Friday, January 11, 2019

Evangelism and Baby Pictures

A couple of years ago we scheduled a presentation about the Syrian refugee crisis at our church. I took a brochure to a neighbor’s house to invite him to join us. I had only met him one time and discovered that he had moved here from Syria many years ago. I was hoping he would remember me and thought he might appreciate coming and participating in our conversation. I made a pretty critical strategic error, though, ringing his doorbell, standing on the stoop with a brochure in hand, and beginning by saying to him, “Hi, I’m your neighbor across the street. Our church is hosting a discussion tonight about Syria and I’d be delighted if you could come and participate in it.” He looked at me quizzically and said, “Say again?” So, I began repeating myself, but he cut me off in mid sentence by saying, “Church? No.” as he shut the door. 

In his defense, I did look like a casually-dressed Jehovah’s Witness, replete with proselytizing literature. I knew that my invitation was not a subterfuge for getting him ‘in the door and on the rolls,’ but he could certainly be excused for not knowing that. The way “evangelism” has been practiced over the years – from large scale evangelism crusades to mall-walking stranger encounters – has made any attempt to promote an activity, event, or idea in the name of the “church” suspect from the start. And the things that have been done in the name of the “church” - talk about well-deserved suspicion! Sometimes it seems that we have to spend more time trying to deconstruct a narrow, harmful presentation of the gospel and the church than we do sharing the joy and justice of the capacious gospel that is made known in Jesus Christ. That bothers me enormously and I suspect that in some ways it bothers you as well. 

So, what to do? 

I suppose one option was to stay there and beat on the door insistently yelling, “But we’re not that kind of church! We love people!” That statement might be true, but a true word spoken in the wrong way becomes untrue. Another option would be to walk away and try never to ruffle that neighbor’s feathers again. That’s more or less what I have done since then, because I never have been much of a ‘get out to know everyone’ kind of neighbor. 

But, surely the alternative to door-banging is not simply for us to gather around the gospel of love and inclusivity while at church and never bother with it outside of our walls – is it? Surely there is some sacred space between obnoxiously proselytizing and passively excluding. And that space, I suspect, is a kind of slow, less “results-driven,” more “love-driven,” trust-building redemptive work of changing the story. Getting there is a matter of both deconstructing old ways of doing evangelism and reconstructing new ways of doing so – which might even involve letting go of some of the language we tend to use when speaking of faith. 

I refuse to let go of sharing the joy and justice of the gospel, but I also refuse to do share that good news in a way that does not honor another person’s own story. The image that seems to work best for me is to be like a new parent, who is ever ready to whip out the smart phone and show anyone and everyone photos of the new baby. There is a kind of pride and joy in those parents that is infectious. It’s an invitation to join them in their joy, not a challenge to agree that their baby is the most beautiful poppet ever born. Their joy allows me to re-visit my own joys; it doesn’t demand that I forfeit my joys in order to honor their joy.

I am trying to re-think evangelism as that kind of infectious joy-sharing. And, because you’re kind enough to read these Friday missives, you are welcomed to join the conversation. 

Mark of St. Mark 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Aufmerkung: The Act of Attention


My reflection for this week is based on an idea that I once had for a philosophy paper that never materialized. In the 18thcentury Immanuel Kant wrote a trilogy on reason – his Critique of Pure ReasonCritique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment, which analyzed the conditions for the possibility of knowing, doing, and feeling. In other words, they address the three realms of philosophy we often call reason, ethics, and art. There is a moment in Kant’s first Critique that, I think, goes under-noticed. He begins describing the synthesis of perceptions and concepts with the dependent clause, “In every act of attention…” – or aufmerkung in German, which can mean a variety of things, and literally refers to the act of “marking out.” I think that dependent clause points to a significant and primary step in the process of knowing. Before perceiving with our senses and before connecting what we perceive with a concept that we already have in our minds, we must pay attention to something. I remember my philosophy professor, Günter Zöller standing at the front of our class at the University of Iowa, and how deliberately I had to ignore the ugly brickwork and tinted windows behind him, in order to focus on his mouth as my hearing loss and his thick accent made it difficult to understand his lectures. That was my act of attention – a deliberate focusing on the particular and tuning out all the rest – that was necessary for me to gain anything from that class. It deserves more than a dependent clause – the “act of attention” is the key to comprehension. 

So, “aufmerkung” is my word for 2019. What am I “marking out”? To what am I giving attention? What am I deliberately not seeing, not hearing, not feeling, in order to focus myself on what needs to be seen, heard, or felt? In a world where we are bombarded with a plethora of sounds, sights, and emotions, this act of silencing others in order to hear one could be the most important thing we do. My hope in 2019 is to give attention to the important and not to be distracted by the unimportant. I could use your prayers in that endeavor. 

Mark of St. Mark