Refugees part 2: Legalities and Love

I published a brief article through the Gospel Coalition on our church’s direct experience with the refugee crisis in Italia which was meant to encourage the church at large that there is some good news out there! The surprising thing which took place both here in Italia and the US was how quickly the negative comments began to fill the conversations from “Christians” who were angered by our outreach.

One of the themes which arose was that our church was disrespecting national borders set up by God (so we were disobeying God), that we were illegal for helping “illegals” (so we were disobeying the state), and that the church shouldn’t be involved in politics like this (so we were disobeying political correctness).

In response, I would like to share here that we were not disobeying the first two and really don’t mind breaking the third. Rather, we are seeking in our approach to have Gospel centrality and to be careful how Christ is presented while at the same time not compromising with the feelings del giorno of man before God.

Are national borders important?cloud-3074621_640

I would answer yes to that question as borders define civil law of a national sovereignty, but I don’t sense that is the real issue, at least for the church. We have never preached to throw down national borders and haven’t really heard of that being presented in like-minded churches. If that is an issue for you and your church community, I would be glad to explore it more with you. However, what I do see is the following argument being used somewhat as a straw man fallacy. Any outreach to any newly arrived immigrant or helpful initiative seems to be met with suspicion and then we are categorized as one of “those churches who just want to throw down borders and let everyone in.” Or, another commenter immediately shared how God in his law honors borders — as if we didn’t and don’t love God and his law.

The point is each country has their own immigration and border policies — and as long as they are humane and do not cause immediate risk or damage to human beings, then they should be respected. It is also good, Gospel witness to help others who need to comply with immigration laws if they’re willing to do so. We have encountered some who are unwilling to legalize their status choosing to “hide for a while” until more advantageous times. To those, we patiently offered correction but not membership.

Italia (up to this year) has had a more humane and “compassionate” policy than many countries. For example, one does not need to “touch” the shoreline to seek asylum in Italia; a sea rescue is also sufficient. In recent news, we have seen a more hard-line policy where the sea rescues have taken place but the ports have been closed to entry. Yes, the numbers of refugees entering Italia has dropped dramatically, but the interesting statistic is that the number of deaths at sea has still remained high proportionately. Think of the irony of the situation when the many Mediterranean cruise ships packed with vacationers pass over the spots of hundreds of drowning victims just hours and days before. And to twist the knife into the sadness further, most of the refugees have paid dearly to get on those doomed boats. They’re paying to be drowned, yet the human traffickers are still sending them north.

What happens, then, to those who do reach the ports and shores? That is an important question because Italy places them in a status of semi-sequestration for up to two years until their documents are approved or denied. In our experience, the vast majority do receive their proper papers and enter the society. Some are ready to enter the workforce and many are not.

Please note here: I acknowledge, first, our experience is not a “uniform” experience across all of Italia. We are reporting from the north where hundreds of refugees continue to arrive and other regions may or may not be similar. Second, I am speaking only to their entrance into Italia at this point before they may have broken any laws. I realize that there are riots and attacks by migrants in various cities of Italy for a number of different reasons. The laws are indifferent to race when they are broken, and the judgments or penalties should be applied equally. 

Therefore, in a legal sense, the refugees do have a limited permission window to stay, and the large majority being granted longer term permissions to sojourn. This is where we come into direct contact with the refugees. They are already here, and they are provisionally legal. So, if the requirements of the law have been met, there is no “civil” reason why we should withhold the Gospel of life from them. We are neither disobeying the State nor disobeying God’s great commission.

However, if we do ignore them and take up the popular sentiment all around us that they are all illegal (which is untrue), we will definitely disobey the Father. The truth of the situation of popular sentiment is not that they are all illegal, but rather, they are all unwanted.

