Jephthah

Some would talk and some wouldn’t. Mr. James, however, would always have something to say. As I did my rounds, I knocked discreetly before entering.

“I didn’t do it!” he stated emphatically as soon as both of my feet were inside the door. “They think I did it. But I would NEVER do it.

By Vincent van Gogh – https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/d0378V1962, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18416421

 

The old man was sitting in the lone chair in his almost barren room, facing away from the window and towards the door that I entered. As always he was somewhat disheveled, but with still with an air of authority to him. He reminded me of a man I worked for in the military— arrogant and pitiable at the same time. I wanted to help him. I always wanted to help him.

“Do what?” I asked, even though I knew exactly what ‘it’ is.

“They think I did it. But I know the law… maybe better than anyone else. Promise or no promise… evil is evil. You know that, right Chaplain?”

“Yes, evil is evil,” I agreed. “But I am more interested in how you are doing.”

“They weren’t there. They wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t know either. But you think you do, don’t you?”

I agreed with him that I didn’t know. I know what others had told me, nothing more.

“You got that right. You think you do. I know you think you do—- but you don’t know anything….” His voice trailed off at the end. Then he buried his face in his hands and ignored me.

Awkward silence would follow. Or at least it did when I first started working there. But I soon understood that I was being dismissed. This was our ritual. The pattern varied only in the smallest of details. I wanted to think that this ritual was a comfort and a help for him. I doubted it however.

“Well it was nice talking to you Mr. James,” I said. How many times before had I said those exact words? “You know I am available if you need someone to talk to.”

He ignored me as always. So I stepped out and closed the door behind me.

Great Urban Centers

Four Waves

I have suggested before the idea that the three wave model of Protestant Mission history is inadequate. There was a Pioneer trickle of missions from quite early (perhaps 1520 is a bit too early). Out of that trickle came the great waves. Each characteristic wave had its proto-pioneers— in terms of translation, bivocational ministry, mission agency development and more. But each wave would peter out… not because of failure, but because of success.

Coastland Wave was started with the creation of viable mission structures that could maintain missionary presence in seaports. It petered out as coastlands in most places were essentially “reached.

Inland Wave was started (theoretically at least) with “faith-based missions” that was spurred on by improved overland transportation. It petered out as large geographically unreached areas faded away except in pockets that were driven more by cultural boundaries than limits in transportation.

The People Group Wave was started with a focus on languages and unreached people groups. Large unreached people groups are going down, and stats of thousands of UPGs seem a bit arbitrary. That doesn’t mean they are gone by any means. But there are trends that make these groups less critical each year. One well-known chart shows the People Group Wave continuing until Christ returns. In the past, I complained about this because it seems highly presumptive. It is also a bit lazy to assume that one doesn’t need to do any more strategy… major strategy changes at least… because Jesus must be coming soon. Now, I would say that present trends support the thought that it was presumptive.

It seems to me that the People Group Wave is in decline due to:

  • Globalization and Multiculturalism and improvements in communication
  • Human migration patterns
  • Urbanization
  • Growth of “mega-cities”

These come together to suggest that the greatest need for missionaries is in multicultural urban communities where the gospel does exist but is not presented or demonstrated in a manner that appears relevant. The gospel is lost in the cacophany.

It is starting to be the time when we have to focus less on Unreached People Groups and more on Underreached Great Urban Centers (GUCs, or perhaps UGUCs if you prefer).

I Think We Are Confused

Okay… at times I people say things that are strange. Nothing wrong with that. I say strange things at times. But some things really confuse me… and I think that my confusion stems from the presumption on my part that others are NOT confused. So here are a couple of things

