I have been thinking a lot about grace recently.
Grace has a lot to do with the issues I had with the mission theology of Pura Vida Missions when I travelled to Costa Rica. I have kind of been thinking that I need to explain myself a little bit. I complained a lot about poor mission theology in some of my most recent posts, and then I never said why I think it was poor theology, or what good theology looks like. The other week my friend Chris asked me, "Becca, why was it so bad? What exactly was it?" So, I am going to tell you what I think. Now, I know who some of my readers are, and I know that not all of you will be comfortable with my take on things. Please understand that this is an expression of who I am deep in my theological being more than it is a condemnation of what you may believe. I have to be true to myself--in the words of Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can not do otherwise. God help me, Amen!"
I think I need to start this blog with a story from my past. I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, in the middle of the Bible Belt. Alabama tends to be very religiously conservative. They are also almost always a "red state" during presidential elections. Most of the people who I went to high school with were from the Southern Baptist tradition. Those who weren't were generally non-denominational, evangelical, or Pentecostal Christians (this is based on my observation and personal experience, not on data I researched). As a more liberal Lutheran person, I was in the minority religiously, and I therefore had to think hard about what I believed at a very early stage in my life. I often saw the incongruities between my faith and the way I practiced it and the religious habits and beliefs of the people around me.
One of the things that made me very uncomfortable as a Lutheran growing up in Alabama (I always used to joke that there were only 3 Lutherans in all of Alabama, and they were all in my family) were the questions. I remember one of my friends asking me once, "Are you Christian?" I told her yes--I am a Lutheran. "But, are you CHRISTIAN?" she asked. Another time someone asked me if I had been "saved," i.e., if I had decided to give Jesus my heart and asked him to be my personal Lord and Savior. Lutherans just don't talk like that! So, I gave what I still believe to be a very correct answer--I said that I had been baptized as a baby and that Jesus died and rose for me. I said that God loves me and all of His children, and His grace has set me free from the bondage of sin and death. I am proud that as a young person I was able to articulate my beliefs and stand up for my faith. I owe that in no small part to my parents, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and pastor.
My experiences as a youth growing up in Alabama led me to develop a strong mission theology while I was still in high school. The questions people asked about my faith made me uncomfortable mainly because I felt like they were trying to evangelize me. ME!? A good Christian girl? I knew that some people felt that I needed to convert from my sinful Lutheran ways and join the Southern religious status-quo. I found that offensive. I still struggle with prejudices against conservative and evangelical Christians because I know how horrible their evangelism tactics made me feel at the time. The basic sense of their argument (in my eyes) was that God couldn't save me unless I conformed to their belief system.
When I was a junior in high school I had an amazing, transforming, spiritual experience at the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) National Youth Gathering. If I had to pinpoint a moment in my life when God finally got to me and transformed me, that would be it. Following that experience, I really began feeling the call to ministry. More specifically, I began feeling the call to MISSION.
My view of mission at that time was what I had been shown by the Christians around me--something that made me feel icky, as if God couldn't grant me salvation unless I was like them, "born again," "saved," or whatever. The idea that I could be called to mission made me feel, well, icky. I didn't want to make others feel as disrespected and unloved as others' Christian evangelism tactics had made ME feel. No one had ever bothered to ask me what I believed. No one had bothered to find out WHO I was or WHAT I was all about. They didn't care much about who I was at all. They just wanted me on their side. They wanted me on the "right" side (both figuratively and politically).
I recently met a man from Africa who married a Pennsylvania Dutch girl from Lancaster County. My husband Pierre and I met them because of the reason we often meet people like them--we look like them and have a demographic similar to theirs. White American woman marries black African man and vice versa. We had dinner together. I will never forget the first two things that man wanted to know about me when we met for the very first time. He knew I worked in the church. And yet, what did he want to know? 1. Was I "born again"? and 2. What did I think about "gay people"? Seriously? That's it?
Bad mission theology is bad specifically because it does not seek to discover others' stories. It does not respect who they are or seek to know more about them. Bad mission theology only has ONE goal: to "save" poor, lost souls. Bad mission theology's general definition of poor, lost souls is anybody who does not believe and practice the same thing you do. Bad mission theology does not take into account that it is GOD who does the saving, and not over-zealous Christians.
The other thing that really frustrates me about bad mission theology is that it assumes that God is somehow limited in God's power to save humanity. It puts God in a box. It says, "Hey, look. If you are Lutheran, gay, Muslim, liberal, an adulterer, thief, or a hippie (or something else we don't like), God just can't save you. Sorry. But, there is hope for you--become like us, and God will love you like God loves us." Bad mission theology claims that the only truth that exists is the truth these people are perpetuating.
Now, I'm sorry, but exactly what kind of God do these people believe in, anyways? Didn't Jesus come to save HUMANITY? Didn't Jesus eat with prostitutes and tax collectors? Aren't we all as sinful as that Lutheran liberal gay hippie who is cheating on his wife sitting next to us on the bus? Don't say you're not! I know I am, and you are, too. The good news is, God loves us ALL anyways!
That's what grace is all about. God CAN and DOES meet us where we are, love us as we are, and transform us into the people God calls us to be. GOOD mission theology understands that, respects that, and yet also challenges us to become more closely aligned with who God wants us to be.
In Part 2 I promise I will stop ranting and get to the heart of who we are as Christians--despite my early aversion to the call, I now fully believe that ALL Christians are called to mission. I want to talk more about good mission theology and the work that all Christians are called to do.