Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Power of the Physical

For as long as I knew my mother-in-law she observed one solemn ritual, Decoration Day. In the south, each spring local cemeteries would set aside a day for this special occasion where relatives would go and put flowers on the headstone of their departed loved ones. It’s also a time to remove unsightly weeds and other debris, a type of spring-cleaning for the graveyard. Memorial Day, which initially established to remember fallen soldiers, has taken over Decoration Day, but has the same function.

Of course my mother-in-law understood the remains under the sod had no spiritual significance, at least I don’t think she did, but rather the gravesite was a touchstone, a physical connection to the one who was no more. Catholics in South America has a similar practice called All Saints Day. Some of them have a superstitious notion that by praying to their kin the dead relatives will grant their requests, or perhaps take the request to the Virgin Mary, Saint Peter or maybe even to Jesus Himself. Buddhist pray to their ancestors. Even my aged and sickly Hindu neighbor told me the other day he prays to his mother that she will grant his wish to let him die. Idols, temples, churches, saints even cemeteries are “sacred space,” for us mortals. Why do people do revere these things? It’s the power of the physical. What we see, touch, posses we can conceptualize as real. What we cannot see is perhaps just myth.

Capitalism and the free market economy is the driving force behind the power of the physical. My sister-in-law sells cars, but not just any car, she sells BMW’s. Ah, but she sells more than automobiles, she sells image. If you drive a BMW you are making a statement that you are successful. Certainly a BMW is a nice car, but it has the basics you will find on a Ford or Honda, or even a horse cart for that matter. Four round wheels, a place to sit, a steering system and a power source. Depending on image preference, capitalism will steer (no pun intended) a demographic buyer toward the $40K silver roadster or $40K double cab pickup. Both conjure a powerful physical symbol in the automotive market.

Because we are physical people, living in a physical world, our value system is influenced by our material world. A person's weight, color of hair, whiteness of teeth, skin tone, dress, social associations, house, the comforts one strives for, all point to the physical. Fat means lazy, dark skin means lower class (or caste...or terroist), plastic means poor, country club means status. We kill, cheat, horde for the our cherished physical symbols.

The church is not immune to the power of the physical. The buildings they erect, the music they perform, the programs they create for the special focus groups in their congregation, are all a part of the emphasis on the physical. As I listen to pastors the topic generally is about the three “P’s,” programs, presentation and property. In missions, the focus is on churches planted, fostering a people movement, reproducing the western physical in a foreign context.

What’s the harm? Nothing, except that there are two dimensions of man, one physical the other is the metaphysical (see 8/22 post). So dominant is the physical that it not just overwhelms, it often annihilates the spiritual. The more one buys into the physical the less we are even aware of our “real” needs, which is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When was the last time you heard, in a church business meeting, a serious discussion in the budget to help the homeless, the drug addicts, elderly or handicapped in the community? How ironic that helping others with their physical may be the instrument God will use to lead us to the metaphysical.

As I write this I am aware of the tree trunk in my own eye. I am not only consumed with the physical, I fret and worry about it. Am I doing enough to satisfy my donors who want a report on those ‘saved’ or churches planted under my ministry? How can I make my presentation, my newsletters more attractive so that people will see that I’m a good investment for their support? How do I look before my peers? Do they see me as intellectually capable, or merely an intellectual-wannabe dufus? Do I really care as much about the rag pickers I see on my morning walks as I do about my retirement portfolio? Am I like the young ruler who turned away from Jesus, so close to the kingdom, but walked away sad because he had much wealth he was unable to part with?

Of course Jesus was the antithesis of those dominated by the physical. He didn’t dress for success, he ate with the wrong crowd, blessed and cared for the wrong people. The only image he was concerned about was reflecting the image of His Father. “If you’ve seen me work,” he told Philip, “you have seen the Father.” If I am to ever break this bondage of the physical I must fully embrace His words, “Seek first the kingdom [metaphysical] of God and these other things [physical] will be provided for you.”

Friday, August 25, 2006

#3 Why I Love My Job

There is a difference between working with, working for, working alongside national church leaders. There is a lot of talk about “facilitating” the national church, but, like the details, somewhere the devil is in the definition.

When a North American organization states they are working with the national church, many times they mean they have a program or agenda and they have found nationals who provide local bodies to be a part of the program. Many of the facilitating projects in the world are American led and financed, working with nationals. In the grand scheme of things, this is not always bad, but it is not exactly what I do.

