Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oh, What You Hear in Church!

Isn't it amazing the things you hear in church?

At least in my church, Dallas' Park Cities Presbyterian, the things I hear can run the gamut.

Obviously, being in a church, you expect to hear good things.  Even amazing things.  About God, His love for us, His grace... right? And you expect to hear bad things, like how evil our sinful selves are.

Sometimes you hear new things, even if you've attended church for so long that you've heard countless sermons preached on the same favorite passages of scripture.

This past Sunday was one of those Sundays for me.  The Reverend Dr. Michael Oh spoke for my church's missions Sunday, and he made two bold claims that I'm pretty certain I've never heard anybody else make in church before.

One was that "suffering exists because God ordained that Christ would suffer for our sins."

Wow!  Have you ever heard it put that way before?

The second was that money in church should be like blood - flowing freely throughout the body, serving all the members.  Dr. Oh questioned whether the common assumption that Christians love money too much is really a fallacy - that, in fact, we don't love it enough.

Have you ever heard that before?

I hadn't.

Why Human Suffering Exists

Does suffering exist because God ordained that Christ would suffer for our sins?

That's what Dr. Oh claimed as he preached on Psalm 22.  It may not a classic Bible passage for missions, but then, Dr. Oh isn't your ordinary missionary.  Born in Philadelphia of Korean parents, he earned three Masters degrees, including an MDiv, plus a PhD, before moving to Japan and opening Christ Bible Seminary, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America.  All that, and he's still younger than me.

As he worked his way through the familiar exhortations for engaging in cross-cultural evangelism - which, of course, is what "missions" is - Dr. Oh sought to peg everything we do - whether as people who go overseas or people who stay behind and support them - on the supremacy of Christ and the omnipotence of God.

Reconciling the pain and suffering described by the psalmist in the early portion of Psalm 22 with the global in-gathering of the saints starting in verse 27, Dr. Oh pointed out that almost all of us incorrectly view suffering from the eyes of humanity.  We're myopic on the subject.  Rather than resting in God's sovereignty, we figure some supreme power doesn't like us or care about us, or that we ourselves simply can't do enough good to compensate for our badness.

Either way, suffering is the result.

And then he tucked in his claim that the reason we have suffering in the world is primarily because God needed it to secure our own salvation through Christ.  Christ needed to assume the sins of the world onto Himself, and how else would that be possible without being exposed to extreme suffering?  After all, that's how heinous our sin is.  That's how despicable we are in God's sight without Christ's blood cleansing us.  It wasn't so much the beatings, the insults, or even the crucifixion that Christ suffered, as it was His subsumption of all our sins.

"Amazing love!  How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?"

Blood Like Money in the Body

As if that wasn't enough, blood came back later in Dr. Oh's sermon, as he was talking about different reasons why funding mechanisms for cross-cultural missions seem to always be playing catch-up.  You've probably heard many pastors lament the human preoccupation with money, saying that we love it too much.  And yes, "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."

Yet Dr. Oh suggested that in a way, many believers don't love money enough.  Although he used the term "love," I think that the term he should have substituted is "cherish."  Because what he means is that many evangelicals don't understand that to God, money is like blood.  Money should flow through His body, the church, like blood does within our human temples.  Money is a tool, not an objective.  In his teaching on social justice, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City basically says the same thing, although I've not heard him compare money with blood.

Still, the analogy is powerful, isn't it?  Instead of hoarding vast sums of money, like virtually all of us do - or aspire to do - our money should be flushing throughout our communities of faith, carrying with it the nutrients of mortal existence so that everything we need can be paid for and furnished regardless of one's individual importance or location.  Pardon the pun, but it's a rich description of what a healthy church should look like, just like healthy human bodies rely on richly healthy blood for survival.

Blood Flowed - in Righteous Anger - Because Money Got Stagnant

But just as many human bodies are not healthy because the blood coursing through their veins is laced with cancers, fatty acids, and other destructive elements, so many of our churches are unhealthy because financial wealth has stagnated at one end, being prevented from flushing through the congregation.  Ultimately, this hoarding gives some people within the church body a greater sense of importance than the money they're letting calcify was supposed to provide.

Take, for example, the abominable comment I heard after the wonderful sermon by Dr. Oh this past Sunday at church.  I mourned for the rest of the day.

By way of background, I attend a 5,000-member church boasting an $11 million budget, which means that even though its congregation is large, it's made up of people rich enough to support an extraordinarily large budget.  We have at least one billionaire as a member, plus CEOs of major corporations.  We have many members of a fabled Texas oil family, plus a slew of lawyers and doctors.  As you might imagine, our demographics skew hard to the white, right-wing side of Dallas society.

Not that I'm bigoted against the rich.  Some of my best friends are rich!

I did not witness this incident personally, but after the service on Sunday, during the postlude, a friend of mine told me about a white family that had recently left our church.  They had adopted a black girl, who once ran down the center hallway of the children's ministry downstairs.  A white woman, another member of our church, who didn't know who this black girl was, stopped her and scolded her saying, "little girl, on this side of the tracks, you're going to have to learn some manners."

Like many of our own rich white kids aren't spoiled brats.

Needless to say, the little girl's family was devastated.  Even I myself, as imperfectly colorblind as I am, reeled in dismay as my friend told me the story.  It truly was disgusting, but - and this made it even more disgusting - I wasn't surprised.  I've heard people in church making derogatory comments about their Hispanic household help.  Actually, I've heard white Republicans cracking rude jokes about Barak Obama in front of people I secretly know are Democrats.  Indeed, GOP fever runs so strong through my church, members who are Democrats live like Christians in China as they worship amongst the rest of us.

The dichotomy between sitting in a congregation of mostly white folk, listening to a Korean-American missionary to Japan teach us about suffering and money in the context of missions, and then learning that people in this same congregation can be so despicably hateful to a little black girl on our property made my brain blow a fuse.  It was surreal, almost.

From what she knew - and my friend is in a position to know much more about the incident than most folks - nothing was done to pursue reconciliation between the family who'd adopted the little black girl, and the white woman who - even if she's dirt poor - has more money than sense.  Or love.

And that's the crux of everything, isn't it?  We can talk about missions all day long.  We can sit in awe of powerful statements on suffering and money being like blood, and we can be smug about the desire of somebody with Dr. Oh's pedigree wanting to preach at a church like ours.

We can also be complacent from knowing that twenty percent of our church's budget goes to missions.  And that we've planted dozens of churches around the world.  Indeed, one of the reasons I've attended Park Cities Presbyterian these past 13 years is because I know there are many people there who truly desire to worship God through cross-cultural missions.  And many of them are quite financially blessed.

But doesn't cross-cultural missions begin at home?  Even here in Dallas?

If you automatically think a little black girl running down a corridor at church is a token welfare case the church is helping out through our urban ministries department, then who's the one living in poverty?

All that money is choking off the blood supply to not only your brain, but your heart.

In a round-about way, that's also why suffering exists.

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