Friday, November 30, 2007

Life of a Nomad

I’ve always been intrigued with nomads? What is it in their makeup that they can’t stay in one place for a long period of time, always on the move?

I’m not talking about the tribal nomads roaming the deserts. I worked with those people for fourteen years in the bush of Kenya, and I know why they move about…they are in search of grass and water for their herds. I remember the first time I walked into one the Turkana compounds and being struck by how little stuff they have. Their little huts are not more than five feet high and wide. They find just enough sticks and brush to provide shelter from wind, sun and rain; nothing else is needed. They have no beds, a few pots that could fit in a small suitcase, no extra clothes, nothing to weigh them down for their next move in a few days time.

The nomads I am thinking about are people, well, like my wife and I. My folks have lived in the same county for over forty years. My two brothers have never lived outside of Arkansas since we moved there in the early 60’s. My in-laws also haven’t lived out of Benton County and my father-in-law has lived on same corner of land for at least 60 years, maybe longer. So what’s the deal with Sandy and I?

The best my memory serves me, in the 39 years we have been married we have lived in at least 17 different houses. These are the times we physically moved our stuff into new dwellings and doesn’t include the many times we stayed in guest houses, homes and apartments for shorter periods of time. Along with that tally we have lived in six different states and foreign two countries.

Not all people in my profession are nomadic. I know several colleagues who have lived in their adopted country for thirty years. In fact, those who do stay on the field for any length of time usually put down pretty deep roots. Being a cross-cultural worker doesn’t automatically mean that they will be nomads.

I realize there are other professions that are inclined to nomadism. Military personnel come to mind, but also people in sales, who often get transfers. Even in these occupations people do not have to move around as they can ask their companies to give them permanent assignments. But some, like us, are forever packing up and moving to new destinations.

Every time we have a sale, selling our stuff for pennies that we bought with dollars just a few months before, I think about how nice it would be to just stay with our stuff in one place for a long period of time. Oh the joy of being attached to a worn out and outdated chair! Every time I wrap a box of stuff to send to my next destination I think of my African desert friends and how they never have to think about storing, saving, sending or even preserving their things.

At my age you’d think I’d be ready to settle down. I realize that social time will eventually catch up with me, but until I physically can’t move, I can't say for certain when will be our last stop. When I’m in my 70’s it’s entirely possible that I will say to Sandy, “What do you think about living in Macau for a few years?” Yo-ho-ho, it’s the nomadic life for me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When The Days Get Shorter

It’s been one of those weeks when everything is abnormal. Routine has its place and this week has started out uneventful with a twist.

First, the weather has turned cold in Delhi. My friends in Europe or U.S. sneer at the thought of a climate that plunges to 50 overnight and finds its way up to 80 by mid-afternoon being late Fall. But may I remind you that (a) the buildings here are block – no insulation -- so the bricks in the house never warm up; (b) fires compound the pollution in the city at night by those who must live/work on the streets. The mood in the city is no longer as festive as it was just two weeks back during Diwali. The city, which has over a 100 degree heat more than 250 days of the year, has settled in, just waiting for the mini-spring that will happen sometime late February.

At 4:46 a.m. Monday we were jolted awake by an earthquake. Okay, a tremor, 4.6 or something like that, but if it’s strong enough to shake the bed and wake me up, it’s an earthquake. As I held on to the side of the bed I wondered when the time was right to start running downstairs? Before the (cold) bricks start falling, or do I just take flight immediately? If a major one ever does hit this place I can’t imagine the extent of the damage and loss of life.

My dear friend, Mr. J. turned 87 yesterday. Sick, malnourished, helpless, he just wants to die but doesn’t know how. His only words to me as I wished him happy birthday was, “I’m so sick of myself.”

Well, isn’t this a cherry post? I did receive a note from a guy who lives in Colorado. He said he reads Blue Passport often but seldom responds. He writes, “Your Blogs are something I always look forward to reading because they are food for the brain. An anonymous wise man once said there is food for the eyes, food for the body, food for the soul, and food for the brain; and to me that is what your blogs are, food for my brain.” Thanks, Bill, hope this one doesn’t give your brain heartburn.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Charitable or Foolish?

Standing on the railway platform my friend noticed a coolie carrying bags for a European. The going rate for such labor is about $1, but the coolie asked for $10. The visitor didn’t have the change in the local currency so he gave him the equivalent of $12 and told him “keep the change.”

