The Beautiful Question of the Incarnational Gospel

Joel Van Dyke & Kris Rocke 01 Apr 2010

The Psalmist writes, ‘How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?’ (Psalm 137:4). This is a beautiful question springing from the heart of a poet struggling to creatively live out in a strange land (Babylon) what he knows to be true in another, more familiar context (Jerusalem). The English poet e.e. cummings once wrote that, ‘The beautiful answer is always preceded by the more beautiful question,’ and in Psalm 137:4 we discover a beautiful question. It has given theological root to missional communities of grassroots leaders in six countries throughout Latin America (as well as urban centres in the Carribbean, Kenya and North America) under the banner of the Center For Transforming Mission (CTM).

We are learning how to read the Bible not to or even for those we serve but with those we serve – those who have been wrongly labelled the least, last and lost. Sustaining this approach is the belief that grace is like water; it flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places. We are learning to see God’s grace pooling up in places of extreme poverty and violence.

The core theological values of CTM are formed by the incarnational mission of Jesus Christ. In the incarnation of Jesus – and here we take in all that Jesus did and said, including his death and resurrection to save us from our sins – the intimacy of human and divine is fully realized. Said plainly, the incarnation unites what the world divides – always, and in all ways. It says that matter matters, and not just spirit.Ministry that spiritualizes away the problems we face in the world of matter is simply not true to the biblical picture portrayed in the doctrines of Creation and the Incarnation.Biblical, incarnational ministry is radically holistic. It touches the body and the soul. It calls forth personal transformation and systemic change. It invites righteousness and justice. It connects God and humanity, heaven and earth, and perhaps hardest of all, ‘us and them.’

Our concern to incarnate Jesus among the least, last and lost has introduced us to some amazing grassroots leaders who are singing God’s song in some very strange lands – such as populations of street youth, families in extreme poverty, prostitutes, women in the throes of domestic abuse and incarcerated gang members in the prisons of Central America. We have learned that ‘misfits’ are critical to the mission of the church. Let me (Joel) try to illustrate.

There is a men’s prison in Central America with a surprising group of residents. Sleeping under and on top of the cement slab tables of what used to be the dining hall is a rag tag group of girl friends, wives, sisters and mothers of one of the major Central American street gangs. During a recent visit, their ‘chaplain’ (an ex-gang member) and I led a conversation centred around the person of Hagar in Genesis 16. These women quickly made personal application to the story. They heard the Angel of the Lord pay honour and respect to Hagar by becoming the only character in the narrative to address her by name. The angel then drops upon her a beautiful question, empowering her to tell her own story: ‘Where are you going and where have you come from?’

The women in the prison could relate to being unnamed and used as property by people in positions of authority and power who never bothered to inquire of their stories. They knew what it felt like to live in deserts of loneliness caused by insidious rejection and marginalization. In Hagar’s story they found their story.

Reading the Bible with those we serve means we learn to ‘take the stained glass off the text of Scripture’ and begin reading from the perspective of those who have been crushed by life. It is an adventure in mining good news out of the holes of Scripture into which the church typically refuses to climb down. Hagar’s story is one of those stories and it is no small matter that she is the first person in Scripture who has the privilege of giving a name to God. She literally marvels, ‘Could it be that I have seen the back side of the one who sees everything and am still alive?’ She gives to God the name ‘El Roi’ (The God Who Sees). This element of the story seized the attention of these present-day Hagars in a vise grip of surprise and wonder.

A few weeks after the study, the chaplain was able to complete phase one of a prison rehabilitation project, building a cement block wall physically separating the women from the men. The idea emerged to paint a mural on that wall, and a discussion ensued related to what the women wanted to paint. They came to the unanimous decision to paint the story of Hagar, with the words, ‘El Dios Que Me Ve’ (The God Who Sees Me) as the focal point of the piece.

The larger missional implication is that Hagar grasps something about God that Abraham is not able to confess until six chapters later. In Genesis 22:14 Abraham names Mt. Moriah as ‘Jehovah Jireh’ (God sees/provides), using the same verb, ra’ah, that Hagar used in naming God. This leads us to marvel that perhaps the Hagars of the world arrive at a vision of the gospel long before the Abrahams do.

We see three gateways to transformation: prayer, praise and pain. The widest of all is pain. Ironically, pain is the most guarded gateway among those in power and it is the most accessible gateway among the people we serve. Kathleen O’Connor says, The first condition of healing is to give voice to pain.’

Perhaps this is why reality and authenticity are the currency of those at the margins. If it is going to work it has got to be Real. Perhaps that is why the Gospel begins with seeing things as they are, not as they should be. It is a hard lesson but we are learning that the primary task of the Church is to see God at work in the world and to celebrate what we see God doing. It is not to build, grow or extend the Kingdom of God – that is God’s work. Our job is to see what is, to name it and to see God at work in it.

