Uncle Clem Fell Down in the Well— Two Parables

The first parable comes from the Judy Canova Show. It was a radio comedy program from the 1940s. The humor, especially little skits that are supposed to be drawn from Judy’s childhood, embrace a certain “hillbilly humor.” This is a story loosely based on a one-off joke in one of these skits. It is funny ONLY because the premise is patently absurd.

The second story is based on a short story written down by Duane Elmer in his book “Cross-cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility.” Chapter 3

#1. Uncle Clem Fell Down in the Well

One day Judy returned from her work in the big city to visit her family up in the mountains.

She walked straight into the house and called out, “Hey Maw! Hey Paw! I finally made it home., What is new?”

“Good to see you, Judy!” said Paw startled awake on the davenport. “Good to see you, Judy!” said Maw from the kitchen.

Maw continued, “Not much is new. Looks like it is going to be a good apple crop this year. And your sister Emmie has a new beau– new young man down at the sawmill.”

“Don’t forget your brother Clem…” jumped in Paw to Maw.

“What happened to Uncle Clem?” asked Judy.

Maw responded, “Last week, Uncle Clem was splitting wood out back and he got off balance fell down in the old well.”

“Oh dear,” replied Judy. “I hope he is okay.”

Paw reassured Judy. “He hollered up a storm there for quite awhile. But we are pretty sure he is okay now. He stopped yelling a couple of days ago.”

“Yes,” confirmed Maw. “He had us worried there for quite a bit.”

Story #2. The Monkey Rescues the Fish

One day in the rain-forest an especially intense downpour had caused flashflooding. The water rose, the river became turbulent, and many animals were washed away, or were trapped waiting for relief from the raging storm.

One of the lucky ones was a monkey. It had found a strong well-rooted tree and climbed high into tree and found a crook in the branches where it could wait cradled for the storm to subside.

Looking down in the water, the monkey saw a fish. It was struggling against the current that was trying to pull the it downstream. The monkey felt sorry for the fish. It had seen so many, from its safe perch, drawn helplessly along in the flow being pulled to places unknown. But unlike the other animals, this fish was on animal the monkey could possibly help.

The monkey climbed down out of its place of safety and went out on one of the low-hanging branches almost out the end. Straining, it was able to dip his arm into the river and after several failed attempts, the monkey managed to snag the fish and quickly returned to his roost.

The fish struggled in the grasp of the monkey. The monkey held the fish close to calm it down, but the fish kept struggling to get loose.

Finally, it was over. The fish stopped moving. The monkey relaxed. It had successfully saved the fish.

These two stories are opposite to each other in some ways. Primarily, the lesson of one seems to be the importance of doing something, while the other one seems to give the lesson to be the importance of NOT doing something.

But there is a lesson that both of the stories highlight…


Sadly, there is truth that commonly it is ONLY the squeeky wheel that gets the grease. However, Silence does not mean agreement. Calm doesn’t mean compliance. Peacefulness doesn’t mean lack of strife.

Exactly Where He Was Supposed To Be— a story

Many, many years ago, I was an mechanical engineering student at the University of Buffalo (SUNY at Buffalo). One of my professor’s was named Dr. Isada. Despite the Japanese name, he was Filipino, with a relatively strong accent and infectious laugh, and was at that time nearing retirement. I liked him as a teacher. I had him for Vibration and Shock I, and then I took him for Vibration and Shock II, even though that class was mostly populated by Master’s degree students. Dr. Isada told me and two of my undergraduate friends who were taking the course, “You got guts! Don’t worry, I will take care of you and make sure that you make it through the course.” And he did. The course was beyond our paltry undergraduate math skills, but in the end we all passed.

One day, in class, Dr. Isada was talking and said something like this (as best as I remember it)…

“Back when I was a student in college <1950s perhaps?>, I was asked what I wanted to focus on in my studies. I told my professor that I was very interested in computers and in studying earthquakes. My professor, along with others in the class thought this ridiculous. ‘Why focus on computers? There are just a few giant computers in the whole country. What is the chance you will be able to do anything with them? And earthquakes? Who will pay you to do anything with earthquakes?’ So here we are a few decades later. Computers are everywhere. And just last week, our university received a $200 million <I can’t remember the exact amount> grant from the US government to study and test building designs for surviving earthquakes!”

At that point he just started laughing and laughing. It is rare to see an engineering professor so happy at work.

