Thoughts on Mission Language and Guyabano

Which would you rather try… Eating a Guyabano or a Soursop. Some of you know neither fruit. Some of you know one of these two fruits and probably only a few of you know both fruits. But that’s okay. Which would you prefer?

Soursop

Soursop (Photo credit: missmeng)

I am betting that a majority of you would prefer to try a Guyabano (pronounced GUY – a – BAH – no) over a Soursop (pronounced pretty much as you would guess it). If you haven’t tried (or even heard of) a Guyabano, you might think that the name of the fruit sounds rather— exotic… interesting. Soursop sounds, well, sour, mushy, uninteresting.

I have never done a test on this, but I would like to suggest that perhaps 85% of people would be more enticed by the name of Guyabano, while the remainder would find the name Soursop as being more appealing (or maybe undecided).

Now suppose we set up 4 randomly selected groups of people (maybe 10 persons each).

          Group A:   Given Guyabano to eat but not told the name of the fruit.

          Group B:  Given Soursop to eat but not told the name of the fruit.

          Group C:  Given Guyabano to eat after being told its name.

          Group D:  Given Soursop to eat after being told its name.

Suppose each member of the group would score the fruit (taste, texture, smell, appearance, etc.). Could use a Likert Scale (ranging from 1 for worst to 5 for best). Now let’s imagine some possible scores that come from the groups (I am making these up, but I think could be pretty reasonable).

          Group A:      3.8

          Group B:      3.8

          Group C:      4.1

          Group D:     3.0

This is quite reasonable numbers. You see, Guyabano and Soursop are two names for the same fruit. When the names are not given (as in Groups A and B) the score is based on the fruit itself. Thus Groups A and B should have very similar scores.

The difference between Group A and Group C is the addition of the name of the fruit (Guyabano). The difference between Group B and Group D is the addition of the name (Soursop). If the name is positive, the name should make the fruit more appealing. If the name is negative, the name should make the fruit less appealing.

But is this logical? Didn’t Shakespeare say “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”? But according to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, named for Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, our perceptions are affected by our language. There is a reason why we buy Kiwifruit in stores and not Chinese Gooseberries. The fruit is not different, but the name affects its interest.

How does this work? I really don’t know. But consider Guyabano again. It sounds exotic, tropical, interesting. When one sees it for the first time, those preconceptions are reinforced but its alien and interesting look. When one opens it up, it has a sweet smell and has a taste quite a bit like candy manufacturer’s interpretation of a some mysterious tropical fruit. Again, it is easy for us to find support for our preconceptions.

But the same can be said about Soursop. The name is unappetizing. When one sees a soursop for the first time, it looks… weird— green, odd-shaped, with little horns on it. It’s texture is soft and mushy (when ripe) which is reinforced by the name. Tasting it, it is likely that one would be surprised that it is sweeter than expected, but there is a tanginess in it that reinforces the perception of sourness to some extent.

We are affected by language. For years furriers did not sell skunk fur. They sold “Alaskan sable” or “Black marten.” Why? Because people were not comfortable wearing a truly beautiful fur that made one think of a small smelly rodent-like animal. I think now there is a greater acceptance of skunk as a wearable fur (except for the anti-fur folks of course)… but it has taken decades.

Language is powerful. In Christian missions it is powerful as well. Titus 2:10 talks about how we are to decorate, adorn, or make attractive the Gospel (good news) of Christ. The context there is regarding action. However, language also matters. I Peter 3:15, for example, describes the care we must have in choosing our words regarding our faith. Why (asking the same question yet again)? Because although God’s love, care, sacrifice, and relationality with regards to us is (I would suppose) nearly universally appealing, a gospel presentation that attacks or demeans a specific culture may well make the gospel unattractive. A gospel presentation that makes God look ugly is not a good presentation.

Jesus warns us about the danger inherent in causing a little (immature) one to stumble. Are we also responsible for the perceptions (misperceptions) that result from a poor communication of God’s message? This is not about lying or telling the truth. Are we responsible for giving a presentation of God’s message without concern about the perception it may create?