A better way

For that reason, our Cristocentric approach is to be ambassadors of Heaven; pointing them to a better land where they are invited to enter. They may be unwanted by many around them in this new, European land and that is exactly how Jesus identifies deeply with them. Jesus came to his own people, and they denied his status (John 1:11). The rest of the Gospel of John chronicles how many different ways he was rejected all the way to the final, unjust one in the Cross. This is the message of good news which follows in John 1:12 — to all who will receive him, Jesus gives them the right to be called children of God. This is law and love together.

We want to show them how much they are wanted and how the Savior has already met the law, broken down the dividing wall, and thrown open his city gates — for them! This is news they have never heard before, and after the horrific experiences many of them have endured, it is truly good news.

To read part 1 of this series, please click here.

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Gospel-centered Church Part 2

Pastor_keller_in_berlin_3
Below are the 7 points of being a Gospel-centered church that Pastor Keller gave the other day in Berlin. These points help us “center-in” on the Gospel like I wrote about in the last post.

  1. Gospel Renewal — utilize the power of the Gospel to change character; not psychological selfishness to try to get people to have things “go well” in their lives. The two moralistic motivators are pride and fear. Often, these two are the ones we appeal to by default in our teaching. However, the Gospel both humbles us out of our pride and then affirms us out of our fear. The Gospel changes everything in our approach and response to life. 

     

  2. Contextualization — If you over-adapt to a culture or, on the other hand, say that everything is bad in a culture, then you’re not reading the culture well enough to bring the Gospel to bear on it.
    Over-adaptation is an insecurity that desires people to like us.
    No-adaptation is a prideful superiority.
    The Gospel brings poise and helps us with the balance of humility and boldness

  3. City positive — it’s not starry-eyed about cities but understands the hard difficulties within them. It’s not comfortable but understands that Jesus made himself uncomfortable for all of us. So, the Gospel will draw you toward cities, not repel you from them. If you can’t stand the city, the Gospel hasn’t gotten ahold of you in some area.

  4. Cultural engagement — see how cultures work; to hollow-out the culture from within — neither triumphalistic nor withdrawn.

  5. Missional Bearing — The community expects the presence of non-Christians experiencing the Body. Therefore, how things are presented and talked about will be done with a sensitivity to mission and an anticipation of members of the city involved who may not yet understand or agree with the Faith.

  6. Holistic — evangelism and mercy together; sharing the good news while living the good news. This would be the sum total of word and deed ministry. They both help you go more deeply into the other when practiced. 

  7. Movement oriented — Humility to work with others for the benefit of the city — not just trying to “increase the tribe”

Food and Ministry: Problem 3

Ghanaian_food

I don’t even know how to spell it, but it sounds like “watch-it” and our Ghanaian church family members were excited about it. I’ve had Fufu, tasted red-red, and enjoyed plantanes & rice but watch-it was new. For weeks, we had been talking about our inter-cultural meal (read: awesome potluck) that we were planning and they wanted me to try their favorite dish. The day came. Their enthusiasm was high along with my anticipation — and the first bite…. well … ya …  I had to watch-it. It was completely foreign to me; an acquired taste in the making.

As I was working my way through that first bite, one of the brothers said, “Pastor, I like it with piccante sauce.” My eyes lit up as I mumbled through my watch-it, “Hmm…ya… div-me-thum-o-that … hmm… lots…ya… kee-it-comin.” Then, our dear sisters asked me, “Pa-pa, do you like it?” To which we westerners all respond, “It’s different, a bit unexpected.” And then they had a good laugh. 

So, would I eat watch-it again? Yes, because I like my brothers and sisters much more than I like the dishes that appeal to me. You might be saying, “But, it didn’t appeal to you!?” And you’re right. The dish appealed to them, and so it is part of their joy and identity. If I don’t watch-it, I’ll miss the ministry to the Africans because I’m only comfortable with the food of the Italians. 

Problem #3: Culture Comfort

Culture comfort with our food basically says that I’m not willing to try food that isn’t what I’m used to. The point is not just to try different, international foods but to see who those foods are connected to. A good bit of a person’s identity is wrapped up in their food. It is like a chain of links. If you reject someone’s food or type of food, you reject their culture. If you reject their culture, then you reject a part of them. 

