I became a member of Young Koreans United (YKU), a Korean American grassroots group providing solidarity to the people’s movement for democracy, human rights, and reunification of Korea in 1986. YKU was instrumental in forming the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC); established 20 years ago to build a progressive Korean American voice on major civil rights issues. I joined the NAKASEC board a few years back. Throughout this time, I have tried to provide a clergy presence whenever I can to show that ending the suffering of immigrant families, including that of the 1 out of 7 undocumented Korean Americans, is also a concern of persons of faith.
Everywhere we turn, someone or something is vying for our allegiance. Sports teams. Car companies. Television networks. Politicians. Political parties. Flags. Countries. And of course, the church. Many of us will readily admit that Jesus taught our allegiance is to be, first and foremost, to God. That is, until someone steps on our toes and throws our church into the mix. For many, their allegiance to God and their church are so intertwined it's difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. But what does Jesus have to say about all of this?
From my estimation, God makes it pretty clear that he does not want to vie for our allegiance. Isn't that the whole point of the first commandment? Jump ahead to the New Testament and we find Jesus teaching the same thing. At one point Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our allegiance cannot be divided. Either we will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. According to Jesus, serving two masters isn't just difficult, it's impossible. To further illustrate this point, he even turns away a would be disciple. From reading the story, this man seems to have a legitimate concern. All he wants to do is bury his father before taking off to follow in the footsteps of this rabbi. But from Jesus' perspective, his allegiance is divided, so this won't fly.
Today is no different. God doesn't want to vie for our allegiance. Yet he must, because our allegiance is divided between church attendance, theological stances, and denominational commitments (among other things), as if these things take precedence over following Jesus.
Recently, a large wealthy church decided to break up with my denomination. I’m not 100 percent sure I know why. But the no-regrets explanation they wrote implied that religious differences between us were too severe for them to stay committed to our relationship.
Religion has a way of making people do extraordinary things to create peace and unity. It also, as we know well, has a destructive capacity to turn people against one another. It can make us grip our convictions so tightly that we choke out their life. We chase others away, then say “Good riddance” to soothe the pain of the separation. Even more alarming, too many religious people insist on isolating themselves and limiting their imagination about where and how God can be known.
All these realities take on a sad irony when we read about God promising to be outside the walls, present with different people in different places. What does it look like when God defies the restrictions we presume are in place?
It’s sometimes cliché for Christians to warn about the dangers of idolizing wealth and money, but the negative impact it can have on our faith is more subtle than we often realize. Here are a few ways it covertly manipulates our spirituality:
1. We Use It To Measure Our Faith (and the Faith of Others):
In a culture obsessed with wealth, success, fame, and comfort, Christians often use wealth as a way to estimate their own spirituality. We assume God’s blessings translate into material possessions and riches, and we profusely thank God for jobs, promotions, paychecks, and brand new toys, but then cry out in panic when these same things disappear.
Commonly referred to as “the prosperity gospel,” individuals — and churches — are susceptible to the misguided belief that financial strength equates to spiritual maturity — it doesn’t.
Most would say they don’t believe in the prosperity gospel, yet there are still some worrisome signs within mainstream Christianity. For example, mission trips often go to third-world countries to do practical service projects and work, but the assumption is also that these places are also spiritually desolate — but why do we think that?
We assume that poverty stricken areas are less Christian than wealthy areas — they aren’t. Why do Bible colleges have inner-city ministry degree but not suburban-ministry degrees? Why don’t we send missionaries to Scandinavia and other ritzy European countries — some of the most secular places in the entire world — but continually focus on poor regions? Maybe it’s because we subconsciously continue to associate money with spirituality.
And church news is little different: pastor so-and-so is embroiled in a moral failing; church such-and-such fired its pastor over leadership differences; and the seminary down the street let go a professor over theological issues. The list goes on and on.
Isn’t it time for something different?
How about a little good news? What about a viral campaign about churches doing well? Well, here is my modest attempt to say a good word about our church community.
I’ll just say it: I thought “ashes to go” was a great idea.
Thousands of clergy and lay liturgists did “to-go” this year. From all evidence, it was a great hit.
Not everyone appreciated the innovation, of course. But then not every Christian appreciates a liberation-minded pope, or songs on projection screens, or preachers in jeans, or services at any time other than Sunday morning, or ditching denominational hymnals, or coffeehouses doubling as worship venues.
It seems like an eternal winter here in Detroit. The Associated Press, citing a National Weather Service analysis, reports Detroit is experiencing the most extreme winter of any city in the country. I don't know about that, but this winter is "getting real up in here."
At Holy Redeemer, the church just north of Detroit where I serve as pastor, the weather has impacted 9 of 12 Sundays since Dec. 15. It's hindered our ability to gather for worship, dented budgets, and made it hard to maintain community.
You can set your watch by the storms that arrive late on Saturday night and clear by Sunday afternoon.
Yet, time and again the congregation at Holy Redeemer manages to surpass my wildest expectations of faithfulness.