Friday, September 30, 2011

Syncretism of Form: Hindu Mantra’s and Christian Worship

After a fourteen-hour train ride I was tired, sweaty and needed a nap. The compound where I am teaching in Nasik, India, is a retreat center. The buildings are old, some dating back to when the British built them over 100 years ago. The bungalow is rustic, but clean. After my bucket bath I had just one hour to rest before the teaching sessions began. But I couldn’t sleep.

Less than 17 meters (50 yards) from my little room a local church youth group, probably 30 of them, were having a retreat. For the entire hour they chanted, sometimes with fervor, then dying down only to rise again, Halleluiah, HALLELUIAH, HALLELUIAH, HALLELUIAH…you get the picture. I was astounded that was all they did throughout my attempt to sleep. With hands clapping, it seemed there was a competition the girls and boys on who could shout the loudest. For one solid hour it was Halleluiah, HALLELUIAH, HALLELUIAH, HALLELUIAH. Nothing else.

I asked to my host later, “What is it with all the noise going on in that room?”

With a wry smile he said, “Baptist call it noise, others call it worship.” He did admit, however, they were extreme.

Fair enough. I get the point. On further reflection, however, the “noise” that troubled my rest I believe has a deeper missiological meaning, one that I have observed in Africa as well as India.

Form, the way people do things, is often culturally determined. How people assemble themselves around the table for supper, give and receive gifts, conduct business meetings, marriage ceremonies or bury the dead, all have a culturally prescribed form. Like “loan words,” (vocabulary borrowed from another language for communication, e.g. “safari” for travel, “daktari” for doctor or universal technological words used by all languages, i.e., Email or Internet), form of worship is often borrowed. Much of the form of Sunday morning Christian worship around the world is borrowed from the West. I can close my eyes in some churches in Delhi and hear the same praise songs I hear in the U.S. Even if the language is in Swahili, Hindi or Spanish the order of service is usually music, announcements, offering, special song and sermon. Churches that try to contextualize the form often do not move too far away from traditional/historical patterns.

Syncretism, of course, is contextualization that has crossed the line and adopts form from the host. In the Roman Catholic tradition they are often accused of syncretism in places like India who put a statute of Mary, or one of the saints, outside their churches for people to offer prayers. Across the street the Hindu’s offer prayers to statues of Shiva. With the form being same, is there a distinction in praying to idols.

Though unintended, the halleluiah chorus across from my hovel was not that different from the mantra’s of the Hindu’s. The constant repeating of a word or phrase is common to any Buddhist at their temples or the priest reciting prayers to Krishna. Do the mantras have power? Do the worshippers or God move closer to one another by the incessant repeating of words? I contend the separation of mantra of the Hindu and the Christian is so thin one could hardly discern the difference between the two.

Shouting has always been associated with casting out demons and evil spirits. The witchdoctors have been doing it for centuries, as they believe that forceful speech is the only way the spirits will respond. Power is in the chants and the more vigorous the presentation the greater the chances for overcoming evil.

I am well aware that those who hold tightly to these forms of display will disagree with this post, just as those who maintain dead liturgy continue to embrace their form of worship. I am a proponent of contextualization, but I suggest that some of the forms used here in India look and sound too much like those who venerate the gods of stone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shame Versus No Shame Cultures

Overhearing a conversation between my wife and our friend in India recently, my wife asked about the women she has been meeting with. These women were all Hindu’s that our Christian friend has known since high school and they occasionally met to talk about family, marriage and God.

“One of the ladies has accepted Christ as her Savior and was baptized,” our friend said. “Another one is still interested in Jesus and we meet often. Sadly, another friend has moved away. Her father got wind that she was interested in becoming a follower of Christ and put a stop to her visiting with us.”

In shame cultures the hierarchy of loyalty is family and religion before personal happiness or fulfillment. Arranged marriages in south Asia, even among Christians, shows respect to the group. “Honor killings,” though illegal, is justifiable in the eyes of many as dishonoring or shaming the family is a greater offense.

To most Westerners, shame cultures seem backward and oppressive. Individual freedom, me first, is what’s really important in our culture. Family, company loyalty and even children always takes a back seat to personal happiness.

The by-product of a self-centered society increasingly manifests itself into a no shame culture. There was a time in our country when adultery was a scandal. Today it’s mildly embarrassing, something that happens and eventually will be overlooked, and maybe even justified. Our no shame culture no longer knows how to blush. We live in a Britney Spears environment (“Oops, I did it again,” giggle, giggle) where a girl can have five kids with five different fathers and people are expected to celebrate the event, certainly not condemn (“Judge not lest you be judged,” has become American Christians favorite verse).

The lyrics are only slightly vulgar, so it’s okay and nothing to be ashamed of. The movie or sitcom is only partially suggestive, and though uncomfortable for a moment, it really is, after-all comical, so I will put away the shame so I can finish the show. The joke is crude, but, hey, it’s funny. The mother of all no shame activity (for some, certainly a minority) is Facebook, with posted pictures and discussions that has one objective…look at me, listen to me, sympathize with me. The no shame culture now believes the social network is the place to go to get affirmation for bad behavior. It’s also a place for enablers to show “grace” to those who have no shame.

We all have, and certainly I do, have a thousand things in our lives we are not proud of, even ashamed of. Rather than celebrate our flaws, however, let us be a little less transparent about our failings. As a guilt culture perhaps we need to feel a little bit guiltier. True, Christ has taken away our guilt, but it probably wouldn’t hurt if we blushed more, were more discreet and laughed about it less.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lifelong Learning

A little girl returned from her first day at school. Her mom asked, “Did you learn anything?”

