God Answering Our Prayers? The Great Commission and Radical Hospitality

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Great Commission- Therefore go and make disciples…

As a child of Southern Baptist missionaries, I grew up with the charge of the Great Commission ringing in my ears. This was my family’s mission statement and the raison d’etre for the missionary community in which I was raised.  Each annual missionary gathering–“mission meeting”–we would hear heart-felt vibrato renditions of “People Need the Lord.”  Our coffee tables were graced with copies of “Operation World” where we could pray specifically for unreached people groups (UPG–people groups with less than 2% of Christian converts) who still needed to hear the good news of the gospel.

Heroes within evangelical missionary circles were often the missionaries that went into “closed” countries where missionaries were not legally permitted, usually predominantly Muslim countries. To me growing up, these courageous individuals had the intrigue and sexiness of a mission-minded 007s. They were in Muslim countries with work visas to provide a skill like teaching english or business classes, but they had a secret life….english teacher by day, church planter by night! They witnessed, had spiritual conversations, and offered furtive Bible studies, all with the threat of being thrown out of the country or even jailed. When they wrote to their home churches in the US, they used special code to talk about God, converts, and church gatherings. It was all very exciting.  My family was not of this elite variety, but since we served in Africa, we had our fair share of elephant adventures and malaria survival that was almost as good.

Like any other person raised in an imperfect family, I’ve had my own journey working through my family and faith heritage. In my twenties I struggled deeply with my faith but realized much of my angst was with church and culture than with God. My childhood love of Jesus endured.  As I reach middle age, I find myself in another expression of the church–the new monastic movement. This part of the church is in the justice stream and uses language such as solidarity, reconciliation and peacemaking to describe missional living.  

While I am thankful to have a more holistic view of salvation that addresses systemic forces in our world as well as the individual, I still hold dear the challenge of the Great Commission which sometimes isn’t emphasized as much in social justice circles. As I seek to be a good neighbor, a person of peace and work towards reconciliation in my city, I long for the struggling, the lonely, and the restless that I meet in my neighborhood to experience the goodness of Jesus, his healing and redemptive love. In a world of growing polarization, I long for Christ to reconcile the extremism, violence, and isolation that increasingly characterize our country and communities. I find myself yearning along side those in my Southern Baptist childhood for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven as the gospel is shared to the ends of the earth.

But what happens when the nations come to you?

We live in a time of great change. There is a sense that the old order is crumbling and something new is emerging but it is not clear what that new thing is.  

One of the changes is the current global refugee crisis. There is a historically unprecedented amount of displaced people in the world right now, some 65 million according to the UN Refugee Agency.  I find it interesting that millions of the people in formerly “closed” Muslim nations such as Afghanistan and Syria are standing and knocking at the doors of historically Christian nations hoping to find welcome and refuge.

Yet will they find refuge?  Will they find welcome?  

With every terrorist attack around the globe, there is a growing fear of Muslims both inside and outside the church even though the chances of an American dying from a terrorist attack by a foreigners is one in 3.6 billion. This fear has led to a national debate in the US about whether or not to open our country’s doors to refugees from Muslim countries.  One glaring problem in closing our nation’s doors to people from Muslim countries, Americans (and the American Church) are turning our backs on some of the most vulnerable and desperate people in the world. We are shunning those who have already suffered greatly- punishing the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS.  As Ed Stetzer, chairman of the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College writes:“Fear is a real emotion, and it can cause us to make decisions we wouldn’t have otherwise made. Fear leads us to fix our eyes inward instead of on the “other.” …But at the core of who we are as followers of Christ is a commitment to care for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the abused and the wanderer.”

“Fear is a real emotion, and it can cause us to make decisions we wouldn’t have otherwise made. Fear leads us to fix our eyes inward instead of on the “other.” …But at the core of who we are as followers of Christ is a commitment to care for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the abused and the wanderer.” Ed Stetzer

In Matthew 25 and throughout the Biblical story, the call is clear. God’s people are called to welcome the stranger and the least of these as they would welcome Jesus himself. Will the American church live faithful to this call?

Stories I have read from England and Germany tell of how there is a growing movement of Muslim migrants and refugees who are converting to Christianity. Diverse news sources from Fox News, Christian Broadcasting News (CBN)  to the British Guardian, report how immigrants are giving new life to dying European churches. These conversions are complicated and controversial because baptized refugees are more likely to be given asylum in their host country, so the churches are having to create rigorous discipleship to prove the authenticity of conversion before providing baptism.   Yet despite the messiness of these stories, it is clear that God’s Spirit is at work calling the “lost”, those desperate for good news and salvation (in a spiritual and literal physical sense) to Himself.

