“When Bill Caught Death”— A Reflective Story

Bill texted me early today. “I CAUGHT DEATH!! GET OVER HERE NOW!” Bill was not one to CAP LOCK his messages so I figured it was important.

I drove over and Bill opened his door even before I got out of the car.

“Get in here now! I got him… or it… or whatever!”

I followed him in and down the stairs. He kept talking but was a bit incoherent. His basement was unfinished. It had a ping pong table with dart board and couch as if an attempt to have a game room. Dust and general clutter had long taken over this space. Opposite the stairs was a solid metal door. I believe the room beyond was mostly used to keep food stuffs, especially preserves of fruits from their garden— before the divorce.

Bill walked over to the door and put his ear to it as if listening for something.

“Be careful,” he warned me. “I am going to crack the door open so you can look in. Be ready to pull it shut immediately if he tries to get out.”

Bill undid the padlocked hasp, and then unlocked the door, and with great care began to crack open the door. He motioned me over to look over his shoulder into the space beyond. The room was well-lit with a flickery fluorescent tube that brought back memories of the unpleasant lighting at our high school years back. However, one corner of the room had a shadow. It took me a moment to realize that there was no object that would create this shadow. It just seemed to exist there slowly undulating. I realized that beyond the hummmmmm of the light there was a strange whooshing sound coming from the shadow. Within the amorphous darkness, two lights glowing red suddenly appeared, Then a voice came out of the shadow and whooshing that sounded like three voices— one child, one adult, and one aged— speaking as one, “Release me… release me… release me…”

The shadow started to fill one end of the small room and move towards the door. Bill quickly shut the door and double-locked it.

“What in the world was that?!” I asked.

“Death I told you. I saw it following me around this morning. It was trying to avoid being spotted, but I knew my time must be over, but I am no fool. You know that I am not one to give up without a fight, right Bob?”

“Yes Bill. You are always ready to fight.” Not one of his better traits, I added to myself.

“So I pretended not to notice him and I nonchalantly went down to work in the storeroom. It followed me and settled into the corner where you saw it. I quickly dashed out and secured the door. It made such a ruckus. The house literally shook for a bit— but it was trapped.”

“Okay… so what are you going to do now? You can’t just keep it there, right?”

“Of course I can!” responded Bill. “I will just leave it in there. I am thinking as long as it is in there, I am immortal! Maybe everyone is.”

After this, Bill invited me to have some coffee with him. But he just kept going on and on about death. I didn’t need this, so I declined coffee. I gave my apologies and gave some excuse about having to take care of some chores for my wife, and returned home.

I returned to an empty house— the rest of my family were up and out running errands or visiting relatives. Maybe today is a good day to work on taxes. However, as I was preparing my morning coffee, I kept thinking about death. I rarely do— I am hardly a morbid person, but the dark shapeless shape with glowing eyes in Bill’s basement really left me unsettled.

As I sat thus, I noticed a shape moving on the edge of my vision. I turned my head suddenly and saw it. It looked like a gnome, or fairy, or leprechaun, elf, duwende, or some such small creature from folklore. (I never really learned the subtle differences of mythical creatures.) It looked so familiar like I had seen it many times before, but I had never really noticed it… like a poem that is framed on a wall that one knew was there, somehow, yet was never read.

I knew what it was. It was Death. It looked nothing like the horrifying creature at Bill’s house, but something in me just knew. This was Death.

I immediately turned away and shut my eyes hoping that if I did not notice it, it would not notice me. But that seemed stupid, every bit as stupid as locking Death in one’s basement.

I tentatively turned back and it was still there, smiling at me but silent.

“Uhhh… Hello Death,” I said as I realized how stupid that sounded. “I thought you were locked up in Bill’s basement.”

“No,” Death replied. “That is Bill’s Death in his basement. Everyone has their own Death. I am yours.”

“So this is my time? I am dying today?”

“No,” said Death again. “I mean, not as far as I know. I don’t know when your time comes, anymore than any other Death knows when their living one’s time will come. I am always with you until you die.”