  1.  People will talk to me something like this.  “Wow… I was walking around ________ and I saw Muslims there. They are growing!!” Well, Islam is growing. Actually, so are many other religions… and secular ideologies. At the moment, Islam is the fastest numerical grower among explicitly religious entities. However, in the United States and the Philippines (where the people I speak to live) this is not situation at all. What they are experiencing is mobility. People move around more now that transporation is becoming relatively cheaper and job opportuninities and political struggles drive migration. We see this here in Baguio City, Philippines. I live on the campus of a Baptist seminary. However, within a short walk of where I live is an Islamic mosque, a Sikh Temple, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a Bahai Center, a Brahman meditation center, a Christian Science reading room and church, a Mormon church, a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, and more. While many of these are driven partly by missionary fervor, much of their existence is owed to migration. For the world religions, this is especially true.  Around 1 out of 5 humans on earth are self-identified Muslims. So if the worldwide stats were true everywhere, 1 out of 5 people we would see walking down the street here would be Muslims. What is NOT surprising is that there are so many Muslims (or Hindus, Buddhists, or more) in Baguio City,. What is surprising is that there are so few. Migration is likely to continue (xenophobic nationalism notwithstanding) so the important thing as Christians is to figure out how to deal with people of other faiths as neighbors. Of course, it should not be that complicated. Jesus already told us how we are to treat neighbors.
  2. I have had so many people express shock and anger that Christians are being persecuted. In some cases that persecution being noted is true persecution.  “True persecution” in my view involves physical abuse or death, outlawing Christianity or Christian practices of private individuals. For many, however, persecution includes taking away preferential treatment. Others seem to mix Christian beliefs with secular political ideologies so that challenging such ideologies is seen as attacking Christian beliefs. Instead of fighting about what is legitimate persecution and what is not, I would rather avoid that mess and simply note that Jesus said that we are to expect persecution if we are following Jesus. It is understandable to be angry about persecution. Some people truly suffer for their beliefs. But after the anger… what do you do about it. Do you feed the anger? How do you treat those who are persecutors? Curiously, Jesus answered that one as well.

Oh Yeah, Listen First.

Teaching Interreligious Dialogue here in seminary, I decided to write my own book because I did not care much for the books that already exist in that topic. I was planning to give my latest group of students a “beta” version of the book to review. However, in a rare burst of energy I finished the book during Christmas break and published it online. (It is available HERE.)

Anyway, I still wanted comments from my students. I got some good ones back. Some small grammar problems were identified that I missed (isn’t that always the way it is?). My illustrations were useful but not aesthetically pleasing (as one of the few people on earth to have ever failed a 6th grade Art class, I am clearly “aesthetically-challenged”). They recommended that I add more examples (Yup. Good point). And they noted I should work more on some aspects of my discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Absolutely.  But I got one comment from the quietest student in my class. She mentioned that I should add a chapter on listening.

Of course!! Why did I not add a chapter on listening? In all my stuff on pastoral care, I emphasize listening. Lately, when I was leading a graduate level seminar on counseling, the group facilitator asked me what was the single most important skill that the students need to learn. I said it was to listen— since pastors do not like to listen.

Our training materials at our counseling center discuss issues of active listening, empathetic listening, head-level versus heart-level listening, as well as techniques to draw out more from others.

Even in the Dialogue book, I emphasize the idea that as one of the two in dialogue, one should should seek to listen more and talk less, especially in the stage where one is seeking to gain understanding and insight of the other.

So why did I not add a chapter on listening? I don’t know… perhaps it was because that topic was already in our pastoral care book. But that is hardly an excuse. Interreligious dialogue is one of a couple of major topics where Missions and Pastoral Care intersect (another is Missionary Member Care). The fact that listening was covered in our Pastoral Care book in no way suggests that it is not highly important in Interreligious Dialogue.

And let’s be honest. Most all of us are horrible at listening. We tend to hear, but not listen. This is even more true in interreligious dialogue where there is the temptation to think in apologetics mode— where the time alotted to the other in talking is used by oneself more in coming up with ways to undermine the other’s point, or to come up with a very persuasive statement— not to listening intently and respectfully.

Hopefully next year I can come up with a Rev. A to the book. At that time I will most definitely add a chapter on listening. Better figures?  Not so sure about that, but we shall see.

Not so Courageous

A few days ago I got involved in a pretty mild disagreement on FB. It was on a Christian topic that I consider fairly minor, and one in which my view is rather middle-of-the-road and nuanced. Despite all of this, at the end of the discussion, the one who had started the conversation remarked positively on my courage to express my opinion in a forum of those who held a very different view.

I really did not think I was being courageous at all:

  • My view was far from opposite of the others. It was just more flexible.
  • I, frankly, did not know that I was going into a group with a different view than my own. (Truthfully I probably should have guessed that the group was embracing a different view. The signs were there—  a person shares an e-article on FB and adds the comment something like, “Mmmm. Interesting article. What do you think?” That comment usually really means, “Hahhh!!! Checkmate!”– despite the mediocrity of the actual article cited. “Confirmation Bias.”)

