Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 3: The Danger Of "McDonald's Ministries"

Chapter Three: The Danger Of "McDonald’s Ministries"

I was recently talking to some nice people who live just around the corner, in
the flight path of my toddler daughter’s daily neighborhood walk. They were
telling me all about a trip they had just gone on with a group from their
church. They had all flown to Africa and fed untold numbers of starving children
and no doubt saved the world in the process.

Their church is one of the new breed of what I like to call “McDonald’s
Ministries,” because they have lots of franchises around town all preaching the
same generic, flavorless message. People go there because it’s convenient and
because they don’t have to make many choices. Everything is familiar and easy to
consume, no matter how empty it may leave you later.

As they chattered on about the trip to Africa, I was silently calculating the
amount of money the group probably spent collectively just to get to Africa. I
don’t know the figure, of course, but it’s not hard to image a group of 30-some
people spending over $10,000 on a trip like that, and I’m probably significantly
underestimating the cost. Flight alone around $ 2500 round trip per person, over
$ 70,000 spent on airfare. Sure would buy a lot of food or medicine or water
wells, etc.

When the couple came up for air, I asked, in the most innocent way possible, how
much time and energy their church group spent working in our own inner city,
saying that I might be interested in joining the local effort.

Two blank stares . . .followed by a pair of matching puzzled looks.

“Locally? You mean inner city Dallas? Those people are just lazy. God helps
those who help themselves.” A phrase, not from the Bible, but Benjamin Franklin.

Yep, that’s the response of someone who regularly consumes Happy Meal homilies,
for sure.

The real world isn’t as simple as all that, and it’s much more complex than a
weekly message that “Jesus saves” and all will be right in the world when he
returns to claim his own. That’s not only bad theology, it’s also extremely
oversimplified. The charge of following in the footsteps of Jesus is much more
than an invitation to join the cool kids for lunch after church.

There’s a reason, for instance, why people in Africa are starving. They’re
starving because they have reproduced to the point that the land can no longer
sustain their population. When we fly over on a glorious mission trip to feed
the starving children – bizarrely, without contraception to disperse most of the
time – all we do is perpetuate the problem. The problem of population is made
worse by various complexities – land held by corporate owners rather than
families raising their own food, famines caused by drought in some areas, high
percentages of parents wiped out by AIDS leaving hordes of orphans in some
regions, and corrupt governments filling their own pockets rather than investing
in infrastructure, health, land reform, and education for the general
population, and other complicating factors.

Meanwhile, here at home in the Land of Plenty, people are starving all around
us, and rather than reach out a hand in the spirit of Christian charity, we too
often tell them to “get a job!” But it was Jesus himself who taught us that
‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,
you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40 There doesn't appear to be a single instance
where Jesus checked to see if someone was qualified to be helped. He didn't
check references, ask if the family was hungry because the parent was a drunk or
too lazy to work, or otherwise check to see if they "deserved" to be helped.

So, are all "mission trips" a bad idea? If you think that a one or two week trip
is going to provide permanent relief to the suffering or create a life-changing
conversion experience for someone in a third-world country, you're deluding
yourself. A Band-Aid effort won't provide long lasting healing for deep wounds.
Short trips are like a small dose of aspirin given for traumatic pain, but you
might return with a large dose of self-righteousness. If you really want to help
others, go for three months, six months, or a year. It takes time to get to know
people, really find out their deepest needs, and learn the root causes of their
problems. Otherwise, the money you spend on airfare would do greater good in the
hands of NGOs that know how to be effective.

On the other hand, if you go with an open mind, a compassionate heart, and the
desire to learn, a mission trip can give you far more than you give to others.
You can receive more than you ever give in terms of valuable lessons. In
experiencing the poverty of others, your eyes can be opened to just how rich you
are. In witnessing the limitations that their culture or their government
imposes, you will have new appreciation for your own freedom and education. In
receiving their hospitality offered out of scarcity, your own selfishness may be
unveiled. In seeing the way they care for each other with strong community ties,
you may realize how isolated and lonely your own life is. Those who have little
can teach us what is really important.

