Monday, April 27, 2009

Famous For God

In Timothy Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, he gives insight to one of the most familiar parables found in the Bible. The story is about two sons: the younger who wasted his inheritance through debauchery and the elder who hated his father because he showed grace to his brother Luke 15:11-32. Most of what Keller discusses in the book is the elder brother who Jesus draws a parallel to the religious Pharisees which criticized the carpenter from Nazareth for his association with sinners (tax collectors, sick people, even prostitutes).

The elder son in this story is the “faithful” one. He never left home, worked diligently, and certainly didn’t waste his life foolishly on wine, women and song, as did his younger brother. He is incensed that his father would not only receive back into the home this prodigal sibling but that he would do so lavishly with great fanfare and rejoicing. Keller goes to the heart of the matter by stating that the eldest son did not stay nor serve his father out of love but because of duty and self-interest. Like the righteous religious crowd listening to the parable, the Pharisees expected to gain heaven because of their following the rules, of the Mosaic Law. Their open display of piety (fasting, praying on the street corner), they believed entitled them greater standing before God than the sinners they disdained.

Living a righteous life is certainly not wrong and there is no suggestion that the father was more pleased with the prodigal than the eldest son. But the question is the motivation for one’s devotion to God? Keller then recounts the scene in the movie Amadeus where Salieri, an a Italian composer, prays to God for His blessing on his musical career.

“Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music – and be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world, dear God! Make me immortal! After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote! In return I vow I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life. And I will help my fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!”

Have you ever prayed to be famous for His glory? I may not have prayed exactly for that, but in Christian babble I am sure that I said something like, “Lord bless my work. Use me beyond what even I can imagine for your sake.” When the book “The Prayer of Jabez” came out many purchased the book hoping that God would enlarge their tents, for the glory of God. In return for His favor we tell Him that we will devote all to make Him proud that He made us renown.

The story of the two sons doesn’t really come to a conclusion, just implied principles. One is that the father shows amazing grace to the prodigal. Living a reckless life, though forgiven, has consequences. This son spent his inheritance and after his dad’s death probably continued to work for wages from his eldest brother. The second principle is whatever one does for God is to be done because we want to serve Him, not a means of gaining either fame or favor. Lastly, if one is in the household of God, they do not have to earn the inheritance, it is already ours…all of it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cultural Circumcision

If you are a subscriber to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, you probably read it for its focus on mission history. I am particularly fond of the section “My Pilgrimage in Mission.” Everyone has a story; everyone has a pilgrimage that is interesting. For me, after thirty-four years of mission ministry, many of these stories are eerily familiar.

In the most recent IBM quarterly Howard Kurtz shares his life’s passage in missions. Though he preceded me to Africa by twenty years, some of his reflections on his naiveté, his lack of proper training, failures and re-tooling for the task is a story in which I can relate.

Kurtz, like myself, had been a pastor in the U.S. prior to going to Africa. Having pastoral experience, indeed, any ministry experience (something that is lacking in many people going to the field) CAN BE a plus. The problem with Kurtz and myself was, because we had no missiological training, our efforts in Africa were an overlay model of our home culture. Because we had no clue of worldview, clan/lineage dynamics or even a cursory study of animism, we carried on our work as though our norm was a universal given. Kurtz, admitting that forcing the Ethiopian’s missionary compound church to look and behave as his model from Oregon was a bad idea, “Through eyes of the New Testament, I was a Western-world circumcision party.”

Interesting metaphor. The Judiziers of Paul’s day insisted that Gentile converts follow the Mosaic Law, including circumcision. Paul, the first to espouse indigenization and contextualization, refused to make Jews out of Gentiles. Sadly, it was not a lesson colonial missionaries learned and even today missionaries from America, Korea, and Philippines are still a great big circumcision party, in the name of evangelism and church planting. The greatest circumcisers are denominationalism who insist that their brand of Christianity be overlaid on Hindu’s, Muslims and every other religion and people group they encounter. Though I am not anti-globalization, I cringe whenever I go to church service in the bush of Kenya or the rural areas of India and hear the same old tired English hymns and the praise ditties of the West. Short-term missionaries also contribute to the circumcision of culture as they teach subjects from a western hermeneutic without even the slightest understanding of the host culture.