“That’s creepy,” I thought, but knew better than to say out loud.

Apparently reading my mind, Death responded, “It is not creepy at all. I am here to help you. When you need me I will be there.”

“No offense,” I countered, “but if there is one thing I don’t need or want is help in dying.”

“I have never understood this. Everyone needs help with dying. Most humans love life and hate or even deny death. Some love death and hate life. Both attitudes are equally disturbing in my opinion. Life and Death are the two greatest gifts humans have been given. Why not be thankful for both?”

I could not think of a response to this. Instead I said, “Why have I not seen you before? No one else has seen you or any other ‘Death’ as far as I know.”

“Oh you have seen me before. You have even listened to me on occasion. But like most people, you look away, consider my words a random thought, and most commonly just block me out of your perception. For most people, Death is the ultimate blind spot. It’s okay. Even today, you left Bill rather than talk about death, and now you are trying to change the subject.”

I had to admit that Death had a point.

“Okay then, tell me this. If you are Death, and Bill’s Death is also Death, why do you two so different.”

“Well, like I told you, my job is to help you with what you need, even when you don’t know what you need. Bill needs Death to be something that he can fight and conquer. Most likely as his time comes closer, his attitude will change. Is that what you need? Do you need me to be a monster to fight and conquer?”

“No,” I admitted. Reflecting for a moment, I added, “I suppose I need you to be with me helping me to value the life I have and accept what I need to let go of.”

“I can do that,” said Death as we sat there sipping coffee on a Saturday morning.

“Rules of IRD” Project— Part #1

I have been teaching Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD) for several years now. While teaching it, I teach several different list of “rules” associated with IRD. However, the one I tend to focus on is the 7 Rules compiled by Max Warren. But as I have been thinking about it, it occurred to me that I should make my own list, or at least my own model for IRD. However, I am not sure that I am suitably experienced in IRD to ignore others and simply create my own list.

After thinking about it, I decided to use the various perspectives of several to come up with a model. So I am taking several lists and bringing them together and inductively creating a model… or a list of rules.

Here is the background information of the Who, What, Why, and How of this project:

  1. Who am I doing this for? I am doing this for Christian missionaries first of all who work in multicultural and/or multi-religious settings. As such, I am not seeking data from sources at the extremes of dialogue. I am ignoring data that views dialogue in terms of argument or debate. I think argument has little value in missions. However, even if it does have value in some rare circumstances, I feel it really stretches the meaning of dialogue. Dialogue in my view is more focused on mutual discussion rather than a more adversarial relationship. On the other hand, having a role where one brackets one’s own beliefs and enters the conversation without presuppositions with regards to faith, may be valuable to some, but seems hardly of value to missionaries, whose role is, in part, proclamation.
  2. Who am I using as informants? For the most part, people or groups who are viewed as experts in dialogue who have created lists of rules regarding IRD are used. The lists are rules that are deemed by me to be valuable to Christian missionaries. As such I chose to use experts who would describe themselves as Christians. (One at this time would no longer consider herself to be a Christian.)
  3. Method of Analysis? I am using Ground Theory Analysis. I am utilizing lists from 11 experts in IRD with a total list of statements being 78. Each of these statements goes through three levels of coding— open, axial, and selective— to ultimately produce an model that is grounded in the data.

Grounded Theory Analysis is sometimes thought a bit… “soft” in that it does not have the rigorous statistical checks that are associated with Quantitative Analysis. In my view, this is not true. Quantitative analysis is rife with problems that qualitative analysis lacks. I am not saying that GTA is always better, but it is certainly better in these circumstances. But people are often concerned with the Reliability, Validity, and Generalizability of GTA. With that in mind, for GTA:

Reliability: In Quantitative Analysis, reliability is demonstrated by randomness of the sample population. For GTA, reliability is established by the diversity of the interviewees (especially in terms of perspective).

Validity: In Quantitative Analysis, validity is demonstrated by careful definition of the target population (ensuring one is not analyzing two or more populations by mistake). For GTA, validity is established by expertise of the interviewees.