But that is not the main reason I was not being courageous.  But before I get to the main reason…

I wrote a post a few months ago that suggested that John Calvin may be a “wee bit wrong” about something. I got a response from a friend of mine that said that I had probably hit a nerve with a large number of people. I may have been courageous to share it… but perhaps a bit foolish.  Again, I don’t feel all that courageous because:

  • Theology is a human construct, and theologians are— well— human. As such, it should be fully anticipated that theology and theologians are wrong… a lot. Calvin (and not just his overzealous followers) is certainly wrong a lot because humans are wrong a lot. It should not be hugely controversial to say that his theological perspective may be a bit missiologically deficient or that, just perhaps, he confused the sovereignty of God with the control of God in a way that distorts exegesis of some key Biblical passages.
  • I am wrong a lot because I am also human. It is hardly courageous to share something that could be wrong since we all do that even when we try not to.

And that leads to the biggest reason I am not being courageous:

As Christians, we are called to give each other grace, understanding that we don’t and won’t always agree on everything. It is not courageous because it is not supposed to be courageous. We are supposed to exhort and admonish and love and encourage one another. Where is the fear and danger in that?

I do admit, however, that it is amazing all of the blogposts and articles out there calling pretty much everyone else heretics. But that reflects badly on the writers more than their targets. This is not to say there are not false teachers. Since all of us are wrong at times, we need to give a bit of grace regarding what level we say that wrong good people have crossed the line to wrong bad people.

It is hardly courageous to express one’s opinions to those who may not share those opinions, but it is certainly cowardly to only hang out with one’s  “Yup, me too” gang members and take hurtful potshots at those passers-by who hold a different perspective.

Nostalgic Christianity and the Ambiguity of History

nostalgiaOver the years I have been fascinated by those Christians who regularly point back longingly to a time in history that they identify as ideal or idyllic— especially from a Christian perspective. Some look back to the 1950s. Some look back to the early years of their own faith tradition (whatever period that may be) with the pillars of their faith. Some American Christians point back to the “founding fathers of the US, or to the time of the Puritans. Many go back to the first century church.

I have always wondered why. Even a casual student of pretty much any period of history would find a lot that Christians would (or should) feel ambivalent or even uncomfortable about. One of the challenges I have in teaching missions is that in so many periods in missions history, it is hard to find things that are commendable. But they are there. There is beauty in times of ugliness, and ugliness in times of beauty.

But I do wonder what makes people want to view the past in an idealized manner? Consider this verse,

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.   Ecclesiastes 7:10

One would think that Christians would avoid expressing nostalgia if for no other reason than to avoid being declared unwise. But the fact that nostalgia was an issues over 2000 years ago suggests that it is an issue of humanity, not simply of our times.

A present belief is that nostalgia becomes more pervasive in times of uncertainty and anxiety. In these times, the world seems dangerous or at least uncomfortable. A response to that is to embrace a form of exoticism (temporal exoticism, if you will). Exoticism is the belief that some other culture or place is kind of awesome, while our own place or culture stinks. Exoticism is built off of ignorance. Distance obscures unpleasant details. While it has been said, “Once they’ve seen Paris, it is hard to get them back on the farm,” it is probably more true that “Once they have embraced an idealized vision of Paris, it is hard to keep them from leaving the farm.”  For “Temporal Exoticism” the far off place is far off because of time, not space.

For Christians, what are some things that can lead to nostalgia? A few thoughts.

  1.  A feeling of lack of control or power.  When we have power, or the perception of power or control, we tend to be less anxious.  This may not be a universal thing. The feudal system placed people in a position of no political or economic power, yet anxiety most likely came from uncertainties about illness and weather, not the fact that their daily existence was in the hands of the lord of the land. But in the present era in the West, where autonomy is given great priority, lack of control can be highly stressful. (It is strange that Christians feel this sort of lack so acutely when Christianity was built on the presumption of having little to no political or economic power.) People who feel this as a stressor look back to a time that is more triumphalistic or where their own worldview was seen as universally appreciated.
  2. Pluralistic communities. For many people it is stressful to be around people of other cultures or faiths. Living in a culture that is almost entirely unlike the culture I was raised in, I struggle to understand this. However, I met people from my home culture who now live in the culture I presently dwell in who seem to live in a state of continuous trauma. They look fondly back to the time before easy transportation when monocultures were prevalent. It seemed safer back then. But was it?
  3. Progressives. The term “progressive” is so loosely used for so many situations that it is pretty close to meaningless. But I suppose that gives me the right to appropriate the term. In this case, I am using it to refer to those who tend to judge the past based on present ethical perspectives. As such, they often disrespect the same periods of time that are embraced by the nostalgic Christians. Nostalgia may be a way to reduce stress by creating a somewhat false narrative, but when others try to crush that vision, the result is an increase in stress. This increase in stress can lead some to “double-down” on the fantasy.

