“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” which Metzger refers to in his introduction (p. 2), paints a hopeful picture of a young, eager nation, ready to open her doors and give relief, freedom, and hope to the “homeless” and “wretched refuse.”
But something happened along the way, which affected these bright, optimistic ideals.
Greed happened. And along with it oppression, vicious cycles, barriers, and injustice.
Fallen human nature happened. Sin happened.
I realize that this is our country I’m discussing, not the church. But our church is in many ways a by-product of the nation to which she belongs. I can’t deny the parallels: both in the optimistic, passionate foundation and the broken reality which we experience daily, even though we still long deep down inside for those foundational ideals to be realized. That is where grace comes in, thank the good Lord, but that’s also where a careful, honest response and reform need to come in to play as well.
And now I see us, the church, trying to put the pieces back together—frantically, hurriedly, and ashamedly. When I talk with fellow Christians, I sense a weariness, a mutual acknowledgment that yes, something is deeply broken, but that we’re not quite sure what the remedy is, or what exactly is broken. That, to me, is discouraging, but also, in light of that, it is reassuring and irresistibly motivating. I am confident that this is where our sovereign creator has called us to be: discouraged so that we can respond. Upset so we can redeem. Disrupted so we can reconcile. But it will take time.
We all want quick fixes: quick meals, quick results, quick answers. But there’s no slow cooking oatmeal on this American stove. And if there is, the entire camp has left to find the closest McDonald’s. Can you blame us? With all of the opportunities, ideas, and limitless boundaries we have acquired with technology, mass communication, and globalization, we now have that much more at our fingertips. That much more to respond to, that much more to fit into our Blackberries. And with all the pollution in the air these days, who knows how long we’re going to be able to breathe to get it all done?
That’s the sense I get with the American culture at large as well as with the church. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the church is full of authentic, genuine people who love God. I don’t think that’s the issue. And just that fact gives me hope. I believe the issue is how we—myself included—view this thing called the church. How we view this faith we profess. How we view the Biblical concepts of redemption, reconciliation, restoration (reminiscent of John M. Perkins’ vision of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution for the church, which is discussed in the Afterword, p.176).
In Metzger’s introduction, he makes the connection between the disillusionment with the immigration clerks he and his wife experienced, and the church we find ourselves in today. “I have been sensitized by these and other similar encounters with structural coldness and insensitivity to the issues before us: race and class divisions in the consumer church. For we are also speaking here about those who are in and those who are out” (p. 2).
I often cringe when I watch church scenes in movies. A movie I watched last night portrayed the typical stereotype: an uptight, all-white, stuffy congregation, afraid to cough, laugh, or sing off-key. It paints the picture of a religion where people go to hide, to pretend to be un-human, or perhaps super-human. It breaks my heart, because that is not reality. That is not what the brokenhearted crave, that’s not what the poor need: a place to pretend, a place to deceive themselves and others. A place where you must look, dress, and think like those sitting on each side of you.
I believe this is partly what perpetuates the “culture wars” and “consumer culture” that Metzger refers to, which stifle our ability to communicate a truly loving, all-inclusive, compassionate Jesus (p.2). That is not what our culture sees in the church. I saw something entirely different when I was not a Christian. I saw ignorant, closed minded, oblivious, rich people who knew no true cares—and if they did have any, their problems were shallow and quickly resolved. Judgmental on my part? Yes. But that is what the church and her messages portrayed to me on a consistent basis.
