Friday, May 30, 2008

The Burden of Representation

During a class on relational evangelism at Willow Creek Community Church last Wednesday night, director of evangelism Garry Poole looked at his audience and asked, "What keeps people from reaching out to others and sharing the love of Christ?"

Hands shot up. Everyone's answer was the same:

"Fear."

"What scares you about evangelism?" asked Poole.

The responses were what I expected.

"Rejection."

"The possibility of getting into a debate."

"Being judged for being a Christian."

"Not being able to answer questions."

"Misrepresenting Jesus."

"Knowing how much to say."

These are all valid - and common - fears Christians come face to face with when they want to share the gospel with a non-believer. They are so valid, so common and so realistic, in fact, that they can scare a believer into silence.

I experience these same concerns. However, my most recent frustration is something altogether different.

Rather than a fear, when I consider evangelism these days, I feel the intensity of the burden that I will potentially have to defend the Western church. And the Western church, unfortunately, has something of a bad reputation.

A few weeks ago, Catholic priest Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina, an all-black church on Chicago's South Side, publicly mocked Senator Hillary Clinton during a visit to Trinity Church of Christ, the church attended by Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Pfleger, who is white, went so far as to suggest that Clinton believes she deserved the Democratic presidential nomination over Obama because she is white. Pfleger later claimed he was not mocking Clinton and that his remarks did not reflect his heart.

Unfortunately, I was watching the evening news when Pfleger's antics were broadcast for the entire nation. What I saw made me ill. I saw a man who was out of control disparaging one of his nation's leaders from the pulpit (the Bible clearly calls for Christians to respect those in governmental authority), setting an unbiblical example for that congregation, and above all, misrepresenting the church. Make that misrepresenting Christ.

When the segment was over, I sighed and said to my roommate, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "Well, he just made the church look really good."

Pfleger's bio is impressive - in the 33 years he's been at St. Sabina, he has increased attendance from 400 to over 1200; he has helped parishioners start a school and several community programs that have changed the neighborhood. He protests gun violence and works tirelessly to better the conditions of the people living in the St. Sabina neighborhood. All this has ended up doing nothing for him in the face of his recent conduct - Chicago's Cardinal George has reassigned Pfleger to another parish. I can't help wondering, What's the point? Taking Pfleger from the job where he's done so much good prevents him from continuing that good work. And let's face it: the damage to the church is already done.

I'm not saying Pfleger as an individual is what's wrong with the Western church, but he sure makes for a good example. His actions run along the same lines as Jerry Falwell blaming September 11 on the abortionists and homosexuals. Neither one of these situations sound much like Jesus to me.

The truth is that Jesus preached love, not judgment. He preached grace and forgiveness. He modeled ethics and integrity.

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said.

But why should non-believers want to explore a church that publicly disparages political figures, that blows up abortion clinics, that blames homosexuals for acts of terrorism, that supports the killing of children in Iraq, that molests children, that embezzles money?

Why should broken, hurting, lost people who are craving unconditional love, forgiveness, healing, community and truth think they will find what they need in the church?

The truth is that they can find all of this in the church. It just doesn't always look like it. As always, the bottom line in any American industry is the almighty dollar, and the media is no different. Sex sells. Scandal sells. Violence sells. (This is why I didn't go into professional journalism.)

I suppose the answer is that I have to be the church. In my relationships with non-believers, I have the opportunity to break down the image of the church as judgmental and unloving, and remake it in Christ's image, as it was meant to be, for the people I'm reaching out to. I must love as Christ commanded, teach as He taught, walk as He walked, to the best of my ability.

That's a lot of pressure for this very broken, very imperfect, often hypocritical disciple. Shoot, it's a lot of pressure for a church made up of very broken, very imperfect, often hypocritical disciples.

The truth is that in spite of the influence of the American media, in spite of research that shows people do not want to be part of the church because of its media image, there is hope. Father Michael Pfleger is not the church. Jerry Falwell was not the church. The anti-abortion extremist groups are not the church. It is ordinary people who love Jesus and want everyone they meet to know the boundless depths of God's grace through the cross who are the church, who must be the church.