Generalizability: In Quantitative Analysis, generalizability is demonstrated by having an adequately large sample size. For GTA, generalizability is established by achieving data saturation.

This research project is not for peer review (probably) but I still don’t want to do something that lacks rigor. In terms of reliability, I chose a pretty good range of experts in terms of IRD. These range from relatively conservative (Warren, Stott, and Neill) to fairly liberal (such as Panikkar and the World Council of Church). I have not included all views, as I noted above, centering on Christian practioners in IRD who tend to value clarification over argument or common-ground. The range should be adequate for the reliability I am seeking.

Validity is no problem. I am using established experts in IRD. Generalizability is the most uncertain thing. Because of the range of perspectives and the limited number of interviewees, it is quite likely that I will not achieve data saturation. However, I believe that I will be able to achieve a model that is grounded in the data and plausible based on the data. I am will to accept the possibility that there are issues not addressed in the informants.

I will give more info as things develop.

Doing Missions Both Wrong and Right

We live in a world of nuance, but as humans we like to categorize things. Nothing wrong with that. Things are complicated and so we simplify things to understand them.

One way we simplify things is to assume that much in the world can be placed into one of two bins— “The Right Way” or “The Wrong Way”— or sometimes truncated to “Right” or “Wrong.” While we know this is way too simple, such a binary can become a default setting for us. It is not always bad. The Bible uses binaries to teach— Wide versus Narrow Ways, Light versus Darkness, Adam versus Christ. We know there is more nuance than that, but there is value in the simplicity of the model.

But we live in the real world and not in an idealized simulation of the real world. The real world is messy… by design. Back when I was a mechanical engineer, I would have to have designs evaluated, and evaluate the designs of others. The evaluation was never “Good” versus “Bad.” Each design would have its good points and its bad points. And there were points that were both good and bad— and alternative designs could be better, worse, or equivalent in different aspects.

Christian missions is grounded in the real world and as such, similar messiness should occur. One of the great Biblical examples of this is found in the book of Galatians.

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

This passage can be viewed as an argument regarding Theology of Missions. Paul says Peter, Barnabas and some of the Jews in a multi-cultural setting associated with Jews rather than Gentiles.

This story has been controversial for many years. St. Jerome had an interesting theory regarding this episode. He considered it to be a form of Theo-Drama. In other words, Paul and Peter were play-acting— to teach the others a valuable lesson. While I don’t find this view convincing, I do find it interesting. I think it may have been motivated in a desire to “sanctify” them. As “Saints” of the Primitive Church, it is uncomfortable to think that either one could be wrong. Such a view is common today as well.

  • I have heard arguments why Elisha was not wrong in placing a curse on a bunch of youths… and then Gehazi some time later.
  • I have heard arguments why Peter was not wrong in cursing Ananias and Saphira.
  • I have heard arguments on why Paul was not wrong in his conflict with Barnabas, and later in his conflict with church leaders about going to Jerusalem.

There is often a temptation to believe that our leaders are always right. But sometimes they are not. I think Luke knew this. I would argue that Luke expresses considerable ambiguity regarding Peter with Ananias and Saphira, and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. Despite this, we want our leaders not to have failings. I think Jerome wanted to find a way to make Paul and Peter both be right. Personally, I doubt Jerome is correct, but it is clever.

St. Augustine was very bothered by Jerome’s interpretation. In Augustine’s view, that would mean that Paul and (or?) Peter are liars. I don’t see that. Telling a story utilizing drama seems to be no more of a lie than telling a story of something that had not actually happened (like the parables and illustrations of Jesus). Theo-drama was used in the Old Testament on a number of occasions, Ezekiel being an example. I am not studied up on Augustine’s arguments but perhaps he was embracing the Western tradition of Tertullian that saw theater (in both performing and viewing) as being sinful. In such a case, Paul and Peter would both be wrong because they were doing something wrong (taking on the role of actors). For Augustine, I guess Paul had to be right and Peter had to be wrong, because it assumed that what Paul wrote was… true.