At the time, I thought his laughing was because he was picturing in his mind going back in time and talking to his old prof and fellow students and telling them how foolish they were and how right he was. And yes… I think that was part of it. But I also think that he felt some sort of sense of pilgrimage. I use the term pilgrimage to describe a sense of destiny in terms of religious life. However, it could applied more broadly. Perhaps he had a sense that his life and his passion all was leading him to that point in time where not only is his life vindicated, but where he could look back on his past and see how the weird twists in the road of his life all made sense now.

It is a bit like the book by John Irving, “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” It is a weird book of a weird kid who believed that he was God’s instrument, despite little to support it. But in the end, everything comes together like in a way that made the nonsensical— make sense. I suppose the movie “Signs” also has a bit of that quality.

I am sure I am probably reading too much into a laugh, but for those of us who find themselves on a bit of a pilgrimage, I think many (like me) see a bit of the patterns that help things make sense, but are not quite there yet. I am not convinced that everyone will have that sort of feeling of pulling the veil back on destiny. I think most all of us can only see things like that in a mirror darkly, but such a perspective is certainly a blessing.

Around eight years later, my wife and I visit a medical doctor and I was surprised by the coincidence that his name was also Dr. Isada. I mentioned to him the coincidence, and he told me that my professor was his father. It was a coincidence indeed since he and my wife and I lived over 500 miles away from where I went to university. He told me his father was now enjoying retirement. That was around 27 years ago, so I assume he has passed on by now.

Alive or dead, I thank him for his small but significant role in my pilgrimage.

Missionary Quote from St. Origen

The following quote is in response to charges made by Celsus, a pagan philosopher, against Christianity. (By the way, Celsus’s work is actually a very interesting read… strong recommendation.) This is part of the response from Origen of Alexandrai (185-253AD, more or less):

But since he is manifestly guilty of falsehood in the statements which follow, let us examine his assertion when he says, “If all men wished to become Christians, the latter would not desire such a result.” Now that the above statement is false is clear from this, that Christians do not neglect, as far as in them lies, to take measures to disseminate their doctrine throughout the whole world. Some of them, accordingly, have made it their business to itinerate not only through cities, but even villages and country houses, that they might make converts to God. And no one would maintain that they did this for the sake of gain, when sometimes they would not accept even necessary sustenance; or if at any time they were pressed by a necessity of this sort, were contented with the mere supply of their wants, although many were willing to share (their abundance) with them, and to bestow help upon them far above their need. At the present day, indeed, when, owing to the multitude of Christian believers, not only rich men, but persons of rank, and delicate and high-born ladies, receive the teachers of Christianity, some perhaps will dare to say that it is for the sake of a little glory s that certain individuals assume the office of Christian instructors. It is impossible, however, rationally to entertain such a suspicion with respect to Christianity in its beginnings, when the danger incurred, especially by its teachers, was great; while at the present day the discredit attaching to it among the rest of mankind is greater than any supposed honour enjoyed among those who hold the same belief, especially when such honour is not shared by all. It is false, then, from the very nature of the case, to say that “if all men wished to become Christians, the latter would not desire such a result.”

Against Celsus, by St. Origen, Book III, Chapter 9.


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In the response to the charge by Celsus that Christians don’t really want all people to become Christians, Origen points out that Christians do desire as much as possible to disseminate their faith throughout the world. He then talks about a certain class of Christian who travels from city to village to house to share the gospel message. The description fits the early church picture of an Apostle. As von Harnack noted, the two pimary characteristics (as indicated in the Didache, Shephard of Hermas particularly) of an apostle is mendicancy and zealous evangelizing. Over time, the term Apostle (which as time went on became more associated with “The Twelve”) fell out of fashion for these individuals and so would be usually called Evangelists. Later, the Latinized term, Missionary became popular. Here with Origen the terms he used were “teachers of Christianity” and “Christian instructors.”

What makes this quote import is that it was written in the third century when missionaries or apostles had seemed to have disapeared. Part of this was because of the movement towards power and offices being fully centered in the church… such that people such as Bishops Polycarp and Cyprian would be described as having a certain ‘apostolic’ authority, leading toward the later identification of apostle as being a position inside of the ecclesiastical hierarchy rather than outside. Such great focus was placed on the work within the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that if it were not for Origen and later Eusebius we would hardly know of their existence. Even with them, with the exception of Pantaenus, they are missionaries who remain unnamed and unhonored. Strangely, that was the point of Origen. These people shared the Gospel without material reward. If some Christians of means do indeed help them with food or shelter in their travels. this small bit of honor is more than balanced by the dishonor heaped on them by the world around them.

