All are welcome

Draw the Circle Wide: Ripples of God’s Likeness

El Shaddai, El Shaddai, Elyon no Adonai

(God almighty, God almighty, God in the highest, oh lord)

Age to Age you’re still the same

By the power of the Name

El Shaddai, El Shaddai, Erkamka na adonai

(God Almighty, God Almighty, I (we) will love you, oh lord)

We will Praise and Lift you high

El Shaddai

The stories of missionary journeys always take me back to my growing up years. Lottie Moon was the woman in my Baptist upbringing whom we always remembered and celebrated at Christmas time as we took up the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Similar to the UCC One Great Hour of Sharing, the offering was specifically geared toward foreign missions whereas the UCC’s One Great Hour of Sharing goes anywhere it is needed.

This week I had the good pleasure of spending time with about 40 Southern Conference ministers and pastors at the Clergy retreat. These types of events always intrigue me. I enjoy the theological conversations that address and explain how we are church, what we understand to be our call and, maybe sadistically, I am not sure, but look forward to challenging what I believe by rubbing shoulders to and with another who may have similar and yet different beliefs than I.

This week worked a bit similarly as we concluded the time together by delving into the marriage topic – specifically same sex. I am not sure if it was fortunate or not – there weren’t a good handful of the strongly disagree group. The conversations were still rich in the very fact that we looked into each other eyes attempting to hear each other’s understanding of theology.

Theology is that big word for talk about God or the attempts to name and know God. For me sometimes just trying to name God automatically limits us or limits God.

Going back to my Lottie Moon roots, this probably came back into my conscious because my time spent included Rev. Dr. Nancy Allison who serves Holy Covenant United Church of Christ in Charlotte. After growing up in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, attending Baylor University and then Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, she ended up as a Foreign Missionary to Liberia on the African continent. She taught would-be future pastors in the Liberia Theological Seminary until their Civil War broke out forcing their family to return.

Eventually, they ended up in the foreign lands of Charlotte, North Carolina and in the lands of the United Church of Christ. Moving from one faith tradition to another and from one state to another – many of us can attest to the opportunity to draw our circles wider. The ripples move outward as we attempt to grow our understanding and beliefs about who and what God is. Within this conversation I think and believe that it is utterly important to remember that God’s likeness may or not be the same for all of us.

Yahweh. Creation. Holy. Father. Lord. Christ. Allah. Abba or Daddy. Mother. Divine Womb.

The differing lands from which we hail set our course of understanding. The challenge in this includes our beliefs and understandings of humanity and our call to that humanity.

For Barnabas and Paul today in our story – their task was to go about the lands testifying, healing, and liberating the poor. From this act in the foreign land of Lystra, the locals called Paul and Barnabas gods – Zeus and Hermes. The story goes that they tore their clothes at this. We are not God. We are trying to live out the call to be like God – to know all humanity, to love all regardless of the land you call home.

Do we try to be God too often instead of extend God’s likenesses?

This question is one that many of us wrestle. Bob Lupton is the founder of Focused Community Strategies.

In Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (HarperOne), the 40-year veteran urban minister “takes the gloves off” and argues that much of Americans’ charitable giving “is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.”

The reason is that the “compassion industry” is “almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise,” but its “outcomes are almost entirely unexamined.” Years of charitable giving at home and abroad, Lupton contends, have made barely a dent in reducing poverty and often encourage dependency. Toxic Charity offers some statistics, but more stories, as evidence that both our philosophy and practice of charity are frequently misguided.

The news here is painful. Our self-centeredness contributes to the problem. We evaluate our giving, Lupton argues, “by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served.[1]

Benefits to the other can clearly be seen through Father Greg Boyle who is a Jesuit Priest serving in Los Angeles. Through his own missionary journeys of gang-riddled LA, they have created a number of outlets for the youth and young adults attempting to live a life without the death and destruction too often associated with gangs. Homeboy Ministries is the umbrella term that houses all manner of small business including Homegirl Café offering not just a hand out, but a way to gain life skills, a way to create dignity and self-respect while offering compassion all at the same time.

Many of us here know the story of Millard Fuller the founder of Habitat for Humanity. He and his wife moved away from a multimillion-dollar living to live at Koinonia, an interracial agricultural collective outside Americus, Georgia. There, with Koinonia founder Clarence Jordan, the Fullers developed the concept of building no-interest housing for the poor — an idea that eventually grew into Habitat for Humanity.

Each of these stories is reminder that we are called to be like God which is challenging in itself. The next step that these folks were called to is harder still – to move to another land, to work and serve community where you have gifts to love, empower, strengthen and liberate.

The message carried is “we are humans like you.” No matter the names given to the holy, we are all connected by the One who created us all in God’s likeness.

William Sloane Coffin was quoted as saying “Human unity is really less something we are called on to create than simply to recognize and make manifest.”

Manifest in God’s likeness. We are called to see those around us as God’s likeness – not only ourselves. In this likeness, we are called to see the other as good, lovable. Able, strong, gifted, and forgivable.

From the restaurant server, to the bus boy, to the CEO, to the homeless, to the mentally challenged, to the war veteran, to the farmer, to the engineer, we are called to recognize and make manifest a human unity. For in the diversity of God’s names, God is still the One, True God by whatever name called or in whatever form understood.

Would I “rent my clothes” if named God or pat myself on the back? Would I see myself of One of Them or allow them to hold me in high esteem?

Rev. Nancy Allison serving Liberians, Frank Lupton challenging our own understanding of mission, Father Greg Boyle walking with gang members and Millard Fuller basing his ministry on sweat equity – these examples call us to see the ripples of God’s likeness bumping into us at each intersection – ripples of grace, empowerment, creation, teaching, learning, expanding, evolving and ever changing to meet current demands while remaining steadfast and true.

Drawing this circle wider connects us to all creation’s of God likeness. Let us not define God too narrowly to fit our own comfort level.

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/november/review-toxic-charity.html