Friday, September 24, 2004

Missionaries and Politics

It’s the political season in the U.S., and that means uncomfortable times for those who live overseas. It doesn’t really matter who is in the White House, if the international community is against America (and for this blog I am using America and U.S. as a synonymous term, knowing that Canadian’s are also North Americans) and its policies, we must endure the constant barrage of criticism. Being the only superpower in the world, it’s fashionable to beat up on our country. America is seen as the hope for the disadvantaged while at the same time the cause for the worldwide misery. The admiration for who we are as a nation and what we have accomplished is coupled with a jealousy and contempt that we don’t do more.

I was living in Kenya during the Cater and Regan era. Carter presided over the beginning of the terrorist campaign (hostages in Iran); when the dollar was at record lows and inflation was at an all time high. Our foreign policies seemed to be apologetic and I still remember Andrew Young coming to Africa confirming what the international community was saying about us, that we were just not good people. Under Regan, world opinion remained negative toward the U.S., as they perceived American policy as moving the whole world toward confrontation with Communism throughout the world, including the conflict in Angola.

Clinton’s administration was more favorable in the eyes of the international community. Thanks, in part, to Regan’s policies hastening the end of Communism, Clinton didn’t have to make the tough decisions about the Soviet Union, which his predecessors had to contend with. The good times of world economic growth of the ‘90’s affected the international opinion, therefore, Clinton, and America, fared well on the global scene. Little did we understand the real danger of terrorism that was lurking and it took September 11, 2001 for the world to see the depth of disdain that some in the radical Muslim world had toward America. When the Bush administration turned to the international community for support against the regime of Sadaam Hussein, they returned to their default position of blaming America first. The United Nations and the international press lean heavily Democratic, so it isn’t surprising that Americans are on the defensive in the run-up to the November election.

Most North American missionaries are non-political, and that is a position we should maintain. It’s okay for missionaries to have opinions and, depending on their ideological persuasion, either defend or criticize our government’s positions. It is difficult, however, to be apolitical when much of the world equates the values of Christianity and government policies to be the same. The support of Israel over the rights of Palestinian’s, the invasion of Iraqi, seen as an attack on a Muslim country, is not easy for the rest of the world to separate. The harsh reality is that for the American, whose only agenda is to take the Good News to a needy world, will always be tainted by the politics of the day. The demise of U.S. would have Kingdom repercussions. But since God is not bound by the political dynamics of this world system it is something we should be aware of, but not cause us to be distraught.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Complex Versus Simplistic

Last night I watched the first of a PBS series on the philosophies of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Freud argued for reason over emotion believing that God was a creation of man rather than man being a creation of God. Lewis, an intellectual who supported reason, saw emotion as a component of reason, believing that through emotion God does interact with His creation.

There are many nuances of this debate that can be explored. One that is of interest to me is the complexity of religious thought versus the simplicity that many people seem to have toward understanding God. The fine balance between every issue is not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. While it is true that for millions of people faith is not an intellectual exercise, it does not negate the equally valid argument that faith should not be regulated to mere emotion. Freud and Marx were probably right in asserting that religion is an “opium for the common man,” while at the same time Lewis and, countless theologians, are equally right that God, in His sovereignty, speaks to the common man beyond mere intellect. The law of non-contradiction does not apply, which Lewis seemed to understand, while Freud did not. Lewis began his spiritual journey as an atheist, became a reluctant convert before eventually becoming an apologist for Christ. Freud, however, could never yield to placing thoughts of the Supreme Being outside empirical data, therefore unable to see God as a reality beyond his finite comprehension.

I am intrigued by this debate as it relates to my role as an educator. In my class in “Equipping People for Cross-Cultural Life,” I spend a significant amount of time in the study of epistemology; how we come to know what we know and further exploring, how do we know what we know is right. I am always amazed how students respond to the challenges of their faith (more striking with international students than North Americans). Evangelicals have an aversion to questioning their doctrine. Somehow questioning how one comes to an understanding of their faith is seen as a threat to their very salvation. My students react strongly when I suggest to them that (a) they are a product of their cultural environment, which includes their faith and, (b) all doctrine is theory. It is to the second point they voice their greatest outrage, for no one wants to accept the possibility that their faith contains error. “How then shall we know what is truth, if there are no absolutes,” they ask? Though I argue for absolutes, the question then becomes, can there be an agreement on what are those absolutes? The answer of course is no. Thus, the debate continues, like the Hindu’s 84,000 cycles of reincarnation, praying that one day we will reach intellectual Nirvana. The present day Christian approach, on the other hand, wrestles not with such dilemmas. Faith closes the debate…“God’s Word says it, I believe it, that settles it,” and it is as simple as that.

I agree that belief in God is not an intellectual exercise, but one of faith. But, does that mean faith so trumps intellect that we no longer question our beliefs? Is it not possible to challenge our theories about God without losing faith in Him? For most people the challenge of the intellect is too confusing, threatening and time consuming to deal with. Simplicity, I contend, is not only dishonoring to our faith, but breeds false and silly doctrine. Pursuing the complexity of faith, I would further argue, is not only a charge to those who are followers of Christ (Matt. 22:37, Phil. 2:12) but also an act of worship. The trick is not to get bogged down with either the complex or the simplistic.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Summer Migrates

The excitement builds each Spring as natives go to the seashore, mountains, and even their rooftops to await the annual migration to their land. As they look longingly toward the skies, their thoughts turn to all the goodies this migration will bring. Some will come with gifts of food, clothing or medicine. Others will bring joy and laughter of song, drama and other special events. It’s been a long winter. The days have been short; the night’s way too long. The citizens have barely been able to survive, but the weather is now warming in that far away land and soon those silver birds will be landing bringing with them, not only abundance to share, but also new toys that will surely amaze them all.