The Perfect House… A Parable

The man finally arrived at the address he was given. It was a long trip and he was cold, wet, and tired. This was his inheritance, deeded over to him. He knew he was in the will, that he would get something, but what a surprise it was to find that it was a house on a patch of land a month’s journey. But it would be worth it.

The house was, as he noted as he walked up the stone path, a bit small and shabby. He had hoped for something a bit more… grand, perhaps? Still, he had never had anything that was truly his own before— nothing that he could touch and lay full claim to.

He saw there was a light on in the house. He knocked on the door, and almost immediately an older man answered the door.

“Ah yes sir,” said this man. “It is good that you made it here safely. You can call me Benjamin if you like. Let me escort you to your room.”

Benjamin helped the man settle in. The house was all wrong. It really needed some work, but the man knew not to worry about that yet. He settled in, and slept well into the morning coming down close to the the time most people would have lunch. There was a full breakfast waiting for him. Benjamin, since there seemed to be no other staff must have heard him waking up and getting himself ready to come downstairs since the food was still piping hot. The man thoroughly enjoyed the meal and as he finished the last bit and was wondering what he should do, Benjamin came in. The man asked Benjamin what he does around here.

“Well sir, I pretty much do everything here. Your inheritance comes with my services. Of course, if you find that unacceptable, I quite understand.”

The man jumped in, “Oh no Benjamin, I have no reason to find that unacceptable. I am just not sure how I can pay for your services you understand. I hope, however, that I soon will be in a position to handle the cost of this property as well as its maintenance.”

“My apologies sir. I believe I must have been unclear. The inheritance more than covers my services. It also covers all of the costs of maintaining this house and land. In fact, funds are available to do whatever you desire with the property. I am quite aware that this house is… not to everyone’s tastes.”

The first week, the man became more familiar with the property and the arrangements made for him. He soon realized that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with the house, limited pretty much only to the land it was built upon.

The man dreamed. It occurred to him that the best solution would be to tear down that odd house. It was smaller than he hoped. It had rooms set up in a seemingly haphazard arrangement. Symmetry was clearly not valued in the design, and there was hardly a perpendicular angle in the entire house. Some may call it quaint, but the man found it to be strange and a bit claustrophobic. He began working on designing the house of his dreams. He had studied some architectural design in college. Circumstances led him in a different direction and so he never really used those skills. But now he could.

He threw himself into his work with great passion. He came up with a beautiful design that filled up half of the land and would certainly meet pretty much any desire he could think of. It only took him a month to do the design. And it was perfect.

Well, not so perfect. As he looked at the design, he started to see failings. If money is not an object, am I, wondered the man, dreaming too small? He tried again, he looked at architectural design books, and pictures of the most beautiful homes around the world. It made him chuckle at the foolishness of his first design. He could do so much better. He began to make more and more changes and began to think that he would never get to a point where he was completely satisfied.

That was indeed a thought to mull over. He hardly needed a palace. So many of those beautiful homes are show pieces— created to impress others rather than to be truly enjoyed and lived in.

There was a charm to the basic plan of the house he was in. Oh sure, there were some things to change, but it had good “bones.” He can work with that basic framework and update the house. He can open up the spaces and add more natural lighting. He began to develop a whole new design— tearing down walls, adding additional closet space, expanding windows and so forth. He felt better with this plan. The creativity of the artist is brought out by limitations. Limiting the size and materials forces the artist to truly embrace his imagination and innovation. The man again threw himself into this new design task. Soon, however, he began having the same problems he had previously with the idea of a complete demolition. There were too many options. He began to see why it was good that he did not become an architect. It is hard to figure out what things are actually an improvement and what are only… new and different.

This went on for weeks, and then months. Finally, he began to realize something. He liked the strangely shaped rooms. Some of the design choices in the bedroom and kitchen for example were strange, but suited him surprisingly well. He knew that the house had not changed, but it seems like he had. The house did not need to have things ripped out or added to. There were things that should be done, but they were small things— those sorts of things that can be done a bit at a time. Some paint and spackle over there on one day, and maybe new handles for a cabinet over here the next.

