“Bonsai Church” Quote

“The growth of the church is both natural and supernatural. The church was designed by God to grow naturally, but all church growth is a supernatural miracle. In truth, the church will experience growth if we remove artificial and often selfish barriers we have used to keep our church artificially small– to keep it a bonsai church.

… The bonsai church may be cute, but it’s not practical. It is ornamental rather than fruit-bearing. It is a distortion of God’s original plan.”

       -Ken Hemphill, “Bonsai Theory of Church. Grow Your Church to Its Natural God-Given Size.”, pp. 106-107.

55 year old Sequoia sempervirens (California R...

55 year old Sequoia sempervirens (California Redwood or Coast Redwood) “Informal Upright” style bonsai tree from Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in New York City. Copyright 2007 Jeffrey O. Gustafson, released to Commons under the GFDL and CC-BY-SA-3.0. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Honoring “The Other Guy.” Part 2

Thomas’ primary claim to fame is as a DOUBTER. But I would like to suggest that a better description of Thomas is as a FAITHFUL DOUBTER or perhaps FAITHFUL SCEPTIC. I have suggested before that “faithful and doubting” might be better than “faithful.” Faithful and doubting means a faithfulness that has been tempered in the fires of doubt. Faith that is simple… blind… is inspirational in many ways, (a “star” quality) but I still wonder how prepared it is to stand a true challenge. (I don’t know… maybe simple faith is stronger than doubting faith… I wonder how one would objectively test that?)

Thomas has relatively little to say in the Bible as an individual. If it were not for John, we would not know anything individually about him. As part of the Twelve, one might presume that when the disciples bickered, complained, and questioned, he was part of that. But there are a few incidents where he is singled out that gives a bit of a clue to his character.

  1. John 11:16. When Jesus decided to go to Bethany and Jerusalem,Thomas says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” One might be tempted to focus on the prescience… his recognition of the danger that may not have been recognized by the others. Or one might be tempted to focus on the pessimism or cynicism. “Bad things are coming, you wait and see.” For me, Thomas was faithful. He decided to go with Jesus, even though he believed that he would be safer if he left Him. This was a faithfulness NOT borne out of an idealism or optimism. He did not want to go to Jerusalem, felt bad things would happen if he went to Jerusalem, yet still he went… because Jesus was going there and Thomas had agreed to follow Him.
  2. John 14:5. When Jesus said that He was going to prepare a place for His disciples, and that they (the disciples) already know the place He is going, Thomas responds, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way.” This statement doesn’t in itself provide much information about the person, but maybe it does. Thomas could have asked a simple question, “What is the way for us to go?” or he could have contradicted, “No Lord, we don’t know the way to go.” Instead, he makes a logical argument. Essentially, to know the way to go, we need to know the destination. Since we don’t know the destination, we don’t know the way. The logic here makes one think of the Greek philosophies. The quote in John 11:16 reinforces this with the determination to do what is right despite emotions that may lead elsewhere. This seems to me to be a bit from the Stoic School (I will welcome correction here… Greek philosophies are far from my strength). If he was a brother of Matthew (Levi), he would have come from a richer family (rich to get the job of a tax collector, and rich to keep the job). The willingness to take on a role like this (as tax collector) for the Romans suggests perhaps that Matthew was Hellenistic Jew. If these conjectures are accurate, then Thomas would have been raised as a rich Hellenistic Jew, making his education in the Greek philosophies quite likely. (Yes, this is highly speculative.)
  3. John 20:19 – 31. The most famous part of Thomas’ story, the part that created the term “Doubting Thomas” was after the death of Jesus. Jesus showed Himself to many of the Twelve. Thomas was not there. We don’t know why he wasn’t there (on the other hand we KNOW why Judas Iscariot wasn’t there). His absence shouldn’t be read as a rejection of the Twelve. Certainly, afterwards the other disciples told him about Jesus’ appearance, suggesting they felt he was still part of the team. But Thomas needed to be sure. What if it was a ghost? What if it is an imposter? What if it is a cruel joke by the other disciples? Was it out and out disbelief or was it caution. We don’t know. But Thomas was with his friends (the Twelve) the next time Jesus appeared… and his doubts were satisfied.

