Believers Without Borders
The movie Forrest Gump has a poignant scene in which the little boy Forrest gets into a school bus. As he walked slowly down the corridor looking for a place to sit, each of the children he passed said the same thing: “No room.” Forrest admittedly was a bit strange, something of an acquired taste. No one wanted, was willing to share a place. All Forrest encountered were barriers and boundaries until a little girl – Jenny – made way. She created space and Forrest sat down.
Were you ever the new kid, an outsider who wanted to get in? To be excluded means to be involved and to reach barriers and borders. Do you ever feel outside? How is that for you? I’ve moved a lot in my life, experiences that have incorporated many of the experiences of outsiders. When I moved from the East Coast to Kansas City to become pastor of a new church, it was helpful to start a finished church. That has facilitated the transition. Nevertheless, my family and I soon realized that we were outside the familiar and comfortable relationship networks of our new church. It seems that pretty much everyone sometimes feels outside.
What about the other side? Most people have places in their lives where they feel familiar and comfortable? Do you have a specific network of relationships in which you feel comfortable, familiar and accepted? Maybe you have a good friend and you both really enjoy being together. It’s not a bad thing to have a comfortable niche, close friends, or even a group to belong to. Often, this friendship or small group is not exactly open to new people joining. They like the group the way it is. It’s like being in a family, hard to reach, unless you’re born or adopted. Sometimes groups in churches are so familiar and so comfortable that they exclude others – unintentionally. In extreme cases, the boundaries of the group become barriers and boundaries around an exclusive group of relationships. It is very natural, but it can destroy community life and church growth.
The church where I now serve as a pastor used to be like this. One of the biggest complaints was how difficult it was to feel trapped. The strength of the church was their sense of community – like a family. This strength enabled the community to survive the turbulence of its formation and early development. It enabled them to develop some very creative organizational structures, but the tendency to be a closed and inward community eventually began to threaten their growth and vitality. When our healthy boundaries become barriers that banish people from our lives, they are no longer healthy. We effectively distance ourselves from people who can challenge and enrich us.
The Jewish people have lived in a great tension almost since its founding. The religious and legal system that they received from Moses reinforced their self-image as a strange and unique people and increased their sense of being different from other peoples. Their ethnic, national and religious identity – a border – soon became a barrier characterized by food restrictions, Sabbath observance and rules of ritual purity. This self-understanding was in the field of tension to what they also regarded as their call of Yahweh to be a light and a blessing for the peoples. The mission was to introduce to other people the God they had come to know in their business experience. Israel lived and lives in the tension between borders and barriers.
The part of the biblical book of Isaiah from chapters 40-55 is probably not the product of historical Isaiah, but an anonymous author of the time of the Babylonian exile (586 BC). This author is often referred to as the 2nd Isaiah. The material in these chapters contains incredibly beautiful poems that we call servant songs. The hero of these songs is the nation of Israel, whose salvation is promised in the midst of exile. Jesus has clearly interpreted much of his work in relation to these songs.
Who was this servant? Isaiah 41: 8 tells us clearly that the servant is the people of Israel. This general idea of a Messiah was gradually understood in relation to a particular person at the time Jesus lived, although Jesus took his interpretation of the Messiah only from the servant of the 2nd Isaiah.
Isaiah 42 is a powerful and profound statement about a renewed vocation. It reminds Israel of its national identity in the midst of its brokenness, exile and defeat. They are a chosen people: “Here is my servant, whom I support, my chosen ones, in whom my soul rejoices.” They have a mission from the Lord: “I have put my mind upon him, he will bring justice to the nations.” After all, they have reason to hope, to believe again, and to trust that success in mission is “not by power, not by power, but by the Spirit of God.”
The central message of Isaiah 42 to a people in exile is that it has not been abandoned. God renewed the call “to be a covenant for the people to be a light to the peoples, to open blind eyes, to take the prisoners out of the dungeon, out of jail those who sit in the dark.” Those who follow Jesus can certainly see this message in his message. The Christian mission is similar to the mission before Israel. The deep challenge of this mission is as true today as it was for the time of Jesus and those of the day of writing Isaiah 2.
Israel was in exile and in bondage. Some voices blamed this exile for Israel’s failure to be unique, separate and faithful enough to abide by the rules of religious fidelity to Yahweh. Exile was the punishment for Israel’s failure to adhere to clear boundaries as a chosen people and the failure to have borders as a nation. 2. Isaiah does not deny this, instead emphasizing the Lord’s demand that Israel be a blessing to the nations. This call, this mission must be the identity of the people of God in every generation.
In the face of all these circumstances, how should the Christian Church seek to touch others in the name of Jesus? How will we be a light and a blessing to others? We have to start with these personal limits. Who are we and where are we going? We have to know that. Our communities are faith communities of people traveling together. The church where I work as a pastor appreciates questions and encourages everyone to discover their deepest questions and to make them heard in worship. They value it when people find the right answers to their questions on their journey. They value the community as a place of trust, support, inclusion and love.
Recognizing identity is an ongoing process, but the knowledge we have now can really help us get started. As our self-identity becomes the focus, we need to see the people we want to touch more clearly. Who do we turn to? What needs do you have? Where is her pain? What are your questions? What do we finally offer? What light and blessing does this community have to offer to those we want to touch?
Our churches are full of people from different backgrounds and represent a variety of philosophies. The church where I work as a pastor includes Democrats, Republicans and independents, but probably has more Democrats than Republicans or independents. The community includes theological liberals, moderates and conservatives, at least some of whom are identified as being outside of these categories. But we probably have more liberals than moderates, conservatives or others. There are probably more people living south than north of the river, though we have both. There are more from Missouri than Kansas, but many come from Kansas
One of the main tasks of the church is to pay more respect to the voices of minorities – to find a way to learn from them – and not lose track of who we are. Our job is also to reach those who reflect both our majority and minority voices. The light we have to share is our obligation to be a place where we can ask honest questions, trust in the support of a loving community, and discover the gifts that God has given us.
In the play Our Town, a girl named Rebecca Gibbs shared this with her brother George.
I never told you about this letter Jane Crofut received from her minister when she was ill. He wrote a letter to Jane, and the following address appeared on the envelope: “Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire, United States of America; the continent of North America; Western hemisphere, the earth; the solar system; the universe, the spirit of God. It was written on the envelope.
I would like to invite everyone to become a Christian without borders. This means embracing us, finding out where we want to go, and investing the incredible wealth that lies within you. It also means facing the mission, making space in your life and journey for society – welcoming other travelers and investing time and energy in celebrating and promoting their journey. Every one of us is at home in the thoughts of God. We are all at home in the Spirit of God.
Do you have questions about your religious beliefs? Are you confused? Do you think that life involves more than you get? When people ask me what I do professionally and I know that they are not listening to me for more than 30 seconds, I tell them this: I work with people who are on a journey. Many find it difficult to find answers to their deepest questions. Some had given up trying to find those answers – and even asked questions when they came to Crossroads. I have been Pastor for 30 years and currently Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church in Kansas City. I did my doctorate in Princeton, two master’s degrees (one in theology and one in music). I’ve worked as a musician, church musician, drama teacher and actor, as well as a pastor. I am married, have two children, three dogs and two cats.