I think Jerome’s interpretation is more creative than Augustine, which is hardly surprising seeing that creativity was never really a strength of Augustine. Still, creativity is hardly a test for (or against) truth.

But there are other options… What if Paul and Peter were both right… AND both wrong?
Such a perspective may not fit easily into a two category system.

Paul seems to be right. The Gospel of Christ tears down the artificial boundaries that separate Jews from Gentiles. As religious leaders, it is a great lesson to others to show that these boundaries are gone.
Paul seems also to be wrong. Making a scene with Peter undermined any attempt to demonstrate Christian community. Being right, but handled poorly, is still wrong.

Peter seems to be right. When dealing with people who are uncomfortable with Christian liberty, sometimes one must help them by being supportive, rather than risking their stumbling. Paul taught this very same thing.
Peter seems also to be wrong. In the attempt to be supportive of his Jewish brethren, a controversy arose that divided the room. Multicultural settings are often challenging. If missionaries from country A are serving in country B, who would they join with when people from country A visit. Do they show their rootedness in their mission field setting, or do they show themselves as good hosts to the guests from their sending country? Either decision could be problematic unless it is done in the context of good communication. Being right, but handled poorly, is still wrong.

The idea that both Paul and Peter were both wrong and both right makes sense to me. That does not undermine the passage in Galatians. Paul is correct that Peter was wrong. The reliability of the epistle is correct, and its canonicity is unchallenged. However, if Peter decided to have this incident described in his first epistle, he could also have pointed out Paul’s errors. Both would be accurate… but having both perspectives would be even more accurate than having only one perspective.

Martin Luther seemed to struggle with the fact that Paul expresses faith in a way that is different than James. Thankfully, we have writings from both. I believe that a far superior understanding comes from embraces these writings as accurate but viewed through different perspectives. We have certainly seen unhealthy understandings of faith that fail to be interperspectival within Scripture.

In Missions we should expect the same things to occur. It is fine that people argue:

—Should mission work flow from and through the local church, or from specialized sodality structures?
—Should mission work focus more on evangelism and churchplanting, or more on compassion ministry?
—Should we seek to focus on BIG “God-sized” vision and projects, or on small “God-sized” vision and projects?
—Should most mission work be done by foreigners or locals?
—Should churches send people, or send money?

These questions are useful… but they become destructive when they are viewed as Either/Or or Right/Wrong. The “Creative Tension” should lead to creative and nuanced (and tentative) answers. Forcing answers into completely right or completely wrong, is likely destructive.

Maligayang Pasko 2021

I wrote an unnecessarily long article on asceticism and Christmas, and then added the positive spin on Christmas having both sacred and secular symbols and stories. I argued that there is a balance needed in Christmas between the pressures to embrace asceticism or revelry. I also argued that there is value Christmas as a sacred activity that welcomes the secular.

BUT… then three hours of writing disappeared. That made me think that it was for the best. I think the principles were strong, but the writing convoluted. Therefore, I would recommend sending anyone interested to better posts I have done in the past. Click on the post below. God bless.

Christmas Musings

Robbery and Missions— a Generally Balanced Reflection

<I put this on my other webpage… the missions page of my wife and mine. But it is relevant here as well… so here it is.>

One of those things that is considered “normal’ in the mission field is getting robbed. It is simply presumed in many cases that since one is moving to a developing country one must be constantly vigilant because you know just know that you are surrounded by people in great need who will steal from you if they can. Moving to the Philippines, we had no reason to question that perspective. Most houses have bars on the windows, and when possible, there are courtyards with walls with sharp things (wrought iron commonly, but sometimes broken glass) embedded in them. I became so used to this I was afraid that I would feel freaked out by the windows and lawns in the US that welcome home invasion. In the Philippines, all but the smallest businesses have guards who appear to be well-trained and friendly, but have deadly-looking weaponry on them. Cashing a check is so difficult in the Philippines as almost any imperfection is a sign to the bank that it must be fraudulent. So much of the way things are handled in the Philippines just screams, “This is a place where criminals are everywhere.”