So what does this say about Thomas? It seemed to show an educated man… cautious… not one to jump to conclusions, and not one to be guided by emotions. He seems to be in personality the opposite of Peter, a very emotional and impulsive man.

In the Bible we don’t know much about what happened to Thomas after that. We know he was in Galilee in John 22 fishing. We can feel pretty certain that he was present at Pentecost and part of forming the church of Jerusalem. We might suspect that he was part of those Christians who were scattered from Jerusalem due to persecution. However, to know more we have to go to extrabiblical sources. Sadly, these must be looked at with a certain amount of doubt and caution.

There are several apocryphal writings regarding Thomas, or credited to him. The Acts of Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas, and the Revelation of Thomas, to name three. None appear to go back far enough to be particularly reliable. But the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas are fairly old, possibly to the late 2nd century.

There was a tradition that the Twelve, in a sense, divided up the known world and then went into their respective territories to spread the Gospel. This sounds a lot more organized than evidence seems to suggest for first century missions. However, one has to consider the possibility that it expresses some truth. The Acts of Thomas is highly fanciful but MAYBE have a grain of truth in them as well.

The Twelve were known as Apostles. By the late 2nd century AD, it seems as if Apostle became a term limited to a the Twelve, with the focus on being an authoritative church leader. However, in the first century, the term “apostle” suggested more of a church-planter rather than a church leader. The idea of the apostles spreading out to share the Gospel seems more in line with a first century tradition than a second century tradition. Paul was (correctly) described as a great missionary… but the vast majority of his mission work was limited to a few provinces in modern day Turkey and Greece. Adding his noted desire not to build on others’ foundations, there may be some suggestion of territories. Peter described himself as being in Babylon. Although there seems to be a solid church tradition placing Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, it seems likely that he did minister in Babylon for a time. Some have suggested that Rome was being figuratively described as “Babylon” but this appears to be anachronistic. John was described as an apostle, but it appears that when he settled in the church of Ephesus, he began to describe himself as John the Elder. This suggests that he transitioned from a mobile role outside the church, “retiring” to a leadership role inside the church. Anyway… if there is any truth to the tradition, the question is “where did Thomas go?”

According to the Acts of Thomas, he ultimately went to India, ministered there, and was martyred there. Is this possible? In theory, it is quite possible. First, traderoutes from the the areas around Judea to India were quite active. One route was from Alexandria through the Red Sea by boat and then straight across to Southern India. Another way was from Damascus and through Mesopotamia, down through the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf and then sailing along the coast of Persia to India. Since very early Christian communities existed in both Alexandria and in Northern Mesopotamia, this certain makes such a trip possible. In fact, the Acts of Thomas is believed to have been written in the 2nd or early 3rd century in Edessa (in northern Mesopotamia). Second, Christians of the ancient Orthodox faith in Southern India claim to be of the church founded by Thomas. These Christians do date from an ancient period, having been already well established no later than the late 2nd century.

So did Thomas found the church in India? I don’t know, but somebody did and probably did it within a hundred years of Thomas’ death. It seems likely that if Thomas did not, then one of his disciples, perhaps in Edessa, did.

I find Thomas inspiring. He was a man of faithful doubting… a somewhat rare but powerful combination. But that is not the main reason I like him, I suppose. Christians today like boisterous, emotional, vibrant Peter. But John appears to have had a high opinion of Thomas. Written late in the 1st century, the Gospel of John gives Thomas a much more prominent place than the other Gospels. I would like to suggest that his influence was seen more in the later years than in the early years of the church. Sometimes, it is the “other guy” who starts slow, but comes on strong at the end.

Christians today like dynamic, driven, literate Paul. Not sure Christians have much of a place for Thomas… doubting, cautious, logical, and faithful to the end. Right or wrong, I feel a certain kinship with Thomas… Thomas who is often seen as an example of how a Christian is NOT to be. But Jesus chose Him. Out of all of the impassioned, pietistic, dynamic people Jesus could have chosen, he chose Thomas. I like that. Jesus has chosen many others like Thomas as well, and may their numbers increase.

Honoring “The Other Guy.” Part I

History is generally written in praise, and contempt, of the so called “great men” (and yes, women, since I am using the inclusive understanding of men). News is created by “news makers,” celebrities, stars.