A few years back I heard a pastor of a national church say, “Foreign missionaries coming to this country should submit themselves to the national church. If they want to help our country they should serve under the direction of the national leadership.” What he was saying was the role of expat’s should be to work for them. If I was under thirty years old, had no experience overseas, I could see where that might be a rational suggestion. Provided the national leader knew what he was doing, wouldn’t try to exploit free labor and was willing to mentor me in the process of learning culture and ministry. The leader who made this comment is a wonderful person, but he’s not even a good pastor (working with people), so I would hate to think what type of a mentor he would be. Being over forty, ah, over fifty, with thirty years of service and being an independent type, the “S” word is not something I am comfortable with. At this point in my life I don’t want to work for even my most respected national leaders. Like borrowing money, that would be a recipe to end a wonderful friendship.

The reason I love my job at this stage of life is that I truly do work alongside the national church. Because my training is unique (a future post), I do not have to build anything, fund anything (except my training expenses) and, I am not lording over others nor being lorded over. Working alongside national pastors I do not get involved in their finances, politics or internal conflicts. Being a true facilitator is probably the most effective way a North American can serve the national church today.

And, what wonderful national leaders I have worked alongside! In the second term of our work in Kenya I released all responsibilities and decision making to the national pastors. It took awhile, not always a smooth transition, but today they are some great leaders I now visit and facilitate. In India, those I work alongside, are people with vision and unusually high ethical standards. Many of these leaders have their PhD’s, have a passion for Christ and know the difference between with and for. When I go to other countries, like Serbia recently, Moldova in November, I do so knowing that what I provide in training is for their benefit, not my own.

Admittedly, my job is unique. A combination of having the right educational credentials, practical and real life cross-cultural experience, and nearly two million road miles, I am, not one of a kind, but one of the few, who can truly serve in a facilitative role to the church. At this stage in life is it any wonder…I love my job.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

38 Years of Travel

We met in February, walked down the aisle six months later. We really didn’t know much about each other when we started our journey together, and after thirty-eight years, today, we still don’t always get it exactly right. But, we’re doing better. I can’t imagine what the trek would have been without you. Happy anniversary Sandy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Gap Between the Physical and the Spiritual

Sometimes my readings come together as a fusion of thought. Yancey (whose book is like a like a good cigar that is to be savored one delightful draw at a time, not puffed as though it was a cigarette on a two minute break) writes of the power of harnessing the physical. “Whoever masters the material world,” he writes, “determines future’s fate.”

Our forefathers harnessed the power of horses, then steam and electricity. Today’s harness is nuclear energy and the microchip. The nations who have the capability to control the physical are advanced; those without such capabilities are regulated to “developing countries,” which means less advanced, even backward.

At the same time I’m reading Paul Hiebert’s book on epistemology. I’m familiar with Hiebert's work so this is more review than new thought, but his reasoning on physics and metaphysics coincided with Yancey’s readings. Aristolean thought divides the world into two dimensions, thus dualism postulates the physical and spiritual world. Hiebert makes the argument that the “reductionist” view of only seeing the world in either one of these spheres can be fatal. For the materialist, his world is detrmined by what he/she can possess and control (a microcosm of state control of material). How one looks, what does for a living, authority, what ones possess or strives to hold is the land of the physical. To focus on the “other world,” where one lives life in light of only the spiritual dimension makes one a monk, sadu or perhaps a fundamental zealot. These are the people who are often cited as being so heavnley minded they are of no earthly use.

The key, in both Yancey and Hiebert’s conclusion is recognize the balance (and isn’t that the key to everything?). Hiebert calls it critical tension, others call it holism. The reality is that, though there may be constitutionally a separation of church and state, there is no such thing as separation from the physical and the metaphysical. Humanity operates in the physical, but it’s transitory. We can neither totally harness it, nor are we to make it our all consuming passion. The spritual realm is real, but elusive. Man can seek the One whose voice he has not heard, his hand that he cannot see, but it is a world of conjecture until he leaves the physical.