<By the way, many tout guyabano as a miracle health fruit. Don’t know if that is true… but it is high in Vitamin C and makes a wonderful fruit shake. So enjoy.>

Oooops! Some Mistakes I Have Made #2

Cover of the Kankana-ey Hymnal.

Cover of the Kankana-ey Hymnal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mistake #2.  Not Focusing on Language.

I know that a missionary should focus on language work before and during the time on the field. I never really did this. There are a few reasons:

1.  Baguio is, perhaps, the most English-friendly city in Philippines… perhaps in all of Southeast Asia. I have met two, maybe three people in Baguio who did not speak English. <however, many=”” most=”” are=”” more=”” comfortable=”” in=”” another=”” language.=”” and=”” one=”” does=”” not=”” have=”” to=”” travel=”” far=”” outside=”” of=”” baguio=”” when=”” english=”” becomes=”” foreign.=””>

2.  I kept bouncing back and forth on what language to focus on. The national language is Tagalog. The regional trade language is Ilocano. The local tribal languages are Kankana-ey and Ibaloi. The most useful language to learn is Tagalog, but its impact is less… there are a lot of foreigners who can magsalita ng Tagalog. Kankana-ey and Ibaloi really opens doors to tens of thousands of people… but the impact is very regional. Ilocano is in between. I spent way too long trying to decide what to focus on.

3.  I focused on other training, my M.Div. and Th.D., all training done in English. That took me close to 8 years. I should have incorporated my language work into my other training, but I did not.

4.  My wife speaks four languages. Outside of English, she is fluent in Tagalog, Ilocano, and Kapampangan. So I never felt that much pressure to learn.

5. Yes, I was lazy. I like to learn.  But I don’t like learning languages. I am not good at it… it is a struggle for me. But that is not a good enough reason.

Language matters. Heart language does matter for aiding understanding. Additionally, learning a person’s language shows you care. A missionary goes to the people but without working hard to learn the language, he is not going all the way to the people.

It’s not too late.  I’ve got work to do.

 

Oooops! Some Mistakes I Have Made #1

Mistake #1.  Trusting Untrustworthy People

Note:  To be fair, my wife and I have been BLESSED with many wonderful ministry partners. Additionally, many who are not reliable may have been set up for failure by me because I did not give them the proper tools and accountability to succeed. Prayerfully, this is an area for me to grow in.

Oops

Oops (Photo credit: dingler1109)

In missions, you can’t only work with reliable people… it’s just not an option. Sometimes we must work with untrustworthy people. There are at least three reasons for this;

  1. We don’t necessarily know who is trustworthy before we start working with them. Asking other people as to who one can rely on necessitates trusting those people for their recommendations. Volunteers may seek to join who have an inadequate set of references. Or they have proven to be reliable in one area but are untested in another area.
  2. Sometimes, people with a proven record of reliability are simply not available. If there is no one available to partner with who has a proven track record of reliability, perhaps it is best not to work in that area. But sometimes choosing not to work in that area is not an option. If one is working with a trustworthy church in an outreach ministry, one may have to also work with a potentially untrustworthy government official. Or an unreliable gatekeeper may have to be dealt with to go from vision to reality.
  3. In missions, we need to be open to give someone another chance. Christ gave another chance to “untrustworthy” Peter, while Barnabbas gave another chance to John Mark.Since I just said that one must at times work with untrustworthy people, where is my mistake? My error (one I have made more than once) has been working with untrustworthy people without proper accountability and standards. In other words, I am guilty of trusting people who were not trustworthy. Accountability means overseeing and verifying that things are being done as they should. Standards means there is something to compare against. After all, how does one know whether someone is reliable or not if one doesn’t have standards to compare them against?

Okay, so why have I made this mistake on multiple occasions? I have at least three reasons (I may add more as time goes on):

  • A Theology of Empowerment. In missions, I believe that a missionary should train and develop others and pull back. That requires empowering them with the resources and opportunity to succeed… or make mistakes. This is not necessarily a bad reason… but tied to the other two reasons, there can be bigger issues.
  • Hope/Desire. I want someone to succeed. I hope they can be trusted. But sometimes hope and desire can lead one astray just as one who bets money on a “sure thing” (hope and desire do not win wars or games). Christians often don’t call it hope or desire… they call it “faith.” But faith without a solid basis is presumption. God has NOT promised that bad plans must succeed simply because we “will it” (by faith) to succeed. <I have known people to rip verses out of the Bible to support such a theology… but it’s still not true.>
  • Laziness. I know that some people need oversight. I suppose on some level we all need oversight and accountability. But, really, when one has a busy schedule, the hope is that others will come along side to make your life easier. Training, oversight, and accountability takes time and effort. It is easier just to empower someone and hope that things work out.

