The Cross in the Nuclear Age

My son noticed it. We went to a hospital here in in the Philippines… to the Nuclear Medicine lab. Right behind us was a big heavy door. My son Joel pointed to two symbols there. One was a Radiation (tri-foil) symbol. Above it was a smaller symbol… a crucifix.

Here in the Philippines we are not as prone to compartmentalize faith. Having religious symbols next to symbols of science, government, and such… in public places, is not thought strange or inappropriate.

But it got me thinking about the two symbols. Both symbols have a history to them. One is a very old symbol (the crucifix), while the other, newer, but still having considerable history to it. The tri-foil dates back to about 1946, still making it almost 70 years old.

Both symbols have broadened and changed in meaning over time. The crucifix (cross) symbolized degradation– curse– in its historical context. That meaning is not eradicated but has been shoved down as new meanings have supplanted. The Tri-foil has been a warning of hazard due to ionizing radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron)… that is still its main meaning but new meanings have also crept in. The symbol has been morphed into a symbol (looking different but still showing its inspiration) for fallout shelters… a symbol of protection. In its original form it is used in hospitals, not only to give warning, but to suggest testing and treatment, through x-ray photography and radiation treatment.

A.  As Symbols. 

There are a number of ways that the crucifix and the tri-foil are similar:

1. They are both symbols of power. One symbolizes the power of the atom… power that can be harnessed for good or evil. The other symbolizes the power of God both in potential and in will to do good.

2.  They both are symbols of healing and hope. The tri-foil is recognized as a symbol tied to many processes that are considered beneficial… medical treatment, medical evaluation, disinfecting, and so forth. The crucifix symbolizes God’s provision for restoring man to Himself.

3.  They both are symbols of controversy. The tri-foil is often seen as a symbol of what is wrong with the modern world, whether it be the atomic bomb, dangers of nuclear waste, genetic engineering and other activities where man appears to be “playing God.” The crucifix is seen by some as morbid, or out of touch with modern thought. Even among some Christians (such as Protestants) the crucifix is often seen as “putting Christ back on the Cross.” (Although I am Protestant, I don’t see that any more than a church setting up a Nativity scene is putting Jesus back in the cradle.)

4.  They are both symbols of mystery. The tri-foil warns us of things we cannot see or feel emanating from something called atoms, another thing we cannot see, or even understand. (Anyone who thinks they understand atoms is not up-to-date with the present theories of atomic structure and sub-atomic particles.) I recall, from my days as a nuclear engineer, walking through Reactor Compartment Upper Level of a nuclear plant in Idaho and feeling nauseous. The nausea wasn’t directly caused by radiation or contamination there… but simply the knowledge that there were things I could not see or feel or fully understand that were going into my body that I could do nothing about. The crucifix symbolizes the mystery of divine atonement. It is often described simply (Christ died for us). But the more we dwell on this, the more mysterious it is.

B.  In Juxtoposition.

Returning to the hospital, it occurs to me that the relationship of the two symbols was important.

1.  The tri-foil was bigger and at eye-level. The symbol was there warning of a hazard. It was important that people quickly see it and take heed to the danger. While there is warning in the crucifix, that warning is more generally relevant, and less relevant at the moment. Additionally, since it was a medical hospital… the symbols of “science” are needed to give comfort that the hospital has competence in its secular, recognized function. A medical doctor can have a Bible with him (or her), but it is more critical to have the symbols of the profession (stethoscope, name badge, clipboard, lab coat) to provide confidence in the patient that the individual has competence in his (or her) profession. A hospital chaplain can carry around a thermometer, for example, but it is more important that he (or she) has a clerical collar, a chaplain’s coat (or other clerical garb) and a Bible. The dominant symbols provide comfort of competence.

2.  The crucifix was placed above the the tri-foil. It was smaller (since it was not meant to be as immediate of a warning). For the same reason it was not placed at eye-level. However, placing it above the tri-foil symbolizes the idea that God is above all, and the ulitmate protector and healer. Scientific/natural discoveries have benefits but ultimately all submit to God as Lord and Creator of nature.

Symbols matter. They mean something whether we acknowledge or not, and whether we are cognizant of their effect on us. We need to choose our symbols wisely… not necessarily applying theological importance to them (suggesting that the symbol itself has power or inherent meaning), but recognizing their ability to affect change in the hearts and minds of people who apply meaning to them.

Innovators, Utopians, and Restorationists, Part 2.