After my readings this morning I went down stairs to visit my eighty-five year old landlord. Slowly growing weaker, he lamented that soon he will not have the strength to make it to the bathroom and wondered, “Who will clean me when I urinate or mess in my bed? How will I bathe when I stink so bad I cannot bathe myself?” He prays to die, but does not know the God to whom he seeks help. He no longer cares about controlling the physical, instead he longs for the release with a hope there is a spiritual dimension where he will not suffer. I walk away, knowing that his struggle today will not be mine. Because of ambition, vanity, pride, I will serve the material more than the metaphysical. By concentrating on the material I will control my fate. One day I will be like my friend and realize that’s not true at all.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Why I Love My Job #2

Many years ago I came across a video series called “Faces of Culture.” I still use segments of this anthropological series in my classes as I discuss kinship, economics, religion and worldview. Each segment begins with clips with faces of people around the world. One of the great perks of my job is being able to see the magnificent world that God created, the faces of culture.

When I started out in ministry I had no real knowledge, or interest, in people of other cultures. I was trained in mono-theology, mono-methodolgy and had every intention of living my life working in a mono-cultural pastorate. Not only did I not understand the world beyond my borders, I had little knowledge of “others” in my own community. My parallax of vision, as Tippett describes it, was culturally determined. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I have not lived my life in a mono-cultural existence.

Not all people in my profession have the privilege of experiencing the many faces of culture as I have, but everyone in my profession at least get an opportunity to see the other faces of culture God has created. I’ve seen the faces of the short, (Aka pygmies of Congo), the tall (Masai or Kenya), the brown (Quechua of Bolivia), the yellow (Lisu of southwest China) the oppressed (Vietnam) the liberated (Estonia), those who worship many gods (in Varanasi, India) the orthodox Christian (Russia and Romania), folk Muslims (Mali and Senegal) cultural Muslims (the Tatar of Russia) practicing Muslims (Turkey, Uzbekistan), follower of Buddha (Thailand and Cambodia) and the pure spirit worshipers called animists (Pokot of Kenya).

What I have learned through interacting with these faces of cultures, and others not listed, is profound. One, though we all are a part of the human race, we do not see the world the same. It took me a long time to shake me out of my mono-cultural theology to come to terms with this. Our values are different; our behavior is certainly different which means our conclusions are vastly different. The perception of God, sin, salvation, life and what happens after life is as varied as the faces of culture itself.

Second, through my profession I have learned to value others. Growing up ethnocentristic as well as fundamental, my first thirty years was spent believing that not only was I right, everyone who I came in contact with was both wrong and damned. Inherent to monoculturalism is their values and practices could be improved if they just became more like us. (Again, this is not just an American problem; it’s a disease of all monoculturalists in every country). The faces of culture have taught me that their way of doing things, their food and dress, even their religion, is valid. I may not agree with them, but through my exposure to God’s mosaic of peoples gives me insight on how, through their culture, He speaks uniquely to them. I am not a universalists, not all roads lead to heaven, but in all religion God can and does reveal Himself.

Third, the benefit of my profession is that I can celebrate and appreciate my own culture with a proper perspective. Though I no longer believe my country or my ethnicity is the best, I am confident it is every bit as valid as any other culture. I make no apologies for being an American. I can boast of my culture, not because of a narrow uniformed perspective, but because I have seen the other faces of culture and can claim my place as a part of God’s Divine design.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Case Against Reductionism

I am presently reading RUMORS of Another World, by Philip Yancey. It’s a book that my mom bought but didn’t like, so she gave it to my daughter, who didn’t have time to read so gave to me, which I put into my suitcase at the last minute before we left the states. Maybe it was Providence that I ended up with book; more likely it was sheer chance. That comment alone tells you why I like the book.

Yancey, McLaren, Lewis, Guinness are as much Christian philosophers as they are writers. Only McLaren comes out of the closet and declares he is a postmodernist, but the others are on the edge. It all comes down to definition of what is a postmodernist, but what they all have in common is their approach to the probing questions of the universe and the Creator of it all without coming to definitive conclusions. While they, in their own minds, have found plausible answers, in the end their arguments remain supposition. Writers, like Yancey, who has been a recovering fundamentalist for thirty years, reject the notion of easy believism for a more post-Enlightenment style that is more systematic and less reductionist.

