World Communion and the Call to Discipleship
Over the course of the last few days I've had the opportunity to reflect on the depth of meaning offered in our celebration of World Communion this past Sunday.
Meeting three recent college graduates who have just completed one year tours of service in Argentina and Belfast, Ireland as mission volunteers with the World Mission office of General Assembly helped bring World Communion into focus for me. I've been helping host these students in our presbytery this week, as they are doing mission interpretation of their experiences.
Add to that growing appreciation for World Communion, our worship experience this past Sunday with a young Sudanese college student here in Omaha, who engaged in a dialogue sermon with me about escaping the genocide in Sudan. Coming to Omaha 6 years ago with nothing literally but the clothes on his back, this young man has come to experience the goodness of God in the welcoming friendship of many, including several Presbyterians who have mentored and loved him. Here in Omaha, thousands of miles away from Africa, I learned how we are touching the lives of people a world away.
World Communion was initiated by Presbyterians in 1936 in the gathering shadows of danger leading up to World War II. In a growing climate of fear and anxiety about the future, Presbyterians and Christians around the world began to celebrate the Lordship of Jesus Christ and his invitation to those who would come "from East and West and North and South to sit at table in the kingdom of God", according to Luke's Gospel. World Communion is a profound act of faith, in which we acknowledge the living Lord who would set his claim upon us. The gospel reading for Sunday ended with these words of Jesus, "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (Mark 9: 50) Christians aren't meant to be like two lumps of sugar in a cup of coffee. We're meant to stand out and be noticed, to work like agents of salt in purifying the world and standing against the forces of evil that corrupt and degrade. Christians are meant to add zest to life.
Last night I joined a group of friends at dinner with those three college students to hear their stories about mission service in Belfast, Ireland for two of them and Argentina for the third member of the team. Listening to these young adults was inspiring. The two young men who spent a year in Belfast, Ireland spoke about the ongoing tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, where the "troubles" resulted in so much death and destruction. The two young men who were posted to Belfast worked with Catholic and Protestant youth inside and outside the church. One of these young men was assigned to a Presbyterian church which was fire bombed about four years ago by a group of IRA connected youth in the neighborhood. But the Presbyterian pastor of the church, who happens to be a woman pastor (very unusual there!) didn't give up hope and worked succesfully to raise money to rebuild the church. And it's a beautiful new facility now. "Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another", says Jesus. I thought after hearing this story last night that this woman pastor and her church members were quite a "salty" bunch of Chrisitians, who didn't give in to fear and intimidation. And they have worked to reach out to the IRA youth responsible for the fire bombing.
Now that's discipleship.
The young woman who spent her year in mission working in Argentina, outside Buenos Aires, spoke about working with poor and struggling families in a church setting doing outreach ministries. It was deeply moving to hear her stories about working with children and mothers, teaching the children and helping their mothers learn parenting skills. Each week she also helped lead a bread baking class, where mothers had the chance to take home bread for their families. I asked about the social/economic challenges of Argentina and others around the dinner table asked what attitudes the people of Argentina had toward the United States.
Argentina is experiencing profound economic challenges which are exacerbated by requirements to repay debt to international banks. Their currency is valued a third less than it was before the Argentine banking crisis of a few years back. Poverty is extreme.
Attitudes toward the United States are very mixed. In the early 1980s the United States helped topple the government there, for fears of its socialist leanings. A military coup ensued. And for several years the military dictatorship "disappeared" thousands of young adults who opposed the regime. Thousands were drowned in the ocean or otherwise murdered and tortured. Lingering resentment toward the United States remains. However, this young mission worker told us the citizens of Argentina differentiate their feelings toward Americans from their thoughts about our government. As people, we Americans are admired. But the policies of our government are often questioned.
I asked these three young mission workers a question that's often on my mind.
What can we as church and as Presbyterians do to appeal to young adults like themselves? We've become increasingly disconnected from young adult generations for the last 20-30 years, so much so that of those ages 17-34; it's reported that only about 17% remain involved in a Presbyterian church after confirmation.
Each of these young mission workers echoed a common thought. Don't make discipleship so easy. Don't tell young adults that nothing much is required to become a follower of Jesus. "We want a challenging faith," I heard them say.
They also spoke of hearing our previous Moderator of General Assembly, Rick Ufford-Chase, speak to them before departing to their mission fields. "He really challenged us to take risks for our faith," was their comment. Become a salty presence wherever God leads you seemed to be the deep passion of these young mission workers. Their faith and their courage were strongly evident, as I've come to know these young leaders in the church. I found myself encouraged about the capacity of our Presbyterian church to relate to young adults like these. And I asked myself, "What more can I do to present the kind of challenging faith that speaks to young adults like these?" (I'll write in my next blog about Sudan and the World Communion experience I shared with a young Sudanese college student)