Christian Missions through the Lens of the 14th Century

waterhouse_decameron-728x300One of my favorite stories is from the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375). In the story, Giannotto was a Christian merchant, a good man, who was a close friend of Abraham, a Jew, who was also a good man. Giannotto wanted Abraham to become a Christian and pleaded for him to convert. Abraham was unconvinced, but being a person of means, he decided to travel to Rome. There he would observe the pope and cardinals in action. If the leadership of the Christian faith could convince him of the superiority of Christian to Judaism, he would convert. Otherwise, he would remain a Jew until death. Giannotto was not comforted in this, knowing the rumors of misbehavior there.

Months later Abraham returned telling Giannotti that he has decided to become a Christian. Giannotti, surprised, asked what had convinced him to convert. Abraham explained that during his time in Rome, he saw the leaders of the Christian faith involved in lust, gluttony, drunkenness, greed, simony, and all manner of sin and corruption.

But, Why would such behavior convince Abraham to convert? He reasoned that Christianity had such high standards and was seen as being so holy and growing. Clearly, these standards and success did not come from its leaders, so it must come from God.

Boccaccio was a humorist, but humor that strikes home is grounded on an underlying, even subversive, truth. What is the underlying truth? In the 14th century, the Christian faith, the Christian religion, was really about Christ, about God. It wasn’t about pope, cardinal, bishop, or monk. That underlying truth remains true today. Christianity is not about the big stars of Christianity, the big speakers, the big authors, the big leaders. Christianity was, is, and will be about Christ.

Okay, most Christians would admit that this is true (I think) but in Missions, we really need to embrace this. If Christianity is about Christ, then

  • It is not about us.
  • It is not about our being perfect, not about being all-wise, and not about being all skilled.
  • It is not about programs, theologies, worship styles, music,
  • It is not about degrees, certifications, ordinations, gifts, fame, or positions.
  • It is not about sinless, dynamic “super”-Christians.

If someone decides to become a Christian because they are impressed by you or your character, or your style, or anything to do with you (or someone else), that person is not ready to become a Christian. A person ready to become a Christian is one who sees Christ hidden behind the doubtful garments of Christianity, and the perfection of God that is seen best in contrast to the honestly revealed flaws of Christians rather than their holy facades.

But that is theory. In practice… how does one really point people to God. Clearly, we don’t try to sin or be flawed, to make God look good (I hope). Honesty, integrity, and humility seems to be a good place to start. Pointing people to God rather than cool books, revivalists, apostles, prophets, pastors, mega-church leaders, specialists, musicians, or other religionists seems to be a start as well.

And expressing love (in our own flawed, inadequate way) as God called us to do is another key. After all, in the story of Gionnotto and Abraham, the start was Gionnotto who was an honest, kind, concerned friend of someone culturally and religiously very unlike himself. That is a very good foundation to build missions from.

Engineering Design as it Applies to Missions (???)

I learned a rule as a Mechanical Design Engineer. Back then I mostly worked on military projects (particularly submarine radar systems). However, occasionally I would work on commercial projects… particularly integrated bridge systems for commercial shipping. Engineering Triad

Each has very different philosophies. I worked at a company which operated with both philosophies, but it was difficult. Most don’t do this. If they do have both military work and commercial work, they keep their divisions well separated.

The reason? It is difficult for people to work under two very different paradigms. Military projects (even ruggedized and “COTS” or commercial off-the-shelf) works on a paradigm of high quality. One must meet rigorous standards and quality controls. If it drifts into a different area it would high quality and quick. But in commercial work, the focus is on cheap (or inexpensive if you want a nicer term). Sometimes it will drift into cheap and high quality, or cheap and quick.