Take the concept of sin as an example. Biological reductionist would suggest that bad behavior is the result of a malfunction of a genetic makeup. Psychologists contend that it’s due to emotional scarring through a dysfunctional family upbringing; sociologist might say the reason is because of a hostile social environment. Of course all of these may be true, in part, but blaming deviant behavior on the sugar content in Twinkies (as one convict claimed) is a more of a defense to avoid taking personal responsibility that recognizing the root cause.

Theological reductionism is the stuff that makes postmodernist cringe and Christian booksellers grin. Sin, according to those with the answers, is a result of not having enough faith, too little Bible study, not following proper study methods, a lack of submission (to God, husband or church), not having a positive attitude, withholding the tithe, following the fashions of the world, watching movies, listening to secular music, reading romance novels or, God help us, listening to someone who doesn’t declare “Thus saith the Lord.” One can jump through a thousand spiritual hoops or lifestyle modifications and, guess what, we will still sin. It’s not the devil that made us do it, we were not predestined to leave our spouse or cheat on our taxes, we made a conscious and deliberate decision. Why? Because we are sinners, we were born in sin. The depravity of man is one of the few theological reductionist views I hold, which runs contrary to the reductionism of science. However, like my biological DNA, the fact that I am born in sin cannot, does not, excuse me. “You know me, Lord, I’m just a sinner,” doesn’t give me a pass to be greedy, lustful, prideful or boastful.

Books like RUMORS remind me that this journey called life is both a process as well as discovery. If there were a magic formula to knowing God it would have been revealed by now. Yancey, and others like him, do not show us the way, they merely point the possible avenues. In this age of “give me the answers, not the questions,” such books may not satisfy, unless, like me, you have come to the realization that living with ambiguity is part of the God of mystery. It’s rumored there is another world. It’s rumored there is a greater power who is the architect of the universe and that designer seeks a relationship with His creation. I believe the rumor is true. I see in part, but not the whole. I’m intrigued with the mystery; I am not satisfied with the reductionism of others.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Why I Love My Job


In a little over a month my wife and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary. Not our wedding anniversary (which will be 38 years in a couple of weeks) but 30 years as cross-cultural workers. I can still remember the day we made the approach into the Nairobi airport that September day. As I stared down on the plains of Africa, dotted by mud huts and wandering animals, I looked over at my young daughters, ages 5 and 1, and prayed that I hadn’t made a mistake and wondered, “What the heck have I gotten us into?” Those were the days before short-term trips. Today many people in our profession now visit the field at least once, maybe more, to check out whether they like it before they make a commitment. We made our decision to live in Africa on pure faith.

Three decades later our children are grown, married and have children of their own. Sandy and I live in Asia, on the other side of the globe from our family and friends. What drives someone to take on this lifestyle? The other day, while walking through the streets of this city of 12 million people, I started to list the things I like about this life God has led me to live.

- Talking with a young missionary recently she confessed that she sometimes feels guilty about wanting to live overseas because she is attracted to the adventure. I told her that I felt it was normal for a missionary to be adventurous. In fact, I wonder if adventure is not essential for people committed to living overseas. People who do not have a wonder about the world they live in, who are satisfied with the status quo of their home surroundings don’t do well overseas. It’s part of the missionary DNA to want to see what’s on the other side of the mountain, river or jungle. Today’s career worker is not unlike our forefathers of Livingston, Carey and Taylor, who were as much explorers as they were messengers of the Gospel. To be a missionary is to be adventurous.

Of course adventure can’t be the only reason to sell all your worldly goods and move to another culture. It doesn’t take long after one arrives in a foreign land that the reality of living among people who think, speak, act and eat differently than you begins to wear thin. For fourteen years I worked with a tribal group that was considered primitive. The first year in the bush was exciting and adventurous. The next thirteen years that adventure was often coupled with heat exhaustion, frequent bouts with malaria, loneliness, and frustration.

There have been times when I’ve thought about packing it in and returning to the states and doing something else. I know, however, that I would never be truly happy. Once one experiences life outside, “home” never seems to satisfy. Missionaries need the adventure. It’s part of who we are. It’s why I like my job.

(Part one in a series)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Relevance Versus Doctrine

The feature article of the recent Biola Connections is entitled, The “D” Word: Has Doctrine Become the New Dirty Word? The basis of the article is that the study of God’s Word has been replaced with support and interest groups, messages that confirm the Christian faith has given way to emotional healing and encouragement. The hymns of faith have been replaced with demonstrative and, sometimes, silly ditties. “Many Christians don’t see the connection between doctrine and life,” the article asserts, “so important doctrines are being discarded.”

