A Minister’s Five Best Friends

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Liz Ryan is one of my favorite columnists– a regular contributor to Forbe’s Magazine. She writes regarding business employment– hiring, firing, and managing people. Although I have been out of the corporate world for over a decade, I find much of what she says very applicable in ministry as well. Much of her guidance centers on the importance of mutuality, respect, and, well, humanity, in the corporate world. One might suspect that these principles are hardly needed to be meditated on in the ministerial world— but that is wrong. Sadly, it is often even more necessary. Rules for proper treatment of workers are commonly overlooked in the religious world– often under the guise of “freedom of religion” or that serving God is a 24/7 job. I worked as a banquet server, hardly a classic ministerial role, for a “Christian business” where poor treatment of workers was justified by toggling back and forth between “you need to sacrifice because we are doing God’s work” and “sorry, but this has to be done to be competitive in the market.” The terms SELF-SERVING and DUPLICITOUS come to mind

I strongly recommend her article, FIVE PEOPLE EVERYBODY NEED IN THEIR CORNER.

I could stop there, but would like to interpret it in terms of ministers– primarily pastors and missionaries.

A minister needs people that he/she (I will use he here due to laziness) can trust.

  1.  He needs one he can trust with his emotions. He needs an UNCRITICAL LISTENER. People in minister often struggle greatly because they are uncertain who they can talk to about their burdens or frustrations. Far to many in the religious profession have the awful tendency to be advice givers and experts; or worse, judge-ers and condemners. Sometimes one need to vent or even confess to someone who will simply listen and accept. However, as Liz Ryan noted, you need more than this. One needs more than the human equivalent of a fuzzy blanket to talk to.
  2. He needs one he can trust with the truth. He needs a BRUTALLY HONEST ADVISOR (or BHA, for short). The truth hurts, but sometimes we need to hear the truth… but from someone we trust. A BHA should be someone who we trust to know the truth, and trust that he/she has our best interests at heart. For example, a pastor who likes to lead corporate worship with an off-pitch voice, needs someone who cares enough to tell him the truth— that his singing voice and microphones don’t really mix. (I would like to add “You know who you are…,” but in fact, you probably don’t.)
  3. He needs one he can trust who has blazed the trail before him. He needs a MENTOR. This person is generally more experienced and commonly older. He has, generally, been there and done that. His primary strength is not drawn from books or articles but life experience. The advice given from a mentor is welcome because it is seen as trustworthy and based on reality. Commonly an older pastor or missionary is what is needed. However, age and experience are not enough. Good mentors are, sadly, a rare breed. If one is willing to help, think long and hard about it. A good mentor may be exactly what you need.
  4. He needs one he can trust to challenge him to grow. He needs a COACH. Like a mentor, a coach gives advice, but it may not be based on great experience. Rather it comes from a position of being a good listener, reflector, and reframer. A good coach is not always right, but should help the minister look at his life (holistically) from other perspectives.
  5. And speaking of other perspectives– He needs one he can trust to be a very different viewpoint. He needs a NON-MINISTRY FRIEND. A minister should have friends not in ministry. Frankly, he should have some not in the same denomination or organization. In fact, it would be good to have friends who are not even fellow-believers. He needs someone who doesn’t talk shop and, frankly, wouldn’t really understand shop-talk anyway.  He needs someone he knows who won’t give the same old “Christianese” or denominational formulae for specific concerns. And much like the Uncritical Listener, the non-ministry friend can listen without being religiously or professionally invested or biased.

Of course, if you need such friends, others do as well. Which roles can you serve for others?

Relative Relativism

RELATIVISM

Consider this story,

“An American missionary couple went to British Columbia to minister among the Kwakiutl Indians. The work was not progressing as rapidly as the couple had hoped, and the village chief was not cooperative. When their first child, a handsome son, was born, they named him after the chief, thinking this would flatter him and gain his cooperation.
Much to their surprise, when they announced the baby’s name, the Indians branded them as thieves and forced them to leave the village. The couple did not know, until too late, that the Kwakiutl Indians consider a person’s name private property. It is one of their most prized possessions. No one takes another’s name unless it is willed to him.”

         -From “Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, 2nd edition” by Stephen Grunlan and Marvin Mayers, p. 251.

The authors used this example to address the question Biblical Authority versus Cultural Relativism. The figure above shows how I would like to think of it. If two ideals are Bible as authority and Culture as authority (strange attractors if one wants to pull a bit of Chaos Theory into it– certainly missions has elements of chaos, as well as “strangeness”).

