrive early so that we could fill the sidewalk in front of the mosque, thus forcing the hostile protestors to the other side of the street. We also wanted to be the first people our Muslim neighbors would see when they exited the mosque, so they'd be greeted by followers of Christ holding out hands of friendship rather than by protesting holding handguns.

But the main reason we were lined up on the sidewalk was to turn our bodies into a physical barrier of protection for our Muslim neighbors. We wanted to dramatize the cross. We stood between the masked men with guns (a lot of guns!) and our Muslim friends because Jesus stood for us. Because Jesus had absorbed our death to give us life, we were willing to absorb bullets to defend the lives of our neighbors. He put himself in harm's way for us, so as his disciples, we were compelled to put ourselves in harm's way for our Muslim neighbors. There wouldn't be a single bullet that would pierce the body of a Muslim unless it went through the body of a Christian first. We didn't organize the Love Your Neighbor Rally with heroic moxie but with trembling hands and nervous prayers for protection.

The Prince of Peace Showed Up on the Hottest (& Most Dangerous) Day of the Year

Two types of people participated: those who were afraid and those who didn't really understand the danger. I didn't expect many people to show up. With each hour that passed there were new waves of hostility posted on social media. Almost all local and national media outlets were covering the event and using sensational language that seemed to make things worse. The organizers of the protest were calling people to bring as many weapons as they could carry on their motorcycles – and to be ready to use them. ISIS was tweeting ominous threats about blood being spilled in the streets, local businesses were closing shop, and (to make matters worse) it was the hottest day of the year. It was not hard to find a reason to stay home that day.

People from our group started arriving around 5:00 p.m. At first, there were just a few of us, and we didn't really know what to do. We were awkward, not accustomed to being at a protest. My fears of a low turnout seemed confirmed. But then, at about 5:20 p.m., we saw one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life: hundreds of Christians began to stream down the street in groups of five or ten, putting themselves in danger in order to love their Muslim neighbors. There were soon as many Christians assembled to be a peaceful presence as there were protestors: more than two hundred Christians from about fifteen local churches. There were also a number of people from other backgrounds who had been invited by their Christian friends. We had decided to wear blue shirts (a calming color), and as I saw that flood of blue shirts coming down the street, I began to imagine them as God's tears: tears of sorrow as he wept over this broken city and tears of joy to see his people unified in sacrificial love.

When everyone had arrived, we spread out on the sidewalk along the front of the mosque. We stayed calm, prayed, sang some worship songs, and had great conversations. Almost everyone held up signs that had been made by Josh Harp, a pastor at Via Church, which said "love your neighbor" on one side and explained our purpose on the other side. We asked people to avoid yelling, chanting, or bringing signs with antagonistic slogans. We asked them instead to pray, to tell stories of positive friendships with Muslims, to describe calmly what we were doing, and to explain how Jesus was our motivation.

On the other side of the street were more than two hundred protestors. Many of them were masked, wore bulletproof vests, and carried pistols, knives, and semiautomatic weapons. They were from many backgrounds, including atheism and neo-Nazism. A few even claimed to be Christians. Their signs and chants said some of the most vulgar things you could imagine – I won't repeat them here. They burned Qur'rans and held up indecent pictures drawn ahead of time at a "Draw Muhammad" contest they'd held before coming to the protest.

Though our first job there was to pray for and be a human shield for our Muslim friends, we also encouraged our people to pray for and try to reach out to the protesting bikers. After all, they were created in God's image too, and behind their masks and bulletproof vests were genuine fear and pain that needed the healing of the gospel. We reminded one another that we weren't there to be against anybody, because our enemy is not flesh and blood but the spiritual powers that produce such hatred: sin, idolatry, Satan, and demons.

Throughout the protest we sent a handful of blue shirts over to the protestors' side of the street. Some in our group had brought ice cold water on that blistering hot day to share with the protestors. We looked for the loudest and angriest people there and tried to engage them in conversation. It was clear they wanted to be heard, so we thought maybe we could help de-escalate the situation by simply listening. As we listened, we realized that there was real fear under all that anger. It grew out of thousands of hours of being discipled by sensationalist YouTube videos and talk radio shows. They were genuinely afraid. However, almost none of them (except a handful of people who had served in the military) had met an actual Muslim. Many of the veterans were struggling with PTSD, and some had lost limbs in Iraq or best friends in Afghanistan. The most formative years of their adult lives had been spent learning to view Muslims as the enemy. Now they felt rage when they heard a few words of Arabic conversation at a grocery store. 

