Learn While We Still Can

It is interesting how so many Christians, especially in the US, see the Media as being evil or Anti-Christian. While there may be some evidence to support such allegations, it seems as if a lot of it stems from a desire for some Christians to emphasize their “other-worldliness.” I am not so sure that is a great thing to desire since God placed on “this-world” for a reason. Additionally, however, a lot of the persecution and misinformation that is complained about is pretty tame by world standards. A lot of the complaints come off more whiny than justified.

But I would like to suggest that the Media may actually be serving God… especially when it reports on the evils in the church. Consider the Media as it pertains to some other groups.

Reading the news today here in the Philippines, the big thing is the problems happening in the religious group, Iglesia ni Cristo. Despite its name (Church of Christ) the group’s beliefs are generally quite far from historical Christianity. The news is all about corruption, infighting among the leaders, threats, and basic financial mismanagement. All of this is pretty surprising since, despite the clear heterodoxy of the group, they have always been able to maintain the illusion (apparently) of organizational control and competence.

For the last few years, the Catholic Church has suffered under the scrutiny of the press for its historical habit of covering for the misbehavior of its priests… especially pertaining to young boys.

In social media, the inflaming language of various Islamic clerics is shared to seek to demonstrate that “that’s how all Muslims are.” News media sensationalize the behavior of the most outrageous representatives of that religion. (Curiously, they tend to show examples of Buddhism at its unrealistic best. )

Why should we as Protestant/Evangelical Christians care? Our time is coming. One day, soon, the press will start focusing on the massive corruption in our churches, the misbehaviors covered up and the ridiculous and evil inflaming language of some of our so-called leaders.

Consider sexual misbehavior. How many churches are transparent about sexual misbehavior of their leaders? Few. Commonly, it is about covering up. The thought is often that it is “good for the church.” Or it protects the pastor from disgrace. But what have Protestant churches done when the Catholic church had to deal with its own cover ups? Did we feel for them… empathize in their plight? Not that I have noticed.

We should not witch hunt… we should not share ALL of our “dirty laundry.” But we need to protect the victim more than our religious leaders. And we need to support our leaders through holding them accountable (balancing justice and grace), before, during, and after problems.

We need to hold our leaders accountable for not only their sex lives, but what they say, and how they handle finances.

The church needs to be countercultural. We need to live by a higher standard than those around. But part of that is expressing grace and justice first for the victims, and for the membership…. and for the leaders… and for the church.  And probably in that order. But we need to be honest about our own failings.

When the church does not police itself. When it plays cover-up, protecting its own reputation and its leaders at the expense of victims and the truth, it is hardly surprising if God utilizes the media.to do what we were supposed to do… express our faith with honesty, integrity, and transparency.

Static Calling and Dynamic Pilgrimage

I have been a bit down on the concept of Calling to Ministry and Gifting. It is not that these are wrong, but I think they have developed some problems based on poor scholarship, and a tendency to envision ministry in static, rather than dynamic, terms.

Starting with Calling. Some problems with the way it is commonly viewed I see as:

(1) It doesn’t seem to be completely Biblical. There are evidences of people being called to ministry in a very miraculous sort of way… such as Isaiah or Moses. In other cases, however, the calling is done through people, such as Elisha (through Elijah) and Paul and Barnabas (through the church of Antioch). Some seem to simply be responding to the need, rather than answering a specific divine call (such as Daniel or Esther). Some are born into ministry (such as the Aaronic priesthood and the Levites). Some are called to obey or follow but only gradually does it develop into more specific roles (such as the followers of Jesus who gradually became his Twelve, and then Apostle/churchplanters). Some like Apollos appear to seek to serve ministerially before being called (if he ever did experience something we might describe as a call).

(2) It seems to be used more to justify non-service than for justifying ministry. People don’t serve God and use the argument that they were not called or do not ‘feel called.” I have seen it go the other way as well. People say they must serve in a certain way because they were “called by God,” even though the church had not called them. I consider this to be (at least normally) a contradiction. Calling is normative through the church.

(3) Calling tends to be applied to “professional ministry.” This seems to be a belief founded in Clericism than Scripture. Ministers are called. Teachers, Engineers, Bus Drivers are not. Does that actually make sense?