One ideal would be Cultural Relativism (Red region). With this, culture is the authority, the canon for ethics, thought, and behavior, while the Bible is not deemed important.The other ideal is Biblical Authority (sky blue color, I guess). The Bible is canon– the standard by which ethics, thought, and behavior are judged.

But there are overlaps. I would argue that the full overlap of the ideals doesn’t actually happen. If one is authoritative, then the other is not. But when one recognizes there there are intermediate positions where culture is important, and that the same could be said regarding the Bible, then other positions can be found.

I will ignore the brown region where both Bible and Culture are important, but neither are authoritative. That is not to say that it is an uncommon view… but I want to consider positions of authority.

The Orange Region might be described as Uncritical Contextualization (as coined by Paul Hiebert). The Bible is important… but not authoritative. The culture is deemed authoritative, and missionaries would seek to find the Biblical goodness and divinity within the culture.

The Periwinkle Region (I don’t know the exact name… blue/purple/gray region) could be described as Critical Contextualization (by Paul Hiebert) or Relativized Relativism by Eugene Nida. In other words, the culture provides a relativizing of ethics, but such relativizing is not absolute, it in turn is relativized to the Bible as authority.

Nida stated in his book “Customs and Cultures” (1954), page 52:

While the Koran attempts to fix for all time the behavior of Muslims, the Bible clearly establishes the principle of relative relativism, which permits growth, adaptation, and freedom, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Bible presents realistically the facts of culture and the plan of God.   … The Christian position is not one of static conformance to dead rules, but of dynamic obedience to a living God.

This does not solve all concerns. One could argue that it makes it even more confusing. Take the example at the start of this post of the missionaries charged with stealing a name. Did they violate cultural standards? Yes, their behavior was taboo. Did they sin? Ahhh… that is a tougher one. They “stole” a name. But in most cultures, one’s name is public domain. So if one takes the Bible as authoritative, one might argue that the couple did indeed sin because they were found to have stolen something owned by another. On the other hand, another person who holds the Bible as authoritative may decide that there was no sin, since in the Bible, a person’s name is public domain. Since one cannot “own” one’s name, it can’t be stolen.

I would argue that a theft did occur… and therefore a sin, even if only done in ignorance. In fact, in many cultures, one can own/patent an idea, trademark a logo or motto, register an incorporated name, and copyright a creative work. The idea of stealing a non-tangible property is well supported in many cultures. But even if it wasn’t, the Bible says that one should not steal– wrongfully take for oneself what is someone else’s. But the Bible gives NO EXHAUSTIVE LIST of what things one can own to define when theft occurs. As such, it seems likely that the culture is important in determining when stealing occurs. But culture should not be authoritative (trustworthy standard) when it comes to stealing (one must relativize the relativism). One can imagine some cultural situations where one might find reason to question their views on property and, thus, stealing.

  • If a culture defines certain people as property of another human being, should liberation of those enslaved be viewed as stealing (a sinful violation of God’s view regarding theft)?
  • If a society takes possessions from another society or a segment within that society and declares that a certain group, we might define as oppressors, now owns them, and any correction of such injustice would be viewed as stealing.

 The Bible needs to be the standard, without making ancient Hebrew or early Greek the real authority. These are challenging and point to relative relativism, or critical contextualization needed to determine the will of God in a new, or old, culture.

Another way of showing a similar thing is the one Marvin Mayers used in the same book as the story at the start of this post (but on page 256). The labels and focus are a bit different, but the end result is the same— Biblical absolutism (canon/authority) and Cultural relativism (importance but second to the Bible).

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Parable of the Lost Pearl (Reprise)

I would like to take the Parable of the Lost Pearl, as used by Patriarch Timothy I in 781 AD, and give it a few twists to suggest different theological views. The parable can be seen in the original form in THIS PREVIOUS POST.

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Consider the parable this way…

“Long ago, a royal expedition returned from years at sea. The captain was invited to a great banquet held by the king in honor of the safe, and apparently successful, return of his fleet. The captain as a guest of honor had a special gift to present to the king… a rare and perfect pearl that had no equal in all the world. At the height of the feast it had been determined that the captain would present the king with this perfect pearl.

But there were thieves in the midst of the group. They hatched a plan. Three would snuff the flames that provided light in the room. One would take the pearl from the captain in the darkness and one would spill stones that were similar in size to the pearl on the ground to add to the great confusion. Hopefully, in the confusion, the thieves could escape.

