The Kingdom: Rolling out the “Welcome Mat”

This past Sunday, October 8, 2017, I had the privilege of going to four church services in the city of London: Catholic Mass at St. George Cathedral, morning worship at Metropolitan Tabernacle (the Baptist church of the famous 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon), Anglican Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and an evening worship service at Hillsong London.

Each of the services had elements that appealed to me — that spoke to my soul, and each of them had elements that I wished would have been done differently. Most of these differences were simply a matter of preferences, but some of the rub I felt came from deep theological differences.

As a Baptist one would expect that this rub would have been felt most in the Catholic or at least the Anglican service, but it was not. As a proponent of traditional hymns along side contemporary worship music and multigenerational ministry, one might think the “rub” was felt most in the LOUD “epilepsy inducing” light show service at Hillsong, but it was not.

The most severe rub was at the Baptist service, and it wasn’t the music, or the prayers, or the liturgy, or whether or not I was welcomed. The rub was the heart of the Baptist service — the sermon, and it chaffed me to the point of wanting to stand up and yell, “STOP IT!”

Now, I have to be honest. I’ve been chaffed by other sermons. Most of the time it’s a good thing. It’s the Holy Spirit convicting me of my sin, making me uncomfortable in the tepid Christianity in which I have taken comfort. At these times, as well, I want to yell, “STOP IT!” like the man having the lizard torn from his back in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. I am familiar with this rub; I do not like how it feels; but I know it gives life, abundant life. The sermon at Metropolitan Tabernacle was NOT that rub. It was a rub, a chaffing, that comes from knowing that something is not quite right.

The message was from 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. It was going well enough I guess until point two taken from verse 10, “…to wait for His Son from heaven.” His point was that the Christian objective is to “wait” — to wait for Jesus. Now I’m all for a good sermon on being ready for the return of Christ, of living lives of holiness, on focusing on telling others about Christ, but in order that we wouldn’t miss his point the preacher went on:

Note, dear friends, that our aim is not to reform the world. Now Christian people are a people of compassion, and if people are suffering, we should have hearts that want to help. And God will raise up from time to time people with special opportunities (here examples of Christians fighting child exploitation during the Victorian period are offered as an example)…. But they knew that no sooner would they repair one problem that another one would turn up because of the fall of man, and because of the sinfulness of man, and the wretchedness of the human hearts. They knew that you can’t really reform this world; you can only do some good as you go along; you can only give relief as you can. But today there are some Christian people, even some evangelical and reformed people, who have fallen into the old trap that our chief business is to reform the world. And there are quite a number of books and well known names like Tim Keller, and, not such a well known name, but, Paul Trip, and others, who are telling you that your purpose of being here is to reform the world to repair the broken down house of this world. It isn’t, friends. It is a doomed world. It is a world under the judgement of God…. That old heresy of social restoration is being promoted once again.

This is the rub. Can we really separate the preaching of the Gospel with the living of the Gospel? And so I wonder…

  • I wonder if we are no longer under the obligation of being stewards of this earth (Genesis 2:15)?
  • I wonder if God no longer requires us to do justice and to love mercy (Micah 6:8)?
  • I wonder what the prayer taught us by Jesus himself, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” means (Matthew 6:10)?
  • I wonder what it means for the first and second commandment — our love of God and our love of our neighbor — to be of the same substance (Matthew 22:37-40)?
  • I wonder what it means to have pure religion if not to care for the orphan and the widow (James 1:27)?
  • I wonder why those extended an invitation to eternity with the Father is dependent upon food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothes for the naked, care for the sick, visits to the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46)?

I suppose the argument would be that these (and the numerous other texts that could have been listed) are simply secondary concerns to “waiting,” to “preaching the gospel,” to “winning souls” — to welcoming people into the Kingdom of God.

But it just seems to me that if we are going to roll out the welcome mat of the Kingdom, we better make sure that we actually are living in the Kingdom.

And living the Kingdom means restoring the brokenness of a world that God loves — that God sent his son not to stand in judgment of but to love and to save (John 3:17)! Living the Kingdom is fighting against injustice, it’s about binding up wounds, it’s about caring for the least of these! That is the Gospel. That is the Good News! We cannot separate the preaching and the living of the Gospel!

That is a Kingdom worth living in!

That is a Kingdom worth inviting others into!

That is a Kingdom for which it is worth rolling out the welcome mat!

If you’re looking for that kind of Kingdom, I’ll tell you there isn’t a better choice you could ever make, and I would love to have the privilege to welcome you into that Kingdom.

But if your kingdom, if your “gospel,” is anything less than that, then I’m afraid it’s not the Gospel of Jesus, or Paul, or Spurgeon for that matter, and it may be a good idea to make sure your kingdom even has a welcome mat at all.

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The Story of a Christian/Muslim Friendship

Marilyn R. Gardner is an adult third culture kid who grew up in Pakistan and then lived as an adult in Pakistan and Egypt. She birthed 5 kids on 3 continents and went on to raise them in Pakistan and Egypt before moving to the United States. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA, just 15 minutes from the international terminal where she flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging, and her newest memoir, Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith (click on the titles to check out the books at Amazon). Because of her passion for the Middle East, 50% of all royalties for any purchase of Passages goes towards refugee work there. She is also a prolific blogger at Communicating Across Boundaries (click on the blog title to check out Marilyn’s blog).

You can read more about how Kerry knows Marilyn and why he is celebrating her during International Women’s Month by reading yesterday’s post by clicking on “Loving the ‘Other.’

marilyn

Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.

Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.

On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.

After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.