Eventually, the man told Benjamin his plans. Benjamin replied, “I am quite elated to here that. I am ready any time to help with the improvements you have in mind.”

“Why is it that you are elated?” asked the man. Benjamin never shied away from hard work, and funds (as Benjamin had stated) were indeed not an issue.

“Well sir, you see… I designed and built this house specifically for you. I knew it was to be your inheritance and so I worked diligently to ensure it was just what you needed. It is not so hard to make a house to meet someone’s needs. But it is impossible to make a house to meet someone’s wants. Wants change and grow without warning.”

“Oh,” said the man. “I did not know you built this house. I am embarrassed that I spoke so poorly of it early on. And now I feel bad that I am seeking to change anything. I can leave everything as it is.”

Benjamin replied, “No sir. This is not a museum. It is your home. It is yours to change— big or little, it is good that you make this house your own. You should make some changes, and I will help you with that. But I am glad that you don’t want to make big changes. If I may say so, I believe that shows that you now know who you are. People who do not know who they will never find contentment in any place. I believe you have chosen wisely.”

“But Benjamin,” countered the man. “We have never met. How is it that you knew me so well as to make the perfect place for me?”

“Sir, it is not so much that I made the perfect house for you. I suppose I have said it without clarity. Perhaps it is better to say that the house was made for you, and you were made for the house. And in time, you will be perfect for the house and the house will be perfect for you.”

Reasons for an Evangelist to Take IRD Seriously

Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD) is often looked at critically, or straight-up negatively by Evangelicals. I teach a course called “Dialogue with Asian Faiths” and for me, I take the title seriously. It is about dialogue (two-way) conversation with people of other faiths— especially the great world religions that have their origin in Asia (which is pretty much all of them).

Many times when people join the class I ask why they want to take the class. I am given different answers, but commonly the answer given is, “I want to be more effective in evangelizing people of other faiths.” This is a bit of a challenge, because that is not the primary purpose of the course. And as we get further into the course, some of those students get uncomfortable, as I suggest that:

  • Good dialogue is not built on argument.
  • Good dialogue is not agenda driven.
  • Good dialogue is more focused on creating mutual understanding.

But I am an Evangelical as well in historical terms (ignoring some toxic elements that have crept in over time). As such, I do believe that evangelism is a normal part of the Christian faith, and so one does not need to be embarrassed or uncomfortable about one’s desire to lead non-Christians to Christ. Some people who value IRD believe that dialogue is directly in conflict with evangelism.

I believe that positive dialogue with people of other faiths is important, even necessary, for all Christians, and even more so for those involved in Christian ministry. However, I would like to share some reasons that I believe that Inter-religious Dialogue is valuable for a Christian Evangelist.

Before I do, I need to clarify that I believe good Inter-religious Dialogue, IRD, is a balance between two extremes. At one extreme is an Apologetic view. Dialogue is focusing on differences in hopes to make Christianity appear good and true and the other religion bad and wrong. In other words, Dialogue is pretty much only to change the other person’s mind. The other extreme I would call the “Common Ground” approach. Instead of focusing on the differences between Christianity and other religions, one focuses on the similarities and downplays the differences. Usually this includes a certain relativization of belief, assuming that both sides are seekers of truth but not necessarily possessors of truth. In other words, Dialogue is not only NOT evangelistic, but evangelism would be a violation of the principles of IRD. I take a middle ground, where IRD seeks to clarify BOTH similarities and differences. Additionally, IRD is quite open to share one’s cherished beliefs in hopes that the other converts, but also open to the possibility of learning from the other.

Additionally, however, I am contrasting the form of IRD also with the most common form of evangelism today, which is canned presentations (Romans Road, Hand Illustration, Four Spiritual Laws, Bridge Illustration, EE, etc.)

Okay, with that out of the way, reasons I believe that Inter-religious Dialogue is valuable for a Christian Evangelist.

#1. It takes truth seriously. Some speak of evangelism as “Truth Encounter.” If that is an accurate term, Jesus is seen as the way and the TRUTH and the life, and the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, an Evangelist should be deeply concerned about truth. First, it establishes a promising foundation of truth. In US courts, witnesses are supposed to take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The extremes HOPEFULLY tell the truth, but not the whole truth. The Apologetic approach often ignores areas of sizable agreement, while the Common Ground approach minimizes or even ignores potentially important differences. Second, in talking to the other seriously, dialogically, one is more likely to learn truth (truth in terms of that which is actually true, and truth in terms of that which is actually believed).