The article cites the doctrine of the Trinity as one example of this trend. T.D. Jakes, pastor of a megachurch in Dallas, rejects the historic doctrine of the Trinity with an ancient church heresy called “modalism.” In April 2000 Jakes said in Religion Today, “I am too busy trying to preach the Gospel to split hairs. People in my generation are lost, hungry, in prison, wounded and alone…Many of our generation are dying without knowing God – not dying for the lack of theology.”

Soon after reading the Biola article I read Os Guinness’ work, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge To the idol Of Relevance. Guinness takes the evangelical church to task accusing them of chasing the god of popularity, success and relevance, over sound doctrine. “How are we to be always timely,” questions Guinness, “never trendy? How are we to be redefined – in the right way?”

Because culture determines much of how we see our world and therefore directs our steps in life, the market economy, its business plans and its business management procedures, is the driving force behind much of the church today. In the world of competition, the focus in the church today is what method can we use to make our congregations more “relevant,” e.g. music, youth programs, even the dress code that appeals to the casual. It’s all about making people feel comfortable and having a satisfying worship experience. While pastors struggle for “market share,” in the community, the name of the game is not just merely having a nice building but attention must be given to Location, Location, Location.

As I reflect on the two readings I make application to my field of ministry overseas. The dominance of western influence on the national church is so strong that they, too, seek methods for church growth and therefore mimic the success of those abroad. Mission methods of adopting people groups and how to foster a people movement, is preferred over adequate study in the doctrines of faith or the training of how to present a relevant message in a non-Christian community.

The tension, for me as well as Guinness, is two-fold. One, I do believe the church should be relevant to the world in which we live. Whether one is serving in Dallas or Dakar, the message of Christ must speak in terms that the average American or Muslim can understand. For too many years the emphasis on theology has become an obstacle to the Message. Whether one is pre-trib or post-trib is irrelevant to those who need to understand who Jesus is and why He is "the Way the truth and the life." While I believe there is objective truth, as Brian McLaren has argued, one must wonder if orthodoxy is truly or objective or merely tradition handed down through those who saw their world through the lens of their time and culture.

Second, the postmodern cross-cultural worker, while crafting a relevant message of the Gospel, must not sacrifice objective truth for the sake of relevancy. To suggest that Christ is merely one avenue to salvation is to discredit His uniqueness.

Understanding the tension between relevance and doctrine is not an easy assignment. The failure of the church is that it seems to caught in an “either/or” position, rather than finding the middle ground in-between. Guinness is right, the church must not be swayed in being trendy at the cost of doctrine. At the same time it must not hold on to orthodoxy at the expense of becoming irrelevant. Though the Message may be irrelevant to unbelievers, that does not mean we must be in our presentation of truth.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What Time Is It?

What time is it? My body says it’s now just before mid-night CDT Thursday August 3rd, but my watch says it’s 10:30 a.m. August 4th. Jet lag now begins. It will take me a couple of days for the body to catch up with the watch. Lots of afternoon naps and long nights wishing I could go to sleep when it’s dark. I have never mastered jet lag. I’ve tried to stay awake until night, but I still wake up at 2 a.m. I now sleep when I need to and hope that in a few days I won’t go brain dead at 3 p.m. in the afternoon. By Monday maybe the watch and the body will be in the same time zone.

The trip was uneventful, except that our bags didn’t make it to the airport with us. I’ve had my luggage lost four times in all my journeys and three of them were with Air France. Charles De Gaulle airport is my least favorite airport and it’s amazing to me how they can’t EVER get my bags to join me on a connecting flight. I always remember the joke my brother tells about the guy who went up to the ticket counter and told the lady, “I’d like to go to Chicago but I want my bags to go to Detroit.”

“We can’t do that sir,” the little girl behind the counter replied?

“You did last week,” the smart aleck but experienced traveler replied.

We are in the monsoon season here so humidity is high but the temperature is not too bad (low 90’s). While it is a bit uncomfortable our block apartment doesn’t radiate the heat as it did in May when the temps was over 110 degrees every day.

It’s great to be back in this culture again. While being in the states was a refreshing break, we are anxious to see how God will direct our paths in the months ahead.