A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and a beautiful woman with long, dark hair that curled around her face answered the door. With exquisite make up and a chic outfit, she was lovely. I stared at her and in a halting voice explained that I was there to visit with Lubna. Was she available? The woman burst into laughter. “It’s me, Marilyn!” She laughed. “I can’t believe you didn’t recognize me!”

I had already seen Lubna numerous times, fully veiled with only her eyes showing. I was stunned at the contrast. As we laughed, she vowed she would never let me forget this first reaction.

Lubna and her husband were conservative Muslims. The niqab was the visual evidence of this, but this was really only one piece of the whole. Islam was a way of life, not just a religion of words. Lubna and her husband ordered their lives according to Islam, from the Call of Prayer (azzan) at the first light of dawn to the last echo heard across the city before bed, this was who they were.

Our commonalities were significant, our interactions over everything from faith to family were rich and interesting. But as our friendship developed, a curious side effect emerged. I experienced a crisis of faith. I had always imagined my faith to be far deeper and stronger than those who did not adhere to my truth claims. While I could acknowledge the faith of another, in my mind their faith was not as strong, not as binding.

As I grew to know and love Lubna, I entered into a new understanding of faith. Her faith was zealous and sure, providing her with a cement foundation not easily moved. I struggled as I watched her. How could her faith be just as strong as mine? As a Christian didn’t I have a market on faith?

It was through Lubna that I learned I didn’t and I don’t have a market on faith. It was through Lubna I learned that I could hold fast to my truth claims, yet still develop a deep friendship with another – not compromising, not betraying what I believe, but connecting within relationship. The orthodoxy of our faith defined our truth claims and the goal was not that we would agree – the goal was that we would communicate, that we would become friends without strings attached.

It’s been many years since Lubna and I shared tea and life together, but many others like her have come into my life; others who have taught me valuable lessons on connecting and offering friendship without compromising on truth claims. With each of them I have remembered what Lubna taught me about listening and loving, learning and enjoying. And I remember that this isn’t about forcing a faith, it’s about forging a friendship.

—–

March is International Women’s Month!  It is my hope that you will join me over the course of the rest of March in celebrating the women who have had a significant role in influencing me.  I will post daily blog-posts — some of these posts will be from me talking about the women who have had a significant role in influencing me and some of the posts will be from these women themselves, childhood friends, mentors, teachers, co-workers, etc.  

My hope is that this series, “Celebrating Women,” will accomplish three things:  

  1. to serve in a small way as a “Thank You” to all the women who have influenced me
  2.  that you will gain wisdom from those who have spoken wisdom into my life
  3. that it will serve as a reminder to say thank you and to recognize all the amazing women in your one life

Click here to see all of the posts related to “Celebrating Women.”

 

 

Blah Blah Land

“A gentle answer turns away wrath.”  Proverbs 15:1a

Written at 5:06pm, Sunday, February 26, several hours before the Oscars.  

You can fill in the blanks based upon your viewing of the Oscars or reading the headlines tomorrow.

Tonight during his/her acceptance speech for winning best _____(enter category here)______ at the Oscars, ___(enter name here)____ offended ____(enter name of offended person or group here)____.  This is just another instance in a string of offenses caused by the acceptance speeches of “winners” during award ceremonies recently.

____(enter name of enraged person here)_____ was quick to respond on ____(enter name of social media here)______ stating that this was outrageous and demanded an apology.  Instead of apologizing, ____(enter name here)____ quickly took to _____(enter name of social media here)_____ and retorted ____(enter retort here)_____.

My wife told me that if I wanted to increase my readership I should write about the Oscars tonight – especially something controversial.  I have to be honest, however, I’m tired and will be heading to bed shortly after posting this and long before the Oscars are over.  So thanks for helping finish the introduction above.

It is possible that no one said anything controversial and that no one was offended by what was said – I guess then I have egg on my face.  Of course, that is as likely as Batman vs Superman winning an Oscar for best picture, so I’ll take my chances.  Unfortunately, these spats spurred on by these speeches are just another example of art and Hollywood mirroring reality and the rest of the culture at large.

It seems more and more that we aren’t living in the magical world of La La Land but rather in the third grade playground world of Blah Blah Land.

I don’t begrudge these actors their opinions — although I wish they would set an example for our young people by using these speeches to say “thank you” at least as much as they complain.  I also don’t begrudge the people who are offended to shoot off their mouths/posts/tweets in response.

I guess that’s the beauty of freedom of speech.  But freedom of speech is different than responsible speech.

We have a responsibility to use speech wisely, compassionately, and even sparingly.  This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t speak up against injustice – exercising our freedom to remain silent can also be irresponsible.  Let’s be honest, however, that doesn’t seem to be the primary danger of the social media age.  Rather reasoned, wise, compassionate speech is shouted down in Blah Blah Land by a cacophony of angry, enraged, quick-tempered shouting.

We forget that a slow  thoughtful answer turns away anger, that a compassionate word can heal, and that this has to start somewhere – it may as well start with me, with you, with us.

I realize that some of you at this point are thinking to yourselves, “blah, blah, blah.”  This is an unavoidable danger in a piece like this.  If I’m honest, I have to confess that more often than not I get caught up living in Blah Blah Land.  I’m too quick to point the finger, shout the retort, post the FB response. But I’m tired of living in Blah Blah Land, I’m tired of hearing, “They started it!”, and I’m tired of the cacophony of unrestrained freedom of speech.

I want to live in a land where even our distinctions, our differences, our disagreements are part of a harmonious musical – not unison but harmony of distinctive voices seeking the common good for all.

Let’s start singing together.

You bring your part, and I’ll bring mine.  You bring your voice and listen carefully to the voice next to you.  Let’s move from the third grade playground world of Blah Blah Land to the magic of La La Land – where not every dream comes true, where difficult choices need to be made, but it’s all done in the magic of harmony.