As the coolie walked away he said to his friend, “God blessed me with a fool early today.” My friend, overhearing the remark, rebuked him and told him he should be grateful for other people’s generosity and not make fun of them. The coolie sneered at my friend and went his way.

Last week my friend and I took a cycle rickshaw to have supper. My colleague, who is a very compassionate fellow, ordered for our driver “take out” so he could eat as well. When the rickshaw walla took us to our final destination we paid him more than a fair fare. Instead of being grateful, he asked for more with an attitude that somehow we had insulted him by offering him less. My friend sighed and said, “Sometimes guys like that make me not want to be generous.”

There is always a tension between the rich and poor, generosity and ungratefulness. The European hardly will miss being overcharged twelve times the rate. The coolie, whose lot in life is one of carrying other people’s bags, no doubt can use the extra money. However, if a foreigner thinks for a minute that his generosity will be seen as an act of charitable kindness, they are sadly mistaken. Not all poor people see the rich as fools in which to manipulate for as much as they can get out of them, but the truth is there are more with the attitude of the coolie and the rickshaw driver than we imagine. My take on tipping in a developing country is to learn the rules of the game and behave from those cultural rules. Its okay to be generous, but try to do it within reason of the local economy. People will respect you if you are kind and charitable, but they have a disdain for rich fools.

Having just completed Thanksgiving, I am reminded of the twelve lepers who were healed by Jesus. Only one of them returned to thank Him. The lesson of the coolie and the leper is a reminder that the motive of the giver should always be with honest compassion and the receiver would do well to have enough integrity and gratefulness to say thanks.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What About Bob (Singh)?

I was on a night train last week with Bob Singh. Bob (a name I’ve given him) is an American WASS (white Anglo-Saxon Sikh) who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He wears a white kurta, turban and sports a long white beard. I’m guessing Bob, who seems like a good-natured fellow, takes on the roll of Santa Claus in his community around Christmas time. He is sitting one row in front of me so I can’t hear all of his conversation but, like all Americans, he talks loud and constant. I piece together that he has been a Sikh convert for over twenty years. Being from Santa Fe, a city known for their ethereal cosmology, Bob probably hardly gets a second glance from the citizenry. Bob has found a truer path to peace and tranquility and he proudly wears a silver medallion around his neck in honor of his guru.

What’s interesting to me about Bob is he’s traveling with Indian Sikhs and one young man is interested in what other people in America think of his conversion? I can’t hear Bob’s reply, but what strikes me is Bob’s ignorance of his enlighten experience. It’s okay for him to discover the truth, if that’s what he believes, but does he know that most of those around him do not share his faith out of conviction? Ninety-nine percent of Sikhs are of that religion only because it is a part of their cultural identity. That would be true of most Muslims, Buddhist and, though to a lesser degree, Christians. Those Bob proudly identifies with are a people who, if they did want to follow a different faith, would probably be barred from doing so. The few Sikhs I know who are followers of Christ tell stories of disinheritance, ostracism and persecution. The people Bob glibly is sharing his testimony with are citizens of a country that has anti-conversion laws. For a Sikh to take on the faith of Jesus would mean a loss of status in their society, which would be changed to OBC (other backward caste), which is one of many reasons why they are not open to the Gospel.

We are all in search of truth. Bob, and a lot of other Americans who embrace eastern religion, would do well to understand that the shining path to nirvana is seldom chosen freely. Bob should thank God he lives in a country that allows him the opportunity to seek truth unconstrained. It’s a privilege that his new brothers and sisters will never experience.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What's The Difference?

As I write I’m taking the night train back home. It’s time for assessment. I spent three days and about three hundred dollars for transportation, food and hotel. The class was not thirty pastors working where the Christian population is less than one percent. I was delighted to speak to those assembled on the theme, Reaching Your Community For Christ. The sessions went well; those in attendance seemed to appreciate the new concepts presented to them.

Before I left, my national friend and I discussed the challenges of being in ministry, especially since we both have to raise funds for our work. The Great Commission system is out of kilter as the only thing our Lord said to His disciples was to go into the world, present the message and make disciples. He didn’t say anything about church buildings, bible schools, holding seminars, raising funds to travel on a train or renting a place to live in a foreign country. Some of the best work for Christ is everyday people who live in their everyday communities telling family and friends about the joy that have in Jesus. Even more impressive are those Hindu’s or Muslim’s who are now followers of Christ that quietly, but faithfully, work out their salvation in their own context. They publish no prayer letters, they solicit no funds. They are the unseen church, though not invisible.