(4) A lot of theology has been dumped into this idea of calling. For example, some teach that if one was called to a certain position, it is for life. What is the basis for this? It does seem as if those serving God, served God for life, but it is far less clear that they did it in the same way. The Disciples in the Gospels served God very differently than in Acts 2-15, and far different still from when they (apparently) scattered from Jerusalem. I personally believe that the confusion about the writer of Revelation comes from the mistaken thought that Apostle John maintained his role as an apostle (traveling churchplanter) all his life, rather than “retiring” to a church elder (John the Elder). Could be wrong… but certainly, time, people, and circumstances change so anyone’s concept of calling should accept such flexibility.

We have a similar problem with the concept of Spiritual Gifts. That is why I have had to downplay them as it pertains to ministry.

(1) The Bible doesn’t really emphasize them. Roles in the body of Christ are recognized as important, along with the need for a proper fit between members and roles, but spiritual giftings are mentioned in relatively few places. They cannot/shouldn’t be ignored, but they should not be placed above equally important things.

(2) A whole industry has developed in theologizing this concept of spiritual gifts… people making dogmatic statements about what,exactly, they are, when you get them, how long they last, how do you lose them (if you can lose them), how many are there, and more. It is fine to speculate… but major ministry decisions are often made based on the idle opinions of some.

(3) There is no way that spiritual gifts should be placed as separate or above other aspects of God’s working in a person’s life… preparing him or her to serve. The idea of spiritual gifts in this case seems to be given higher priority because it is felt to be miraculous. Nothing wrong with miraculous, but it is highly flawed to place the miraculous as being more from God than other things. In fact, a whole lot of factors should be considered: One view looks at SHAPE

  • S – Spiritual Gifts – What has God supernaturally gifted me to do?
  • H – Heart – What do I have passion for and love to do?
  • A – Abilities – What natural talents and skills do I have?
  • P – Personality – Where does my personality best suit me to serve?
  • E – Experiences – What spiritual experiences have I had? What painful experiences have I had? What educational experiences have I had? What ministry experiences have I had?

I would add Sphere of Influence (Role/Status/Relationships). That would make it SHAPES

If one puts all of this together, I believe that it would be best to see

A.  Calling seen more in terms of Pilgrimage. Service (professional or lay) is a journey of following God as he serves.

B.  Gifting seen more in terms of Preparedness. God prepares us for our pilgrimage through SHAPES as well as uses SHAPES to give us insight for the path of our pilgrimage. However, as we go on our journey, our SHAPES change. Our gifts change and develop, Our heart changes. Our abilities change. Our personality changes, Our experiences change, and so does our sphere of influence. Ministry, then, is a dynamic

Since pilgrimage is a changing thing, and so is one’s preparedness for these changes, Ministry should be seen in terms of Dynamic Pilgrimage. There are other useful metaphors as well… but the static view that has seemed to develop from a doubtful understanding of Calling and Gifts appears to me to be clearly inferior.

“WE” and the “Corporate IT”

 The I-Thou relationship has been explored by a number, but of course most famously by Martin Buber. It describes a close mutual relationship that still allows for freedom and individuation. It informs of what our relationships should be, since we are social creatures… our social humanity, in the best sense of the term. We are connected in a web of supportive relationships, but these “I-Thou” relationships empower us rather than enmesh us. Ideally, they help us with our self-understanding. We get a sense of our self-identity through our relating to and contrasting with ‘the Other.’ Quoting Ludwig Feurbach, “Where there is no ‘Thou’, there is no ‘ I ‘.” But such mutual (and mutually human), respectful, supportive, close relationships are not universal. In fact as limited confused beings in a broken world, such relationships are not common enough… almost ephemeral.

Some relationships may not meet the standards of “I-Thou’” but still be healthy. After all, with over 7 billion people on earth, we lack the ability (due to our finiteness in space, time, and frankly nearly any conceivable capacity) to have close, personal self-affirming and other-affirming relationships with all. Harvey Cox and John Macquarrie describe “I-You” relationships. The change of pronoun describes a relationship that is healthy and affirming but not as close. However, the humanity and freedom of the other is respected and affirmed.

Consider, for a moment, another possible relationship between people. This is the “I-It” possibility. In this relationship, the other is objectified. In this situation, the other is, relationally speaking, dehumanized. This can happen in a slave system where the “owner” relates to those who work for him as “property,” regardless of whether he believes, in an abstract sense that they are fellow humans. Of course, slavery is not the only place where such dehumanization occurs. It can happen also whenever others are treated primarily as commodities or tools. In this case, others are valued for what they can do for me (the “I”) not for who they are. The other is a functional service provider. This is a FAR too common relationship.i-thou

However, when one gets to this type of relationship, there are more than one possible type of form. Melba Padilla Maggay, in her book Transforming Society, talked of an ethnographic study that saw a group of people who related to others in one of three ways— human, tool, or landscape. You can read more this in my article HERE.