Ministry Impact

Over the years of eating and ministry, we have noticed that more of our African brethren struggle with this problem. What happens when we concentrate on eating only the foods that are comfortable to us is that we communicate that we are just fine with keeping exclusively to ourselves. We actually begin to close down our thinking toward other groups of people and we strive to maintain our own cultural identity even more. Through the different “tastes” of food that we don’t like, we start to think of the people in this way too. We will say things like, “I don’t understand them” and we will seek to avoid the awkward experiences again. Therefore, even how we eat and share our food will stop being missional. Once we build our comfort zone, we will see others as invaders in our lives and not included. Then, to protect our comfort zone and identity, we will have to sneer at the intrusions or sneak away from them. 

Recommended Solution:

Try different foods that people make and offer you. Try the plates for the people. Go missional with food and see those tastes as gateways into people groups. Train yourself to be open to others and their cultures through food. Watch-it on purpose.

Food and Ministry: Problem 2

Jesus_feet_house_of_simon

“I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet…You gave me no kiss…You did not anoint my head with oil…he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Jesus (Luke 7:44-47)

How we conduct our meals and share our food does reflect on how we practice and give the Gospel. The passage above is from the account where Jesus is invited to Simon’s house. In the end, Simon does not have the good news of forgiveness (his meal conduct illustrated that), and Jesus does have the good news of love and forgiveness (his meal character revealed that). Both how we eat and who we eat with are ministry practices of grace.

Problem #2: Food-Pride

What’s the last meal that you sat down to that left you saying, “Hmm, that just wasn’t all that good?” The last meal like that which I can remember had chicken involved — I think it was chicken (kind of tasted like chicken). Now, I can whip up a great bowl of cereal or a tasty bag of chips, but cooking isn’t my forte. Eating is my forte. I’ve studied and practiced it for many hours over the course of many years. And, living in Italy is like eating in the big leagues. 

However, one hindrance in utilizing our food for ministry that I’ve encountered is that of a certain food-snobbery. The Italian kitchen does have bragging rights. Each region merits an appreciation for how it takes every-day ingredients to a whole new level. But when it is made evident at a meal that the pasta wasn’t cooked to the optimum consistency or a certain sauce lacks an ingredient or the after dinner coffee just doesn’t have the taste like mamma mia’s coffee — we are entering the realm of personal acceptance and gracelessness

Ministry Impact

Through the years of ministry, we have noticed that more of our Italian brethren have struggled with this problem. What happens when we concentrate on the standard of the food is we are communicating that we are just there for the superiority of our culture. Often, the message is subtle but it is there that you are not one of us. Anybody can practice this when they take too much pride in the food they have prepared and how they have prepared it. A meal that shares the ministry is one of inclusion. As Christians, we need to communicate that our table is open. Grace shows favor, welcome, appreciation, and forgiveness (pretty much like Jesus). Using food as an instrument of pride shows exclusivity, superiority, and how to be a jerk (pretty much like Simon).

Recommended Solution:

We should humble ourselves before others — through food. This means allowing the food to be what it is. If food becomes the focus, then simpler is better here or we will really close the doors on future opportunities to bring friends to Jesus because we want them to praise us first.

See the meal as a means of acceptance and of being equals at a table. The Christian church is greater than any one culture and our tables can model that. Talk more about the qualities of the persons at the meal than the qualities of the recipes and ingredients of the meal. Enjoy the people God has made more than the food or how it has been prepared.

 

Food and Ministry: Problem 1

Continuing on with this small series of food & grace

How we practice our meals, eat together, and share our food are all reflective of how we are striving to reach out to others and to cross-over to different cultures with the Gospel. Quite often, these efforts will also reveal where we are missing something in our understanding or lacking in a certain area of grace.

