Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Different Sort of Challenge

A few months ago our four-year-old daughter was overheard singing a song with only one line, which she repeated irritatingly till my patient wife didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Our little fireball of estrogen was singing a song of her own creation ripe with ironic truth: “I’m a different sort of challenge.” Amen, little sister.

We are all different sorts of challenges. I am one, you are one, and if we open our eyes we see we are communities of Jesus-followers in the midst of a whole host of unique challenges. The urban is not the suburban is not the rural. In fact, even supposedly similar places end up being starkly unique. Montreal and Vancouver are both cities, but it would be foolish to say they are therefore the same. Rural Saskatchewan and rural Newfoundland are both in the “country,” but no one would be so dumb as to say they are parallel universes.

Even neighbouring communities can be completely unique. I once lived in Ayr, Ont., which, as a community that rolled out the haggis to celebrate its Scottish heritage, was just up the road from Paris. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to sniff that there are different histories, DNA and challenges at work there. Sure, the passage of time brings change, just like a four-year-old will not always bring four-year old challenges. But even new realities for a locale—like a sleepy village becoming a bedroom community—create challenges that cannot be ignored. This dynamic is easily forgotten by churches, and especially churches with a long history in a community that has developed an unhelpful immunity to change.

When the church sends missionaries from one locale to another, we assume they will learn to think like a landed immigrant in that culture. They will think like a missionary and learn the language, adapt, and build friendships and understandable and credible bridges across a river of different challenges. In fact, any missionaries who fail to do this will simply not make an impact. They will, in reality, not even be missionaries.

The same must be said about the church as it now finds itself in Canada. A recent National Post article states, “Evangelical Christian children of immigrants feel they cannot openly practise their religion, and worry that Christianity is no longer a guiding force in Canadian society, while Muslims say they are free to follow their faith in this country but face other forms of discrimination.” The study reveals a number of interesting trends in Canadian culture, but at the very least it should make us aware that, whether we’ve been in Canada for a short time or a long one, we are all living in the epicentre of a different sort of challenge.

This can—but must not—elicit fear. Fear, of course, will be sure-fire proof we have ceased living and thinking like missionaries. In fact, if this current challenge arouses fear it should make you very afraid that you have sacrificed the missionary call of Jesus and the church, which is sent as a beacon of hope into whatever challenging reality is set before it, for a closed, protectionist society of the religiously comatose.

Very clearly this historical moment presents a different sort of challenge. The times invite us to think and live like missionaries yet again, or perhaps for the first time.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Pastors: Champions of Adoption