The I-It relationship can exist where the It is seen as a tool. Some, unfortunately, may see workers in the service sector (“Welcome to McDonalds. May I take your order?”) as tools– NOT people who one needs to relate to as fellow human beings. Others may be seen as Landscape– irrelevant at best, problems at worst.

As one moves into the I-It relationship, and even more as one moves towards It as Landscape, one is moving towards a group identity or “Corporate It.” Or to put it another way, one is moving towards “Impersonal They.” But even with those who are recognized as useful (tools) there can be the problem of seeing them impersonally.

What are some ways we create the “Corporate It”?

  • Commoditizing. We see a certain group for what they do, not who they are. They are valued (perhaps) for the role they accomplish, or maybe not. The relationship between Filipinos and the residents of Hong Kong has been… strained for a while. I recall a writer complaining about the some of the conflicts going on between the Hong Kong and the Philippines.  He made some comment asking why the people of Hong Kong should listen to a country of house maids. Sorry, don’t have the quote in front of me. The writer was insulting a nation because of a role common in Hong Kong. Many from the Philippines go to Hong Kong to work as domestic help. This was not just in Hong Kong. In older American English dictionaries, the term “Filipino” was a slang term for domestic help. This term is no longer used today, but seeing them in this role… a menial one, the writer was suggesting that Filipinos should not be taken seriously, except as help. Of course, Filipinos go to Hong Kong to do menial work, not because they are stupid, many are very intelligent and can do a wide variety of jobs. But because of lack of opportunities at home, they are committed to help out, economically, their families at by dong menial work abroad. Even positive commodity roles still demean, however, because they tend to stereotype.

  • Stereotyping. When a common (or sometimes even uncommon) characteristic of a group is applied to all members of a group, the group is demeaned, normally, since stereotypes are normally negative. Gypsies/Romany have been judged as a group based on some perceptions regarding a few. During World War II, Nazi German stereotyped Jews, Blacks, Homosexuals, Gypsies and others. They were caricatured, ridiculed, and then determined unfit to live. However, American media did similar caricatures of Germans, Italians, and especially the Japanese at that time as well. Of course, it happens today as well in many different flavors and forms. Commonly, stereotypes go in pairs. For example, living in Baguio City, Philippines, we see some especially bad drivers, or annoying venders or customers, and we often say, “Oh, they are from Manila.” Of course, what we are saying really is that “They… people from Manila act inappropriately— unlike us who behave well.” However, even when stereotypes of others is positive… it still may disrespect their complexity as a group and as individuals. It can still dehumanize to some extent.

  • Re-labelling. One might argue that labels dehumanize automatically. On some level that may be true. I am an American living in the Philippines. Baguio City is pretty comfortable with foreigners… but when I get further into the provincial regions, I get labelled a bit more… “Ay! Americano!” or “Hey Joe!” (my name is not Joe, by the way). But that is not all that bad. We need to label. When I go into the provincial areas, it is inconvenient and uninformative for people to say, “Ay! A fellow human being I have not seen before!” But the use of labels can dehumanize… especially when we reject the labels that they choose and substitute them with our own. Some groups get ignored by labels that exclude their uniqueness. In the US, there are people who seem to think that every one of apparent hispanic/latino ancestry is “Mexican.” In the movie “The Debut” a Fil-Am teenager is insulted by another by being called “a Chink.” This is a double insult, because it is not only a pejorative group term, but it also connects him to a completely different ethnic group. I have seen articles dumped on Facebook that try to make the argument that the “Palestinians” don’t really exist because they lack a certain historical basis for their group designation. How bizarre! A group becomes valid within milliseconds of being formed. In the case of Palestinians, some people were seeking to relabel them by unlabeling them, and in so doing, to deny their legitimacy. It really doesn’t work that way.

  • Demonizing. Demonizing is like stereotyping and also involves pairs. In politics this happens a lot. One group is doing everything wrong. They do the wrong things… pretty much all the time. Even when they SEEM to do something right, it is done based on wrong motives, so it is still wrong. We, on the other hand, do what is right, and for the right reasons. When we seem to do something wrong… it is to counter the wrong actions of Them… which is a right motive, making the action right. In the politics of religion and race, this happens a lot too. I am not sure I need to give examples… they are just too common.