The reality, however, is that history is messy. Consider, for example, a church of which I have a connection. It is a fairly old church and when one looks at the earliest church rolls, one finds that there were slaves who were members of the church. One can look at that with horror— Christians who went to church and yet “owned” other human beings. Such horror is quite understanable. Of course, if someone else looked at the same situation, they may say, “Isn’t it wonderful that these Christian slaveowners  cared about their slaves enough to be concerned about their immortal souls! Oh yeah, and isn’t it nice that these slaveowners recognize that their slaves have immortal souls!” I think you may see how the ambiguity of the situation can be difficult for people to wrestle with so they embrace a one-sided perspective. Shortly after the American Civil War, the slaves associated with that church were emancipated. They formed their own separate church… which still exists to this day. Should one feel good that former slaves now have self-determination in terms of religion, or should one feel bad that a church could only be racially integrated when there was legally mandated “caste” system in place?

I hope I don’t have to point out the ambiguities of the 1950s in America or of colonial expansion of Christian nations. Some unambiguously bad things like the Crusades also become a bit more murky when one realizes that it was an evil response to past evils of others. Pretty poor excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.

I think we grow as people when we address the ambiguities. It is okay to look at King David in the Bible as a great hero of the faith, but it is also okay to look at him as a self-righteous self-serving monster. But maybe better than either of these is that King David was a man who (truthfully) did many many bad things, (it is kind of awesome that the Bible portrays a man of faith who was an adulterer, a horrible father, a mercenary, and a racketeer) and yet when challenged in his failings was able to humble himself and seek forgiveness. Not many kings outside of fairy tales do that. The ambiguous human is best I think. Heroes and monsters are caricatures. We learn better from humans than we do from caricatures.

Nostalgia is sometimes identified in two forms:  restorative and reflective. In restorative nostalgia, there is the desire to return to a time—- a time that did not truly exist. Reflective nostalgia may be more benign… perhaps even beneficial. To have a time that one can reflectively look back with pleasure does not necessarily have to be done “with rose-colored glasses.” For example, one may look back fondly on one’s time in high school… while still being well aware that there were aspects of high school (puberty, bullying, social awkwardness, and fears regarding the future) that one remembers vividly.

Perhaps, if one seeks to find value in nostalgia, it can be done reflectively… enjoying some aspects on the longing, while still embracing realistically that one can never truly go back (and that returning to the past would, in fact, be a very bad thing).

Seven Universal Moral Rules

Morality rule

There is a very interesting article in the area of cultural anthropology that considered whether there is a set of moral standards that are supracultural. Afterall, it is rather important whether morality is simply a human/cultural construct or whether it is built into us. Some have even made the argument that a universal morality in mankind points towards a single moral creator. While I think that may be a stretch, morality has been hit quite hard by relativism. If, however, one can say that some things are universal, or at least near universal, this could place severe boundaries on relativism.

The article is

An Oxford researcher says there are seven moral rules that unite humanity

by Jenny Anderson, on the work of Oliver Scott Curry, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Oxford. (You can click on the title to read the article.)

The seven “universal rules” are:

  1. Help your family
  2. Help your group
  3. Return favors
  4. Be brave
  5. Defer to superiors
  6. Divide resources fairly
  7. Respect others’ property

Nearly all cultures promote these seven, even if there are some variations on what these mean.

This should hardly be surprising.  If one considers the virtues we know as the Fruit of the Spirit, the phrase at the end, “against such things there are no laws,” (see Galatians 5:22-23) points out there there are virtues that are fairly universal. I know that when I talk about other religions in my Interreligious Dialogue class, there is commonly one or two who appear to be surprised that Christian virtues/morals are shared for the most part with other religions.

But there should not be this surprise. For the most part, Christianity is not a denial of human understanding of virtues. Rather, it uniquely addresses the dreadful failure humans have in living up to not only God’s standards, but our own as well.

That last paragraph is pretty important, I think. It suggests that if we are to speak to those of other faiths, cultures, and ideologies, the appropriate strategy  is NOT to focus on differences. On the other hand, focusing only on the commonalities is not very useful either, since it dishonors our uniqueness. Rather, the similariaties can be used as a bridge for dialogue that addresses both similarities and differences. The seven common moral rules may be a good start.

Sometime I hope to expand this idea. But this is a good start.