English: King David, second king of Israel

English: King David, second king of Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Bible, David (later King David) is one of the great ones… the one with the courage and chutzpah to take on a giant, and the audacity and dissimulation to travel around leading a band of rebels while claiming to be faithful to the King of Israel. He was the one who could write a great psalm of praise to God, do something breathtakingly evil, and then write a great psalm of contrition to God. Everything, good and bad, he did was BIG.

But that is not like most of us. Most of us are more like, the other guy– the one who doesn’t do the flashy things. The one who is backstage or in the audience, not front and center.

I suppose I am generally one of those, one of the other guys. If I was David and was pushed (probably unwillingly) to approach the King regarding Goliath, I wouldn’t offer to go to battle. I would probably explain to the king the health problems and reduced life expectancy associated with giantism. I would suggest a delaying process. I suspect Malcolm Gladwell would approve. David as king danced in the street completely oblivious to decorum as the ark of the covenant was restored to the tabernacle. I can’t see myself like that. I don’t like to dance… or maybe it is better to say that I like NOT dancing. If I was in the position of David and I became filled with zealous spiritual fervor, I would probably step off the street and start blogging, I suppose, in one of the many Internet shops that I am sure were all along the streets of Old Testament Jerusalem.

You might think that I don’t care for Stars… Celebrities. That’s not necessarily true (although I can’t help but suspect that people like Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, or Paul would be difficult next-door neighbors). Rather, I love when someone who is “the other guy” gets his moment. I had mixed feelings about the book “The Prayer of Jabez” but I loved how a forgettable man millenia ago humbly asked God to make him a blessing to his family, the family that “cursed” him with the name Jabez (meaning “sorrow” or “trouble”). I love when someone so clearly “the other guy” has his moment to inspire the world.

But one of my true favorites in the Bible is one of the ultimate “other guys.” That is Thomas. One might argue that Thomas was a star not an “other guy” since he was one of the select Twelve. But consider the following:

  • The name Thomas (also Didymus) means the twin. Some think he was the twin of Matthew. It makes sense, but one can’t be dogmatic. The key point though is that being known as “the twin” is about equivalent to being known as “the other guy.” Consider this. Two brothers are being introduced… “I want you to meet two friends of mine. This is Matthew. And this is his brother… The Twin… the other guy.”
  • According to church tradition. Thomas’ real name is Judas. So even among the Twelve, he was the “other Judas” not the primary Judas.
  • Three of the four gospels never mention anything about Thomas except that he was one of the Twelve.
  • Thomas is most famous in the Bible for being a doubter. Doubting is the cerebral, passive behavior more common of other guys than of stars… heroes.

Yet Thomas finished strong.  See Part II to this post to see an “Other G.uy” who made good. To read it, CLICK HERE

The Bible as a “Sacred” Text and as Symbol. Part 2

I spent the first post noting that the Christian understanding of the sacredness of the Bible is quite different from some other faiths’ understanding of sacredness. For example, sacredness of the Quran within the Muslim community sees it often terms of physical sacredness. Within Christianity, sacredness is functional. That is, it is the message of God that is sacred not the physical medium upon which the message is imprinted.

English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix.

English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are of course Christians that hold to a sort of a “Quranic” understanding of sacredness with regards to the Bible. For them, the Bible is something to be placed on the family altar, or carefully placed high in a bookshelf. Writing for them in the Bible would be a form of desecration except for a name in the front and perhaps genealogical information. But that is not a hugely common view especially among Protestants. For Christians, desecration occurs when the message of the Bible is ignored, misinterpreted, and misused. Frankly, that is far too common.

HOWEVER, a concern does exist when it comes to the Bible as a symbol. Consider the following roles of the Bible as a symbol.

1.  Christianity. In the Muslim understanding, Christians (along with Jews) are often interpreted as “People of the Book.” So the Bible is symbolically seen as connecting one with being a Christian. In Protestant (especially Evangelical and Fundamental) circles, the Bible is given such a high place (sola scriptora) that one’s identity as a Christian is seen in terms of one’s position with regard to the Bible rather than to the Church.  A cross may be used as a symbol for Christianity. A fish (ichthus) may also symbolize Christianity. However, an image of a Bible is also nearly universally recognized as a symbol of Christianity. It is assumed by most that if one is a Christian, one has at least one copy of the Holy Bible. Many churches strongly recommend that their members bring Bibles with them to the church service, even if Bibles already exist in the pews.