I am sure there are others… all of them objectify to some extent.

In Christian Missions, it is common to embrace the Corporate It.

  • People who are not “Us” are labelled “The Lost,” “Sinners,” “The Mission Field.” Each of these are rather negative. We all are sinners after all. The Lost may be theologically accurate but so are other terms that are more affirming such as “Those Jesus Misses Most” (See the book “A.K.A. ‘Lost'”). The last one, “The Mission Field” fully objectifies in that it removes totally the sense of humanity from them— the people become part of the landscape.

  • Commoditization is also common. We track conversion rates, baptism rates, church growth, church planting rates. People become statistics. It is easy to move people from God’s creation to a number.

  • Stereotyping is common as well. Our methodology is built off of a common vision of what They think and are like. There is nothing inherently wrong with it… but it can become a problem when we stop seeing people as individuals but members of stereotyped categories.

  • Demonizing can be a major problem as well. The Warfare metaphor and Power Encounter theory of missions is common in some circles. Unfortunately, these terms tend to create an “Us” versus “Them” mentality…. and “Us” versus “The Enemy.” While there may be some theological truth to this metaphor… the mindset tends to lead to demonizing, since it seems to be part of human nature that we objectify the enemy before we fight them.

Suggestions.  I won’t give many suggestions here. Just three.

  1. Recognize that the highest and most important social group we are part of is Humanity. God created us as humans in His own image. And in His image we remain… we may have fallen, but we have fallen together, and God seeks to restore us all… His creation. Perhaps for Christians, our next highest group is as Spiritual Children of God… below our humanity, but still important. Below that can be things like gender, ethnicity, nationality, and such. A lot of problems occur when we set up or taxonomies wrong.

  2. Recognize our own diversity and the diversity of others. The “We” or “They” does not eradicate our individuality, nor that of others.

  3. Hold mutual accountability. Supporting one’s own group, the “We” doesn’t mean simply excusing, ignoring, or defending our faults. True support maintains accountability. And if We need accountability (both positive and negative accountability) so do They. It is respectful to do so, but with gentleness.

The SECRET Message

Signal Flags

Years ago I served in the US Navy. I would not describe myself as being gung ho back then, and even less now. But I did like certain aspects of Naval and Maritime tradition. One of those is the use of signal flags to give line of sight communication between ships. Even today, there can be times that this is not such a bad thing, especially when one is trying to maintain silence on the airwaves.

I had a bumper sticker on the back of my car with the signal flags shown above. Below the flags was a translation… or at least the conversion to the Latin alphabet since the message in signal flags is in English.

I told people on a Religion Forum about the bumper sticker (this was back in the late 80s and any picture file was an unnecessary indulgence considering the baud rate at that time). I got a response back that it was a really nice bumper sticker, but that it would be even more cool if it did not have the “translation” under it. At the time, I thought that rather silly. Of course, you want it translated so as many people as possible would be able to quickly read the message.

However, over the years, I have come to suspect that my friend was right. It might have been better to leave the message only as signal flags. Why?

1.  Living in a Navy town, many could read signal flags, so many could understand the message without help.

2.  The process of converting the flags into an understandable message is a bit of a mental challenge (except, perhaps, for Navy Signalmen) so the message is more likely to be noted and retained.

3.  For a lot of Navy guys, the mental challenge can also be fun. Perhaps this is even more true for retirees.People like puzzles at lot of the time.

4.  People have a fascination with secret knowledge. This, I suppose, was part of the allure of the Mystery religions and the various Gnostic cults. Even today, one of the best ways to get people to read various newsie items or clickbait on the Internet is to imply it contains “secret” knowledge. “I Was Amazed to Learn this Simple SHOCKING Secret to ______________.” Making knowledge appear to be secret (or only available to the initiated) while still making it accessible, can make the same knowledge seem more valuable.

This last point is a bit touchy when it comes to Christianity. Christianity is built from the words and example of Christ and the Apostles, and its underlying secret (just like in Kung Fu Panda) is that there ARE NO SECRETS. At the same time, one can argue that one of the several reasons that Jesus spoke in parables was to ensure that his disciples understood things that many outsiders did not get. There is an appeal to insider knowledge.

