Hopelessly Progressive

There is an excerpt I love from the book “Skeletons on the Zahara” by Dean King (William Heinemann, 2004, p.96). It is a rewritten account of Capt. Riley’s account of the 1815 shipwreck of the US brig Commerce, and the subsequent enslavement of its crewmembers in present-day Western Sahara. The crew stuck in a desperate situation without water the following conversation occurred.

They briefly discussed going to it [a lake mirage], before realizing that it was nothing but ‘the stiking of the rays of the sun upon the dry sand.’ Some of the men were for stopping. Riley, Williams, and Savage urged them to get up, but the officer’s exhortations rang hollow. When asked what he thought they should do, Hogan, the ordinary seaman from Massachusetts, replied, ‘I don’t know— but what’s the use of lying down to die as long as we can stand up and walk?’ It was not what he said so much as how he said it: ‘with perfect apathy,’ Robbins recalled.

Paradoxically, Hogan’s utter absence of enthusiasm motivated the men. No tinseled hope would spur them now, only the dispassionate notion that they might as well walk on simply because they could.

Okay, it may not be an overly inspiring passage to some. I suppose some might find it strangely inspiring, because they kept moving. Some see progress as good of itself. Americans especially have been known for liking change, even when change seems to have little justification. I have heard some that have promoted change (“progress”) simply because change rejects “tradition.” Or change means “not giving up.”

However, change can be as much apathetic as staying the same. Churches and ministries often need to change. But change is not an inherent good. Change can often be a form of giving up.

Yeah… this is probably an uninspiring post for some. I guess I would just say that Hope, Love, and Faith are critical in ministry. However, application of love, faithfulness, and hopefulness is merely those who keep moving. As John Milton said, it also includes those who “stand and wait.” For those who want the longer passage:

Sonnet XIX On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask.  But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.  His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.’

2005 Medical Mission Trip

<div style=”width:477px” id=”__ss_13437678″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3/from-baguio-to-baguionas-and-back&#8221; title=”From baguio to baguionas and back” target=”_blank”>From baguio to baguionas and back</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/&#8221; target=”_blank”>documents</a> from <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3&#8243; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>
This is a write-up I did on one of my first medical mission trips. I still kind of like it.

So You REALLY Want to “Enlarge Your Territory”?

The following is an excerpt from Richard Stearns book “The Hole in Our Gospel” (Thomas Nelson, 2010, p. 40-41)

Referring to the book, “Prayer of Jabez,” Stearns wrote:

The gist of the book was that if we would truly pray for God to bless us in this way, to be used by Him for the kingdom, good things would happen– God would “enlarge our territory,” and we would be able to serve Him in a deeper and expanded way. Nothing wrong with that. But many who read the book interpreted it differently. Their understanding was that God intends to bless us with things, such as career success, financial gains, and other outward signs of prosperity– all we have to do is ask. For many, in fact, the book became a celebration of the “prosperity gospel”– the belief that God rewards faithful and sincere Christians with success, good health, and material prosperity.

… Listen to what really happened to Paul when God expanded his territory:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” <II Cor. 11:23-27>

We might want to think twice before we ask God for that kind of blessing. The Bible is replete with those God used to do His will but who paid a great price. Ten of the twelve disciples died as martyrs for their faith. John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod. Isaiah was sawed in two. Over the centuries millions have been martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ, and many others have been afflicted. Joni Eareckson Tada, who now ministers to thousands, began her greatest ministry after her territory was enlarged– by a diving accident that paralyzed her. … Thousands of missionaries have lived difficult lives of sacrifice in relative poverty and deprivation as God expanded their work and ministries in the places they served. God doesn’t promise that all of His followers will be protected from hardship and suffering. Christians get cancer, lose loved ones, and suffer financial setbacks just like everyone else. But God can also use our tragedies to expand our territory in ways that show a skeptical world a different way to live.

