Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Own Private Perestroika

But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord
I say, "You are my God."
My times are in Your hand;
Deliver me from the hand of my enemies and from those who persecute me.
Make Your face to shine upon Your servant;
Save me in Your lovingkindness.
     Psalm 31:14-16

On long road trips, I like to listen to audio books.  On a recent road trip, I listened to a book called God's Smuggler, by "Brother" Andrew van der Bijl, a Dutch man who, by his own reckoning, was an ordinary man, "the son of a village blacksmith" and yet led an extraordinary life which included many adventures bringing Bibles and Christian encouragement to believers behind the "Iron Curtain," back in the days of the Cold War.

His stories are a steady stream of impossible situations, imminent dangers, and tense encounters.  Yet he proceeded boldly, trusting God for everything. But as I listened to the story, it occurred to me that maybe boldness wasn't the right term.  Perhaps confidence is a better word.  Boldness is a quality of our personality, and not all of us possess it in great quantities. Confidence, on the other hand, is something that comes about through experience and understanding. We don't trust something or someone unless we think we have reason to trust.  So trust, or lack of it, is not a function of courage or cowardice. It is built upon promises delivered.  Likewise, trust is destroyed by deception and betrayal.  In Brother Andrew's case, he definitely had a streak of bravado in his character that I can't relate to very well; but the "boldness" that enabled him to face remarkable challenges, I think, was really confidence...born and grown in his experience with God who consistently "delivers the goods."

As I listened to the story, I began to realize that Brother Andrew was piecing together the facts that God was trustworthy.  And armed with that understanding, he could march in anywhere.  It didn't mean he was immune to suffering or anxiety.  It meant he had something greater.  You don't come by that sort of trust without without testing the water.

His story also had a very personal connection for me, although I didn't realize it until about halfway through the book.  At one point, he described an experience in which he took his smuggled Bibles into a particular church in Moscow, Russia.  As he described the building, I realized that I had been there before.  And not only that, I was there principally to divest myself of a solitary Bible that I had smuggled into Russia that morning.

I could not lay claim to any of the courage, cunning, or bravado that marked Brother Andrew's adventures.  It had actually been a rough day for me, and not exactly one I would have labeled "victorious."  But still...there was this one Sunday evening in July, 1987, when I stood on the balcony of that old church near the Moskva river.  It was packed with worshipers.  The grand old building had seen better days but still retained a certain warmth and elegance.  A middle-aged man came up to me and asked in broken English, "You have Bible, yes?"  I had no idea how he would have known I did.  I hesitated.  Was it safe to admit it now?  Was this a trick?  I'd been in the Soviet Union all of maybe eight hours, and had mastered the art of paranoia quickly.  But I reached into my camera bag and pulled out the blue plastic pouch that contained my light windbreaker, which was wrapped carefully around the thin paperback Russian New Testament that had been in my possession all day long.  I extracted the little volume and handed it to the man who asked for it, and he in turn handed it to an elderly gentleman who had suddenly appeared behind him.  The older man was dressed in his shabby Sunday best, and sported a few day's growth of white whiskers on his face.  His eyes grew wide as he looked at the thin brown volume.  With an expression of pure child-like wonder, he gently, lovingly took it in his hands, and then closed his eyes, squeezing out tears, kissed the book, clutched it to his chest, kissed the book again, and I suddenly found myself in the firm embrace of this dear man.  He didn't speak, but graced me with the traditional two-cheek Russian kiss. And then he disappeared into the crowd.

And I just stood there, tears running down my own cheeks.  I sensed that God had given me a remarkable privilege that I absolutely did not deserve.  I was standing in an exceedingly rare golden moment, and I knew it.

But there was also shame behind my tears.  I was overcome by this man's yearning for God's Word.  How many Bibles did I own?  And how much use did they get?  And perhaps worst of all, I was deeply ashamed at the way I had viewed that that little brown book as merely the thing that had been making my life a living hell all day...instead of the precious and priceless Word of God, the bread of life for one starving man.