Despite this, in just over 17 years I have never been robbed. Well, maybe once or twice. One time I dropped my wallet without knowing it. Even then I got my wallet back. There was 500 pesos missing (about $10). Since that would be what I would have given the person for finding the wallet, it hardly seems like a robbery. One time I was shaken down by a member of the police for P2500 for some alleged traffic violation. Yes, I do consider that to be a true robbery… but thankfully the vast majority of my interactions with the police in the Philippines have been positive.

Not all have had this experience. One friend of mine, an American missionary who lived a few kilometers from us, got his house broken into numerous times. Since that individual had anger management problems (definitely a “No-No” in the Philippines) my suspicion was that the break-ins were not so much ‘we want your stuff’ and more ‘we want you to leave.’ Another missionary related how his house was robbed, and how the police put up obstacles in the investigation, only moving forward with an arrest after that missionary had actually worked the case and found proof of who the perpetrators were. Even then he actually had to go over the head of the ones assigned the case. His theory was that the local police received money from the gang who were doing the break-ins. No idea if that was true. Yet another missionary experienced a very well-orchestrated home invasion… and would have most likely suffered a second if one of the compound guards had not happened upon one of the members of the team during his rounds.

For me, my problems have not been in the Philippines but in the US. The only house robbery I ever experienced was in the US, as well as the only car break-in. Most recently, we had a different sort of crime here in the States. We had to buy a (used of course, does anyone actually buy new?) car. Knowing the reputation of used car dealers, I get pretty nervous. Renting a car was clearly out of the question. The cost of a decent used car was about the same as the renting the cheapest car available for around 3 months (a different form of crime I suppose). We started researching online. Eventually, we had narrowed things down to about four or five cars that looked good on Carfax. We went to the first place— I will call it “A Used Cars.” I will admit that the people who ran it (brothers) were pretty friendly and accommodating. However, I felt that there were some reasons to think that MAYBE I should not trust them. Anyway, there were a couple of cars that looked pretty good, but nothing that was PERFECT for us. Then we went to the second place “B Motors” (still protecting their names even though I suppose I don’t really have to). They were also friendly and had cars in our price range. One car, however, seemed about perfect for us. After a test-drive and a bit of research we decided it was just what we wanted. We got a loan approved with our credit union, filled out the paperwork, decided to get a used car warranty insurance for it, and within four days of first seeing the car, it was now ours with temporary dealer tags. We were told that we will be given a call when the regular tags and registration show up.

Thirty days later we heard nothing from “B Motors.” I give them a call, but their number was not working. I check them on the Web and it says that they are “Temporarily Closed.” It was Thanksgiving Weekend. I figured them may have shut down for a few days. After that weekend, I tried to call again, and the phone was still not working. I check the Web and now it is supposedly “Permanently Closed.” That is not good. Despite what Google says, their website suggested they were open, so we sent a direct message to them through their contact page, but got no response. However, now Google was back to saying that they were open. Between that and the fact that we were busy turning the new house we bought into a home, we did not take things too seriously. However, when December came with no permanent plates and no word from our dealer, we realized that we had to act.

We drove to the dealership finding, NOT to our surprise, that there was a totally different name on it— now it was, I shall say, “C Autoworld.” I went into “C Autoworld” and found, again not to our surprise, that the people running the place were entirely new. We talked to the lady who appeared to be in charge. She said that we are part of a whole stream of people who have been coming to their place about “B Motors.” According to her, “B Motors” had been owned by a guy who had a history of scamming. He would set up a dealership under a false name, and then steal from customers. It seems like the stealing was not in terms of actual cars, but in processing fees and DMV (department of motor vehicle) charges. Anyway, DMV shut them down. She did not know how to get hold of any of them, but gave us the number of the Virginia department that oversaw car dealerships. We called the number and then turned in a complaint. That department appears like it will be helpful, even though the timetable they gave us is pretty slow. Not sure if we will have to repay some of those fees. We shall see. That got us thinking. We bought a used car warranty insurance. We had actually carefully investigated before and found that this particular warranty insurance has a very good reputation (not all of them do) so we got it through the “B Motors” dealership. We went online to check on the status of our insurance policy and found, yet again not to our surprise, that they had never heard of us. The auto dealership had pocketed our money.

