Why So Many “Dones” And “Nones”?

As I came out of the bookstore, I had one thought in mind, “I wish I was dead!” The thought of death was the most soothing thought I had had since I’d started college.

The year was 1971 and after two semesters of college, it was obvious that getting a degree in civil engineering, something that had brought me to the US, was not going to be that easy.

In two semesters, I’d gotten nothing but lousy grades, which had made me quite ashamed of being the failure that I’d become. But even more painful was letting down my parents, who had made a great sacrifice to get their oldest to America. So, not being able to live up to a standard that my Iranian culture had set before me, my next step was committing suicide. But that day, as I came out of the school’s bookstore something happened that gave me a glimmer of hope.

As I stepped out the door, with the weight of the whole world on my shoulders and my head bowed down, the guy coming towards me was dancing and scat singing. As he got next to me, he looked me in the eyes and asked, “How are you?”

imageedit_2_2122402828Never being one who hides his emotions, but at the same time not expecting anything, I said, “I’m not doing well.”

What happened next, as simple as it might sound to some of my readers, was something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

The man stopped dead in his track and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” A stranger, a man I didn’t know stopped and offered to help me. I needed that so much. I deeply wanted to know that someone cared about this worthless failure of a man.

I don’t remember what happened next. I might have said, “No, thanks! And went on my way” But I still remember that act of kindness, and try to implement it in my Christian walk whenever I can.

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I’m invited to fill in for my friend who is an adjunct professor at a Bible college. As it is my habit, I show up early. Because it was lunchtime, I sit on the retaining wall next to the entrance to the refectory (Whatever happened to the dining hall?). I want to see how the students react towards a stranger who is much older than they are and seems not to belong to their school.

As these Bible college students, our future Christian leaders, begin to pass by me, I stare at them in hope of,

  1. Out of respect for an elder, they would greet me, and
  2. At least by smiling at me, acknowledge me as a man who is made in the image of the God that they would be studying right after lunch.

Out of about 100 students who pass me by, only a few of them acknowledge my being and give me a hurried glance. That breaks my heart. Don’t they realize that I might desperately be in need of a smile, a “how are you?” an affirmation that I am still a human being made in the image of God?

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A day doesn’t go by that I don’t come across of an article about the “Dones” (The believers who’ve left the church) and the “Nones” (The nominal Christians who’ve left the church), lamenting the fact that church attendance is drastically dropping in the US.

Many of these articles sound like Chicken Little running around and screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling. People are leaving the church. What can we do to bring them back? Maybe if the church offers better programs, then people will stay and the ’Dones’ will come back and the “Nones’ will be attracted to the church.” But very few talk about why these people have left and why the Millennials are not going to church.

The issue isn’t having better programs. The issue isn’t having strobe lights and fog machines or having the music so loud that you need to hand out earplugs to the parishioners as they enter the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. I personally have no problems with any of that. But that will not solve some of the much deeper issues the church needs to face and resolve.

To think that better programs will solve the crisis the church is facing is like the old joke about a man who had 3 ugly daughters (Upon reading the word “ugly”, I wonder how many of my young readers needed to retreat to their safe spaces while clinging to their teddy bears?). One day as he’s walking on the beach, the man comes across a bottle and when he opens it a genie pops out.

“For freeing me from this prison, I’ll grant you a wish. What is it that you want?” said the genie.

Showing genie a map, the man said, “ I love Hawaii, but it’s quite expensive to travel there several times a year. I want a bridge over the ocean that will directly connect LA to Hawaii.”

The genie looked at the map and said, “I’m just a genie, not God. What you’re asking is out of my hands. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes! I wish for my daughters to be married. Can you find them husbands?” pleaded the man.

“Do you have a picture of them?”

So, the man excitedly pulled a photo out of his wallet and showed it to the genie upon looking at it, the genie said, “Let me see the map again!”

There’s a broken bridge between the church and the people. Until we rebuild that bridge; until we learn to smile at the old man sitting on the retaining wall rather than being too busy parsing Hebrew and Greek words for our next Sunday sermon on how to love people, until we learn our neighbor’s name who’s lived next to us for several years, until we acknowledge the fact that we’re all made in the image of God and should be treated as such, and until the church learns to love for no reason, but to obey Christ’s commandment, she will continue to be as unattractive as the above three daughters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do I Have To Like My Neighbor?