Almost twenty years ago, a trip to Hungary showed me how people remained
faithful and committed Christians in a communist ruled country despite peer
pressure, economic pressure, and government pressure. They did so without
becoming bitter or angry. It caused me to question whether my faith was
important to me, or if I had just been "going through the motions."

Faith that doesn't change you, that doesn't transform you, that doesn't make
your priorities and your passions different in some important way from the
culture where you live, is just empty social religion – fast food religion that
may go down easy and taste pleasant, but gives little or no nourishment.

It sounds good and honorable to travel across the globe to help those in need,
and indeed it is an honorable pursuit. But the honor in that deed is tainted
when our response to our neighbors is to walk quickly past, staring down at our
smart phones or just simply looking the other way. The opportunity for mission
exists wherever you find yourself at the moment.

After teaching that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, a man asked Jesus,
"And who is my neighbor?" Luke 10:30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was
going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They
stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A
priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he
passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and
saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came
where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him
and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own
donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out
two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when
I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into
the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

This story is rich with details and deep with meaning. It seems like a simple
question, "Who is my neighbor?" Is it the person living in the adjacent
apartment? Does it include the people I work with? Do I have to count all of the
folks in my exercise class as neighbors? Is everybody in my suburb a neighbor?
Instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus told a story. Those who heard the story
listened with their own familiarity with the setting of the tale.

Going down the road from Jerusalem was a risky trip. It was a steep and winding
path through the hill country and it provided many places where robbers could
hide and surprise travelers. Being robbed and beaten on this road was not
unusual. A priest came by and went around the man. Some might excuse the priest
because the victim may have appeared dead and priests were forbidden to touch
dead bodies. Others would hear this as an indication of the social and cultural
distance between priests and the common citizen. Palestine was occupied by Roman
forces that oppressed the country. Priests were allowed to serve at the pleasure
of the Roman occupation forces and were seen as collaborators with the enemy.

A Levite – a hereditary class of people who worked in the religious structure of
the Jewish faith - was the next person to come across the victim in the road.
He, too, walked on by. Some might make excuses for the Levite. If he touched a
dead body, there would be a rigorous cleansing ritual to go through. If he
stopped, he, too, might be robbed. A common motif in stories and jokes is a
sequence of three actions. The first two are always similar and the punch line
comes with the third action. Both the Levite and the priest are religious
workers. To the common person, a lowly day laborer, they have reliable income, a
secure lifestyle, and appear to be (and likely are) out of touch with the real
life of the vast majority of people.

Those listening to Jesus expect the third person to be a lowly commoner, someone
who knows about suffering, someone who will be compassionate, unlike the first
two stuck up religious elite snobs. But the third person isn't even a Jew. He's
a Samaritan, a low-life half-breed of both Jewish and pagan ancestry. He doesn't
agree with you about which writings are really scripture and he worships at the
wrong temple. And he is the one who stops and renders aid to someone who thinks
he is dirt.

Then Jesus asks, which one was a neighbor? He points out that "neighbor" isn't a
matter of living nearby. It isn't determined by being in the same club or church
or ethnic group. Neighbor isn't geographical or social position. It's a behavior
that crosses ethnic, class, economic, educational, and religious lines.

So, if you live in the suburbs, are Protestant, white, and drive a BMW and
someone else lives in the hood, drives an old Chevy pickup, is black or brown,
and worships in a jumpin', fallin' out black church or a Hispanic,
statue-filled, incense-burning Catholic church, then you are to be his neighbor
and he is to be your neighbor.

Jesus expects us to go beyond our comfort zone, do anti-culturally-accepted
things, and love our neighbors in the same way that we want to be valued,
respected, and loved. It can be difficult, but it’s a lot more transforming and
nourishing than a Happy Meal with a cheap, plastic toy souvenir.


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