Jesus’ Great Commission is clear that we need to “go and make disciples of all nations.” When I read this verse growing up, I often pictured getting on a plane and traveling to foreign lands to share Jesus with others. This has been the predominant paradigm for American Evangelicals. But what if this paradigm needs to be upgraded?   

What if instead of sending out missionary 007s, God is calling his people to seek out the unreached nations that are represented in our own cities? Instead of spending thousands of dollars to fly across the globe to witness to Christ’s love, youth groups could show up at the airports to welcome weary refugees with balloons and hugs as they arrive to the US for the first time. What if mission was redefined to look like befriending and supporting the Muslim family at the end of our block?

What if mission was redefined to look like befriending and supporting the Muslim family at the end of our block?

Could it be that evangelism can be as simple as welcoming others as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God?

This could be the moment where God is answering the prayers of His people.  Perhaps God is responding to the countless Sunday mornings and Wednesday night prayer meetings where earnest intercession was offered up for lost souls in “closed” countries, prayers that people in Muslim countries could encounter the gospel and experience the love of God.

Could it be that God is giving His Church an unique opportunity to live into the Great Commission that we’ve been praying for?

But here’s the twist, true to form, God ways are not our ways.  We expected this prayer would be answered by heroic missionaries in foreign lands, not by us, ordinary Christians in our own backyards.

Just like undercover missionaries who risk their lives for gospel, living out the Great Commission in our neighborhoods will require courage and the willingness to be uncomfortable.  It is a risk, there are no guarantees of conversions to Christianity though I can almost guaranteed that these cross cultural relationships would change us and break down our stereotypes. There are no guarantees of national security, however reaching out to the outsider to where they feel welcomed and a part of society could be argued to be one of the best security measures.

As we engage these questions, it takes us to the center of the struggle for the minds and hearts of God’s people.  How will the Church view these tumultuous and rapidly changing times in which we live? Will our lens be one of fear or faith?  Fear keeps us in place of self-protection whereas viewing our world through eyes of faith helps us see the surprising ways God is at work bringing about redemption and His Kingdom. We get to join in with what God is doing.  

May we, ordinary Christians, ask God for eyes of faith to see what the Spirit is doing and for courage to live as the Body of Christ in this world, welcoming and embracing the stranger in our midst!

Elizabeth Turman-Bryant is a mom, a writer and a part of Springwater Community in Portland, OR.

This post first appeared on www.godspace-msa.com

 

Bless Your Hands: After Advocacy, Hospitality for Refugees and Immigrants

السلام على يديك

Bless your hands.

Every language has its courtesies, and Arabic is a language full of beautiful sentiments for particular moments. There are words of invitation to call out to a passerby and offer a cup of coffee. There are special phrases of condolence to use when someone has lost a loved one. There is even a complimentary expression to use when someone has gotten a haircut.

My favorite of these common expressions is the blessing given in Palestinian Arabic when someone gives you something they have prepared: “Bless your hands.” Sometimes translated as “peace upon your hands” or “may your hands be safe,” this thoughtful sentiment acknowledges the work and effort of serving more specifically than the blanket English expression “thank you.” The proper response is to return the blessing: “And to your hands.”

Sitting on the ground in a tent with white plastic on the roof and corrugated metal on three sides, an old Palestinian man in a refugee camp once mentioned to me offhandedly that he could not remember the last time he tasted meat. He had accepted his living conditions, but he didn’t want to see his grandchildren grow up with no chance of a future outside the camp. As we talked, he told stories of past struggles and upheaval. In Arabic culture, guests must always be offered refreshments, and he offered the finest he had. I watched him heat water and some loose tea leaves in a humble metal pot and expertly pour the steaming liquid into a few glasses not much larger than a shot glass. When he handed me the hot glass and I said “bless your hands,” I heard the words of that phrase in a new way. In that moment I realized the gravity of wishing safety, health, and peace to the hands of an old man who had lost more than I may ever know.

Recently, the question of welcoming refugees has become a more politically divisive issue in the U.S. than ever before. Policy notwithstanding, those who are committed to following the teachings of Jesus already have clear Scriptural mandates about whether we should welcome foreigners and how we are to treat immigrants and international guests. What comes after the will to welcome, though? Does our commitment to “the foreigner” extend beyond advocacy? What are Christian faith communities’ obligations and opportunities of hospitality toward internationals who are already here? What does “bless your hands” mean in today’s world?

