Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Lesson Long-Overdue

As a kid, I used to try to convince God to call me into the mission field. I would be so brave and sacrificial, I’d try to convince him, and would be willing to lay down my life in a blaze of glory.

Early in high school I read a bunch of biographies of great missionaries, martyrs, and devotedly missional people: The Cross and the Switchblade, God’s Smuggler, Vanya, Foxes Book of Martyrs, No Compromise, The Hiding Place. Surely the kingdom of God was big enough to make some room for me on that shelf of heroes!

Since it has always been apparent that teaching is one of those things like writing that I can’t help but constantly do, teaching middle school in low-income areas of the inner-city seemed the way to go. I pursued that ambition with all the self-motivation that a home-school background had given me. I read More than Equals, Grace Matters, Good News About Injustice, A Dream Deferred, Invisible Man, Black Like Me, The Souls of Black Folk. I took classes such as African-American Literature, White Culture and Race Relations in the South, Southern Literature, Racial Violence in the South, The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Poverty and Sociology. I joined the Black Student Movement, and became one of the officers of the organization. I attended a march in DC for affirmative action. I became the multi-ethnic coordinator of my mostly-white Christian organization. I went on a spring break urban project to intercity Philadelphia. I developed substantial relationships with homeless people near campus. And I eventually moved into an intentional Christian community in the poor area of a city known for racial struggles.

But after all those things over the course of six years, I eventually learned that my attempts to guess the end of the story had been destructive, and that I had no conception of a God of Grace. It seemed that once I tried to let go of a notion that I was called to single-handedly bring about the Kingdom of God, I didn’t even know how to look at myself or my life. I stopped planning. I tried to learn to listen.

And last week I visited an old housemate in the mission district of San Francisco, and I realized something on the first day. After six years of ambitiously pursuing intercity ministry, last week as an unambitious listener I learned something new:

I love cities.

I love cities sorta like I love small towns and mountains and England and forests.

I planned on going to a city to “do ministry” for years without loving them. I moved out into a city and tried to “do ministry” without loving them. And like the Southerners during Reconstruction who resented the lofty and condescending goals of Northerners who tried to industrialize the backwards hicks, the people of those cities could rightly have resented me. I was like someone entering into a marriage with the goal of saving the person, indifferent to whether or not love would ever grow at some later point.

Neither individuals nor cities nor people-groups need me to save them. Saving people may be an impossible and destructive approach to missions. Maybe my mission is simply to love them.

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