So what does this have to do with missions? I would argue that the situation in the Burned-Over District is undesirable. A lot of the groups (Mormons, Spiritualists, and some of the Utopians) were non-Christian or syncretistic organizations. Some, like the Millerites, have a complicated relationship with historic Christianity

Perhaps the situation was created… it did not just happen. This is, of course, not a research study… just reflection on a single historical phenomenon. But here are some thoughts on what might set the stage for spontaneous development of non-Christian faiths in an area of Christian

Oneida Community.

1.  Overemphasis on Evangelism with Underemphasis on Discipleship. The term “Burned-Over District” had to do with revivalism. The term suggested that there were so many evangelistic revivals in the area that they ran out of people to convert. However, revivals tend to push very hard on a visible conversion, with little follow-through. This is an all-too-common reality. I have certainly seen that here in the Philippines.

2.  Lack of Foundational Base. <Yes this is related somewhat to the previous item.> While it may be true that too many clergy (like chefs) can spoil the soup (or the revival), there is still a role for clergy. Clergy can provide a sound theological, Biblical, and historical basis for one’s spiritual transformation. Without that, anyone can come along as a wolf among sheep and reinterpret the experience. Here in the Philippines, we used to do a lot of medical missions. The problem was that often (but not always, of course) our hosts did not provide the necessary follow-up. Other groups would sometimes descend on those who had made decisions of faith. An experience that cannot be attached to a sound foundational perspective, can equally misdirect.

3.  Unrealistic Expectations. The growth of radical groups, apocalyptic groups, and utopian societies suggests that many of the people who were interested in faith, were disillusioned. This can happen when one is given unrealistic expectations as to what will happen after a faith conversion (or at least a faith experience). Life doesn’t necessarily become rosy. Prosperity or even reduction of suffering is not promised. The new fellowship of believers can, sadly, also be less than hoped. Following Christ can be a path of suffering, serving God faithfully, within a network of flawed believers. When one is told things that are not true, when the emotional high of revival wears off, dissatisfaction can set in, leading one to look elsewhere.

4.  Unbalanced Response to Rapid Social Change. Change can be good. Change can also be bad. When change exists, the church must know how to adapt to it. The church should not be “faddish”… simply following the culture around it. However, if the church simply rejects all change, it can be seen as culturally irrelevant… marginalized. Other groups that seem to be relevant (or at least aware) culturally, may be enticing.  I believe there is balance here. Because if the church is too quick to change with the culture, it loses the solid Biblical, theological, and historical foundation that is needed (as listed above).




Innovators, Utopians, and Restorationists. Part 1.

I come from an area that has been termed the “Burned-Over District.” I don’t actually recall hearing that term until long after I moved away from there. However, the term is an old descriptor for the region I was raised in. I am from Western New York State in the United States. Charles Finney, an Evangelist of the 19th Century coined the expression “Burned-Over District” for Western New York (Niagara Frontier) and the Finger Lakes Region. He believed that there was so much Evangelization carried out there that there was no longer any “fuel” (unconverted) for revival.

The region has been known for its innovations. I am from Chautauqua County. Chautauqua County is famous for the beginning of the “Chautauqua Movement” that began in the late 1800s (look it up). It is the home of Lilydale… a spiritualist community that survived from the heyday of Spiritualism in the 19th century, to its resurgence today. The Harmonians (a Utopian society) settled there for a time before moving West. Mormonism (the most successful non-Christian religious group to develop in the Burned-Over District) stopped in Chautauqua County for a bit.

In other parts of the Burned-Over District there were many other groups… Utopians, Syncretists, Spiritualists, Restorationists, Innovators. The Millerites (Adventists) started here. The Social Gospel has its roots here. There are more. But the question is “Why did so many groups and beliefs find this area to be such a breeding ground for such?”

The quick answer is that I Don’t Know. I think there may be a few reasons… but would be interested in hearing other thoughts.

1.  National Culture. Spiritual Fervor.  Nationally, the US was going through the 2nd “Great Awakening.” There was a strong interest in spirituality and renewal.

2.  National Culture.  Rapid Change. This was a time of considerable change nationally. The story Rip Van Winkle talks about the huge changes that Eastern New York underwent in the late 1700s such that the region was almost unrecognizable to someone who had been there only 20 years before. The Western part of New York went through huge changes of nationalization, industrializaiton, and more. The Erie Canal suddenlly brought huge transformation to a backwater part of the country.

3.  Lack of Clergy. This was a frontier region so relatively few seminary-trained religious leaders were there. Clergy, having been trained within a faith community, tend to be agents of preservation rather than agents of change. Even when they seek change, the change tends to be less extreme than developing a brand new religion (such as the case of Mormonism).