What are the implications of this? Since the symbol of the Bible as representing Christianity is recognized beyond Christian circles, how one treats the symbol can be seen as indicative of how one values what it represents. Therefore, although I reject a physical sacredness of the Bible (as understood by some other religions), from a symbolic standpoint, it is important to demonstrate a certain protective care of the Bible (physically) since it suggests to many (because of the symbolic role of the Bible) the value one places in one’s Christian faith.

2.  Authority. As Wayne Oates noted in “The Bible in Pastoral Care” a common symbol of the Bible is one of authority. This understanding is not limited to message. The word of God may be “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” But the symbol extends to the physical as well. Many preachers are strongly encouraged to have a Bible with them in the pulpit. Is it necessary from a functional standpoint? No. If the preacher is doing a manuscript sermon, the Biblical text is PROBABLY already on paper. Or else the passage is on the screen. But reading from the Bible directly, or holding a Bible in one’s hand when speaking symbolically suggests that the person is speaking on behalf of God… that is, with authority. In pastoral care situations, carrying a Bible with one, implies that one is acting on behalf of God as a caregiver. Reading from the Bible is often seen as more authoritative by the listener than quoting from memory.

Implications here are a little different. The Bible, as a symbol of authority, should be somewhat worn rather than pristine. Carrying a beautiful unused Bible reduces the symbolic authority, since it suggests that the pastor/preacher does not receive his authority from God’s Word. If God’s word is at hand but not showing evidence of use, then the authority of the religious leader is questioned.

3.  Power. We know that the Bible is considered powerful in its message “sharper than any double-edged sword” and whose message “will not return void.” However, this is the symbol that to me is most open to abuse. The Bible can be used as a symbol of power to such an extent that it can become a talisman. Again, Wayne Oates notes concerns of misuse as a talisman where one is instructed to read a certain number of passages or put the Bible under one’s pillow at night to limit temptation. Or place on one’s body for “physical healing.” Also, there is the concern that the symbol of the Bible as power, is also used as a a form of ecclesiological control. Medieval Catholicism (especially in Spain) placed the Bible in a position where it could only be read, understood, and used by religious leaders. The symbolic power of the Bible became a form of control… much like limiting the understanding of navigation to a ship’s captain was used in centuries past to maintain control… preventing mutiny.

To me, as I suggested above, the symbolic understanding of the Bible in terms of power is the most problematic. Power ultimately comes from God and is described to us in the message of the Word. The symbol of the Bible can become an amulet or talisman, supposedly warding off evil, used as a lucky charm, or as a method to achieve personal ends. The symbol can also be shifted from power to selfish control. I would recommend the shift of the Bible as a symbol of power to a symbol of hope.

There are more ways the Bible can and does function symbolically. Symbolic roles simply can’t be ignored regardless of whether one agrees with that role. In a missions setting, one cannot ignore the complex web of symbolic understandings that are placed on the Bible. It is useful to correct misunderstandings… but one does not correct by ignoring.

 

The Bible as a “Sacred” Text and as Symbol. Part 1

I admit the title of this post sounds funny, but let me go forward on this. Again, I am using the post to think more than give answers.

A bible from 1859.

A bible from 1859. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I was briefly visiting Malaysia, I saw the report of a “desecration” of a Muslim prayer room (surau) by a Buddhist group in a Malaysian resort. Of course, Muslims are allowed to pray in “non-sacred” places, although a prayer mat/rug appears to provide a sacredness anywhere of sorts (I do have to admit some ignorance of the details in this area). It is also true that Muslims often use Interfaith prayer rooms. However, at least in Johor Malaysia (again not sure about other countries), a surau is considered “sacred” and a person who allows a different religion to use it can be arrested– and the view is that, in this particular case at least, the prayer room must be destroyed since it can never be made sacred again.

The idea of sacredness in the above story interests me.