No one really remembers when the summer migration began. Many years ago, the migrants from afar did not quickly leave the land; instead they stayed a long time. Though now rare, some of those earlier migrates are still in the country fifty years later. The early migrates would fly back to their place of origin occasionally, but they would always come back to stay for as long as four years at a time and sometimes even longer. They certainly were a benefit to the natives, as they, too, helped the citizens by building schools, hospitals and places to pray. Some inhabitants say that if it weren’t for those early migrants, the summer migrants wouldn’t have a place to land. One wonders if the earlier breed of migrants is now an endangered species, as there seems to be few arriving to stay these days. Many think they are dying out because it takes too much effort for them to settle in the land, it is hard on their children, and no longer cost efficient.

The summer migrant breed seems to be much more plentiful and the flocks grow larger with each passing year. They are usually young travelers, some hardly out of high school. They are so much fun. Most of them stay for less than two weeks, but that’s okay as in that time the visitors build houses, dig wells and put on skits. Sometimes they go to countries that are not friendly so they merely visit the land, walk and YARP (they can’t use the word “pray” as they might get into trouble) for their nation. Though the natives are a bit sad at the end of the two weeks, they are not in despair as they’ve made new friends, have new email addresses and, after all, as soon as one flock of migrates leaves, there is another group scheduled to land the next day.

The coming and goings of migrants are constant for at least four, with the last group of returning to their own land by September. The inhabitances are sorry to see the end of the migration season, but are warmed by the memories of those who made the trek to their land. A new dress, watch, computer and even a game-boy, though secondhand, is appreciated. The dark winter days will pass quickly and in a few short months the natives will press their faces against the immigration window once again to greet those who will come to their shores and share their love for the less fortunate, even if it’s just for fourteen days. It’s hoped that the summer “M’s,” as they are sometime called, will be so emotionally moved with their visit that they will become long-term migrants, send more financial aid, or at least remember to YARP for the natives. Let’s YARP they will.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Lost Luggage

“I’d like to fly to Dallas,” the man told the girl behind the counter, “but I want my bags to go to Milwaukee.”

“I’m sorry sir,” the little thing said with a puzzled look, “we can’t do that.”

“Why not,” the weary traveler replied, “you did last week.”

Anyone that is at least a Silver Medallion knows the feeling. Last week I flew in from Nicaragua after a hard two weeks of teaching. I couldn’t wait to get home and sleep in my own bed. As I stood at the end of the conveyor belt with expectations of getting my bags, I suddenly realized I was the only one still at baggage claim. Everyone else had picked up their bags. I was all alone. A few minutes ago, there had been a long line of people at the Hertz rental counter nearby, but now they were all on their way home or business with me left holding my carry-on. There I stood, by carousel number two, wondering what my next move should be. As I surrendered to the reality that my bags were a no-show, I walked slowly down the hall to report that, once again, I made my connection, but my suitcase didn’t.

“What color is your bag, sir?” the employee, who was the symbol of my wrath, asked as I filled out the lost baggage claim. I would love to take it out on him, everyone else does, but he didn’t lose my bag so there’s no honor in beating him up.

“Black,” I replied with a bit of an edge. Of course the bag is black, they all are. Luggage manufacturing is a throwback from Henry Ford’s Model-T days when that was the only color car that came off the assembly line. Yeah, I guess I could carry my wife’s pastel flower suitcase, but who wants to risk being called a girly-man just to be able to identify a bag? Her suitcase stands out so much that everyone at baggage claim watches to see what type of person would EVER put they’re clothes in that thing. No thanks, I’ll put a thousand ID stickers on it, but the suitcase will always be black. And the stickers will be manly. No Minnie Mouse or Pooh stickers for me. I also don’t believe in suitcase evangelism, so you won’t see any “I fly with Jesus” stickers on them either. “It’s just a plain black suitcase,” I confessed sadly.

After giving my name and address for the delivery of my bag, (if it ever arrives!), I head outside the terminal, wondering if this is another one of God’s tests on my spirituality. Granted, this wasn’t as dramatic as Job losing his cattle and children, but I wonder if He wasn’t saying to Lucifer, “Have you considered my servant Lewis, at baggage claim two, that there is none like him in all the earth?” Though I would never curse my Creator over this, I came pretty close to cussing out His creation working at Continental.

But wait a minute - I need to look on the bright side. After all, I did make my connection and the plane didn’t crash. Another safe landing, that’s always a very strong positive event. And what an exciting life I live that I can even lose luggage! There’s a ton of people in this world who would love to travel, see the world and even lose their suitcase. Lost luggage for those who seldom travel would be a major part of their story to tell to family and friends. What a great privilege I have to put the airlines in a position of losing my bags every month! As irritating and inconvenient as it was, I didn’t lose my temper. (Good job, Lewis). Maybe I did pass the test. No, I didn't cheerful and say, “God bless you sir, I know it wasn’t your fault,” but I also didn’t give him an earful of how incompetent his company was. I hate to be around people who miss their flights because of a delay or bad weather and they yell and scream at the ticket agents who are in charge of getting them on another flight. Gee, lighten up folks, they didn’t fly the plane.

The reality is, losing luggage comes with the territory of my life. I can’t drive from Managua to Springdale, so I can either quit traveling or quit getting uptight about the inconveniences that are just a part of my rewarding profession. The truth is, the bags always show up eventually. So as I pack for my next trip, I can honestly say, “Thank you, Lord, for another opportunity to serve you in another city and country.” As I walk up to check-in, I resist the urge to say, “I’d like to fly to India, but I want my bags to go to…oh, just surprise me.”