A few years after Karen and I were married, we started attending a small Charismatic church in our neighborhood. Our small and friendly church was literally adjacent to a very conservative church—we shared a common retaining wall. Years earlier, the church had purchased a piece of property from our church to build a larger parking lot. One would think that an act like that would create a rather cordial relationship between the two congregations, but au contraire.
Both churches held their services simultaneously. Every Sunday, as soon as I got out of our car, I would start waving at our neighbors attending the church next door. In all the years we attended church there, none of our Christian neighbors ever waved back at me. Somehow, their more correct theology prevented them from showing the love of Christ to those Christians whose theology was not quite as sophisticated as theirs. I often wondered, “Isn’t loving our neighbors as ourselves a part of Christ’s greatest mandate to his followers? Even if they considered me a heathen dog, I still deserved some crumbs off their righteous table, as the Grecian woman said to Jesus.”
By the way, we, the Charismatic believers, might think we are more ecumenical than other denominations, but when it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves, we have our own unique issues. I attended a Charismatic mega church for years. Next to the  property was a Masonic temple. During all the 12 years that I attended church there, I never paid any attention to our Mason neighbors. After all, they were a bunch of demon-possessed people who should have been avoided at any cost.
I will never forget the day when my friend Terry, a staff member at the mega church, was asked by the leadership to inquire into the possibility of purchasing the Masonic temple. This is what the temple’s caretaker said to Terry, “You people have been our neighbors for 14 years. Not once have you even acknowledged our presence, and when you finally have, it’s because you want us out of the neighborhood.”
In one of my earliest posts, “Are You A Heat Waver”, I asked the following question: if you the individual (If you’re a pastor, I’m not talking about your church building, or your church members, but you and your family.) move out of your neighborhood tonight, will your neighbors miss you tomorrow? If not, why not?
As Dallas Willard said, “The key to understanding the teachings of Jesus still remains: Loving our neighbors as ourselves in the power of God.  And when you think about what that means, you realize that if that were done, almost every problem that we have in our cities would be solved. All we have to do is to simply follow Jesus’ words.”
Recently, at a meeting related to the Neighborhood Initiative, a movement started by my dear friend, Lynn Cory, a pastor shared with the 60 pastors present the difficulty he had in connecting with his neighbors. “I’m in a tough neighborhood. I don’t know how to approach my neighbors,” he said. I suggested that he starts waving at anyone who walked or drove by his house. Yesterday, I received this video clip by him (It might take a while to load).
It’s amazing what a genuine act of kindness through the love of Christ can do.
PS. If you’re interested in reaching out to your neighbors, may I suggest the book, Neighborhood Initiative written by Lynn Cory? You can buy it on Amazon, or get it directly from: www.neighborhoodintiative.org

Are You A Heat-Waver?

Have you watched the show, “King of the Hill”? It’s one of the very few animated TV shows that tells stories with moral values. In Season 12, Episode 4 (“Four Wave Intersection”), Bill — a depressed, divorced, and overweight character on the show — becomes known as the famous “Heat-Waver” when he begins to stand on the side of the highway in a scorching summer heat to wave to passing motorists.

At first, some drivers are annoyed by his seemingly foolish act, but eventually, they start to wave back. It doesn’t take Bill too long to realize how every driver enjoys being acknowledged even though they have no idea who Bill is. So, he shows up the next day on the same spot to do the same thing. Soon, he becomes the talk of the town and even radio talk-show hosts begin to talk about the “Heat-Waver”.  

For me, it all started one Saturday in 1998 when Karen and I decided to start a Bible study at our house for unbelievers, pre-Christians, non-Christians, or whatever is politically correct to call those who don’t follow Christ.

After 2 hours of discussion, we realized, as great as our attempt was, we didn’t know too many non-Christians. We worked with Christians, served Christians, went to church with Christians, socialized with Christians, ate and drank with Christians, and, consequently, had very a few non-Christian friends. Like most Christians, we lived under an illusional bubble called “Christendom”— a bubble that separated us from the real world and limited us in fulfilling the Great Commission.