It does appear that we have a legal car and a car that works well. That is a blessing. However, we were robbed in terms of insurance money and the official paperwork from the DMV. It looks like this can be fixed without too much pain. It, however, is slowing down our return to the Philippines.

It is human nature to profile. Some profile based on nationality or race or economic status or others. Most of us, I think, feel that people who are like themselves are less likely to cheat them than people that are different. Over and over I have found this not to be true. Criminality is more a case of the heart than of other factors. Sure, desperation may apply pressure on someone to do wrong, but from my own experience, I have only been cheated by people who did it because of greed, not economic desperation.

The first car dealership, ‘A Used Cars,’ the one I felt a twinge of concern about, they are active, doing well, and on the NICE, not NAUGHTY, list at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I would say Lesson Learned, but some lessons one must learn again and again. I remember a guy who was in Brazil who had a pickpocket come upon him. The thief reached into his pocket but made a mistake and was caught as he removed his hand. Money went flying all over the place and he ran off. Immediately, other Brazilians hurried over to the where the American tourist was and began grabbing the money. Then they brought the money to the tourist and apologizing for what he went through. They want to be thought of as a safe and moral nation. It is all too easy to remember the pickpocket and see that as ‘the norm.’ However the REAL norm was the Good Samaritans (Good Brazilians) who sought to help the tourist in his time of need.

Ollie and the Meaning of Life— A Story

Ollie hatched and drifted up to the surface of the pond. As his eyes adjusted to the surrounding landscape. He saw a dragonfly clinging to some grass growing from the edge of water. Of course Ollie did not know what a dragonfly was, or grass. All he knew was his name and he did not even know why he knew it— it just seemed right.

Ollie greeted the dragonfly, the first living thing Ollie talked to, so he had not mastered the art of chitchat.

“Why am I here?” asked Ollie. “What am I supposed to do?”

The dragonfly was not offended. Dragonflies only rarely are asked such things. “Well youngster, you are blessed. You are in part of a huge world— a place of limitless experience. I am getting old and so don’t have much more time. But for you, all things are possible. So many choices. So many opportunities. Grab every moment to live life to the fullest. You are truly fortunate little one!”

Ollie did not understand all of it, but it sounded exciting… and a little scary.

A turtle was basking on a log and jumped in. “What foolishness. Don’t listen to a bug. Flitting around. That is no way to live. You are here because you are supposed to be here. You need to figure out your place in this great web of life. Once you have found your place in the world, life becomes simple. You know your purpose and you live your purpose.”

Ollie thought this made sense… but it certainly did not sound simple.

While he was thinking of these things, a bullfrog who was floating on the surface nearby stirred and bellowed a “BRRRRRRRRUP!!”

Ollie now understood…moving over next to the frog. Settling in, Ollie responded with a contented “brrrrrrup!”

New Article on History of Missions

I recently finished an article titled, “Apostles/Evangelists of the First Three Centuries as Exemplars for Modern Missionaries.”

The abstract is as follows:

This paper considers the challenge of defining the term missionary in a way that is useful— neither excessively broad nor narrow in scope. It is suggested that rather than focusing on a definition for determining who is a missionary, which ultimately places attention on the boundaries of the term, a better choice is to focus on exemplars of missionaries. In an attempt to do this, the paper suggests that the pattern of apostles and evangelists of the first three centuries of church history provides such an exemplar. More specifically, since Paul and Barnabas are the most well-known and well-described of this group of ministers, they can serve as the exemplars for this group, and ultimately for modern missionaries. The purpose of this paper is not to determine who is a missionary and who is not, but rather utilize these exemplars to critique modern definitions of the term missionary. Through this, the author believes that a better understanding of the center, rather than the boundaries, of Christian missionaries and missions can be better understood.

If you are interested in reading it, it is now available on http://www.academia.edu. You can access it by CLICKING HERE.