And then there is the mission industry, which is a branch of the market driven church. Missiologist write about and opine on the need to target UPG’s (unreached people groups), do statistics on the most UPG’s, but know that if they don’t quantify the ROI then the ecclesiastical venture capitalist (foundations, churches and individual donors), won’t be forthcoming in underwriting the foreign enterprise. The vicious cycle that the capitalist church finds itself in today is one of counting noses so the nickels (pennies actually, compared to the dollars that remain in America) will continue to make it’s way to those who have never heard His name.

As my train rolls on down the tracks, my mind swings back and forth, keeping rhythm with my swaying coach. What good is all of this traveling, teaching and begging for support? If I really were a gospel entrepreneur I’d package these seminars so that people in states could buy “soul shares.” For $50 a month they could support one national pastor which will baptize roughly ten people a month, which means their ROI is a mere $5 a soul. If more souls are saved there will be, of course, more bang for the buck and the initial investment will result in higher dividends. If the national doesn’t produce we can always close his account and give to the servant who took ten talents and doubled the initial investment. While this idea sounds economically and strategic viable it’s just another market scheme generated with a view of the bottom line but often does not make missiological sense.

Larry King asked Billy Graham, in his last interview, what difference he thought he made in the world? Is the world better today than when he first began his ministry? Graham replied that he didn’t know what difference his life made. On the surface the world doesn’t look a lot better than when he began his ministry in the ‘50’s. His answer was that “only in eternity will anyone know what difference they made on this earth.”

I have no idea the outcome of my time this past week, whether it will make any difference in the grand scheme of things is something won’t be revealed until the universal clock stops. I will always struggle with my role in a system that seems to have lost its way. I can’t quit, though sometimes it’s a temptation. I won’t because, in spite of all my reservations, I’m a bit-player that still has a role. Perhaps that’s what Christ had in mind for all of His followers – to do the best we can with the gifts He has given us, keeping our eye on Him and not the ROI.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dogs, Goats and Seed Offerings

“I noticed you are getting up early these days and opening the front gate,” I said to my landlady, Mrs. J.

“My brother-in-law told me if I would feed the [stray] dogs each morning it will help Mr. J. feel better,” she replied.

How strange, I thought. How can a person who is as educated as Mrs. J. believe in such absurd superstitions? However, in the four years I have lived here I have come to the conclusion that Hindu’s are some of the most superstitious people I have ever met. How else can you explain giving sweets to a cow, dipping money in yogurt for prosperity or hanging a sandal on the back of a rickshaw to ward off the evil eye?

All superstition is a form of animism. Edward Tylor, who coined the word, define animists as people that believe non-living objects have life, personality and even souls. In Tylor's opinion, the belief in spirits and gods arose from man's experience of dreams, visions, disease and death. Hinduism indeed has a strong animistic base, but so, too, does folk Islam, folk religion and some Christians.

Attending a funeral in the bush of Pokot years ago, the people sacrificed a goat at the end of the ceremony. After gutting the goat the people washed their hands in its stomach of the slain animal. Their belief that through this ritual they were cleansing themselves from the disease that took the life of their loved one.

Tibetan Buddhist’s hang prayer flags over their house believing that through these pieces of cloth the spirit of good wishes and positive energy is carried throughout the community by the wind.

To non-believers these practices seem bizarre and even primitive. Yet I also observe Christians praying to image of a "saint;" buying anointed prayer clothes for healing and hear preachers tell their flock that if they will just give money to the church as a “seed offering” of faith, they can expect a heavenly ROI (return on investment).

Superstitious ritual is an attempt to coerce god(s) and spirits to act. Functionally, irrational rituals of the Hindu and the Christian are equal. All animism is born out of ignorance -- not knowing or understanding God. All people, with “eternity in their hearts,” long to appease the higher powers so he or it will grant favor to them. Superstition is an attempt to bridge the void between the physical and metaphysical, and it is a universal phenomenon. One can judge such practices as foolish, but to assume that the rituals of others are different from our strange behavior is as absurd as feeding stray dogs for healing.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Happy Diwali

The night sky in New Delhi on Diwali reminds me of the images of Baghdad the night the U.S. invaded Iraqi. The fireworks begin at dusk and goes on throughout the night. By the fourth hour smoke hovers over the whole city. By the sixth hour we go to bed, with earplugs.