2. IRD establishes a better foundation for the evangelism encounter. The Common Ground approach may be relationally friendly, but the ‘bracketing off” of treasured faith perspectives and other differences means that the relationship developed is likely to be a bit artificial. In the Apologetics approach, the relationship is essentially antagonistic. Neither is ideal. Proper IRD should be friendly and still rich in its complexity. People tend to response more to warmth than to brutal logic anyway.

3. IRD is more likely to “scratch where it itches.” Evangelism is not targeting people groups or religions. It is targeting individuals. We are not trying to “Save Souls” if one is using the term ‘soul’ in any way less than the total person in their cultural and familial setting. IRD is not a canned presentation but deals with the individual and seeks to understand him or her, including (but not limited to) his or her hopes and fears. Nicodemus did not need to hear about the “Unknown God.” The Woman at the Well did not need to be challenged with the metaphor of being ‘born from above.’ The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Mars Hill did not need to hear about water that will quench one’s thirst forever.

4. IRD takes a lot of fear away in talking to others. This is especially true in contrast to an Apologetic/Argumentative stance. In this stance, one must be always able to give a sound response to every challenge, and give as good as one gets. It is much like fencing with effective thrusts and parries. If one does not feel up to that task, one goes into a canned evangelistic presentation that seeks to prevent the other person from interacting except in a fairly predictable manner. However, with the Clarification approach to IRD, “I Don’t Know” or “You have a good point” are perfectly acceptable. In fact, it may help. If an agnostic says, “So if there is an all-powerful loving God watching over us, why are there deadly natural disasters?” giving some clever (and doubtful) response is likely to drive the other away. On the other hand, a “I really don’t know… what do you think” is likely to be seen as more honest and engaging.

5. IRD is not dependent on the particular hearer. Most canned presentations (pretty much all presentations except one’s own personal testimony) target a specific hearer. Most of them really are not even an evangelism tool at all, but a way of presenting one’s Christian faith tradition in such a way as to hopefully be attractive to a person of a different Christian faith tradition. Most presentations work on the baseline presumption that the person believes that the Bible is God’s Word, there is only one God, and Jesus should be loved and obeyed. With these as common ground in those most likely to respond to the canned presentations, it is questionable as to whether these are primarily evangelism presentations or denominational presentations. Canned presentations that do indeed target those who are not Christians typically have unique features that would hopefully connect to a typical _________ (Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, etc.). Nothing wrong with this, but IRD is not dependent on the particular hearer. The main qualities are that they are human, they share a common language, and they are willing to connect with you in conversation. The evangelist may not know the sort of points that are likely to be taken seriously by the other person, but that is okay. Over time, this will be clear— and will be true for the individual, not for the group you may assume the individual fits into.

Defining Missions and Missionary

I have long struggled with defining (Christian) Missions and (Christian) Missionary. I don’t really have a problem with modern formulations of “Mission.” I find the Missio Dei understanding of Mission in terms of God’s overall plan of ministry in the world is pretty good (there are of course different specific flavors of definition). However, Missions (a human component in God’s Mission) and Missionary (one involved in Missions) I find harder to define.

I have posted quite a bit on this subject and while not trashing my previous stuff (nor assuming I won’t change my mind futher, later), I would like to add my in-the-moment thoughts here.

I struggled years ago when asked by a friend who was writing a paper (at a secular university) on missionary member care. She wanted a good definition for “missionary” but even though I had taught missions courses for several years, I had never found a definition I was satisfied with. In the end I gave Donald Macgavran’s definition. However, the definition is VERY limiting. It excludes over 90% of all missionaries. That is a problem. You can read about this by CLICKING HERE.

More recently, I shared Macgavran’s definition at a research meeting. The response is that this definition doesn’t really work for any missionary in the Philippines. Macgavran’s definition is more about pioneering missions, and few if any places in the Philippines has true pioneering missions.

So I will give a couple of definitions for consideration:

Missions is the activity of the local church to reach out beyond the boundaries of the local church, to carry out the work of God without direct benefit to that same local church.

I would like to draw out key items of this definition.