The plan almost worked. The lights went out and the stones were dropped… but the one thief who was to take the pearl misjudged in the dark and only succeeded in knocking the pearl out of the hand of the captain.

In this utter darkness, the captain cries out for everyone to be careful because this priceless pearl is on the ground somewhere. Each reached down to feel around and found a pearl-sized object. Each stood up excited at his or her find. Some hoped to hide it successfully and sneak away, but also didn’t want to be implicated in the theft due to their absence. Some on the other hand wanted to tell others excitedly how they have found the one true pearl… only to discover that others believe that they have that one same pearl.

For a long time the people stood in the room in a stalemate. No one can leave without risking being branded a thief… but no one can completely convince another as to who has the real pearl. They must wait until the light of day.”

This story has more than one potential ending, and the ending one chooses speaks much about one’s worldview.

  1.  Pluralist/Universalist. A view akin to John Hick may end the story with the sun rising to discover that everyone is holding an incomparable pearl.  In this case, the point is that no one has a unique find that others lack. All have the truth.
  2. “Heavy” Post-modernist. If one holds to a Jacques Derrida form of post-modernism, I suppose the story would end with the discovery that no one has a pearl. In fact, there is no pearl… it was a deception of the captain. This would point to the rejection of authority and “real” absolute truth.
  3. Modernist. The ending would drift towards a “whodunit.” One wise person figures out a way to identify who has the true pearl, and, perhaps, who the thieves are. This would perpetuate the belief in a wise authority figure who is able to identify what is really true while everyone else is still in the dark.
  4. Pre-modernist. I am not so sure about this. I suppose that maybe the pearl would reveal itself (or there would be some other miraculous revealing) without waiting for the daylight. This might suggest that the true faith has a self-evident quality that cannot be hidden or confused with fakes (much like in the “Princess and the Pea” where royal blood ultimately reveals itself).
  5. “Light” Post-modernist. In this case, I think the story would stop right where it is. This view does not deny the possibility of that there is a true pearl (absolute objective reality). Rather, there is doubt about the ability of people to be able to identify such reality, discerning it from that which is not real. Therefore, the story ends in a state of doubt. Eventually there may be light to know what is TRUE, but for now, we can only guess and hope.

You will note that as the parable (similar but different to how I told it) was related by Patriarch Timothy I, ends where I ended it. He noted that one could relate the pearl to religious truth. Each person believes he/she is right and others wrong, but until the end of the age, we cannot know for sure. That being said, one may have evidences of having the true faith, much as a person may have reasons to suspect that he/she has the true pearl (weight, size, density, “warmth,” and surface texture, for example). postmodernism

In the story, then, Timothy comes closest to a “light” post-modernist position. We have the inability to be absolutely confident that we hold true beliefs and that others do not. We must accept a certain amount of doubt, meaning that we must maintain a certain amount of faith if we are to hold onto the potential pearl we are holding. However, Timothy goes on to say that one has the possibility of figuring out whether it is likely that one’s beliefs (much like the “pearl” one is holding) is likely to be real or not. As such, he takes a somewhat more positive “modernist” view of the ability to evaluate the one’s subjective perceptions than a typical post-modernist. At the same time, the evaluation is not left to an “expert” but to the individual… this is also more post-modern than modern.

So what? Well, if Patriarch Timothy is expressing Christian faith in 781 AD, there is more in line with a light form of post-modernism. Objective truth/reality exists, but we must accept that we lack the ability to perceive this reality without risk of deception. We however, in line more with modernists, can analyze to see if it is likely that what we believe is true. Still, until God reveals all truth to the light at the end of time, we must live in a state of faith (and doubt).

It is good that Christian faith appears to have much in common with a light version of post-modernism (not rejecting objective or ultimate reality, but questioning our ability to discern such reality). It seems as if relatively few people accept the ‘heavy’ form of post-modernism, although many, without much thought to the justification, seem to accept the implications of that view. If there is considerable common ground with this lift version of post-modernism, there should be plenty of room for respectful honest discussions between Christians and this particular worldview.

Ministerial Burnout

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I have the blessing of talking with many ministers (missionaries and pastors primarily). It is often rather amazing how their public selves diverge from their private selves. Their public selves are all “Praise God!” and “God is Good All the Time!” (Is God good all the time?) But privately, they will often open up about their struggles with their ministry, their faith, their relationships. Many of them have ministerial and personal lives that are in chaos. There are many reasons this can happen, but one common theme is burnout.

What is burnout? Burnout is a holistic condition, meaning that it is a malady of heart, body, and mind, and shows symptoms that are also holistic, including relationships.