4.  Cultural Disatisfaction. The frontier (and this was definitely a frontier region in the 1800s) is full of people who come there because of dissatisfaction with their previous circumstances. My ancestors came to Western New York from Sweden because of dissatisfaction, in part, with economic circumstances there. Having a large pool of dissatisfied people creates an environment for radical change. This can lead to an openness to new beliefs or even worldviews. Just as the first state to allow women to vote was Wyoming (a frontier region), Western New York in its frontier days was also innovative with having the first female physcian, who graduated from Geneva College, and being the site of the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s rights. Certainly the Utopian societies, such as the Harmonians, the Oneida Society, or the Shakers point to a dissatisfaction with the status quo.

5.  Spiritual Disatisfaction. The term “Burned-Over District” might be in itself informative. The area had been so heavily evangelized that their were few respondents. This might have been an early indication of something we now describe as a “post-Christian” culture. When a culture becomes dominated by a certain faith, there is often a strong disatisfaction with it… After all, if the culture and religion are seen too much as being the same, dissatisfaction with culture can transfer easily over to dissatisfaction with religion. Fundamentalism seeks to restore a simpler faith. It is not surprising the growth of Christian Fundamentalism in this region. Others like the Millerites were apocalyptic… looking for a rapid end to things. Others, like the Mormons, created an alternate history and theology.

6.  Pattern Formation. When one person innovates and breaks loose from cultural conventions, it often inspires others to do the same. Back when I lived in Chautauqua County, I lived near a cult founder. His name was Calvin Kline, but changed it to Calvin of Oakknoll, and created a group called the Religious Society of Families. That group wasn’t very successful, mostly (I think) because of the difficult personality of its founder. He ultimately died in 1999 in prison (he had killed a man). I can’t help but think that he was inspired to start  a religion because of others before him who had done likewise. Even in my case, I went into missions. In some places this would be strange, but even in the tiny country church I was raised in, I was not the first to go into missions. There were at least two before me, one of whom was a relative. It is easier to seek to do what someone has done before.

So what can we gain from these thoughts (hopefully somewhat correct thoughts)? Hopefully, I have some ideas in Part 2.

Pastoral Care Presentation

I usually put Missions topics on this Blog page. However, since, one of my two biggest roles in missions is heading a pastoral care center, I don’t feel bad putting this presentation here. And besides, even if the development of missions and pastoral care historically is different, there are a lot of parallels. Decide for yourself.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”; title=”History and Foundations of Pastoral Care” target=”_blank”>History and Foundations of Pastoral Care</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a></strong> </div>

Symphonic Instruments of Your Peace, Part II

Our team over here is called “Bukal Life Care.” We do pastoral care, train chaplains and ministers (particularly in pastoral care, but other topics as well), do missionary member care, crisis care, and some missional outreach. Our goal has always been to work together (as a group) and with others in a positive way. Our name seeks to emphasize that. Our name “Bukal” is both a Tagalog term and a Tagalog acronym.Bukal Logo Small New

Balikatan      Working should-to-shoulder

Ugnayan       Networking

Kaagapay     Coming alongside

At                    And

Lingap           (providing) Care

The term itself, “Bukal” means “spring” as in an outflowing of water from the ground. The idea is that of being a source of help to those who need it.

How do to we work together?

1.  We have organizational unity. Those who are part of our group work together as one organization.

2.  Spiritual unity. Our group is made of volunteers. We decide what to do democratically and voluntarily.

3.  Networking. We have not always been so good at this, but we are trying to do a better job communicating with other groups to know what they are doing, letting them know what we are doing, and finding ways to learn from each other.

4.  Partnership. We have formal partnerships with the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP) for our CPE program. We also have a formal partnership with Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary for areas of training and resource utilization. Less formally, we have agreements with local hospitals and jails for ministry work.

5.  Collaboration. During this latest disaster (Typhoon Yolanda) we have sought to come along side other groups with our own expertise to help them in their work, and allowing them to help us in the common goal. We have worked with PASAR foundation, Vis-Con, PNA, PGCA,, and more. The idea is to have the same ultimate goal and find ways to bring it all together, coordinating specialties for the common good.

An advantage in collaboration is that we don’t have to be experts in everything. Rather, we can find areas that we can bring our own specialties together.

Obviously, we want symphony in ministry not cacophony. It is worth not doing it all alone. Rather, we need to discover our commonality of goals as a minister of Christ. Then we need to find out how and in what ways we can come together to achieve that.