The moral of the story is that in the path of pilgrimage there is a difference between a conqueror and a sojourner. One travels knowing he is just passing through; she treads lightly, but with a sense of purpose knowing that one can influence, even transform the natives of the land. The other invades with an agenda to convert. It matters not what the locals think, they must be circumcised, cut off from the old and made to bow to the new. The challenge is knowing how best to walk the journey.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Slumdog and Perception

If you saw the Academy Award winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” you, like many others, including myself, truly found it an entertaining movie. I knew it was a controversial film here in India, primarily because it depicted a part of India that is not very flattering, the slums in the big cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and many more. Being here in the country over the past week and hearing my friend’s different reactions to the movie, I can see their point.

I remember many years ago when I lived in Kenya how that visitors always wanted to take pictures of the poor tribal’s. In all the years I was in Africa I never had one person say, “Hey, I’d like to get a picture of the rich Kenyans in Nairobi.” I guess it’s normal, but a Kenyan friend asked me why Americans only take pictures of the slums?

In a recent episode of a popular TV series the Amazing Race, one destination the team went to was Jaipur, India. The TV produces thought it was necessary to show the poor kids in the city eating from the trash bins and a close up of one of the contestants in tears, obviously distraught over the plight of poor children.

To be sure, there are many poor people in India and around the world and, for good and bad, many people exploit the images of the downtrodden for many things, including food relief, medical services, and schools and building their own non-profit coffers. The easiest ministry in the world to raise funds for is social work. Westerner’s fall all over themselves to help the poor (at a cost of $2500 for a two week excursion), to hand out rice and, of course, take lots of pictures of those they helped. (Interesting, they don’t often show the hotels or food they eat after they feed the poor in the slums).

Nevertheless, I still liked the movie. It had a good story line, well produced with great acting (at least from a layman’s point of view).

There is a bit of hypocrisy in Bollywood as many of their movies show a side of India that is out of reach for the masses. While not everyone in India lives in the slums, and even greater number will never reach middle class and, living like the super wealthy will only be attained, perhaps, in their next life or in another 100 reincarnations.

Movies, no matter the setting, are usually more fantasy than fact. Slumdog’s controversy was due to national pride and I get it. Reality doesn’t make for good movies so we are left with the polar opposites of the rich and famous and the poor slumdog’s. The happy middle of authenticity is somewhere tourists and movie produces don’t go.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Mysterious Padre

As a Protestant cross-cultural worker, I must admit there are times when I admire Catholic priests working in remote parts of Africa and other hidden hamlets throughout the world.

This fascination of these reclusive padres began in the ‘70’s where I met a solitary Father in the deserts of Turkana. Alone in the hot arid climate of the bush, surrounded by only the illiterate semi-nomadic, at first I pitied him. No family, little contact with his home country, it all seemed very sad. Over the years, however, having observed Evangelical missions and there “here-today-gone-tomorrow” approach to missions, primarily because of family issues, makes me wonder if perhaps they don’t have it right and we have it, in some ways, wrong.

Early this year I visited a Pokot village I lived and worked in 20 years ago. I took the imitative to meet Father Anthony who has resided in that village four years before I even arrived in Kenya. Fr. Anthony lives by himself in a block building on the Catholic compound he helped build thirty-six years ago. As I walked away from his house I was impressed with a man who has invested his life into a the lives of a tribal group who, he admits, has not advanced much in the nearly four decades he has worked with them.

There’s something mysterious, compelling, about ascetics. While the rest of the world clamors for fame and fortune, solitaries seem to be single minded, an antithesis to the rest of the population. The legacy of a married man is his family. The legacy of an entrepreneur is the building of his business, their worth measured by accomplishment and wealth. For a padre in the desert his legacy is an investment in a people no one has ever heard of. Fr. Anthony will die with little fanfare and his eternal accomplishments will be known only to God.

The reality is that most of God’s creatures will exit with little fanfare and our accomplishments are indeed known only to God. But in the meantime we spend a lifetime trying to please others - our families, peers, donors, along with God. In some way the padre intentionally lives outside the spotlight of this world, while evangelical missionaries must promote their activities to keep up with the religious marketplace.

Of course the celibate life is not for everyone and the Apostle Paul noted the uniqueness of that discipline (1 Cor. 7:7-9). The moral failings of those who have taken the vow of celibacy is well documented and often highlighted. Personally, I can’t imagine my life without my wife and having children and now grandchildren. However, from a purely Kingdom perspective, perhaps the padre’s in the deserts, like their ancient cousin John the Baptist, aren’t so far removed from having it right.