How to Give Up on Changing the World

It happens when you peer down a winding, third-world alley to see skeletal children bathing in buckets and widows begging for food. It happens when you receive yet another letter from your favorite charity, with the word EMERGENCY stamped in red across the front.

It happens when you turn on the TV to see tanks rolling, cars exploding, and effigies burning. It happens when your insides grind at the site of a needy friend or a supposed enemy. 

It happens when all the sin and pain inside of you and around you and beyond you rushes into your awareness in one awful moment, and all you can do is throw your hands up and say, I can’t fix this. This is too much. It is beyond me.

For followers of Jesus, these are the moments that test our hope and temper our pride.

On the one hand, there are those who respond with a shrug of the shoulders and a pithy comment about how the end is near and how they can’t wait to hightail it out of here when Jesus comes back to call them home. On the other, there are those who grit their teeth, clinch their fists and say, “It’s okay. Things are getting better overall. We’ve just got to work harder, get more politically involved, and stay strong until we’ve successfully achieved justice and peace on earth.”

Both responses are distortions of the gospel. The first all but ignores Christ’s teachings about the kingdom that is among us here and now. The second arrogantly assumes we can bring such a kingdom to completion all on our own.

I’m always a little surprised when folks ask me if I’ve sold out to the so-called “social gospel.” I never really know how to respond to that question. If by social gospel they mean the notion that mankind will eventually evolve out of evil and create a utopian society all on its own—then certainly not! If by social gospel they mean the good news that God loves the world and intends to redeem it, that God is building a new kingdom in our midst under the authority of Jesus Christ, and that we show our allegiance to this kingdom whenever we love our enemies, serve the poor, turn the other cheek, pursue holiness, preach the gospel, and care for the least of these—then yes, I suppose I have. As I see it, the gospel was never meant to be merely intellectual, but has always had a social implications.

So what do I do when I turn on the TV to see news of another shooting, when I realize that neither political party comes close to representing the radical teachings of Jesus, when I get tired of receiving emails from “Save Darfur,” when I look in the mirror and see the worst sinner who has ever walked the earth, when I honestly have no idea how to resolve the question of how pacifism could ever be justified in light of Auschwitz and Buchenwald?

On bad days, I keep trying—to prove myself, to come up with all the right answers, to fix what God can’t seem to fix.

But on good days, I give up on trying to change the world, and get back to living like Jesus—in this moment, in every moment.

Shane Claiborne put it this way: “’Leaving things in God’s hands is an often abused and quaint phrase that many seem to think means ‘don’t bother with doing anything, because Jesus will come someday and undo all your work anyway’…Leaving things in God’s hands’ should rather be used to mean ‘do what Jesus did.’ Follow Jesus’ example without regard for whether you are effectively changing the world. Jesus demonstrated what it means to leave things in God’s hands.” (Jesus for President, p. 283)

This is not to say that alleviating poverty, pursuing justice, and supporting peace are not part of being like Jesus. Jesus certainly healed the sick and cared for the poor, and any community seeking to reflect the kingdom should be involved in addressing the root causes of poverty, war, disease, injustice, ignorance, and fear.  .

But the thing about living like Jesus is that it doesn’t always feel like changing the world. In fact, often the easiest, most practical, and seemingly effective solutions for changing the world are not even options in an upside-down kingdom.  Power, control and violence may seem like good ideas when we have as our goal ridding the world of evil. But when we have as our goal living like Jesus, we have to get more creative. We have to think outside-the-box. We have to work together.

Keep in mind, the cross did not look like a victory. It looked like a complete failure.

“Into your hands I commit my spirit,” Jesus said.

He was faithful to the point of death.

Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, and someday, Jesus will return again.

Until then, we may have to settle for looking like failures. We may even have to settle for feelinglike failures. But if we commit our spirits to Jesus, there will always, always be hope.

How do you respond when you feel overwhelmed by all the evil in this world? What does it mean to be part of Kingdom that is both here and yet to come? What is your response to the term “social gospel”?

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Missional Living in the Buckle of the Bible Belt

Little Known Fact:  Journalist H.L. Mencken coined the term “Bible Belt,” and popularized it during the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, right here in Dayton. (You’re welcome, future Jeopardy contestants.)

This fact alone should qualify Dayton as the Belt’s official “buckle,” but if you’re not yet convinced, consider Rhea County’s 250 churches, thriving Christian college campus, weekly McDonald’s gospel sing, and solidly Southern location halfway between the Mason Dixon line to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a strange place to struggle with doubt, a strange place to deconstruct and reconstruct faith, a strange place to launch yet another church, and a strange place to experiment with missional living. I’ve written frequently about the first two, but as I look ahead, I expect we will be chatting more and more about the second two.

“Missional" is a bit of a buzzword these days, and can mean different things to different people. For me, it is simply a commitment to living like Jesus in order to serve as an imperfect participant in the Kingdom of God that is among us now and an incomplete picture of the fully restored and redeemed Kingdom of God that is to come. Missional living is basically redemptive living...within a community and for the community.

On good days, this would mean pursuing justice, celebrating beauty, loving neighbors, loving enemies, and sharing the Gospel. On bad days, it would mean feeling like a complete hypocrite because I don’t really like people that much to begin with.

The missional approach is different than modern evangelicalism, particularly in this region, because “the work of salvation, in its full sense, is 1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; 2) about the present, not simply the future; and 3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.” (I borrowed that from NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 200). 

[On Monday, I’ll share a post about how this is approach is different from the so-called “social gospel.”]

So how does one live missionally in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where just about everyone knows the name of Jesus? How do you do “church” in a way that is different? And if Jesus lived in Dayton, how might he spend his time?

These are questions I’ll be thinking about and addressing over the next few weeks and months, and I’m going to need your input and help. Potential blog topics include:

  • Rural poverty
  • Racial reconciliation in the South
  • Reaching out to migrant workers and their families
  • Celebrating local artists and musicians
  • Working in harmony with folks who are politically and theologically more conservative than myself
  • Needs in rural education – both in public schools and adult education programs
  • Becoming a friend and refuge for the religiously disenfranchised
  • Living with less in order to give more
  • Southern religious culture
  • Understanding industrial communities 
  • Understanding farming communities
  • Integration of nature and worship

What else? What do you think are some of the challenges/issues specifically related to missional living in the Bible Belt culture? Do you know of any ideas that have worked? Experts to consult? Links to share? 

I’d especially love to hear from my fellow rural Southerners…but Yankees and city slickers are welcome to chime in as well! :-)

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.