First, it interests me the fact that at least some Muslim leaders seem to feel that there is no redemption or re-sanctification for their space. Why would that be? I have been in a Mosque, in their surau, during prayers. The imam who invited me did not feel that I desecrated the place (although I did not practice religious rites of any sort there). I certainly have known of Christians going to mosques and praying to (the Triune) God as others prayer to their God. As far as I know, no mosque has ever been torn down because of that. I come across Christians (and even more commonly other groups like “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) who also seem to accept that some things can’t be redeemed. Every Christmas there are posts arguing that because the date chosen centuries ago to celebrate the birth of Jesus aligns with an ancient no-longer-commonly practiced pagan festival, Christmas is defiled… irredeemable. I believe redeeming culture is something God does all the time, and we should be very cautious in suggesting that God is unable or unwilling to redeem dates, times, places, and cultural activities.

Second, it interests me that I come across Christians that appear to find the Muslim understanding of sacredness appealing. Muslims culturally accept that certain things demonstrate that their primary sacred text, the Quran, is sacred. This includes where they place it. How they carry it. How they orient their body to it. They certainly have that right, and frankly they have the right to have opinions about other groups with regards to how they handle their own sacred texts. But I find it interesting that some Christians gravitate to a parallel mindset in this regard. They complain that fellow Christians can be a bit haphazard in the way they handle (physically handle) the Holy Bible, compared to the way Muslims physically handle the Quran.

To me this parallelism is inherently flawed. Christians should not look to another religion for an understanding of sacredness within a Christian context. If one group thinks that Christians don’t value the Bible because they allow the soles of their feet to face the Bible at times, should we embrace that view as well? I really don’t think so. Additionally, the Muslim understanding of the Quran is more like the Christian understanding of Jesus, and the Christian understanding of the Bible is closer to the Muslim view of Mohammed… so embracing a comparison of Holy texts may be flawed from the start.

But it does bring up the issue of what is sacred in the Christian context. I would argue that Christians more typically (and “Biblically”) hold to a functional sacredness of text rather than physical sacredness of text. The Bible is God’s love story, God’s message to man about His work in human history leading to restoration of His people to Himself. It is that message that is sacred, holy, set apart… not the paper, not the parchment, not the styrene disk that the message is placed upon. Descrecation of God’s word occurs when the message is distorted, ignored, or misused by Christians.

Sadly, that happens a lot. So maybe charges that Christians don’t treat their holy book as sacred does have some validity. But not for the reasons given.

However… now that I have said that, I am going to backpedal a bit because the Bible is not only a functionally sacred text… it is also a religious symbol. And that may have relevance as well. I will take this up in Part 2.

What Wholistic Means

Stantheurbancheguy's Blog

Let’s talk about wholistic and what it means to us. We spell wholistic with a ‘W’ because it keeps ever in front of us the idea that we need to deal with the whole person, all aspects of their life, and the whole community or neighborhood, meaning all sectors in that place.

Some people and the Webster Dictionary spell it without the W and give it a spiritual meaning from holy. We agree with that BUT feel it is more important to concentrate on the whole, not just on the spiritual or holy aspect.

Dela Adadevoh who was my director in Africa and who I spoke of last week wrote another book The Whole Gospel to the Whole Person  speaks about the Wholism from a Biblical basis.

Dela says the Gospel is a redemption and restoration story; it is restoration to a blessed spiritual, intellectual, emotional, social and material state…

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The Psychological Health of Missionaries—Adding to the Research

God’s Mission is vital, but God works through people. So we must be concerned about the people who join God in His mission.

Clearing Customs

6903821997_e0a95ce498_nHere’s a quick question:

What percentage of returned missionaries and aid workers report psychological disorders during their time overseas or shortly after their return? What do you think? About a quarter, a third, half, two thirds, three quarters?

According to a 1997 study conducted by Debbie Lovell-Hawker of Oxford University, the answer is “about half.” More precisely, Lovell-Hawker’s findings show that among the returned missionaries and aid workers she studied,

46% reported that they had experienced a clinically diagnosed psychological disorder either while working overseas or shortly after returning to the United Kingdom.

Before I went overseas, I would have guessed much lower than half, but after I first heard this statistic referenced in a debriefing I attended, in my mind, the number began to grow much higher than 46%. Statistics have a way of doing that.

Lovell-Hawker’s research included 145 aid and development workers and missionaries from 62 organizations. Though…

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