An engineer has a challenging time drifting from one paradigm to another because mental tools one uses for one paradigm become useless or detrimental when one shifts to a new paradigm.

The rule we used was this:

A.  A design can be Quick and it can be High Quality, but then it will be EXPENSIVE.

B.  A design can be Quick and Cheap, but then it will be LOW QUALITY.

C.  A design can be High Quality and Cheap, but then it will TAKE TIME.

How does this apply to Missions. Not sure, but consider the following:

A.  Quick and High Quality Missions. Big events like major medical outreaches are like this. They are EXPENSIVE. You can’t do a quick and high quality mission event without spending a lot of money, or expending a lot of man-hours. In reality, I don’t think Quick, High Quality Missions are very realistic in most cases. Most groups can’t make a quick mission event work that is high quality. But perhaps big organizations can (particularly in emergency disaster relief)… but it costs.

B.  Quick and Cheap. Generally, with these mission events, you get what you pay for. Except in emergency situations, quick is typically a bad idea in missions anyway (even if it is extremely popular… in part because of the popularity of STM work, and partly because churches often get bored of anything that takes longer than a weekend). Quick and cheap may be good to “open the door” for something else. Inviting a friend out to coffee and talk about his spiritual and relational life is quick and cheap… but there better be some follow-on ministry if there is a positive response… and such a ministry should NOT be quick.

C.  High Quality and Cheap.  In my mind, this is the best ministry. Throwing money at a problem is rarely the best solution… though you would never get that impression watching “Christian” programming. High Quality and Cheap takes time.  It is a slow process like caring for fruit trees. Good fruit will come, but it takes patience and quality care.

One reason I like Community Health Education (also called CHE or Community Health Evangelism) or Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is that it does exactly that… provide High Quality ministry inexpensively… taking a long-term view of ministry. I know some like to use scare tactics for quick ministry work, but quick ministries tend to be wasteful (in resources) and/or low quality in results.

High Quality and Cheap usually focuses on training. The reason is that the goal is towards empowerment and reproducibility. We are involved in chaplain and pastoral care work for that very reason. It is a slow process of healing people, families, groups, and communities. It is not particularly expensive but focuses on slow development and empowerment. 

There are many ministries out there. Many of them are great… but for me, the slow process of high quality, inexpensive developmental ministry is the one where most of the focus should be placed. Anyway, that is the paradigm I would prefer to focus on. As I said before, it is difficult to switch back and forth in paradigms in Design and in Missions.

Ambivalent Reflections on Spiritual Warfare

Plate 22 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Lou...

“SATAN BOUND” Plate 22 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Loutherbourg. Bowyer Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often find myself on the side of downplaying “spiritual warfare” and “power encounter.” I see myself doing this not so much because I see these as purposeless. I have seen missionaries working in particularly difficult places coming down with horrible maladies. I am not sure I can simply chalk that up to stress and convergence disorder. They appear to have been drawn into a battlefield that they are challenged to survive, to say nothing of thrive. However, I find myself arguing against a certain Christ-paganism that has crept into the church and Christian mission. I don’t claim to be an expert in this area (and don’t plan to become an expert) but here are some thoughts I believe to find a healthy balance in Spiritual Warfare and Power Encounter for reflection.

1.  In Spiritual Warfare, the primary battle is with oneself. It has become popularized to externalize evil. We may talk about the spirit or demon of depression, lust, or hate. But really, Pogo (as written by Walt Kelly) was ironically correct when he said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The Bible drama makes it clear that man sinned, man fell, man lives in a state of rebellion (warfare) with God. We need to be changed positionally, and renewed continually to be brought to where we are (at least on some level) at peace with God. Demons and Satan appear to have a fairly modest role in this, and much of that is obscured from us.

2.  In Spiritual Warfare, the secondary battle is with others. We not only sin (live in rebellion) but are also sinned against. Social Justice is not simply a nice thing for a Christian to work for, it is very much at the heart of spiritual warfare. Read the major and minor prophets and you will see how important social justice and challenging abuse of the poor, weak, and innocent is to God.