“Apparently not enough” the girl responded, “I have to go back tomorrow and the next day and the next…” (Max Lucado – Life Lessons Study Guide: Philippians).

Life long learning is exactly that, going to class every day. The things we learned today are important, but there is much more to discover. The knowledge we acquired yesterday (even 20 years ago) must be revisited frequently.

Recently I stood before a group of pastors and discussed the difference between being “missional” and being “missiological.” Like all classes, most in attendance were engaged, taking notes, asking questions. There are always a few, however, who act disinterested as though they heard it before or “what am I going to learn from this old man?” When young missionaries dismiss those who have a few miles on them I want to remind that Donald McGavran was still developing new missiological thought when he was in his ‘90’s. Peter Drucker, the guru of all business thinkers, was counseling and speaking until he died after in his ninth decade.

Standing before a group of young college students the old professor was challenged by the insolence of those whose knowledge superseded their intelligence by stating. With a tone of exasperation the old man declared, “I have forgotten more than you have yet learned.” It’s not how much one knows or has forgotten that’s the issue, but process of growing. Like the little school girl, we never learn enough, so we go back to class again tomorrow and the next day and the next…”

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Timing a Decision

About this time last year my 90-year old father was increasingly a physical challenge for my 86-year old mother. They lived in an apartment and with each passing day dad’s ability to walk, feed and bathe himself was declining. Some members of the family wanted to immediately move dad into a nursing home, but since I was given the charge to determine their medical decisions I was reluctant to move him into a full care facility. Why? My mother was not ready to be separated from dad and, being a very proud man, my dad would have resented such a move.

Visibly angry, I was taken to task by one member of the family who told me in no uncertain terms that, “No decision IS a decision.” I’ve thought a lot about the statement over the past year. Is no decision a decision? I have come to the conclusion that the decision was not the issue, but the timing of the decision. The decision was a predetermined conclusion. There indeed would be a time when mom could no longer take care of dad and he would need full time care. But the issue was when, not what and the conflict rose because of timing, not substance. One person wanted immediate action, the other person, me, wanted to wait.

The hallmark of Americans is their quick decisions. I’ve heard most of my life that the characteristic of a leader is one who makes quick and decisive decisions. It is actually a flaw in character, perceived by some, that if someone does not make a decision that somehow they are weak or cowardice. No decision IS a decision, they are told. But is that true?

“If you love me you will marry me now,” a boy says to the girl. She does indeed love him and, yes would like to marry him, but now? If she says let’s wait awhile is she making a decision on marriage or timing?

Cross-cultural Christian workers are anxious for people to “make a decision for Christ.” The potential convert may be thinking about being a follower of Christ, interested in being a Christian, but is no decision a decision? I don’t think so. Process is an important aspect of decision-making.

In many of the countries I have worked decisions are often a slow process for two reasons. One is consensus, the bringing on board as many people as possible before a decision is made. Consensus drives American leaders crazy. “Just do it, for heavens sake,” they scream. “You don’t have to take a poll, just make a decision.” What these “deciders” don’t realize is that making independent decisions in their context is rude, arrogant and self-serving.

The other reason for going slow in making a decision in other cultures is because of family considerations. Whether it is making the decision in marriage, where to go to school or a business deal the family structure is often so tight that individual decision making is unheard of. As one Korean leader stated recently, “Americans focus on projects rather than people.” That’s being generous. In many situations American leaders believe that the project is more important than people, regardless of family concerns.

Though often a laborious process, if one is working in an egalitarian or hierarchal social environment it’s best that the foreign leader learn the rules of decision making before going in and making a demand for a ruling. To be a decider may make you feel efficient, but in the process you may well destroy your legitimacy.

Dad fell ill a few weeks after the family discussion, which required he be hospitalized. It was at that time I made the decision for dad to be transferred into a nursing facility. The timing was perfect as mom was able to recognize her inabilities to take care of dad and, for dad, his transfer from the VA hospital to the Veterans home was almost seamless and he was able to accept the decision. The decision was never the issue and we all knew it would be a tough call. Waiting for the proper time may not have been “efficient” by some, but it was the right decision at the right time.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


G.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was a prolific writer, 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. His most famous book probably was Orthodoxy, which had such an impact on C.S. Lewis that he called Chesterton his spiritual father, as well as Francis Shaffer and Gandhi. Chesterton was a Christian apologist, but not the type that was dry or without humor. Among his many famous quotes, "If there were no God, there would be no atheists." And, "Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions." On journalism he observed, "Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive."

Apart from his writings, what strikes me about Chesterton was his style, or perhaps the lack of it in today’s world. A big man, he was 6 foot 4 inches tall and over 300 pounds; usually wearing a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. Notorious forgetful it’s reported that on several occasions he sent a telegram to his wife Frances from some distant (and incorrect) location, writing such things as "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" to which she would reply, "Home.”

So why include this bit of trivia in a blog? A reminder to me, and perhaps to others, that throughout history men like Chesterton lived, thought and put pen to paper those things that seemed relevant at the time. What’s interesting to me is that the thoughts of one who lived 100 years ago remain relevant today. Much of the minutia of my day, cutting the lawn, teaching a class, will pass away and be lost in the wind. The lawn needs to be cut, the class may indeed help the student to be a better person, professionally or spiritually, but it is to those who think about life and who will take the time to write about the insights that God gives each one of us that may indeed have an impact that will last longer than our existence on earth. G.K. was original, as God made each of us. His life is a reminder of the value of being authentic and not pursuing the fashion of a copy.