I have to admit that I read the book “The Prayer of Jabez” and it sure looked to me as if the author was indeed promoting “Prosperity Gospel.” Perhaps Richards Stearns was giving Bruce Wilkerson a bit of a benefit of the doubt. We all can use a bit of grace at times. “Blessed” with hardships and struggles is a difficult concept. It relates to “religious thinking” as described by Bronislaw Malinowski (religious behavior to seek to be guided by the divine) rather than “magical thinking” (religious behavior to manipulate the divine), or dog theology over cat theology (drawing from a recent book).

Isn’t, Hasn’t, Can’t

I have to admit that I don’t particularly care for some common definitions for missionaries. Some are very narrow (cross-cultural, full-time, church-planter, etc.). I believe that a missionary is primarily apostolic but can serve in at least one of three basic roles.

1.  A Missionary Can Serve Where a Church ISN’T. In some places in the world, there is not a viable healthy Christian church so missionaries can take on the role of evangelist, church-planter, leader developer, and discipler. By definition, this role is transitional. If the missionary is successful, this role will not continue (at least at that locality).

2.  A Missionary Can Serve Where a Church HASN’T. There may be places where a church exists but hasn’t become involved in important ministries (missions, counseling, leader development, social ministry, etc.). In some cases the churches lack the tools and training to carry out the work, but these are readily available through missionary facilitation. In other cases, the main problem is motivation/inspiration. Again, this is transitional. If locals do not ultimately take over all (or at least much) of the duties, than the missionary has in some sense failed.

3.  A Missionary Can Serve Where a Church CAN’T. In some places, churches lack the ability to carry out some ministry functions and are likely to continue to be unable to do so in the forseeable future. This may include things like Christian radio, large-scale disaster relief, and orphanages. In some places, the government or cultural climate limit the roles of local churches. Missionaries may have the autonomy to work because because of their role as an outsider. In this sort of role a missionary may serve in the function long-term. Again, however, incorporation of local people and resources as much as possible is desirable, I believe.

 

I know that this seems excessively broad, but it does exclude a lot of roles from missionaries. This includes many long-term roles, for example. It also includes roles where the missionary essentially competes with viable local ministries. Anyway, something to think about.

 

A Rational Faith? Part I

The following is a quote from a 9th century Egyptian (Coptic) monk:

I find the proof of the truth of Christianity in its contradictions and inconsistencies which are rejected by intelligence and repelled by the mind because of their difference and contrast. Analysis cannot help it, though the intelligence and perception enquire and search into it.  <Regarding wise men and kings>…they do not accept or practice it except for proofs which they have witnessed, signs which they have known, and miracles which they have recognized, which compelled them to submit to it and practice it. (Quoted in “The Lost History of Christianity” by Philip Jenkins, p. 76)

This quote brings up much that is relevant today. Consider the following;

1.  A number of Christian groups today (including but not-limited to the Signs and Wonders folk) place high importance on “the miraculous.” In missions circles, many consider power encounter an important (some even seem to place it as a necessary) part of evangelism.

2.  Many people, groups, entertainment outlets (check out a few episodes of “Family Guy” if you doubt) argue that Christianity is foolish, anti-intellectual nonsense.

3.  Many other groups, non-Christian, also seek similar anti-intellectual means to proselytize. This may range from the rather silly “burning in the bosom” of LDS to full-blown miracle crusades.

Rather than look at all of this, I would simply like to ask whether Christianity is rational? Is faith, as Mark Twain said, believing what you know ain’t so? Does being a Christian require turning off one’s brain.

Okay, this is still too big of a topic. Let me put down a few thoughts. If more come along, maybe I will add a follow-up post.

1.  Many aspects of Christian doctrine are not “Contextually Rational.” By this, I mean that our understanding of what is rational tends to be tied to our cultural context. For example, for centuries the idea of a god (or gods) who judges the hearts of man was considered a perfectly reasonable and rational thing. The further understanding that sacrifice (personal or vicarious) for sin was necessary to be “redeemed” in the eyes of God (or gods) made sense. The fact that these now challenge credulity doesn’t mean that rationality has changed, but our culture. In talking about rationality, we should separate between what is compatible with rational thought universally, and that which is merely rational contextually.

