Photo by Kevin Dooley
By Melanie Mar Chow
The call to follow Jesus — the cost and the joy — sometimes puts our life aspirations in tension. God calls us in the Great Commission (Matthew 19:28-30) to be a part of the work of going forth and making disciples of all nations. But in church, we are often told we cannot make disciples unless we are disciples. We are also told to be light, but in the same breath told we are darkness; we are not perfect people, we are sinners. There seems to be a constant struggle in the church even now, of what it means to be a leader and how leadership is limited to certain people. Especially in the Asian American context where excellence is often over-emphasized, why would we choose to do anything at all?
In college, I was invited to join a class where we learned that in spite of being sinful people, we are all gifted by God to do wonderful things to build up the body and glorify Him. These gifts are defined by God, not by race, gender, ability, or financial status. In this class, we completed gift inventories, which revealed several of my gifts, one of which was pastoring. One of our teachers approached me the next Sunday to ask about my gifts, and informed me that the next Sunday School year would offer opportunities to help strengthen our gifts by practicing them. In years since, I have been more conscious about how best to steward my gifts for God’s purposes. In a seminary leadership class, I learned to notice when some my gifts would not be expressed. This would happen when I faced battles with personal doubt, discouragement, or others not including or being aware of my gifts or suppressing my gifts in the attempt to overexert their own.
Henri Nouwen’s reminds us that the best ministry happens in community. He notes that in order to thrive for God’s purpose, we individually need to time to be with God to learn of what He has for us, and then we need to spend time in community to be intentional about how we serve together to corporately use and value our gifts to then do ministry. What better a community than the church to grow our gifts!
Those college years were important in deepening my love of Jesus and my understanding of serving in community through learning about my spiritual gifts. This is why I serve college students in a ministry that values the use of spiritual gifts. Use of gifts in community allows the church to grow so others in and out of church can be brought into deeper relationships with God. I know serving in community with others, even with those who think differently or have different gifts than me all exhibits God’s creativity and best effectiveness to grow people.
Today I also give God thanks for growing pains in community. Although I am so thankful for that leader from my college class who encouraged me to practice and develop my gifts, I’ve since learned that that kind of affirmation is sometimes hard to come by in church communities.
One example of such growing pains in community is with the advent of voluntourism — when our well-intentioned short-term missions trips turn out to be ultimately harmful for the locals in the land. For instance, orphanage children who already bear the scars of attachment issues feel a sense of abandonment by those who only serve short-term. Another example of voluntourism was when ten students raised $3-4K for a 10-day trip to build a home in an impoverished country. Each day they built, only to learn that at night while they were sleeping, the locals rebuilt their work because the untrained students did their work without collaborating with others. Upon returning, they were told that the sending cost of $30-40K would have been better used to build a church or school for this town with electricity, lighting, books, etc.
These concerns have left me pondering ways to redeem voluntourism. For instance, perhaps groups of college graduates with their $25K+ educations can be sent for longer terms to coordinate and collaborate with local leaders to create assistance programs that provide sustainable drinking water, seminaries, or any form of long-term change.
In his book, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, Wil Hernandez, reminds us that “without the suffering of Christ, He would not be valued for His glory. How is it possible to appreciate the tensions of perspectives and see the value of God’s intentions in both?” Dr. Hernandez goes on to outline an exercise in his chapter called “Suffering and Glory:”
Pick a coin you can carry around in your pocket. Each time you touch it, let this object bring to mind the notion that suffering and glory are akin to different sides of the same coin. Such an object can serve as a gentle reminder that both sides represent equal realities that must be lived in tension. Each time you feel the coin, you can choose to openly embrace the experience of tension in your journey and prayerfully claim its transformative value.
This can be applied to other tensions in our lives. Our lives as followers of Christ can be testimonies of how we consider the testimony of our service as we focus on the continued work of Jesus. 2 Corinthians 4:10 calls us to this ability to be like coins, embodying the Christian tension of life and death. Yes, we need to die to our sinful ways. Yes, we strive daily to do the transforming work of following Christ’s model. It is not for us to be destroyed in a challenging moment but to live knowing His grace indeed is sufficient.
The call then is to navigate the tensions as followers of Christ. After all these years, I’ve flourished in growing in healthy communities because of leaders that are aware of teachable moments, instead of condemning effort. After all these years, my hope is that I am almost that type of leader. Are you?
Rev. Melanie Mar Chow serves God through Asian American Christian Fellowship, the campus ministry division of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society (JEMS). She has been an ordained American Baptist minister since 2004. A Pacific Northwest native, she currently lives with her husband and daughter in Southern California.
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