The New Testament writer James had an adopted older brother. It took time, but he eventually came to see that this sibling was no rival; He was Christ the Lord.
Scripture is silent on most of the dynamics within the home of Mary and Joseph, but something in James’ life experience, combined with his love of the Hebrew Law, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and his awakening to the wonder of the incarnation that came so close to home, inspired James to write, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). What our Father in Heaven accepts as the faultless display of the believing life must include the care of the fatherless and motherless.
The Christian Church has been at the forefront of providing care for parentless children for centuries, with James’ words a key spur. These words must inspire us still and, in these days of so many broken homes and abandoned children, pastors must be at the forefront of calling the followers of Jesus to foster and adopt.
Why should pastors pay attention to this issue?
First, because it is rooted in the very nature of God Himself. The Scriptures reveal a God who makes spiritual orphans His children through adoption. The Apostle Paul writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by Him we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:14-15).
God is the adoptive Father of many daughters and sons. Pastors must pay attention to the needs of the orphan because, if we don’t, we are not paying close attention to the heart of God. And if we’re not paying close attention to the heart of God, we will not be speaking and teaching rightly about who God is and we will be half-baking our theology.
Second, members of your church family are living the multi-faceted realities connected to adoption and fostering. On the one hand, you have couples struggling with infertility who are desperately seeking to enter parenthood, and you will inevitably also have some who have given up a child. On the other hand, you will be preaching every week to some who are fostering or adopting and several who are fostered or have been adopted. Take even a random survey of your people and you will discover just how living a reality this is among your flock.
Further, if your church is even remotely involved in the community, you will encounter those with apprehended children and find yourself staring social instability right in the face. If you do not pay attention to this issue, you are ignoring how the reality of a sinful world hits the first place of human development – the relationship between child and birth mother and father.
Third, the statistics are stunning. In Canada more than 80,000 children are in foster care – a number similar to the population of Nanaimo, British Columbia or Kanata, Ontario and larger than Fredericton, New Brunswick or Medicine Hat, Alberta. Of these 80,000 children in foster care, 30,000 are legally available for adoption. Worldwide, UNICEF reports the number of orphans is somewhere between 143 and 210 million – that’s about five times more than Canada’s entire population. Enough said.
Fourth, the opportunity is so great. If the Church takes seriously the call to live this pure religion, we could see some of the most hurting and wounded in our society brought into the healing embrace of Jesus and His Church. Foster and adoption is an opportunity to show and tell our faith in one of the most holistic ways possible.
Further, Christians are often sought out by family and child services because of the quality of care they provide. Thus Christian families are providing a powerful apologetic for Biblical faith in a post-Christian, secular society. In addition, it is a powerful declaration of our desire to reduce abortions.
Fifth, obedience matters. “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Thus commands the Lord from His divine council seat in Psalm 82:3-4.
Both Old and New Testaments emphasize the charge to embrace the orphan. Therefore, we who lead God’s people and shape a Biblical ecclesiology must be obedient in raising the profile of this tangible expression of the heart of God.
But how? How do we pastors influence this type of culture in our churches?
First, preach it. It’s in the Bible; don’t avoid it. The very human stories of barrenness and human frailty are replete in Scripture. The commands to care for the orphan are everywhere. And, don’t forget, adoption is clearly the Biblical image of how we all enter God’s family by faith alone, through grace alone.
Second, expose it. Find ways to have stories of adoption and fostering told from all sides, but do it with honesty and sensitivity, and lace it with the hope of the Gospel. Find space for agencies and organizations to be profiled among your people.
Third, learn about the unique challenges facing adopting and fostering families. Many adoptive and foster parents feel in over their heads because they are dealing with wounded children who aren’t always excited that someone “chose” them. Often these parents find it very difficult to participate in what everyone else is excited about and are sensitive – rightly or wrongly – to the judging eyes of others with “normal” kids.
Don’t jump to conclusions about adopted and fostered kids when they push every button a Sunday school teacher has (and some they never knew they had). Find a way to equip your children’s ministry volunteers to respond well to the uniqueness of these great kids.
Fourth, make the care of the orphan another one of the unquestioned ministries of your church. It could be argued that this has more Biblical precedence than Sunday school, youth ministry or many of the other things we can’t imagine not doing. Make adoption and fostering expected. It should be considered abnormal – and even heretical – for God’s people not to be about this element of faultless religion. It should simply be what Christians do.
Of course, not everyone can or even should foster or adopt, but a church family can make it easier for people with a call to open their homes to do so. Make financial assistance available to those adopting internationally or privately. Equip caregivers to provide respite for weary parents (because many adoptive and fostering parents just can’t hire any babysitter and even extended family members find it difficult).
Beware of making an idol of the nuclear family and instead teach what the Scriptures say about the family of God and how the local church is an expression of that family bound together, not by human blood, but by the blood of the Lamb. The truth is, for many people, the Church is the only “real” family they know in our fractured social fabric.
Fifth, consider modelling it. Don’t do it just to be a do-gooder or martyr for the cause – the needs of these kids are too precious and precarious for that – but do pray about how you as a leader might somehow lead the way. You might never be an adoptive or foster parent, but you could serve at an orphanage, learn about your local family and children’s services, or be a big brother or big sister. You are shaping the culture of your church; consider how you are shaping this aspect of it.