2.  Some aspects of Christian Faith may not be “Experientially Rational.” A classic example of this is the Trinity. The Trinity is often thought of by many as irrational. Yet, there is nothing inherently irrational about it (in its strictest form). The idea of a being that shares unity and society within itself is only difficult for us because we don’t share that character. We have no problem with having a conscious mind and an unconscious mind (that interact socially yet still somewhat independently) because we have that character ourselves. I recall a situation a time back where there were conjoined twins who shared parts of their two brains. It was thought that if they grew up they might be the first two people (that we know of) who could read each other’s thoughts. The idea of two people physically joined and joined in thought, yet having separation of person (intellect, emotion, will, sense of self) is something we struggle to understand because it is outside of our personal experience. Yet that situation is not inherently irrational. Since non-theists often charge theists with creating God in Man’s image, to embrace an image of God that is beyond our own experiential comprehension, is actually quite reasonable if their indeed is a God. Extrapolating human experience is not necessarily more rational. As another example, the concept of Islamic heaven (what we find pleasurable now, expanded) is no more rational than a heaven that defies our own experiential comprehension.

3.  Christians create our own problems in rationality. We take God’s revelation in the Bible and then try to expand upon it. We try to “explain” the Trinity, or the logic of the atonement, or the nature of eternal life, or process of election. In so doing we bounce between contradiction (rejecting mystery for the non-rational) and extrapolation (rejecting mystery for extrapolation of human experience). This tendency opens us up for (justifiable) ridicule from both ends.

But mystery is not irrational. To accept that some things defy our own cultural context, or our own experience is perfectly reasonable. It only makes sense.

St. Denis

Here is a photo of my family at the Virginia Fine Arts Museum (Richmond, VA). The statue to their left (our right) is of St. Denis, patron saint of France. The image shows the legend that after he was martyred (beheaded) he picked up his severed head and walked about 10 km preaching the whole way, finally dying (completely) at the point where the Saint Denis Basilica is now located.

There are different ways to look at that story, if one was looking for a parabolic story.

1.  (Humorously) It can be used for the punchline caution about the dangers of “losing your head” in ministry. However, I think other stories might work better… so let’s move on.

2.  It can be used as a lesson for finishing the ministry strong. We have lots of stories of people starting strong and finishing weak. Stories of fallen ministers and missionaries are nearly cliches. Biblically, we have Kings David, Hezekiah, and Josiah as examples of losing their testimony late in life. Gideon is another of many examples. The story of a man who (according to legend) was a martyr (“witness”) to the end is inspirational. But also serving as a witness beyond natural life is quite a parabolic story.

3.  St. Denis can also be seen as one who “cleaned up his own mess.” By picking up his severed head and walking to a presumably better place to be buried, he took care of himself as long as he could. Many in ministry don’t prepare for their own absence from ministry. Perhaps it is hubris. Perhaps they feel eternal, even if they intellectually know otherwise. Perhaps they think they are so necessary that they are indispensable, so preparing for their absence is pointless. Exit strategy is vital for personal and ministerial legacy.

4.  On the other hand, St. Denis story is not very realistic and it perhaps should provide a reminder that we should say what we need to say NOW. Most of us will not have the opportunity to speak (to say nothing of be listened to) after we lose our heads.

Okay, sure. I believe that the story of St. Denis post-beheading stroll is fictional. Can’t prove that of course. But a good story doesn’t need to be true to provide a good lesson.

Short Article on Early Christianity in Asia

<div style=”width:477px” id=”__ss_10450885″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3/the-role-of-trade-routes-in-the-spread-of-christianity-in-asia-during-the-first-millennium&#8221; title=”THE ROLE OF TRADE ROUTES IN THE SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY IN ASIA DURING THE FIRST MILLENNIUM” target=”_blank”>THE ROLE OF TRADE ROUTES IN THE SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY IN ASIA DURING THE FIRST MILLENNIUM</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/&#8221; target=”_blank”>documents</a> from <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/bmunson3&#8243; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>