  • It is church-centered. While it is true that God is at work at all times and everywhere, missions is limited to the work of the church.
  • I use the term local church, but not because I am trying place some sort of radical downplaying of the universal church (as I have seen some others do). Rather, I am doing this to categorize it in two ways— First, to separate it from two other major ministries of the church: Member care (ministry focused on those who are part of the church family in the local church), and Church growth (ministry to reach out into the community to bring people into that same local church). The work is to support the Reign of God, but not (directly) the local church. Second, the local church defines missions. It is not defined by nation, denomination, or by culture. Missions can be local, regional, national, or international. It may be same culture, similar culture, diaspora, refugee, or completely cross-cultural.
  • It is the work of God— that work of God that God chooses to do through the church. It should not be a highly limited understanding of the work of God. It should at least be as broad as the work of Christ on earth— who was involved in proclamation, evangelism, discipleship, healing, and compassion ministry, among other things.

A missionary is a person called out by, sent out by, and accountable to the church to serve faithfully and consistently in the ministry of missions.

I would like to draw out key items here as well.

  • Called out by the church. While missionaries like to say that they are called by God, I prefer to think of missionaries as being called by the church. Some may say (as my seminary does), ‘God-called, church affirmed.” I have no problem with that. However, without the church affirmation, the person can simply be “self-called.” Much like in the movie, “The Apostle” where Robert Duvall baptizes himself as an apostle, the focus on asking about a candidates calling from God often pushes a theological agenda that may not be sound. (I recall a man showing up at a local church and telling them, “God spoke to me and told me that I am now your pastor.” That church actually did then take him in as pastor. I feel a better response should have been, “Thank you for telling us. When God tells us the same thing, we will let you know.”) I find a better thing for a church is to ask the missionary candidate about his or her journey of faith, and then to decide whether they should call the person to serve as a missionary of the church.
  • Sent by the church. I am not as big of a fan of missionaries being sent out by mission organizations, or even by denominational entities. I suppose this is because my wife and I were called and sent out by a local church. However, regardless of the institution, missions should always be seen as a sending out from the local church. This is in line with the Biblical understanding of “apostle.” An apostle was one who was sent out from the church assembly to serve a majority of the time outside of the church. I know that some people see apostles as people of great power and authority in the church. However, in the earliest days of the church, the apostles seemed to be closer functionally to mendicant monks than cardinals. Ultimately, the serve people who are not part of the church in a setting outside of the church.
  • Accountable to the church. A missionary is commonly supported by the church, but must always be accountable to the church. If someone funds themselves and calls themselves and has no accountability to anyone but God, they certainly may be serving God faithfully, but the term missionary probably should not apply.
  • Faithfully and consistently. Part-time missions and short-time missions is quite valid (although often quite problematic) forms of missions. However, I would suggest that such individuals probably should not be called missionaries— at least without an adjective in front. Perhaps it is okay to call someone a short-term missionary, at least during the short-term mission, but that person probably should not be called “a missionary.” I recall an STMer from the US talking to one of my Filipino seminary students in Baguio. The STMer from the US called himself a missionary, but quickly demonstrated to my student that he knew almost nothing about missions or what a missionary does. I think the STM mobilizer sought to motivate the team-members by getting them to embrace the term “missionary,” but embracing it and using it as a designation around others is two different things.

Anyway, this is my thoughts for now. Comments are always welcome. I am also making an assumption that when we are talking, within the church about missions and missionaries, that we are talking about Christian missions and Christian missionaries. If a person is serving in a missionary capacity of a non-Christian group (Islamic, Mormon, Buddhist, etc.), as a Christian I can describe them in terms of missionary and missions, but only with adjectives to clarify that they are outside of the bounds of Christianity and the Bible. Essentially, that is the same as other terms such as “worship” or “theology,” where they can apply to many religions. However, when talked about in a Christian setting, when used without an adjective, the assumed adjective is “Christian.”

