Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Seeking "The Lost"

About a week ago I was googling around the internet and I looked into one of our neighboring churches' websites. They describe themselves as an evangelical church of their denomination, stating that they believe that "hope is not a human achievement, but God's gift through the power of the Holy Spirit." I really liked their statement of their aspiration: to "dream dreams for ministry big enough to know that the results cannot depend on us alone but rather on God."

Part of their vision statement made me think, though: they described their urgency to minister to "unsaved and unchurched people, believing that the heart of Jesus' mission was to seek and save the lost."

You know, we don't talk much about "the lost" in my denomination. There are probably myriad and complicated reasons for this. Maybe it's because these days many of us are reluctant to consign those who believe differently to the fires of hell. That's what it means to be lost, after all. To be consigned to the fires of hell, because you don't know Jesus.

I used to be a missionary, which means it was my work, and my passion, to introduce others to Jesus. I do really think it matters to know Jesus. But somehow I resist (and have always resisted) the next statement: and if you don't, you are eternally lost!

And yet, I do think that it's true: "the heart of Jesus' mission was to seek and to save the lost." And that this is the heart of the church's mission, too.

So, just who are the lost, then?

In my congregation we are preparing a fall community forum. The subject is "The achievement gap" between students of color and white students; more precisely, this gap is between children living in poverty and those who don't. We want to eliminate that gap. Our school district is very diverse, with white students and African American students and Latino students and African students. They are all beautiful -- but they are not all succeeding. And there are some white parents who are, for various reasons, taking their children out of the schools.

We know that this will not be an easy task. Someone from our group said recently that it's not just an achievement gap; it's really a hope gap. Children don't achieve because they don't have hope. People do drugs, get into destructive relationships, commit crimes because they don't have hope. Whole communities give up because they don't have hope.

Who are the lost? People who don't have hope: hope for the next life, of course -- but hope for this life, too, hope that their living makes a difference, hope that they will flourish, that they will have enough to eat, a place to sleep, a job, a reason to live.

The church has lost its way if it forgets that the heart of Jesus' mission was to seek and to save the lost. It doesn't exist simply to inspire itself, to make the people who come to worship "feel better" when they leave. The church exists to seek and to save the lost, those without hope, whether that is hope for eternal life, or hope for life right now.

The apostle Paul once wrote: "If for this life only we have hoped, we are of all people most to be pitied." But I think it's true the other way, as well, "If for eternal life only we have hoped, we are most to be pitied."

Pray for us, as we seek God's vision to address "the Hope gap" in our community, and even among ourselves.

I pray that we, as well, begin to "dream dreams for ministry big enough to know that the results cannot depend on us alone but rather on God."


Choralgirl said...

Wow, Diane, this is terrific. I asked a sem professor about this once (how can Gandhi be damned just because he wasn't Christian...), who gave me what I considered to be a dodge of an answer: "If you're worried about the people who have no opportunity to hear about Christ, make an opportunity for them.

Well, yes, BUT...

My own theology resonates much more with the "lost hope" angle than the "wrong doctrine" angle. Thanks for that! :-)

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

i use the language of "lost" quite a bit in my preaching... not as in those w/out JC who are doomed to hell... but those who have lost their way, their hope, the truth, their life... because yep without Jesus we are lost and sometimes even with him we are lost, because like Peter we let fear come up like the wind, take our eyes off Jesus and begin to sink...

good post!

FranIAm said...

Oh Diane - this is really great.

I am with you - I can't consign people to hell because they can't or won't know Jesus. I want people to see, hear, feel and know - but I can only live by example and not by force.

Words like "wrong doctrine" just make me step back. And as a Catholic, I can often hear a lot of that kind of talk.

Words like right and wrong just draw a line in the sand... when a door, an invitation, a possibility need to exist. That is hope.

Mrs. M said...

Yes, I love it, all of it, yes.

Ivy said...

Diane, that church's emphasis for big dreams that are beyond us certainly resonates with me. It sounds very Lutheran because it's all God's work. Having been a missionary as well, I understand your struggle with the tension between sharing the good news and consigning people to hell. Only God knows the heart and he is the judge, not us. Great post. Blessings.

Border Explorer said...

Wow, what wisdom. I love how you spot the beauty in a dream of a ministry only God can fulfill, yet gently suggest how "hope" and "lost" intersect in a way that makes sense...and all this from the thoughtful reading of a neighbor's website.

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

I don't have a problem with a person quoting a scripture that says you are saved if...., as long as that person has it in the context of the whole Bible. What I do have a problem with is when a preacher says/comes across as though he (use of male pronoun deliberate) knows God's whole mind and whole plan. Sometimes this is conveyed in tone of voice as much as words.

Given that we have translations of copies of translations (yadda yadda) of the scriptures, and we are reading them with human minds that have unknown bias, how can we say that our interpretations are whole, complete and accurate? That is hubris. But then, it is obvious that some denominations have this in there credo. Just get on the blogs of one of the "other" Lutheran groups, never mind the "evangelicals."