A little background.  I was in Russia, traveling with about forty American young adults. It was one of a dozen or so countries we were to visit on a six-week trek around the globe in the summer of 1987, the purpose of which was to experience a taste of what God was doing throughout the world, by visiting with Christian missionaries, and in some cases, participating in service projects with them.  We'd been sleeping on church basement floors and youth hostels throughout Asia and Europe, including a few places in Eastern Europe.  And this actually wasn't our first experience with smuggling Bibles.  A few weeks prior, we had done something similar on a day trip into China from our temporary home base in Hong Kong.  That experience had turned out badly for many of us.  We were caught, our material confiscated, and at least in my case, it was mainly because I was a little too careless, and didn't take the task seriously enough.  I had been reveling in the intrigue and thinking about what a great story this would make back home--we heroes of the faith, laughing in the face of the forces of tyranny and oppression.  But those forces had the last laugh.  And the shame of knowing that it was my stupidity and short-sightedness that had deprived someone of a chance to read God's Word was very sobering.

So when the opportunity came to do the same thing again on our three-day trip to the Soviet Union, it was a chance to redeem myself.  There was no bravado this time--it was shame that prompted me to grab a Bible from the short stack in one of the rooms of the Vienna hotel we were staying in.  We had been told that if anyone wanted to take a Bible into Russia, that we should quietly and anonymously take one or two from the room where they were being kept.  In that way, we could honestly deny knowledge of what any of our traveling companions were carrying.  So I took mine, and carefully wrapped a t-shirt around it, and tucking it into a windbreaker, and stuck the windbreaker into a small, blue plastic pouch.  It was the best I could do.

As we began boarding the plane for the two or three-hour flight to Moscow, it dawned on me that this was real.  The first twinges of anxiety grew into a rising panic as we jetted toward Russia.  I'd heard stories about what happened to people caught with contraband Bibles.  Should I dispose of it?  It wasn't too late.  No one had to know. We took them anonymously, I could dispose of it anonymously.  Stick it in the seat pocket in front of me along with the airsick bag.  After all, this was different than China. We would be hundreds of miles inside the Soviet Union when the plane landed.  For someone who had grown up during the Cold War, this was flying straight into the heart of darkness, the belly of the Red Beast.  What would they do if they found my Bible?  Would I be arrested?  Deported?  Hauled away to some boxcar and shipped off to the gulags? 

Do you trust me?

It was one of the few times in my life I've had that almost-audible but otherwise undeniable intrusion by God's voice.  I paused and took a breath.  There was no mistaking the voice.  But even so, I replied with protests.  "God, this is the Soviet Union!" and proceeded to tell Him--the One who had spoken the Universe into existence--exactly why this was impossible.

A second time, the Voice interrupted my string of protests.  "Do you trust me?"  It was not an accusing voice; it was gentle but firm.  There was no point in arguing.  God was just not going to listen to reason.  The Russian Bible remained in my bag.  My fear, however, did not abate.  The plane landed in Moscow, and in a surreal haze of smoldering panic, I followed the herd through the various stages of passport and visa control.  When it was my turn, I handed the guy my passport, and was motioned to step back a few feet.  With jerky head movements, the officer looked up at me, then down at my passport, then back up at me, and back down at my passport.  This went on for ages, or so it seemed.  I could feel sweat running down the small of my back.  It was so unnerving that I struggled--unsuccessfully--to stifle a maniacal giggle.  There was nothing funny about it.  Shut up, you moron, pull yourself together.  Much to my surprise, he finally stamped my passport, and with a quizzical look, waved me on.

Having cleared passport control, the next hurdle--the important one--was baggage inspection.  We moved as one large herd, the forty of us, sporting our identical navy blue backpacks, past the metal tables where inspectors were going through bags; we were being waved past without inspection.  I was elated, and relief broke over me like cool water.  Thank you, God! 

