At the risk of oversimplification: ambassadors are defined by a two-fold responsibility. First, they must develop and maintain relationships among those to whom they are sent. Second, they must also hold unswervingly to the values and message entrusted to them by those from whom they are sent. As one called to be a Christian ambassador (II Corinthians 5:20), this is complicated by the absence of diplomatic relations between the kingdom that sends me (I Peter 2:9-10) and the overarching government under which any other allegiances are organized (“the whole world” as explained in I John 5:19-21). We often express this as the challenge of being in the world, while not becoming of the world.
This past Saturday, privileged to observe the groundbreaking of the Dharma Rain Zen Center’s new facilities in Portland, Oregon, I stood somewhere in the intersection of those two responsibilities. My vantage point was not from the curb of the corner, but amidst the traffic flowing in several directions simultaneously.
On the one hand, I was anxious over the potential for inadvertently offending my hosts, especially since I was there as a guest of a guest (Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, head of the Cultural Engagement track in Multnomah’s DMin program was one of the featured dignitaries). On the other, however, I was anxious over the potential for participating in some portion of the festivities that might inadvertently communicate an adherence or agreement to the philosophy and spirituality of Zen Buddhism. One particular episode may illustrate that sufficiently for you:
After watching the rituals and listening to the mantras, hearing a few of the explanations offered (outdoor sound system difficulties are among the experiences Christians and Buddhists share, apparently), members of Dharma Rain moved throughout the assembled crowd, distributing paper cups. Recognizing that this would be a part of the ceremony, and having no idea what it may symbolize, I declined. And then another asked, and I declined again. Having watched me say, “No, thank you” three times, the fourth in our area offered again, saying, “But it’s just birdseed.” I have some ideas about what it means to throw birdseed, or rice, or confetti (though at our church, amidst fields of wild rice and vegan cattle, it would only be organic, biodegradable confetti). But the risk of offending my hosts collided with my allegiance to a pure message of my Lord—because there wasn’t time to merge, or swerve, or diplomatically inquire as to what was intended as the significance of birdseed throwing in this context. Thankfully, she seemed only puzzled and there was no diplomacy-breaching incident. But I feel strongly the need to learn from even this brief and otherwise inconsequential experience.
I want to commend to you and myself the value of standing in the intersection, fully recognizing both elements of our responsibility in being ambassadors for Christ: authenticity in representing my Sovereign, and as much accommodation of my hosts as is possible. In doing this, I believe there may be two outcomes, eventually, of this continuing endeavor. It may be, as one outcome, that I may become acclimated to the pace of the traffic and better equipped to respond more quickly in determining what it means to honor the relationships I am to build and the relationship I am called to represent. The other outcome, however, may be naïvely ambitious. But if I learn how to stand in the intersection well enough, I may slow the traffic, or at least be better prepared to turn some portions of that world toward the King who sends me into it.
Because no matter how accommodating I am to those under that other, oppressive umbrella comprising their subsidiary allegiances, my Sovereign-assigned mission is to seek their reconciliation with Him. There won’t always be time to sort through the data, to draw upon resources for cultural literacy, or even to simply ask for clarification. And so, when they conflict, the authenticity of representing my Sovereign must take precedence over my accommodation of my hosts.