As we were trying to figure out where we could find more unbelievers, one of us (I don’t remember which one) said, “Hey, what about our neighbors?” “Oh, yes! What a novel idea,” I thought to myself. However, the idea was NOT that novel.

After 8 years of living in our neighborhood, aside from the next-door neighbors on either side of our house, we barely knew anyone in our neighborhood. Why? Because we were too busy serving at the church.

So, that very day I went house-to-house on our block to invite neighbors to our home for dinner. That was the start of one of the greatest decisions Karen and I have ever made: loving our neighbors by befriending them.

In 2006 when I lost my job working for a Christian organization, I became a full-time househusband, which helped me get even more involved with the lives of my neighbors, or anyone I ran into in my neighborhood. I started my own “Heat-Wave”. I began to wave and say “hi” to anyone who drove or pass by our house. When I took my dog, Cocoa, for a walk I made sure to greet everyone I met on the street and it didn’t matter if I knew them or not. Everybody deserved to be waved at and greeted.

At first, there were some who didn’t wave back. After all, this is Los Angeles. Within some cultures, to show your teeth as the result of a smile is considered a weakness, but I kept waving and greeting. It didn’t take very long before almost everyone in the neighborhood started to wave back and came to know the man and his Chocolate Lab.

Today when Karen takes Cocoa for a walk, it’s not unusual for strangers to walk up to her and say, “Hi, Cocoa!” and then, immediately look at Karen and say, “Where’s your husband?” But wait, there’s more…

As I got to know my neighbors better, our relationships deepened and I was allowed to ask questions of them. You see, when you show people you care enough to acknowledge them even if it is by a simple wave or a greeting, they will eventually open up to you. It did take a while, but little by little, neighbors began to pull over or stop by to talk to me. Our conversations would go something like this:

Me: “ Hi, my name is Shah. What’s your name?”

Neighbor: “‘Jack’! It’s so kind of you to wave at me every day when I go by your house. Good to finally meet you.”

Me: “What do you do for living, Jack?”

Jack: “I’m an engineer. What do you do?”

Me: “I’m a writer. Here, I have a gift for you.” Going to the garage, I come back with a copy of my book and give it to “Jack” as a gift.

I don’t need to SHARE the Gospel with Jack, whom I just met. My book will eventually do that. For now, I want him to understand how important he is to me. Important enough that every time he runs into me, or drives by my house, he’ll be greeted by a wave and a smile as a significant person.
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It’s one of those pleasant June evenings in Los Angeles. Many of our neighbors are out for a walk and I’m playing with Cocoa on the front lawn. She loves to fetch her red ball. As I look up, I see Jasmine approaching me.

“Cocoa,” she screams. I don’t think she remembers my name, but Cocoa she remembers. It must be Cocoa’s color that does it, or maybe her loving demeanor.

“Where’s Victor?” referring to her husband, I ask.

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“No!”

“Victor was diagnosed with, how do you say? The blood cancer.”

“You mean leukemia?”

“Yes, that’s it. He’s very weak and can’t walk with me.”

“Will you let me pray for him?” I ask as I reach over, grab her hands and begin to pray.

Jasmine walks away with tears in her eyes thanking me.

A few minutes later Kevin pulls up. He’s my neighbor around the block.

“How are you, brother?” He’s been calling me that ever since I got to know him.

“Hey, have you lost any of Vicky’s dogs lately?” I teasingly ask him.

A few weeks earlier as I was walking Cocoa in the hills across the street from our house, Kevin approached me with tears in his eyes.

“Brother, I need your help?”

“What’s up?”

“As you know, my wife, Vicky trains dogs. Well, a few minutes ago, one of them ran away from our house.” I’ve been walking up and down the block, but can’t find him.

Without asking a word, I put my hand on his shoulder and begin to pray for the dog to come back.

That night my neighbor, Jeff, on the end of the block finds the dog.

As Kevin drives away, I suddenly realized: I may not have a church building, but I’m the block’s official pastor.

PS: This morning Jasmine told me Victor’s doing much better.