Then, just mere yards from taking that first breath of sweet (relative) freedom, one of the officers standing at the metal tables held out his arm and signaled me to the metal inspection table.  Icy panic surged through my veins.  I was at the tail end; everyone else was already out of the airport.  As far as I knew, I was the only one who had been singled out for inspection.  I wondered darkly what Siberia was like this time of year. 

With fatalistic resignation, I dropped my blue backpack on the metal table and braced myself for the inevitable. The officer proceeded to pull everything out...shirts, socks, underwear...the little blue pouch holding my windbreaker and the Russian Bible.  He poked and prodded and squeezed it, and I was sure that he would find my contraband.  But to my surprise, he set it aside.  I tried to conceal my relief.  Then he reached in and found my mini English Bible, my personal one that I hadn't bothered hiding.  (We had been told that one personal Bible wouldn't be a problem.)  But his eyes grew wide, and he barked something to his colleagues who rushed to his side and peered over his shoulder as he flipped through my little Bible, all of them speaking at once. 

Finally, the original inspection officer looked me straight in the eye, grasped the Bible firmly by its edge and wagged it accusingly in front of my face and said, in harshly accented, but unmistakable English: "Do you trust in God?"

I stood there dumbly, trying to process what I was hearing.  "Uh...yeah...?" I squeaked timidly from my bone-dry throat.  Not exactly the confident, courageous proclamation of faith, but there you have it.  So with a shrug, he simply set the Bible down on all the other stuff, and pushed it all aside, and motioned for me to  be on my way.

It wasn't until later that day that the full meaning of the encounter sunk in.  It occurred to me that it would have been perfectly natural for him to ask me, upon finding my Bible, if I was a Christian, or if I believed in God.  But he didn't ask me either of those questions.  He asked me if I trusted in God--a rather peculiar question, now that I thought about it.  But with surgical precision, this Soviet official had zeroed into the very heart of my struggle.  I don't think that God's question to me back on the airplane was intended to be rhetorical.  And I hadn't actually given Him an answer.  And He was not going to let it go until I had.  And for the first time in my life, but hardly the last time, I stood in awe and admiration of God's impeccable sense of humor.

I've heard that Voice ask the same question on numerous occasions since.  When I'm bumped way out of my comfort zone.  When I'm faced with a task that seems ridiculously impossible.  When I'm waiting for the results of that blood test.  When the phone rings at two in the morning.  I'd like to say that hearing the voice immediately alleviates all anxiety.  It doesn't.  Maybe it should.  I'm sure it would if I really did understand in full just how trustworthy the Voice was.  But even so, each time I offer a timid "yes" to the command to trust, He provides me with one more data point of confidence as the One who has my times in His hands.  An incremental notch that gives me yet another reason for the hope I have (1 Peter 3:15).

He doesn't fall asleep at the wheel.  He sees the other side of the wave, what's coming around the bend.  Nothing is hidden.  Nothing is a surprise.  Someday, I'll really, truly, get it; and perhaps then, my trust will not mingle with fear any more.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

In The Ward, But Not Of It

O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
                        -- Tennyson, Idylls of the King, Ch. XII

A friend of mine was recently regaling me with starry-eyed tales about a recent visit to the mystical fairyland called South Carolina.  I've never been there.  In fact, I kind of doubt it really exists.  Or if it does, it's probably only accessible through a magic wardrobe.  Or maybe a spaceship.  But according to the story books, it's a wondrous paradise of evangelical Christianity.  A gentle, pleasant landscape of green hills dotted with tidy, white steeples attached to beautiful churches full of warm, friendly people...keepers of wholesome, biblical values and just desperate to envelop you into the sweet embrace of genteel southern hospitality, dripping like honey from golden biscuits.

And bacon.  Lots and lots of bacon.

I think it was my Utah-native friend's first experience in what we would call a Christian culture.  Where people take it for granted that you identify with a Christian church...or at least where Christian values are no stranger to the day-to-day workings of life.  The peaceful hegemony of spiritual homogeneity.  (Hey. I worked a long time on that alliteration.  And I didn't use a thesaurus.)