Quoting Nairy Ohanian, burnout has symptoms that include:

feeling overwhelmed by needs, unable to help, isolating self from people, cynical, distrusting, blaming others, feelings of incompetence, compassion fatigue, self pity, emotional exhaustion, detachment, irritable, frustrated, spiritual confusion, trapped with no end in sight, critical spirit upon self and others, despair and hopelessness. Besides the emotional and attitudinal warning signs, often there are physical manifestations of burnout. Burnout candidates often experience trouble sleeping, headaches or migraines, chronic hives, constant fatigue even after resting, excessive weight loss or gain, abnormal monthly cycles for women, anxiety attacks, distressing dreams or nightmares, tremors, dependence on over the counter drugs and possible alcohol dependence. (“Burnout of God’s Servants,” 2008)

Many of the horror stories of ministry leaders who were found to do horrible things did so after being overwhelmed by stresses, and then began to develop unhealthy ways with coping with them. This is not excusing their behavior, but a recognition that many find themselves involved in behavior later in ministry that they would have found repugnant early on, before stresses began to overwhelm them.

Burnout comes from a variety of stressors at home, with the ministerial team, and in serving in the ministry. Two classic examples of burnout, or potential burnout, in the Bible are Moses and Elijah.

Moses, in Exodus 18, receives a visit from his father-in-law, Jethro. In verses 13-18, we read,

The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.”

In this, Moses’ system of ministry, taking on too much responsibility without proper delegation, will lead to being worn out, as well as the people he was serving. Elijah had a similar problem of taking on too much. In I Kings 19, Queen Jezebel threatened his life after a time of great seeming victory, so he runs for many days to Mount Horeb. Even before he gets there he appears ready to give up (verse 4)

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

After giving him food, drink, and rest, and encouraging him to continue to Mount Horeb, God finally speaks to him and Elijah responds (verses 13 and 14)

And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”

Like Moses, Elijah feels that he has to do it all himself, feeling alone and isolated. Many in ministry feel that they have to do it all. As such, they have a poor understanding of themselves as limited beings. Relatedly, they don’t have good boundaries, protecting the time they need for care of themselves. Ministry consumed their time, their relationships, and their energies.

Burnout is to a large extent related to a compiling of stresses, where the stresses become too much for the coping capacity of the individual. As such a person often feels both drained and overwhelmed. One can imagine a person as having two gauges attached. One gauge measures the stress a person feels. The higher the value the more the person feels overwhelmed. Stress is the overall accumulation of wear and tear on the body due to demands placed on it. Stress is also holistic… mental stress, emotional stress, physical stress, and more. Likewise, the symptoms are holistic: physical, mental/emotional, behavioral, social, and spiritual. The other gauge is a measures of the coping capacity of the individual. The lower it is, the less stress the person can handle. Some aspects of coping capacity are related to long-term characteristics of the individual, such as temperament or family background. Others are related more directly to the present, such as exercise, rest, and other forms of mutual and self care.

As stresses overwhelm one’s ability to cope, burnout develops. The emptiness can be felt in a number of ways. One can feel “depressed” (not necessarily clinically depressed), worn-out, emotionally numb, unmotivated, spiritually “dry,” socially disconnected, alone, and lacking hope.

Sin can easily come into this spiralling of symptoms, but it is not necessarily the initiator. Seeking to serve God without knowing one’s personal limits may be foolish, but it is not necessarily sinful. However, as one’s life becomes less and less fulfilling, as one shifts from a “human being” to a “human doing,” all aspects of life begin to suffer, including spiritual. In fact, often the person will begin to seek substitutes to cope with the stresses— including drugs, addictive behaviors, or fantasies of a life that is more enjoyable than the real one. These substitutes have limited long-term success as coping mechanisms, and commonly lead to forms of acting out that further damage all aspects of one’s life.

So what to do about burnout?

  1. Acknowledge it. This is a very important first step.

  2. Let go. Rather than pray for God to give more capacity to handle the stresses of life and ministry, recognize that God’s will was demonstrated in creating each human as a limited being. It is likely God’s will to let go of some of the stressors.

  3. Reject unhealthy coping methods and begin to develop healthy ones. Healthy ones include taking care of one’s health, having a positive supportive network of friends and family, and having hobbies or other activities that one enjoys that are not connected with ministry.

  4. Establish priorities and boundaries. Ministry is important but there are things more important, such as God and family. Recognize that it is okay to say “No” to ministry requests or “Let me pray about it and get back to you.”