We are coming to see how the institutional church in Latin America often separates itself from the very people and places that could bring about the kind of vision she so desperately needs. This was reinforced for me (Joel) last year when I was asked to lead a consultation on gang outreach in the capital city of a Central American country. I asked incarcerated gang members from a neighbouring country if they would be willing to share some thoughts I could carry to the leaders who would be attending the event. Here is a small part of what those gang members gave me:

Frequently we have seen growth in the physical structure of many churches, leaders with a competitive attitude choosing it seems to ‘compete’ with other churches while abandoning the need that exists in prisons, neighbourhoods, slums and rehabilitation centres. The priority of these churches always seems to be focused on the comfort of their respective members so they can feel like VIPs and thus they have lost or perhaps just forgotten the vision of Jesus Christ who said, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….’ We don’t want to simply criticize just for the sake of being critical but stand for the TRUTH that while churches are constructing huge sanctuaries there are children dying of hunger, gang members killing one another and prisoners suffering greatly while Christians comfort themselves in their big churches.

In a sermon focused on Luke 23 Tim Keller notes the ‘outsiders’ gathered around the cross. There is Simon of Cyrene, a ‘cultural outsider’. A convicted criminal is a ‘moral outsider’. There is also a centurion, a ‘racial outsider’ and the women witnesses, ‘social outsiders’. Luke locates only one ‘religious insider’ at the cross who seems to be able to grasp the full significance of Jesus’ death – Joseph of Arimathea.

Due to the way Salvation is accomplished,’ Keller says, ‘those on the ‘outside’ tend to understand/see things before those on the inside; but all are welcome.’ Further insight comes from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who quotes Walter Brueggemann that the job of the prophet is to free people from their numbness. That, reflects Rohr, is also the task of the church. The church exists to wake people up, to bring them to consciousness, and not just to comfort them in their unconscious state. Rohr’s fear is that soft piety and too-quick religious comfort do precisely that. ‘The giveaway,’ writes Rohr, ‘is when one finds no attitude of service, volunteerism, or compassion for the outsider emerging from one’s attendance at church services.’

At CTM we have discovered that a large part of our ‘prophetic charism’ for the church in Latin America can be summed up in the task of freeing the church from numbness. It is often a lonely task. It puts us in very hard places interacting with ‘outsiders’ who often become scandalous and surprising sources of numbness-breaking hope. Let me (Joel) try once again to illustrate.

Pastor Francis Montas and his wife Loly pastor a church of young people – Casa Joven – that meets on Saturday nights in a converted Santo Domingo nightclub. Their work with street kids, incarcerated juvenile delinquents and the ‘Chicas de Sarasota’ serves as a prophetic wake-up call to many others in the Dominican church.

About two months ago, Francis and Loly called a special Thursday prayer night because so many young people were having serious problems. They met near one of the most infamous streets for prostitution in Santo Domingo – La Avenida Sarasota. Their prayers for one another led them to pray for the girls on the street outside, and they left the building as if a tractor beam pulled them to the girls. The night I went out with them was their seventh consecutive night on the streets with the girls.

What we experienced over the next three hours was a numbness-shattering picture of God’s scandalous grace. The face of each ‘girl’ with whom we stopped to talk lit up as the young women from the church called out to them by name and embraced them with huge bear hugs. The women on the street responded to a host of beautiful questions, updating us on their weeks, sharing stories about their children and receiving prayer with eager anticipation, all the while completely ignoring potential ‘clients’ who passed by.

We had just finished sharing and praying with a group of three prostitutes when one of them whom I will call Gloria asked if she could pray for us. I held hands in a circle with my Dominican friends on a sidewalk on ‘Avenida Sarasota’ at 2:30am and heard one of the most beautiful prayers of my life. When Gloria uttered her ‘Amen’ a smile exploded on her face. She sheepishly confessed that it was the first time she had ever prayed out loud. I pretended to cough while trying to wipe the tears from my eyes. Gloria received more bear hugs from the ladies and an awkward handshake from me. She said that she planned to come to church that Saturday night when I was scheduled to preach.

She indeed came that night and when the service concluded Gloria received hug after hug from the young worshippers, including the guest preacher whose awkward and numb handshake on the street a few nights earlier turned into a bear hug of scandalous grace.

It would be impossible to detail here how blessed this church in Santo Domingo has been and how their vision and mission for their city has been recalibrated through their interaction with these prostitutes. There are churches in Latin America like Casa Joven that are engaging the Hagars of their cities and by doing so are teaching the rest of us how to sing God’s song in some very strange lands.

Joel Van Dykeserves in Central America as the director of “Estrategia de Transformacion” (Strategy for Transformation) which is a strategic alliance between the Center for Transforming Mission and Christian Reformed World Missions.Kris Rocke is Executive Director of the Center for Transforming Mission.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)