Evangelism, says Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels, happens best through relationships - through ordinary, genuine, committed friendships wherein ordinary, broken, imperfect Christians earn the trust and respect of non-believers in ordinary relational ways, and then, because they have earned genuine credibility, and because they want their friends to experience the love and grace they themselves know, share their faith in authentic ways.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Chuppah

Last summer, while visiting relatives near Traverse City, Michigan, I spent an afternoon with my younger brother and sister at Memorial Park, a small, serene beach in the village of Elk Rapids on the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay. They romped in the uncustomarily warm water for hours as I lay in the sand, simultaneously warmed by the late June sun and chilled by the breeze off the bay. The images of that afternoon stand out in my memory. The sun sparkling on the water, waves crested with foam as they crashed onto the beach, made everything seem blue and gold and irridescent. And on the beach, a few hundred yards from where I lay, was an unusual sight. Alone at the end of a narrow peninsula of sand jutting out into the water, stood a chuppah.

It appeared to be a simple thing constructed of four poles, a white sheet of cloth stretched between them. The cloth fluttered in the wind, its whiteness rendered even brighter by the sunlight. It looked empty and abandoned, yet beautiful in its pristine simplicity, serene in its lonely setting. I was mystified by its presence, for there was no one around. My mind flooded with questions I could not answer. Was it there for a wedding? Had the wedding already occurred, or would it take place sometime that day or the next, perhaps? Who might be getting married under it? Were they Jewish?

Finally, unwilling to look from afar any longer, I got up and, calling to my siblings to stay where they could see me, walked down the beach and out onto the narrow peninsula to where the chuppah swayed in the wind.

It was exactly what it had appeared to be from a distance - a simple white cloth stretched above four wooden poles shoved deep into the sand. It was just large enough to shelter two people. I stood beneath it, contemplating its significance.

Not being Jewish, not having grown up around anyone who was Jewish, and never having attended a Jewish wedding, I first encountered a chuppah at some point during my college years in - of all things - an issue of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. I remember the article pretty vividly - it was the profile of a young Jewish couple in New York City. I recall being charmed by the black-and-white photo of the couple standing beneath a simple white chuppah while a rabbi led them through their marriage vows. But I had no idea, at that time, what the chuppah represented.

In Chapter Seven of his book Sex God, entitled "Under the Chuppah," Rob Bell explains that the practice of using a chuppah as part of Jewish weddings can be traced back to the Book of Exodus, when God hovered over His people in a cloud, leading the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert of Sinai. Most significantly, the chuppah is reminiscent of the giving of the Ten Commandments through Moses, when God promises the Israelites, "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possessions" (Exodus 19:5). The Hebrew word for God's presence is shekinah, and the chuppah, suspended over a couple during the pronouncement of their marriage vows, is a reminder of the cloud shekinah of God, of the vows He made to Israel. Later, Jews began to use a prayer shawl stretched between four poles as a symbol of the seriousness of the marriage covenant.

The chuppah is a sacred thing. It creates a sacred space, a space for just two people, who have chosen each other out of all the other people in the world. The chuppah represents commitment. It represents the sacredness of intimacy in marriage. It represents faith and trust and the submission of our autonomy in exchange for something God designed to be infinitely better. It represents all the reasons for which God created Eve. It represents the end of Adam's loneliness.

Even more striking, the chuppah could perhaps be seen as a representation of the greatest of all unions - humanity's with Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus claimed to have come to fulfill the Law of Moses. The chuppah is a representation of the convenant between God and Israel through that Law. The progression and connection seem clear.

On top of that, Jesus frequently compared his relationship with his church to a marriage.

There was something sacred about standing under the chuppah on that lonely beach, Lake Michigan's waters sparkling in the sun, the laughter of children echoing on the breeze. I remember looking up at the white cloth over my head and feeling sheltered in some way I couldn't explain at the time. Now that I know a little more about the significance of the chuppah, that feeling makes sense.

Bell writes, "It's a chuppah, but maybe it's more than a chuppah."

I say there's no maybe about it. The chuppah is far more than a piece of cloth suspended between two poles.

It is God's promise to love us, a promise made milleniums ago and fulfilled milleniums later when Jesus died on the cross for the world. For me. For you.

When I get married, it will be because I've found a man who gets this truth as deeply as I do, and who considers marriage to be a covenant that mirrors God's promise to us. Eternal. Unbreakable. Sacrificial. Nothing less is acceptable. Nothing less is truly holy.

And perhaps, at our wedding, we might stand under a chuppah.