I'm not quite sure which impresses me more about these fanciful tales of South Carolina...the contrast with Utah...or the similarity.

The contrast part is easy to see, if you spend much time here.  Utah's population of traditional Christians--both in numbers and percentages--is less than that of many nations designated as "unreached" by missiologists.  There are dozens of cities in this state with no Christian church or significant Christian influence.  Despite the rhetoric of tolerance and ecumenism emanating from the Mormon public relations machine, the day-to-day reality that many Christians experience here in Utah is a peculiar sort of passive aggression (and occasional overt hostility) from their Latter-day Saint neighbors.  No, not from all of them.  But from enough to remind us on a pretty consistent basis that we don't "belong" here.  That we are "in the ward, but not of it."  (A ward, by the way, refers not only to a Mormon church building or congregation, but to the area of a town--delineated with geopolitical precision--where its members must come from.)

Time out.  Okay, I realize that I am making an unqualified distinction between "Mormons" and "Christians."  I'm not going to belabor the question of whether Mormonism, as a religious system, is even a little bit Christian.  It isn't.  It just isn't.  And I've got reasons to be confident in that statement which I'm not going to go into here.   And please understand, I'm not making a value judgment or even stating an opinion.  This is simple taxonomy.  Words mean things.  An apple is not even a little bit an orange.  And to make that statement is not to cast dispersion on apples or oranges.  (The difference is, there's no well-organized and moderately successful multimillion-dollar public relations campaign designed to convince the world that apples are oranges, too.)

Anyway, so what are we to do in the face of the relentless current of the Mormon culture?  The Christian response in Utah generally falls into two categories.  The first response, and by far the most common one, is to keep your head down, don't rock the boat, stay cloistered in your little Christian social group, and do everything in your power not to engage with the prevalent culture on anything more than a superficial level.

The second response is the exact opposite.  It takes a more belligerent stance.  It defies the culture, ridicules it, rattles the sabers, and answers aggression with aggression, anger with anger, and hostility with hostility.  Us and them.  We and they.

The church and ministry I've been a part of for going on ten years now has been accused of taking the latter approach.  I do beg to differ, however.  Yes, we've been known, from time to time, to rock the boat, take a bolder approach with matters of truth, and draw some angry responses.  But I submit that this is the result of following a third option...a narrower, windier, and more misunderstood pathway.   It's a pathway of authentic--but often misinterpreted--love.  A path that strives for gentleness and kindness, but cannot shirk from truth.   (And speaking truth, even kindly, can still land you in hot water.)  It is characterized by a love that demands that we risk losing a friend today in the hope of gaining a brother tomorrow.

Now...I'll confess that as much as I believe in and cherish this path, I've hardly walked it perfectly.  I've fallen off both on the left and right.  I've kept silent for the sake of "peace" and have sacrificed truth on the altar of politeness.  I have also let frustration get the better of me at times.  I've sometimes let self-righteous indignation, instead of compassion, rule my behavior and season my words.

I'm not proud of those failures.  That is not who I want to be.

Which leads me to the flip-side of this cultural epiphany--the similarity with Utah.  Utah's spiritual homogeneity provides a kind of Novocaine effect on the population here.  It's generally assumed that we shall all follow the Prophet and that we must all obey the brethren in all things.  And so that has the unintended effect of leaving us few straggling "outsiders" way outside the loop, feeling unwelcome, unrepresented, and shaking our heads at the profoundly myopic mindset.  Concepts like "separation of church and state" are meaningless here.

And I gotta wonder...is the cultural blindness really any different in the Christian realm?  After all, I've talked with Mormons who used to live in the Bible Belt, and their experiences echo mine.  They feel like outsiders, eyed with suspicion.  Polite smiles to their faces, and cutting words when their backs are turned.  Mormon kids in Alabama and Georgia are lonely because Christian parents are afraid to let their kids play with them, for fear they'll "get converted."  You are not one of us.  It's almost a mirror image of what happens to us here in Utah.

