Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sometimes the Young Lead Us

Last week our Pastor Richard and some of the youth and adults who went on the youth mission trip to Philadelphia shared their experiences of the week with our church. We are all impressed with their reports and with the impact that this week of service had on their lives. I was particularly struck by the thoughts of one of our college students, Jennifer Kunze, who just finished her freshman year at St. Mary’s College. Not only was it well-written--I've seen college graduates who couldn't write as well--but it was a passionate challenge that all Christians need to regard. I have skipped a little bit at the beginning of her remarks to get right to what I feel is the heart of her message to us.

The favorite thing I did was on the fourth and last day. During our missions time, after another morning of cleaning apartments in a nursing home, we visited a thrift shop in downtown West Philly. However, this place was not only a thrift shop. The owner was a Christian who had opened the shop specifically as a ministry. Half of the building was stacked to the ceiling with old clothes and books and furniture; the other half was a chapel and a safe place for the neighborhood kids to hang out, complete with music, a TV, video games, and a pool table. Filling his parking lot, with dirt poured out over the concrete, was a community garden. He had devoted his life to helping the children of West Philadelphia, and it was clear that he had made a difference in their lives. He said that they called him ‘Papa.’

But not everything about his story was so happy. He told us that he’d had to bury eighteen of the children he’d taken in since he started. Drug violence is rampant in the area; the murder rate in Philadelphia is many, many times the national average, and children often get caught in the crossfire, if they are not the actual target. The fact that he has struggled through the loss of so many people he’d come to love, and that he has dealt with the repercussions of that to their surviving friends, is remarkable.

His story helped drive through to me something I have been thinking about for some time. In the week’s Bible story, we followed the story of Moses in Exodus. The first morning, we discussed the burning bush, Moses’ calling to rescue the Israelites from their slavery. What caught Moses’ attention and caused him to leave his comfortable life with a wife and father-in-law was something that operated not in accordance with the laws of the world, that stood radically apart from the way that everything else he knew worked. I asked myself, are we as Christians being that burning bush, so unmistakable that we cannot be ignored? Or are we burning up, or not even burning at all?

Another morning, we discussed the nature of Israel’s slavery and relation with God. While in Egypt, the Israelites worshiped God. But they didn’t follow him. Their entire mentality was that of slavery—they had been enslaved to the powers of the world, to the need of the Egyptians to acquire more, to a social system that exploited the poor to give the wealthy few untold riches. While within such a system, they still worshiped God—they acknowledged his power and followed his commands. But they were static; enslaved, they could no do what he required, actually get up and move. I asked myself, are we as Christians worshiping the Lord while still enslaved to the ways of the world, or are we truly following him?

The final morning, we read the giving of the Ten Commandments, where God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” They were not to be the exclusive keepers of the Covenant, ignoring the rest of the world, but rather ministers to all of creation, helping it to see God. And now under the new covenant, have we been focused inward, on our own grooming and health? Or are we truly focused radically outward, on irreplaceable ministering to the needs of the rest of creation, so that all might come to know God?

In Philadelphia this week, it was reinforced to me that Christianity was never meant to be something that we pick up Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, was never meant to be defined exclusively or even mainly by the things we do not do. Instead, it is in its purest form a life devoted to radical service, of which a week’s mission trip can be only the beginning.

Yeah, what she said.

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