Okay, this is one of those cases where I probably should run what I am writing by my Korean-American bishop before I make a fool of myself – but, oh well, why start something new at this late date… I spent time this week at the North Central Jurisdiction Urban Ministries event in Milwaukee where the focus was on Asset Mapping. One fundamental tenet of asset mapping is that we should focus on the many blessings and gifts we DO have, instead of always lamenting and bemoaning that which we lack. All too often we are so focused on “need” that we fail to factor in “opportunity.” We see life as a problem to solve, a brokenness to fix, a burden to bear, or a threat to be escaped. Where is God in such a worldview? The doom-and-gloomers who regularly point out our dire situation don’t motivate us, they merely depress us. Panic and woe over the imminent “death tsunami” is purely manipulative and short-sighted — the truest lack of faith in evidence. Yet, we eat it up with both hands and a shovel. As I have said many times, the official United Methodist message is “we’re declining, we’re aging, we’re decaying, we’re dying, the ship is sinking… come join us!!!” And then we wonder why new generations don’t flock through our doors.
I sat listening to a number of people “yes, but…” the idea that we should focus on assets rather than needs, on blessings rather than burdens, and on opportunities rather than problems. One after another emphasized how serious and real the problems are and that if we don’t meet needs nothing else will matter. Actually, none of the leaders said that problems wouldn’t be fixed or needs met — the emphasis was on our energy and focus; our intentional decision NOT to be defined by our deficiencies, weaknesses and faults. But, I realized something. We LIKE our problems. Focusing on what we have lost, what we can’t achieve, what we don’t have, and where we can’t succeed takes all the responsibility and pressure off. The problem-solving mentality says, “well, we tried, but it didn’t work, so let’s call it a day.” We are justified in our depression and despair. We care deeply, but, hey, what can we do? The problems are just too big, and the needs are just too great.
And we could get away with this if God weren’t our God and Jesus wasn’t our Savior. This “woe is us, we’re victims of life” attitude doesn’t line up in any way, shape or form with our Christian gospel. This way of thinking took me back to my seminary years where I befriended two Korean couples who taught me most of what I think I know about Koreans. Young-Nae Park, the wife of a grad student at Drew University, told me about the Korean concept of han. As best I can remember, han is a deep-seated and unresolved sense of pain, injustice or despair — a free-floating anxiety that one can never fully escape. It haunts a person with the feeling that no matter how good things seem, there is still a cloud of melancholy. It is a gut-level feeling of injustice that may never be made right, and a sense that any and all good will inevitably be short-lived and unequal to the pain. (Please, if I have this wrong, someone correct me. I have no agenda to misrepresent an aspect of someone else’s culture!) This description and feeling has stayed with me throughout the years — perhaps because I so readily see it on display in many of our churches. I am regularly surprised by representatives of congregations who hold one or more of the following attitudes and feelings in the church:
- resentments about things “done to” the church by a pastor, a district superintendent, ‘the conference’
- a fixation on what the church doesn’t have and can’t figure out a way to get (e.g., money, young people)
- an undercurrent that somehow God isn’t treating the church fairly
- anger at other churches who are doing better/growing
- internal bickering and bad behavior that absolutely no one feels is appropriate, yet no one will challenge or confront
- an overwhelming sense that struggle is normal and that ministry should be difficult
- a lack of excitement and energy to try new things, and especially reach new people (oh, we say we want them — until they show up, then we see them as a problem and a challenge)
I am a firm believer that where our treasure is, our heart will be there as well. In the New Testament context, “treasure” was that which we deeply valued and “heart” was what we did about it. The heart was the seat of the soul, the guiding essence and energy of the person, where mind and spirit reside to motivate a person to action. In other words, you can tell what people really think and feel by where they spend their time, energy, emotion, and money. People who occasionally can find an hour to go to church are telling us EXACTLY what they think of God and the Christian community. At the very best, it is worth an hour once in a while — but only to the extent that the individual finds personal value in it. When people resist and argue with the concept of a tithe, they are explaining EXACTLY how much they value their relationship with God and God’s community of faith. When people are too busy to serve, lead, teach, support, attend, etc., they are being brutally honest about how important a relationship with God and covenant community is to them.
Someone will want to whine that “this isn’t fair.” People are busy. Lives are crazy. There isn’t enough time. We have expenses. We have responsibilities. We have excuses. Fine. Doesn’t change what I am saying one bit. When people truly treasure something, it is crystal clear. We give ourselves to what we care about. The han spirit in our church culture is pervasive. We hate the fact that Christianity isn’t easy. We hate that it takes work. We resent the whole concept of spiritual discipline and putting the good of the community ahead of personal needs. Every time our responsibility to others eclipses our sense of rights and entitlements, we really don’t much like Jesus and the message he teaches. The idea that we should be held accountable to the sacred promises we make to God and Christian community offends and appalls us. How dare anyone expect us to live up to our promises? No wonder the church is in such bad shape! For far too many, the idea that a relationship with God should inconvenience us in any way is simply absurd. So, we live under a cloud of indignation and a sense of injustice.
Is this why even a message of hope and positive regard generates such a negative response? I am always amazed when people want to argue with a vision of spiritually gifted, bountifully blessed, incredibly talented beloved community. It’s like people thrust out their lower lips and say “Don’t you DARE make us feel better about ourselves! We’re victims. We’re broken. We’re disadvantaged. We’re need fixing! We need rescue. Don’t take that away from us!” Have we not heard the good news? We have already been rescued. We are already “moving on to perfection.” God has already done a new thing in us — all we have to do is recognize it, get up off our butts, and see what amazing things we can create with all that God has given us. We are blessed, friends. We’re not a wreck. We’re not “in decline.” We’re not beyond redemption. We are God’s people, and God is ready to work through us any time we’re willing. I hope the voices of vision and promise emerge. I am tired of listening to those who lack faith and vision tell everyone else what are aren’t, what we’ve lost, where we’re not, and why we won’t be here much longer.