Problem #1: Slowing Down

I’ve had a breakthrough! Through the years, I’ve been criticized for being a slow-eater. But now! Now, I’ve realized that I’m a normal-eater being chided by hyper-fast eaters. It turns out, my eating pace is just right for where I live — viva l’Italia! Not only do I feel better; I feel vindicated. Food-justice has been served.

Four hours of cooking and fourteen minutes of eating. Ever experienced that? And, when there’s not time to cook, four minutes of cooking for the same fourteen minutes of eating. It’s called fast-food for a reason. Seriously, you can’t take or have communion in a drive-through. We might as well call it fast-fuel because that’s how we’re using it.

Ministry Impact

Through the years of ministry, we have noticed that more of our American brethren have struggled with this problem. What happens when we eat quickly is we are communicating that we are just there for the food. Relationships take time, and relationships can be forged through mealtimes. However, if we don’t utilize our food as a means of grace to bless others, we are communicating that we’re at the table for our own agenda and we need food to get that done. Slowing down will naturally keep us at the table for others.

When food is a gracious ministry tool, we strive to share in an experience with one another and to practice Christian community. If our habit is to eat-and-run (done with our shared experience within 30 minutes), we really miss out on a great deal of ministry opportunity that comes from spending more than an hour together.

Recommended Solution:

I highly recommend sharing meals together in courses. Italia has a great model for this: start with appetizers (antipasti), then firsts (i primi), seconds (i secondi), sides (contorni), and sweets (i dolci — don’t ever forget this one!). Variations are fine. Remember, it’s not about the quantity of food more than it is the quantity of time. Courses help to slow things down which will provide more opportunities to nurture things that last — our souls.

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Two more problems to come…I’ll try to spill the beans on cultural tendencies only and not mention anyone by name — maybe.

Spill_the_beans

The Integration Principle

Another church planting principle that we’ve noticed through the years has been that believers who are maturing in the Faith also broaden their acceptance of other people from different cultures. Whereas, in the Ingress Principle, people feel more welcome with others who are like them, this principle says that believers mature toward people who are unlike themselves. So, a church should seek to provide opportunities to integrate the cultures (that are welcoming others) into a Christ-centered, alternative culture. People usually need to be warmly-welcomed and meet Jesus before they begin to appreciate and care for others that are different than they are. At the same time, we don’t want to leave the church body to be isolated into separate cultures because the fullest expression of the Gospel will be lost and enculturated back into a certain people group.
For example, in the Ingress Principle, I mentioned a group of Chinese people who are being welcomed by a group of Germans who are believers. In time (could be long or short-term), when more Chinese people are also saved, they will come to see more of Jesus in the Germans and appreciate them as brothers and sisters. This will happen not just because they’re Germans, but because they are of Jesus. They will have a deep appreciation for the Germans because the Germans originally showed them the love of Jesus. So then, we want the Chinese to be together with the Germans so that, altogether, they can simply be Christians in God’s family. These principles of welcoming (ingress) and maturing (integration) will repeat themselves through the joy of outreach and evangelism.

The Ingress Principle

Something to keep in mind when opening small groups and planting churches (among different cultures) is that people feel most at home and accepted when they are around people who are like them and things that are familiar to them. In other words, people (generally) will be more at ease when they don’t have to cross- out” of their culture to be a welcome part of a group. This might also be called the principle of homogenity. However, the reason that I call it the Ingress principle is because of the type of welcome that is involved. A Gospel welcome involves believers who are culturally like the guests with accompanying tastes, sounds, colors, smells, music, and even slang (or ways to say things that are particular to their culture).

If you have a group of Germans, it will be difficult to welcome Chinese people  — until there are one or two Chinese who are spending time with the German group AND the Germans make efforts to really affirm, adapt, and understand the Chinese. This really takes some time, energy, and understanding. It sounds missional, doesn’t it?

Remember, in this illustration we are not trying to conform the Chinese to the Germans even though, at first, the Germans are the predominant group. We are saying, because of the Gospel, the Germans are willing to be uncomfortable and uncultural in their way of life for the sake of the Chinese welcoming other Chinese.