Hospitality at the Ground Level: Making Our Hands a Blessing

Being a face of welcome and providing hands of hospitality can take many forms. If you live in a community with a refugee resettlement agency, ask about how you can help a newly arrived family. (Refugee resettlement in the U.S. is coordinated by the federal government and voluntary agencies who have local affiliates. In Canada, citizens can privately sponsor a refugee family.) Resettlement agencies take care of refugees’ immediate needs for 90 days after arrival: This includes housing, food, clothing, medical care, language classes, and employment assistance. During and after that first 90 days, though, volunteers can provide a personal touch of care and welcome to families in transition. Volunteers can help newcomers learn the process of grocery shopping or navigating public transportation, for example. Some resettlement agencies use a co-sponsorship model that allows congregations or community groups to commit to helping a recently arrived family pay their rent over a period of several months as well as welcome them through inviting them to community and cultural events. If 90 days is too daunting a commitment, ask a refugee resettlement agency about furnishing an apartment for a family, collecting school supplies for children or for adult English classes, and volunteering as tutors or mentors to children in a new school system.

Of course, refugees are not the only “strangers” among us. Our words of welcome and hands of hospitality should extend to all immigrants and international visitors currently in our communities. One low-commitment entry point to meeting internationals in your community is to seek out an English conversation club at a local church or library. Serving at an English conversation club (or starting one!) is less intimidating to many volunteers than long-term tutoring or mentoring: English speakers and English learners simply meet up and pair off to chat about each other’s cultures to practice English.

Casual coffee-and-conversation English open houses at two of my previous churches are still going strong years after I left. Local churches and library branches in my city also offer meet-up activities ranging from chess to guitar to golf as a way to connect with international community members across language and cultural barriers. Across the country, various ministries to international students provide hospitality and personal connection to temporary residents who may only be in the U.S. for only a few years but who still deal with homesickness and culture shock. These interactions can eventually lead to families and small groups sharing meals and traditions. Simple acts of radical hospitality can break into the pain of isolation and alienation from a seemingly hostile culture. Heartfelt welcome can lead to genuine connection.

Is there some inherent danger in welcoming refugees into your country, your home, your life? Yes, of course—inasmuch as any ministry to another person carries a degree of risk. Yet we know from Scripture that the life of discipleship is a life that includes risk.  Our faith  is a faith that takes the risk of crossing the road to help the wounded Samaritan, at the risk of being robbed ourselves. It is a journey that may include expense, inconvenience, and the disapproval of others. We wouldn’t expect anything else from the pilgrimage of the Prince of Peace.

Returning the Blessing

This past year I had the privilege of sharing a Thanksgiving meal with a family who had come to our community from Syria a few months before. The observance of Thanksgiving—one of the few homegrown U.S. holidays—took on a much more significant meaning when celebrating with a family whose smiles exuded grace and gratitude at just being part of the observance. We didn’t have an agenda to follow or a program to complete. Across the barriers of language and culture and life experience, we simply shared a table. We shared smiles and small talk. We experienced the power of welcome.

“Bless your hands.” Perhaps you, too will share a cup of hot mint tea as a simple exchange of refreshment and words between two souls. Perhaps you will share a holiday meal and open your home to another family. Perhaps you will share one evening a week in conversation with a stranger who becomes a friend. In blessing others, “may your hands be safe.” In each small act of hospitality, may your hands offer peace.

Lisa Hoffman is a professor of education at Indiana University Southeast. She also serves on the board of Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Louisville, KY. Follow her on Twitter @Hoff_Prof.  

This post first appeared on the Evangelicals for Social Action blog.

The Stranger: Litmus Test of Society

“From Abraham to Ruth, from the Exodus stories to countless laws of interpersonal aid…to the social criticism of the prophets, there is no person of greater concern in the Bible than the stranger…whose treatment by us is ultimately a litmus test of whether we and our culture have succeeded or not in the eyes of God, and whose experience is essentially a yardstick of our moral stature.

If we love the stranger, protect him and see to his needs, then our society passes a kind of Divine test, and we also have the emotional and spiritual fulfillment of identifying with an echo of ourselves.”

Rabbi Marc Gopin

The Church at a Crossroad

Epiphany: January 6, 2017.

Today we begin the liturgical season of Epiphany which means, “to make manifest” and its the season in the church calendar where we are reminded of Jesus’s identity and his mission to the world. Starting with the three pagan astrologers who follow a star to this child, it is revealed that this baby is the King above all kings and that his kingdom is not just for the chosen Israelite tribe, but for all people.

This Epiphany I sit in a coffee shop reflecting on the changes that have happened over the past two years since I published this website. When I first launched this project in early 2015, radical hospitality was like a new lens to see local missions- how churches could have eyes to see the mission field in their own backyards and the gift that these relationship would bring.  This is all still true in early 2017, but there is another vital and prophetic dimension to hospitality now. Continue reading