St. Jerome’s Bad Advice to the Grieving

I have been reading a book— Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies, by J.N.D. Kelly. Jerome is… complex. He has done some great things, such as recognize and support the importance, especially in the Western Church, to take Biblical languages (1st Century Greek, and ancient Hebrew) seriously in both translation and interpretation. However, in his book, Kelly summarizes a letter from Jerome to a woman named Paula. Paula was a disciple of Jerome, alone with her daughter, Blesilla. Jerome felt very close to both of them. However, Blesilla died and Paula felt great grief. Quoting Kelly regarding Jerome’s letter to Paula,

Jerome, who seems to have regarded Blesilla as now belonging at least as much to himself as to Paula, was shocked by her distress, and took her to task in no uncertain terms. The letter, which he intended as a threnody, and which starts off as a eulogy of Blesilla, soon becomes a rebuke for her mother’s excessive grief, and at the same time a terrifying exposure of his own religious attitude. First, he concedes that tears have their place (did not Jesus weep for Lazarus?), but protests that his own agony is no less than Paula’s. But the Christian should be able to bear the most shattering blows with meek thankfulness, knowing that God, who controls all things, is good. Secondly, however, the dead man for whom mourning is appropriate is the sinner who has gone down to hell; Blesilla deserves congratulation, for she has passed fro darkness to light to meet Christ face to face. Thirdly, Paula should recall that she is not only a mother but a Christian, and a dedicated ascetic at that. The truly Christian reaction to death was that of the heroic Melania: when she lost her husband and two of her sons in quick succession, who shed no tear but, prostrate before Christ, exclaimed with a smile, ‘Now I shall serve You, Lord, all the more readily, since You have freed me from this burden.; Finally, Paula’s grief is disgraceful to the point of sacrilege. It must be sheer torture to Blesilla, as she consorts with blessed Mary and the saints, to see her own mother behaving in a manner so displeasing to Christ.

Kelly, J.N.D., JEROME: HIS LIFE, WRITINGS, AND CONTROVERSIES (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), 99.

Jerome had a position of authority over her as her discipler. As such, his is in a position to abuse. This form of abuse is often described as “spiritual abuse.” In this case, I would categorize this form of spiritual abuse as theological abuse since the method of abuse is linked to expressing a form of theology that is harmful/coercive. Here are a few things that Jerome gave a theological guidance to Paula.

#1. On the positive side, Jerome didn’t deny that Jesus did shed tears at the death of Lazarus. However, based on the broader context, it looks like is was shared as a sort of lampshading. The reason I am saying this is that in the letter, it appears to be saying that crying is bad, and that sadness is wrong, and so acknowledges the most well-known counterargument before ignoring its ramifications later.(I don’t have Jerome’s letter— Letter 39, 384 AD— and so I am responding to the summary by Kelly.)

#2. Jerome seems to be saying, “I love Blesilla as much as you, and so if I am not grieving like that, neither should you.” This is pretty classic. One of the classic responses to the grieving is, “I know EXACTLY how you are feeling.” This is often meant well, but does have the sting of saying, in effect— “Don’t share with me how you feel, because I already got it.” This is not a good pastoral response. First, it is not true. Jerome does NOT know what it is like to lose a daughter, and he is not in a position to figure out who is struggling more. Second, even if two people, theoretically, had the exact same amount and quality of attachment to someone who has died, that does not mean that the grief response will be (or should be) identical. God created individuals, not clones.

#3. Jerome implies that one cannot be thankful to God while grieving. Another, bad response to grieving is, “You really should be counting your blessings!” As one reads the Psalms of Lament in the Bible, one finds songs that express deep sorry along with both thankfulness and hope. We are complex beings. Sadness and thankfulness are not mutually exclusive.

#4 . Jerome suggests that we shouldn’t really grieve because everything that happens is good, because God is good. This relates to a gripe of mine… the responsive formula— “God is good…” “All the time.” “And all the time…” “God is good.” We may say that God is loving. We may say that God is benevolent. However, when we say, “God is good” I think the vagueness of the term requires us to ask the perspective. From a phenomenological or anthropocentric viewpoint, God is NOT always good. That is the point of the Lament Psalms, as well as some of the various prophetic complaints to God in the Old Testament (particularly). We learn and grow through dealing with the challenge that “God is good… but NOT all the time. Not all the time, but God is STILL good.” But even if God is good all the time (on all levels of interpretation), God created us with deep attachments. We were designed to hurt from loss. Grieving doesn’t undermine this. In fact, one could even argue that grieving is a God-given gift to help us deal with deep loss.

5. Jerome states that Blesilla is in a better place so we should be celebrating this. I know some Christians like to talk about funerals as “Celebrating Life” rather than seen as memorizing one lost to death. I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with this. However, grief is not based on where the person is at but where the griever is with respect to the other. One has lost something precious regardless of where that precious one is. We may not grieve as those who have no hope, but we still grieve… and should grieve.