Diwali is the most festive of all holidays in India, primarily in the north. The celebrations focus on lights, lamps and fireworks. Celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, there are varied versions of legend and myth. The most common is the homecoming of King Rama after a 14-year exile in the forest after defeating the demon King Ravana (pictured below). Thus on this night people welcome him back by lighting up rows of lamps.

Another popular myth is the lighting of lamps to invoke Lakshmi Pooja, the Goddess of fortune and wealth. People believe that Lakshmi brings prosperity, which is denied, to those who leave their home unlit on the day. The goddess Lakshmi is worshipped at this time and her image and coins of are washed with yoghurt.

Sikhs associate this festival with the laying of the foundation stone of the Golden Temple at Amritsar by their fourth Guru, Ram Das. They also associate it with the release of Guru Hargobind from prison by the Mogul Emperor Jahangir. Jains celebrate Diwali as the day when Lord Mahavira attained Nirvana.

Those are the legends, but in practical everyday terms it marks the time of the Hindu New Year and a time when family and friends buy gifts for each other and visit. In spite of the religious overtones, few people see it as a holy festival, except for the superstitions that accompanies much of Hindu ritual.

Some Christians refuse to recognize the day and would never greet another person with “Happy Diwali.” I’ve never understood the resistance in being courteous to another’s person’s holiday, even if you don’t agree with the meaning behind it. When Hindu’s and Muslims wish me a Merry Christmas or Happy Easter, I don’t think they feel they are compromising their faith. I am assuming they know little to nothing about my faith and if they do, to say Merry Christmas to me is a sign of respect to me as a person, though maybe not my beliefs.

So, to my Hindu friends, Happy Diwali. Let’s indeed talk about the triumph of good over evil and about the One who said, I am the light of the world: he that follows me will not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Church Planting: Defining Terms

Last week one of my students asked a pointed and challenging question.

“Is church planting the only method to reach a community for Christ?”

His question was born out of the reality that he is working in culturally restrictive community. People in his region are identified by their religion, not as a faith but as a part of their cultural distinctiveness. Even if people become followers of Christ they will not openly declare their faith due to the prohibitions placed on them by society. Acknowledging openly that they are followers of Jesus does not just affect the convert but brings shame on the family which can lead to ostracism, financial ruin, even death. With the reality of such circumstances perhaps the emphasis on church planting within evangelical circles should be revisited.

Church planting, of course, is not a biblical phrase. Putting the pieces together of the Great Commission, i.e. taking the Gospel to all the world, make disciples, baptizing, teaching, meeting as a community of believers, over the centuries a model, called church planting, has evolved. Pentecost produced a hierarchy of apostles and deacons; Paul throughout Asia left leaders in the wake of his evangelism and then he wrote letters to local congregations (Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, etc.). No one I know believe these early congregations purchased land, erected places for meetings, started schools, orphanages or became organized in faith groups (denominations or fellowships).

The evolution of Christianity is a mixed bag of believers who took their faith throughout the world through the circumstances of war, famine, persecution, commerce and organized proselytizing. Protestants became active in the GC a little over 300 years ago. Most of the early workers were translators, explorers, medical workers and educators. From their efforts indeed people did come to faith in Christ and congregations of believers assembled. Most evangelicals today wouldn’t have supported the pioneers of the past, like David Livingston, Hudson Taylor, William Carey, because they weren’t church planters as we think of presently.

So what is church planting today? They are perceived as people who go into a city or village, preach, baptize and disciple followers of Christ. They also buy land, build church buildings and, theoretically, turn over the local leadership to nationals. This model works well where there are no restrictions on expatriates and there are no religious constraints on national church workers.

But what if a national or expatriate Christian is unable to serve in the traditional model of church planting today? What if they are living in a religiously restricted area and must work as a teacher or is contracted to do social work with a NGO? And, what does the traditional model have to say about those who hear the Gospel but are not yet ready or able to be incorporated in a traditional church plant?

Perhaps it’s time for us to revaluate our terms. While the function of church planting may be the same, the form, method and model should be as contextual as our message and discipleship. A church planter, as well as the convert, will look different in every context. Church planting is not the issue, but rather how we perceive what that means in today's complex and diverse world.