  5. Speaking of prayer, establish good habits of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, Bible study, and meditation. This should not be done legalistically, become another ministry burden, but as part of a joyful rekindling of one’s relationship with God.

  6. Learn to delegate and to accept the accountability of others. Leaders need to be accountable to others as much as anyone else, if not more. Find people one can trust to share with freely, and who are willing to ask the tough questions.

Prophetic Politics?

I was looking at my FB stream a few days ago, and saw a post that was being shared by a friend. It showed two pictures– one was apparently evangelical pastors in prayer, while the other a catholic priest… pontificating, I suppose. The overlayed captions referred to these two groups’ relationships to the new Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. Putting the two captions together, one gets something to the effect of:

“Evangelical leaders pray for their President. Catholic priests criticize him.”

The creator of the post was presumably attemptingpastors_635756816147714998 to make his own group look good (Evangelical Christians) and another group (Roman Catholics) look bad. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is pretty common for a person to pump up their own social group identity by tearing down another. It is also common for religious groups to “suck up” (sorry for the Americanism) to people in political power. The problem here is that if one takes these statements at face value, both groups are deserving of a certain measure of shame.

If one is truly a man or woman of God, having access to God’s ideals that challenge man’s systems and institutions, then one should BOTH pray for civil leaders AND criticize them. Civil leaders need this. Politics and the voting public don’t really need statements of religious leaders that:

  • Emphasize their own personal religious or political partisanship
  • Promote an uncritical support or submission to authority (a fan rather than supporter, being obsequious rather than holding them accountable)
  • Maintain a critical heart that is not seeking their civil leaders’ best, as well as the people they were called upon to serve.

We need religious leaders who accept a prophetic role. They need to embrace the role of the prophet in the time of Israel. Prophets accept that the civil leaders have an important role in society (and apparently avoided the temptation to be civil leaders themselves). At the same time, they declared the truth, holding leaders accountable for their leadership.  They also appeared to accept a role of being a mediator between these leaders and God at times.

Today, religious leaders appear more interested in partisanship, seeking the “lesser evil,” bigotry (of many flavors), and playing junior politician. This does little but demean themselves and their god.

We need more prophets and less politicians in the church right now.

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Quiz Question:  Can Anyone Spot Any Problems With This Sign?

 

Advice from Asian Missionaries

My “Missionary Member Care” Class at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary questioned missionaries here in Asia about some of their challenges in missions. I have 11 students, and they each asked 3 missionaries 12 questions and recorded their answers. All of my students are from South Asia, East Asia, or Southeast Asia. From the 396 answers, I asked the students to break up into three groups and each group come up with 15 especially relevant statements from the answers.

We listed them (as seen in the picture below) and then started sub-categorizing them. I took the challenges and advice, and created a common response. the other categorizing, I will leave for my students in another week or so.

Serving in missions is challenging. It is difficult to live in a culture unlike my own, and adjusting my living to be in many ways like those around me. It is hard to serve God in places where the people and government are not sympathetic to what I am trying to do. This becomes even more difficult when churches and people at home are inconsistent with their support. It not only makes it hard to travel and minister, but often makes it uncertain that I can care for my family, and educate our children. Team-members can be a great help, but often we find ourselves in conflict with each other. I want people to whom I am ministering to come to God, but often I am so busy and distracted that I find it challenging to spend time with God myself.

My advice to others considering going into missions is to take good time to take care of yourselves. Invest in a healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Don’t get so engrossed with the busy-ness of ministry that you fail to spend time with God. You need to regularly take time to pray, study God’s word, and meditate. Also invest in your relationships with others, especially your team-members. Make an effort to fellowship and worship together. You need to learn to work with others– work out conflicts, and seek to live at peace with others, even including local governments. You need to take time to understand the culture, and embrace any opportunity to learn more about the people and about how best to minister to them.

Still, sometimes things seem to get out of control, and problems build up. You need to bring these burdens to God. You also need to have some close friends to whom you can share your problems with. Writing down your burdens, taking some alone time, and even a good scream or cry now and then can help as well.”

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The Lost Pearl in “Timothy’s Apology for Christianity”

In 781 A.D., there was a discussion between Patriarch Timothy I, and Mahdi, the third of the Abbassid Caliphs at Baghdad. 41de67tkwll

Excerpt from Timothy’s Apology for Christianity. You can read the rest of it HERE.