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I am a universalist, Diane---and I base that on Jesus' last words from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Unasked-for absolution. Forgiveness without repentance. What else would a loving, self-sacrificing God offer us?

Whether all will ACCEPT that forgiveness, I don't know---but I believe that God offers it freely. If there *is* a hell, I believe---as C.S. Lewis says---it is barred from the INSIDE.

As for your quest to close the achievement gap, I highly recommend that you take a look at this book. Full disclosure: I edited it---but I think it gives a crucial analysis of part of the achievement gap problem (i.e., summer learning loss). It made me a big fan of year-round schools.

Good luck and may God bless you in your ministry of hope.


mompriest said...

Did you read the Alban Institute article last spring about the church not being here to meet the needs of its members? It gets right at what you are saying....the church is here to meet the needs of the world, to do God's work...not to make members "feel better"

I too think that there are many lost people in this world. I have always loved the words of the Dalai Lama which say essentially: it doesn't matter what faith tradition one follows as long as a person has one...

our focus on the lost, are those who have no faith, no community of faith withwhom to be a part of...I think the Word of God, God's expressive being shows up in all faith Christians we know this Word as Jesus...and from his example we can come to understand what it means to love God, love self, love others.

I hope your community can really make a difference in the lives of these kids, help them find hope where none seems to be.

Rev SS said...

Great post Diane! Our Church has lots of work to do to seek out the lost in its own ranks and call out their hope and trust, so that they will want to "dream dreams for ministry big enough to know that the results cannot depend on us alone but rather on God." IMHO Blessings on your efforts.

lj said...

Beautiful post Diane. Dreaming those big-enough dreams will be an image with me for a long time.

Lindy said...

Hope has fascinated me for a long time, especially as I experienced the hopelessness of my own depression AND at the same time worked among the homeless yet inexplicably hopeful men and women living on the streets. I used to go home and marvel that they had any hope at all, and that I (who have every reason to he optimistic) did not.

I do think it's a practical matter of being able to buy pencils and paper and new sneakers for school, to have enough to eat, and nice clothes to wear. But, I also think it's a deeply spiritual issue too.

I am glad you are framing the issue in this way, as a matter of hope, because that transcends economics and race. Yet there is a real gap there.

I often remind people that terrorists are not created by fundamentalism or religion. An act of terror is an act of last resort, undertaken where there is no other hope.

Inmates often told me, "Miss, I didn' have nothin' to loose." They had no hope. Often they had it better in the system than in their homes. Our incarceration institutions and even detention facilities, by design, give hope. Hope for the GED, to learn to read, a trade, whatever. It's the hope... they can't get it in their homes, often not even in school. But, it's hope, not brains, that gets that GED!

Globally, I wonder what would have happened if instead of responding to 9/11 with war we would have sent a delegation over to the Middle East to say, "OK, what do your people need to thrive? Schools, hospitals, food... how can we help your country succeed?" How would the world be different today if we'd done that instead? What if we'd given hope?

The hope gap affects us in schools, lack of hope destroyes our communities and contribtes to violence, and even impacts our planet. I am glad you are taking this on Diane.

I regret that I have so little to contribute to this discussion but I am interested to hear what others say.


PS - IF (big IF) there is a Hell, nobody is going there. How could God say in one breath not to sacrifice your children to Molech (fire sacrifice) and in the next crucify His own Son and in the next send a gaggle of us packing off to a lake of fire? It just doesn't wash.

Hell is a well developed myth which has served many purposes mainly fear and self-loathing and is likely one of the devil's favorite tools.

I DO believe in the devil.

I'm a universalist like Doxy. Well, probably like Doxy. I'll only speak for myself. I don't think the Blood-a-Jeasus has much to do with being found (UNlost) I think it's the life of Christ, lived on this earth as the person of Jesus AND lived out every day and in every place by the Holy Spirit and each one of us, that brings about salvation. I think that as soon as God had the idea to save the whold world (Kosmon...Jn 3:16... stars and comets and everything) that it was done. Right then.

And my dog agrees with me. Others, not so much. But, still, love, love, love to all!

Barbara B. said...

wow--great post and comments.
thought-provoking stuff!

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I love your equation of being lost and being without hope. Thank you for this.

Katherine E. said...

Diane, I love this post. "To dream dreams for ministry big enough to know that the results cannot depend on us alone but rather on God." Wow. And all the best as you minister to "the lost," those without hope. If I lived in your city, I'd join your church, for sure!

Ann said...

You make good points about "the lost," but I call them "hungry hearts." Those are the ones I think we're called to minister to -- the ones who are literally dying to know that there's a God who loves them, who has set them free (if only they can/choose to accept their radical freedom), and who is active in their lives.