In the course of my work, I've often had conversations with Christians who live in a very homogenous Christian environment, and I've had to adjust my vocabulary somewhat so that I can be understood.  I remember one exchange I had with a guy who was complaining because our church website didn't show all of our programs.  What do you mean?  He rattled off a list of foreign-sounding terms.  Look, I said, we are a small congregation of maybe 50 or 60 people.  That makes us, easily, the largest Christian congregation in a town that is about 95% Mormon.  We don't have a bus to pick up the senior citizens.  Community dinners?  We have a sink, a microwave, and an Amana Range older than I am, with only half the elements working.  I'm glad you can take your 95 high schoolers to Burkina Faso on a mission trip, but our youth group consists of a handful of children under eight.  We have no gym to open to the community youth.

It was like trying to explain what it was like to live in a mud hut with no electricity or running water.

Here, the Mormon Church has those great programs.  They are extremely well-organized.  They have the vans for the senior citizens and the gyms for the youth.  They come equipped with commercial kitchens.  And let's not even talk about sending their youth around the world on mission trips.  They got us beat there, too.  And yet it is so, so empty of Jesus.  But likewise, I couldn't pick up on Jesus in this exchange with this fellow who was a staff member at a mid-sized church in east Texas.  For him, the church was programs.  Church is what we do.  Church is the center of our lives.  It's our security blanket, our social network, what we give to, what we take from.  It's not so much where we worship...it becomes what we worship.

Hold on, now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not anti-church!  I'm not anti-programs, anti-community-dinner, anti-gyms, anti-mission trips, or anti-church van.  (We actually have one of those now.  Long story.)  And I'm not suggesting for a moment that east Texas is filled with soulless churches.  But I am anti-anything that gets in the way of a life-giving connection with Jesus...I'm against anything that steals His thunder or tries to usurp our enthusiasm for Him.

The realization I came to is that the toxicity of religious culture does not necessarily spring from bad doctrine.  While I will continue to affirm that Mormonism's doctrines are completely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and detrimental to one's spiritual health, it is ill-advised to point an accusing finger at the Mormon culture without striving to remove our own cultural blinders.  After all, what good is Truth if I don't really ingest it?  What does it accomplish if I acknowledge it with my lips but it doesn't engage in a vigorous wrestle with my wayward heart and wandering mind?

Much is made, both in Mormon circles and conservative Christian circles, about not getting contaminated by "the world."  That's certainly biblical, so I can't argue with that.  But...the world doesn't always look like the glitz of the Vegas strip or the brothels and opium dens of Amsterdam.  Sometimes it looks like tidy, tree-lined streets with cheerful cafes and white picket fences and well-kept lawns.  The "world" is, after all, anything that isn't God.

We are undeniably in the world, but God forbid we be of it.  To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, we are too often like the child playing in dirt of the slums because we can't imagine what it means to be offered a holiday at the sea.  Why would we be content with making mud pies if we could catch a glimpse of the gourmet feast prepared for us?  We seem hell-bent on becoming children of a lesser god.  We are, as Lewis says, far too easily pleased.

One of the ongoing frustrations for me is the difficulty in relating to Mormons on that level.  The hunger and thirst for something more, for something greater...it just doesn't seem to be a part of their thinking.  For so many of them, their number one goal is to live a good life, pursue some variation of the American Dream, chase after happiness where they can find it, and expect that the life to come will be an amplified and tidier version of what we experience today, but not really much different in substance.

I keep wanting to appeal to them, put down your mud pies, and come feast at this table.  Let's come away from the slums and go play by the ocean!  But there's no avoiding my hypocrisy.  I've got my own puddles that I'm far too fond of.  And off in the distance, I can hear Jesus calling out the same thing to me.

God, oh, God, let that appeal ring so loudly in my ears that I have no choice but to follow it.