“O our victorious King, in this world we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those men who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch his hand towards the light, which alone can show what every one has in hand. He who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

“In this same way we children of men are in this perishable world as in darkness. The pearl of the true faith fell in the midst of all of us, and it is undoubtedly in the hand of one of us, while all of us believe that we possess the precious object. In the world to come, however, the darkness of mortality passes, and the fog of ignorance dissolves, since it is the true and the real light to which the fog of ignorance is absolutely foreign. In it the possessors of the pearl will rejoice, be happy and pleased, and the possessors of mere pieces of stone will weep, sigh, and shed tears, as we said above.”

And our victorious King said: “The possessors of the pearl are not known in this world, O Catholicos.”—And I answered: “They are partially known, O our victorious King.”—And our victorious and very wise King said: “What do you mean by partially known, and by what are they known as such?”—And I answered: “By good works, O our victorious King, and pious deeds, and by the wonders and miracles that God performs through those who possess the true faith. As the lustre of a pearl is somewhat visible even in the darkness of the night, so also the rays of the true faith shine to some extent even in the darkness and the fog of the present world. God indeed has not left the pure pearl of the faith completely without testimony and evidence, first in the prophets and then in the Gospel. He first confirmed the true faith in Him through Moses, once by means of the prodigies and miracles that He wrought in Egypt, and another time when He divided the waters of the Red Sea into two and allowed the Israelites to cross it safely, but drowned the Egyptians in its depths. He also split and divided the Jordan into two through Joshua, son of Nun, and allowed the Israelites to cross it without any harm to themselves, and tied the sun and the moon to their own places until the Jewish people were well avenged upon their enemies. He acted in the same way through the prophets who rose in different generations, viz.: through David, Elijah, and Elisha.

And our victorious King said: “We have hope in God that we are the possessors of this pearl, and that we hold it in our hands.”— And I replied: “Amen, O King. But may God grant us that we too may share it with you, and rejoice in the shining and beaming |90 lustre of the pearl! God has placed the pearl of His faith before all of us like the shining rays of the sun, and every one who wishes can enjoy the light of the sun.

This passage seems valuable today in ways that were, perhaps, less true just a few years ago.

  1.  The scenario comes closer to today than in the last several hundred years in terms of the relationship between church and government.  Timothy as Patriarch of the Eastern Syrian church was leader of a Christian group that was at the mercy of a non-Christian political entity. Up until the World Wars, the majority of Christians lived in lands that were predominantly led by Christians. Prior to World War I, in fact, there was still a certain amount of belief in Christendom. A majority of Christians today live in lands that are either dominated by a hostile or at least unsympathetic religious majority, or a secularized (often a civil secular religion) government. This is not, necessarily, bad. Christianity seems to have always been at its best when it is not a wielder of power. I personally think this is true of all religions. This conversation shows Patriarch Timothy as thoughtful, respectful, and honest with the caliph— even expressing admiration for the other faith in terms that most of us would have difficulty accepting today. It is hardly surprising, I think, that up until the mid-20th century, the dominant groups in converting Muslims to Christianity were not Protestants or Catholics, but those of the Orthodox faiths.
  2. The parable clarifies, in some ways, much in a challenging topic today. Many people argue as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Those who say “No” are often thought close-minded, and those who say “Yes” are often viewed as heretical. The parable of the lost pearl provides an answer of sorts. First, both groups are SEEKING to worship the same God, much like the people in the story are seeking the same pearl. Second, however, is that both seeking the same pearl is not the same as both attaining it. Of course, this doesn’t solve things totally. If one says that the two religions are the same since they seek the same God… this opens the door for viewing many many religions as the same, since so many seek the God who is the great creator of all things. To say then that there is sameness due to this one similarity is neither rare nor, perhaps, even important. On the other hand, if you argue that the uniqueness of the pearl limits promotes exclusivity of the true faith, one must also face the fact that it may divide even more than we want. No two people, Christian or otherwise, completely picture God the same, and none see God truly as He is. As such, one might argue that no one truly has this pearl. This is part of the reason for the confusion today. Still, the parable I think points more to the idea that our faiths differ, ans so our Gods differ.
  3. This pearl has considerable relevance in this age we describe as “post-modern.” Post-modernism can involve the belief in no absolutes… no metanarrative, no objective reality. This parable, or at least its explanation denies this. There is true faith and untrue faiths. On the other hand, it affirms one aspect of post-modernism. Doubt is not a rejection of faith. In fact, doubt is normal and healthy, since we are limited in this present world to be groping for truth in the (semi-) dark.To me the parable gives not only a better picture of faith and doubt for a post-modern age, but a clearer picture in most any age.