So should we always translate God’s message to be as clear and accessible to as many as possible? I would tend to think so, generally. But are there times that making people work a bit to understand will serve as a mnemonic aid, and also make them value the message more???   Perhaps. I know children back in the late years of radio would love to get “decoder rings”  in the mail to be able to interpret secret (and commonly mundane) messages they get from their favorite shows

We can test that.  If you want to interpret the flag message above,click on this, SIGNAL FLAGS, for help.

Decide for yourself… was the message enhanced through the effort, or not?

Macquarrie and The Ambiguities of Freedom

Excerpt from “In Search of Humanity: A Theological and Philosophical Approach” by John Macquarrie. Includes portions of pages 21-23 (Crossroads, 1983).

There are many examples in history of the flight from freedom. Every dictator of whom we have heard was able to wield his dictatorial power only because his fellow citizens were on their part willing to yield their freedoms. We often talk as if all over  the world people were longing for freedom, but this is not so. The anxieties and responsibilities of freedom, at all levels from personal freedom to political freedom are no sooner understood than they are shunned. People prefer the security and mediocre contentment that come from routine patterns of existence and from following the line of least resistance. ‘People love slavery and authority,’ wrote Berdyaev. ‘The mass of mankind has no love of freedom, and is afraid of it.’

Freedom, then, whether we are thinking of its many outward manifestations or of that mysterious creativity which is at its root, is a strange contradiction. It begins as a nothing which becomes very real and precious. It is earnestly desired, and yet at the same time people shrink from it and avoid it. It is creative and life-enhancing, but it can equally well be disruptive and even destructive. It brings to those who exercise it a feeling of enlargement and exhilaration, and yet, if they pause to think for a moment and gaze into the depth of freedom, they experience anxiety. These are tensions that cannot be removed. They belong to the very essence of our human condition, as finite beings thrown into a factical existence where much has already been determined. Only God can be free from the tension, because only God would have the capacity to exercise a freedom not trammelled by external givens. …

In spite of the tensions and in spite of the threats of disruption, freedom, we believe, is worth maintaining and increasing. It is so because it is essential to the human adventure. Where freedom has disappeared, humanity too has disappeared, and the human being without freedom has been reduced a member of a herd or a machine or a plant or a stone or some other object whose nature is wholly given. Such a person ceases to be that unique being who has been told to sculpt himself from the as yet uncarved material, and to make his nature out of an as yet plastic possibility. But the invitation to embark on this adventure is fraught with danger and anxiety, and this explains why in every society so many people prefer security to freedom and unconsciously yearn for a return to the untroubled irresponsibility of the womb. …

The traditional natural theology saw the traces of God in his created works. I am suggesting that we can also see him in the work he has left unfinished, in the freedom and openness that remain. And a God who is seen in this second way is far more interesting and exciting from a human point of view. The God of natural theology and of philosophy has always been suspect among the religious, because as the First Cause or Supreme Intelligence or Great Mathematician, he seemed remote from human interest and also from the God of the Bible. His creation, however wonderful its beauty and order, could hardly be more than a glorified toy– like, say, these intricate clockwork models of the planetary system which we sometimes see in museums. …

But if we suppose that there is a breach in this structure, so that some of the creatures are not just part of nature but are themselves centres of freedom and creativity, then God’s creation could no longer be considered as, from his point of view, a toy or even a work of art. It would become a potential partner with God able to respond to him and to join with him in a continuing work of creation. Of course, since freedom is in itself neutral, the free creatures of the universe might turn against God. Man is God’s risk. But even when one allows for the risk, how much richer is a universe that can freely respond through some of its members than one which can be no more than an object of contemplation, however infinite its interest!

End Quote

In missions, in evangelism, we often focus on the idea of Freedom in Christ. But this terminology, has aspects of metaphor built into it. A metaphor implies its own negation. When we say “The Lord is my Shepherd,” it is only true (as a metaphor) if we acknowledge that in many really important ways, God is NOT literally my shepherd, and in many important, ways, I am not a literal sheep. Freedom in Christ is only true once we understand that in some ways it is balanced by “Dependence on Christ.” Our freedom is not found in rebellion, but in our partnership with and dependence on God as our Creator/Designer.

When we share Freedom in Christ with those who are both fascinated and terrorized by the abstract ambiguous thing (or nothing) that we call freedom, we must be sure that we are clear regarding what Christian Freedom Is and Is not, and what fears of freedom, and what perversions of freedom can easily syncretize with the concept of Christian freedom.