3.  In Spiritual Warfare, the heavenly/spirit realm cannot be discounted. As noted in Ephesians 6, the world we see is not the only world… we may live in rebellion, others may live in rebellion, but there is a grander story that we are part of, and we each have a part to play. Therefore, it is not correct to simply make our work to be only about self and other people.

4.  Our Ignorance of the battle in the heavenlies was intentional. God gave us lttle more than tiny snippets of information about the “spiritual” battle in the heavenlies. However, our primary  activity is focused in the here  and now. Our activity as Christians can be seen for the most part in God’s command to all mankind in Genesis 1 and 2 (multiply and rule… as a good steward), Genesis 12 (be a channel of blessing to the entire world), the Great Commandment (love God and, as a result, love people), and the Great Commission (act as witnesses of God’s good action and good news). Primarily speaking, the battle in the “spirit realm” is not our battle. Spiritual warfare is primarily dealing with evil here and now by those who do evil here and now.

5.  Our understanding of Spiritual Warfare should be built from the Bible. Certain individuals have popularized a form of “Christian Paganism.” There is a verse or two that suggest some sort of territorial spirit… but such references fall far short of the the fanciful imaginings that have sprung up. Such local demons (as well as the above-mentioned oppressive demons) generally have more in common with forms of Animism than with Biblical Christianity. I am not one who labels things as “pagan” to castigate them. Every culture has some truth in it. But when our doctrines are more firmly grounded in a different religious system than Biblical or Historical Christian Theology, there is reason for concern.

6.  Based on the Bible, Satan does appear to be a real being, and angels and demons also appear clearly to exist in an objective sense. Some have gone the other way, and have turned anything that is not judged as “natural” as metaphoric or mythic (mythic in this case meaning untrue stories). Yet the Bible does describe them as real, problematic, and active. The comment from C.S. Lewis seems appropriate.

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” (The Screwtape Letters)

7.  The Bible appears to be pretty ambivalent about power encounter as well. The two biggest power encounter events in the Old Testament (Moses and the Pharoah, and Elijah and the Priests of Baal) both had mixed results in their ability to effect real and lasting change. Jesus did power encounter, yet often did such activities in secret (asking that the activity would be kept private) or even actively refusing to do signs and wonders. The mixed record of power encounter compared with (I believe) the much better record of love encounter (battling sinful prideful abusive self-centeredness with divine love) clearly tells us where our priorities should be.

8.  We need to be open-minded about what we see and experience. Satan and demons may not (in fact probably don’t) work the same today as they did centuries ago. Today, some Christians see mentally ill people and assume they have a demon. Since demons are thinking beings, unlike viruses, corrupted genes, or bacteria, their symptomology is likely to vary based on effectiveness in a given culture. Two thousand years ago, a demon oppressed (I prefer that term to demon possessed… personal thing) person was effective by being wild, scary, and insane. Today, such a person would be jailed or drugged to hinder their effectiveness. If demons are at work today in and through people, expect to see that action in ways that are effective today, not ways that render themselves useless in spiritual battle. On the other hand, being too quick to label what we don’t understand as being demonic is risky. Labeling does not reduce ignorance… it can actually enhance ignorance and cause greater trouble in the long-run.

9.  Our activities have eternal consequence. There is a battle going on and we, indeed, are a part of it. God’s word, God’s Spirit in our lives, and God’s love are vital equipments for us to incorporate into our lives. These are likely to make us more effective in spiritual warfare than prayer walking, prophecy events, and regional prayer exorcisms.

10.  Although our activities have eternal consequences, the battle (ultimately) is already won. We do not live in a dualistic universe. As Crowley says in Good Omens… God is playing solitaire, not chess. God is in control, even if He has allowed us to pilot the ship (poorly) for awhile. We are to be prepared for trouble, but not fearful for we are ultimately on the winning side and so we cannot (again ultimately) lose.

11. The war metaphor is important, but not necessarily the most important. The Bible appears to ultimately be a love story not a war chronicle. Recognizing the war metaphor is valuable… but it should be given its proper place. The book of Hosea appears to be a more important description of God’s relationship with us than the book of Joshua.

Anyway, these are my thoughts today.  Who knows… I may have new ideas tomorrow. One should be ready to learn and grow.