6. Jerome argues that a true Christian reaction is to find joy in the loss. He uses the example of Melania, a Roman Christian who lost husband and two sons and then left for Palestine to found a monastery. The story of her thanking God (seemingly) because He took away impediments to her serving Him, sounds pretty monstrous. I assume the reality is more complex, but if one takes it as Jerome presented it, I suggests an attitude about family and relationships that appears to be far from a Christian ideal.

7. Jerome claims to read Blesilla’s mind in heaven and thinking that she would be “tortured” to see Paula grieving. This is tied to a well-known response to the grieving that, “_________ would not want you to grieve.” Of course, these respondents have no idea what the dead want. Most commonly, what is really meant is “I have gotten tired of seeing you grieve.”

8. Jerome finally claims that Paula’s grieving displeases God. This is just a variation of the previous argument with “God doesn’t want to see you grieve.” Essentially, grieving is seen as a sin by Jerome.

This expresses the theological perspective of Jerome and it is pretty abusive. Of course, this theology comes partly from the times he is in. Starting in the second century there was a gradual growth of asceticism in Christianity. Asceticism is a religious perspective and series of behaviors that exist across many different religions. Denial of physical pleasures, and sometimes even physical needs, can lead to feelings of closeness to the divine, and it certainly is understandable that rejecting material things makes one feel that one is uniquely embracing ‘heavenly’ things. There is nothing inherently ascetic in Judaism or Christianity. Despite this, both have sprung ascetic movements. A presbyter (according to Tertullian) wrote an apocryphal work ascribed to St. Paul called “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” It was written a bit before 160AD. It espouses chastity/virginity is greatly glowing terms. It shows that this aspect of asceticism was already idealized in the 2nd century. This could have come over from ascetic Jewish groups like the Essenes. However, Greek dualism of material versus spiritual certainly could be seen as a source. Asceticism had a big boost in the 4th century with the moral decline of the church as it went from a persecuted remnant to a popular and governmentally supported faith. Monks and Anchorites began to spring up espousing ascetic beliefs as an ideal form of Christianity. With this perspective, phrases in the Bible such as “absence from the body means presence with the Lord” or “Deny thyself and take up thy cross” can be taken to extremes where normal human emotions and desires are seen as being in conflict with God (who actually designed us that way).

Of course, I am not suggesting that everything we want to do is good. However, the Great Commandment makes it clear that loving God is not in competitiion with loving others. We love God AND others, and we express our love for others in some small way as a response to God’s love for us.

Caring about others is not inherently at odds to loving God. While God may be our highest love, grieving does not draw that love into question. It shows that we do, indeed, love.

I feel like this letter from Jerome expresses a certain theological perspective that is not only not sound, but is also harmful. It reminds me of an article I am reading now that tries to make the argument that the the election of God is immune from the charge of unfairness because of how deeply our sin goes against God’s holiness. I don’t quite see that. If I walk up to five people and give one of them a million dollars (a completely fanciful story here) the other four may say that i am unfair for giving the money to the one and not to all of them or another of them. I might argue that all five of them are completely undeserving, but does IN NO WAY undermine the concerns about fairness. In fact, I suspect growth would come from reflection— perhaps in understanding the idea of grace, or rethinking my presumptions of what election is (or is not).

Perhaps it is better not to be too dogmatic with someone struggling. Questions may be better than answers. So, with that in mind, I will say that these are my thoughts and hope you will meditate on this and decide for yourself.

Better than “I Don’t Know.”

I like to tell people that my favorite answer to questions, “I don’t know.”

And I think that is a good answer.

-It is honest. No one knows everything and no one knows as much as we think we do.

-It leads to discussion. Giving a direct answer often ends conversation, or leads to argument. Giving a vague, dance around the issue, leads to annoyance.

But I must admit that “I don’t know” can sound dismissive, or desirous of changing the subject. So what are some better answers:

  1. I don’t know, but will find out. This is one of the standard military responses (along with Yes sir, No sir, No excuse sir.). It is honest, but also shows that one is taking the question seriously. Additionally, it opens the door to another meeting.
  2. I don’t know… what do you think? This inspires dialogue and shows that one is interested in the other person, and (perhaps) what they believe.
  3. I don’t know… maybe we can figure this out together. This is similar to the previous one, but is more strongly relational.

I have heard people give confident answers to things where I don’t know would have been so much a better answer, a more honest and respectful answer. But a relational answer is better still.