Thursday, October 30, 2008

In Room 666

I am in Thailand for the next few days attending the WEA Missions Commission Consultation. I have been assigned to the International Training Network and look forward to learning more about how I can contribute in this most important aspect of missions.

But my thoughts this morning are on another unusual assignment here in Pattaya, my room number -- 666.

To my Christian readers, 666 is known as the number of the Mark of the Beast, the anti-Christ. Theologians have suggested that is the number he will place on everyone under his reign. I am not superstitious at all. I think there would be some people who might actually ask to have another room. I remember years ago at the training center I established, we had a guest room that had African carvings. A woman who stayed there felt such Satanic oppression that she prayed for protection all night and asked we remove the artifacts the next day. People can be so neurotic about the spirit world sometimes and have irrational fears about Satan’s power and see his activity in everything.

For me, staying in room 666 is ironic, even a bit humorous. I don’t feel any oppression having this room at all and in fact, in the short time I have been here I have had some meaningful prayer time. Maybe it’s a blessing that I am in room number 666.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is Scholarship Missions?

The question came to mind while reading of the death of Kwame Bediako, a theologian/scholar from Ghana. In this tribute of Kwame’s life, Andrew Walls recounts,
“During his time in France he underwent a radical Christian conversion – so radical that at one state he thought of abandoning his studies in favor of active evangelism. Happily, he was persuaded otherwise; the time was coming when he would recognize scholarship as itself as a missionary vocation.”

I grew up in a home that did not value scholarship, indeed, didn’t even understand what that means. I came out of a denomination that believes the only true missionaries are those involved in church planting. I’m presently teaching students who are in pursuit of their Masters of Arts or Masters of Theology degrees. It is an environment of scholars and potential scholars, but the question is, is scholarship missions?

The short answer is, of course, yes. There is no argument of this in the academic world, but certainly they are biased. Those who are not scholarly and more inclined to practical ministry see little value in advanced study, especially in comparison of the real world of life, death, heaven and hell. It’s true; many students would rather remain in the ivory towers of intellectual theory and debate other intellectuals than wrestle with tough issues, which comes with trying to communicate the gospel to a Hindu or Muslim. It’s also true that the vast majority of pastors and missionaries do not need a graduate degree and, in fact, probably most of God’s faithful servants working in the most remote and unreached areas of the world today don’t even have a high school education. But the question remains, is scholarship missions?

Paul Hiebert, anthropologist, professor and scholar, as far as I know, never planted a church. I have no idea how many people or if he personally led a person to Christ or baptized anyone. However you would be hard pressed to find a Western missionary who is on the field today who has not read some of Hiebert’s work, unless they ascribe to the ignorance is bliss theory. I suspect Bediako, had the same impact on African missions. C.S. Lewis wasn’t even in the ministry, but his insights and scholarship continues to influence the church a quarter of a century after his death.

My next assignment will be in the bush of Kenya. No libraries, no PowerPoint presentations, no degrees offered. Just me and a people who don’t even know how to hold a book, much less read one. For some people that’s real missions, but in the grand scheme of things so is scholarship.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Doktors Club

Some weeks back I was asked to present a paper on any topic of my choosing for the South Asian Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) Doktors Club. The paper was presented to the faculty as well as DMin. and MA students who wished to attend. Of course I chose the topic that is dear to my heart, which is anthropology as it relates to communicating the Gospel. The title of my paper was:
Which is Greater, The Content or Context? Making the Case for Teaching Cultural Anthropology in Theological Education.
Yesterday I stood before the assembled of about 40 people for an hour and half fielding questions and responding to their comments, critique and concern.

It’s not often that I have an opportunity to engage in such a forum, but I enjoyed it immensely. Writing well takes work. I spent every afternoon for two weeks on the draft, rewriting, doing research and building an academic argument for my subject. The joy is in the process and rereading my thesis and analyzing so that my rationale of the paper could withstand the challenges I knew would come my way. In the end it was well received and I benefited from the criticism and suggestions that forces me to think about ways I could make my case stronger and more convincible.

Not all people are cut out for the academic life. I certainly am not. I enjoy teaching, but my satisfaction in the classroom can easily be under a tree in Kenya, a non-formal training session with no handout lecture notes in a rented hall or, among formal setting where grades matter. I actually need all of these teaching environments to keep my subject relevant. What this past weeks activity has done for me is driven me back into my library, dust off the old books, read more current material and become an earnest student again about my subject. There is nothing sadder than an old professor who has no new stories to tell or no new experience in which to make his subject more relevant. What the Dokotrs Club did was force me to review my classroom content to make sure it fits in today’s learning context. The world is not static. Cultures change and yesterday’s challenges are, in many ways the same, but packaged with a different set of symbols, values and worldview. We all need, from-time-to-time, a situation that will force us to go back to square one and evaluate our own beliefs and progress. The Doktors Club was not so much a place for me to teach, as it was a place for me to learn.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Luo, Odinga and Obama

Let me start off by saying THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL POST. I have my views, but not for this website. My comments are purely cultural as I lived in Kenya for 14 years and still involved in the work among the Pokot and Turkana people. Perhaps some readers, who are not familiar with Kenya and Obama's roots will find it interesting.

The second largest tribe in Kenya, behind the Kikuyu, are the Luo. Most Luo names begin with the letter “O.” One of our workers was a very fine Luo by the name of Ocheing. Whenever he would write me a letter the envelope was always addressed to Mr. Oluis.