So we listened, and kept on listening. Several of our conversations with the protesters ended in tears, prayer, and a deep sense of longing for God to mend this hemorrhaging world. I remember so much from that night: our Muslim friends who handled everything with such poise, the hard work of police officers, a petite nineteen-year-old girl in a blue shirt who showed kindness to a furious three-hundred-pound protester who was wearing a bulletproof vest and was armed with an AR-15. I remember the many conversations about Christ we had with the nonbelievers who joined our group, with our Muslim friends, and with the protesters. 
But what I remember most vividly is our times of prayer. It seemed like each time the protesters got louder, we prayed more fervently and the Spirit extinguished the waves of hostility. Standing in the most hostile street in the city that night, we worshiped God and experienced a real sense of the presence of Christ. Throughout the nights we saw groups of protesters walk away in a contemplative manner. Some of them turned their "F--- Islam" shirts inside out. Some even seemed to have a change of heart and sought out the leaders of the mosque to apologize. By the end of the night, there hadn't been one shot fired, one punch thrown, or one person arrested. 
We called on the Prince of Peace for the welfare of the city – and he showed up.

Suffering for the Sake of Others is the Best Apologetic for the Cross

The next morning, I woke up and started to thank God for what had happened the night before. I was grateful to be no longer standing in front of masked men with guns, but I actually felt saddened that it was all over. I assumed that the beautiful night of the church's unification in missional peacemaking was just going to drift into our memories and ultimately be forgotten. But when I checked my email, I realized that something bigger was going on. 

Waiting for me were dozens of emails, Facebook messages, tweets, and voicemails from Muslims around the world expressing their gratitude for the many Christians who had shown love by forming a human shield in front of that mosque. The messages came from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, and Afghanistan as well as many different cities within the United States. 

I wondered how they had heard about the events of that night and then realized that a Muslim man had snapped a picture that beautifully captured an image of the sacrificial love that existed all across the city and had shared the picture on social media. The picture was of four people from Missio Dei Communities (a local church in the Phoenix area), and the caption said, "It is reported that more Christians showed up to stand in solidarity with the #PHxMosque this evening than protesters." This photo was shared 6,079 times on Facebook and probably just as many times on Twitter, mostly by Muslims. Many news reports had been written by local and international media, some of them even quoting us as we pointed to the cross as our motivation. For example, Vice News quoted me as saying, 

"One of the main reasons we set up here on this sidewalk right now is to create a physical barrier between the mosque and our Muslim friends and potential violence and hostility. ... If they suffer, we suffer with them. To stand in between the potential pain and danger they are in in the same way that Jesus stood in between it for us." 

In the months that followed, we had dozens of opportunities to speak to groups of Muslims and have coffee with Muslim friends. In almost all of those instances we were asked the question, Why did you do it? In those moments we were able to share how we had been reconciled to the God of peace and were therefore compelled to be peacemakers. We were able to proclaim the self-giving love of Christ that was displayed on the cross. We shared the gospel with thousands of Muslims.

That season helped me realize that the sacrificial love of Christians – when we suffer for the sake of others – is the best apologetic for the cross. 
The service movement in the symphony of mission displays the sacrificial love of Christ through lives of selfless service. As we generously give our lives to serve others, we imitate and display the generous love of Christ and his work on the cross. When as followers of Christ we generously share our time, money, knowledge, possessions, homes, and lives, we dramatize the generous sacrificial love of Christ that was displayed on the cross. 
Love is costly. Real love is the mess of childbirth, the burnt arms of firefighters, the scars from dogs' teeth on the arms of a civil rights leader, and the sore knees of a factory worker who has punched the clock for forty years to put food on the table. Love is ultimately expressed through sacrifice.   
We are called to be entrepreneurs of blessing, inventors of neighborly kindness, and artists of shalom – employing our whole minds, including our imaginations, in loving God and our neighbors.

+ Special City Notes (CN) excerpt above from Chapter 5: Service: Displaying the Love of Christ by Washing the Feet of the World, pgs. 95-99, in The Symphony of Mission, also featuring stories about how moving truck employees, Uber and Lyft drivers, waitresses, barbers, cyclists, and more are being "entrepreneurs of blessing." Jim also recounts the story above in the article "RT: 1 Year Ago Today: Love Your Neighbor Rally". And to close, here is one more great story from The Symphony of Mission followed by two complementary posts:

Soli Jesu gloria.

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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