The loud, dominant messages that carry the voice of evangelicals seem to be those of or similar to Rev. Jerry Falwell (p.3 ). Although he did apologize for ostracizing and blaming homosexuals, secularists, and materialists for 9/11, the damage is loud, clear, and pervasive. And once spoken, it’s out there for all to cling on to, reject, or accept as “the voice” of evangelicals. I look forward to a day when the strong, pervasive message among Christians is justice, compassion, and equality (similar to what the prophet Amos anticipates in Amos 5:24). Not polarization, homogeneous units or seeker-sensitive messages. The message of our Messiah is uncomfortable. It is scary. It’s risky. And I can’t help but get the feeling that so often when I am in a room of Christians singing worship songs that ask our creator to use us, and to help us “die” to ourselves for him, that we are failing to truly seek that. I can’t help but get the eerie feeling that we are begging, begging, begging with our mouths, but resisting, resisting, resisting with our hearts. That we are crying out with our words, but shutting down in our souls. I can’t help but get the feeling that the words we sing are empty. That we know the right things to say, but we don’t really want to be captured and led into the depths of reality and an abandoned pilgrimage, because maybe it won’t be pet friendly, or low-fat, or non-smoking. Our preferences will neglect us, our options will betray us, and suddenly, we will be going into unknown, uncharted territory. The control we are addicted to will no longer be in our hands. We would have to surrender all control to the Lord—the sovereign, almighty, compassionate Lord. But as scary as surrendering control and comfort to our creator can be, desiring the all-sovereign Lord is liberating and life-giving, and truly comforting. We can trust him with our lives.
If I don’t trust someone fully, I won’t follow that person into a forest. So the question that haunts me is, do I even trust my creator to lead me into his territory? Or do I simply want him to walk beside me and guide me in my own charted, plotted, temperature-controlled island and give me comforting words of affirmation? What does that do for his kingdom? If I truly believe that Yahweh acts out of love, then what do I have to fear? What do I truly believe, not just say I believe? I want to break free from my self-absorbed, homogeneous island and take off for distant lands right next door and down the street and across the track in search of peace and reconciliation. The flight and journey will be awkward, uncomfortable, and humiliating. But I want there to be unity in God’s creation, not millions of lonely, segregated islands. Just as America is supposed to be that land where those from distant lands and islands come in search of hope, longing to be free, so too is the church to be a haven of rest for all God’s children so often “tempest-tost,” longing to find home, longing to be free. But unlike the statue of liberty of which Lazarus’s poem speaks, the church is a people, not a stationary statue, waiting for the masses to come. The church must go to them.
Are we willing to go? Are we willing to move outside our comfort zones? The thing that breaks my heart is that Christ’s soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34 NIV) and yet still he earnestly prayed that not his will, but his father’s will be done—knowing full well that meant intense humiliation, suffering, and death. And not only did he accept the cup, but he drank it. He didn’t politely decline the offer.
Metzger argues that “all forms of disunity in the church can be traced, in the end, to an absence of practical love, an absence that hinders our outreach to the world” (p. 4). The thing that strikes me is that Metzger hopes that the all-consuming Jesus and his John 17 prayer will not only change the reader’s life, but more importantly, that it will change the church, so that “the world may come to know that the Father has sent the Son—not just for some, but for all” (p. 4). I believe this is an appropriate admonishment. I have been convicted that, like Hugh Grant’s character in the movie “About a Boy,” we live and view our existence as isolated islands, occasionally coming into contact with one another, but really, our existence is autonomous from everyone around us: millions of islands with our own appliances, gadgets, dreams, and hopes. This entirely undermines our social responsibility and our influence on structures and systems which make this country and world function as a whole. If the change stops with each of us, what good is that? We can sleep more soundly? Maybe, but it must go further than that for change. It must go further than our family or our social network. Jehovah is bigger than individuals in isolation. Jehovah is bigger than a neighborhood, a school, a city, a country, a nation. And he’s bigger than the powerful structures and oppressive systems which have deceived us, controlled us, and exploited his children.
My heart yearns for a day when I can stand in church as equals with others from different ethnic, economic, and equally diverse backgrounds, with our hands wide open and our hearts truly daring to enter into the “good, but not safe” narrative (referencing the beaver in C.S. Lewis’ Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Our hearts deceive us, pretending they don’t really hear his gentle pleading for us to go so much further than this. I pray we dare to enter into our creator’s story with fear and trembling, faith and reverence, awe and joy.
A friend of mine used to always say, “Without him we can’t. Without us he won’t.” It’s his story, and we are those whom he chose to be the messy characters. Let us be those characters, and dare to break past the barriers, systems, and structures that keep his children segregated, detached, and oppressed.