In 1976, when we arrived in the country, Kenya had only had independence for 13 years. One of the main rivals to Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Luo by the name of Oginga Odinga. Whereas Kenyatta strived to maintain good relationships with the U.K. and market economy, Odinga sought to turn the country to African socialism and model it after the Tanzania government's concept of Ujamaa (family/village). In the last presidential elections, which was a nightmare, the same old adversaries were engaged. The Kikuyu, Mwai Kibaki, against Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga (seen in photo with Obama). Though Kibaki was declared president, many believed the election was rigged. Riots ensued and tribal clashes resulted in many deaths. The government is now operating under shared power between Kibaki and Odinga.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Hindu Christian

Shubhi, a M.A. student, came into my office with excitement and said, “I really like your class, and wish I had known some of the things you are teaching when I first became a Christian.” This is her story, as story of God’s grace.

“My husband and I got married when I was 18. It was a love marriage” (not arranged which is the custom in India), “and my parents were opposed to our marriage. My husband is of a different caste and a rowdy (apparently he was some kind of a hit man, though he didn’t kill anyone, he was contracted to rough people up if they didn’t pay their debts). My parents were so opposed to our marriage they wouldn’t have anything to do with me. I was a practicing Hindu and went to the temple often to pray, especially the first year of our marriage as I became pregnant and our marriage was not going well. My husband drank a lot and the people he hung around were not good people. My family encouraged me to leave my husband, but some Christians I met said I should not leave him and that they would pray for me.”

“Our son was born with an enlarged heart and some other problems. He was in intensive care for 26 days. The sisters (nuns) who worked at the hospital would often pray for my child and me. It was in the hospital that I read the Bible for the first time. One day the doctor called and said that they could do no more for the child and would take him out of the incubator. My husband and I rushed to the hospital and our son was purple. As they were taking our son out of the incubator we left the room, both of us crying and I said to my husband, ‘We must pray to Jesus, for I believe in Him.’ My husband agreed to pray, though he was not a believer. After our prayer we got a call to come back into our son’s room and everyone was excited, for our baby’s color came back and he was fully recovered. We both believed that God heard our prayer and my husband said they will follow no other God but Jesus.”

“My husband is not a highly educated man, but he decided he would leave working as a rowdy and got a job in a textile factory. He did such a good job that he continued to get promotions until one day the owner of the company, who lives in Montreal, flew to India and made my husband one of the main men over all the plants in India. We flew to Canada about five times a year.’

“We joined a church and eventually we started our own business in textiles with plants of our own. As well as working with my husband in the business, I started selling real estate. We made so much money we often told God we didn’t need anymore. My husband told me he wanted me to go to school and so I decided I would join this seminary to learn more about God and how I might serve Him. Since that day in the hospital, 11 years ago, I have been able to witness to my family and my parents, sister and brother are all now believers.”

“I wish I had known some of the things you are now teaching us when I first became a Christian, for now I realize I do not have to disown my culture to be a follower of Christ. I am not sure everything God has for our family, or me, but I want to use my education and the blessings He has given us to help other pastors and churches. I have a love for the lower class people because at one time I was in their place. I can also now talk to the wealthiest people in the community because of God’s blessings on our lives. Like you said in class, the church of India is not poor. We can and should help in telling others that Jesus is the only real God.”

Monday, October 06, 2008

Formal, Non-Formal, Informal: Equipping Others for Ministry

There are three venues for training (education, equipping, whatever term you like) – Formal, Non-Formal and Informal.

Over the past two weeks I have been working in non-formal learning environment. The students are mostly seasoned and mature men and women who are preparing themselves for cross-cultural ministry work as bi-vocational missionaries. Most of them have their basic degrees, none higher than a B.A. The classes are structured to give practical information that will help them enter into new areas of the country, establish relationships and begin working to help the community in various ways. In this class structure there are no hand-out notes, no lengthy reading assignments, no degrees granted at the end of the semester, just practical information with a couple of quizzes to make sure they are grasping the material. Most of my training over the past 30 years has been in the non-formal arena, first in Kenya and then later establishing a training school in the U.S.

For the next three weeks I will be teaching in a formal learning environment. All of these students are doing their M.A. studies. Their English is better, there will be research requirements, outside reading of at least 750 pages, an exam and of course a final paper. Though it is more lecture in style than in non-formal settings, I basically give the same material, though expanded and more exhaustive, and I approach the formal setting with the same practical applications as non-formal teaching.

Informal teaching is that which happens outside the classroom. Talking with students about everything from family issues to matters of ministry over lunch or when they come to my office. These days I am unable to do this type of training as much as in the past. In Kenya I was able to walk the path with pastors, visiting their homes, villages and in the evenings over a meal continue to informally disciple. This certainly was the model that Jesus used, and probably the best model for equipping others. But, even in the limited time I have with modular classes, I am able to do some important informal training.

There is a place for all types of training, education, equipping. I believe informal gives the best hands-on experience, but you must be with people a long period of time to equip them properly; after all, Jesus was with His disciples everyday for three years. Formal education is not for all, maybe not even for many. But, as they say, if a river is only going to rise as high as its source, then the church needs to prepare well informed and educated men and women for its future leadership. Non-formal training has an important role to play in equipping the saints, for most of these people are out in the field doing the hard work. Discipling, equipping, training, education, whatever tag you want to call it, there needs to be more of it and, it needs to be specific and it needs to be done well.